stereo • multichannel audio • music

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stereo • multichannel audio • music
7 Speakers Reviewed $799 to $46k
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
Is Class D
the
Future
of Amplification?
SPECIAL REPORT
ON CLASS D AMPS
How they Work
8 Models Reviewed
Designers Face Off
TAS Editors Weigh in
www.theabsolutesound.com
Contents
November 2006
250 Watts, 13 Pounds:
Is Class D the Future
of High-End Amplification?
72
Class D is all the rage. But is it ready for primetime? Check out our 28-page feature:
Robert Harley’s Technical Primer; a Designer Roundtable with amp designers Dan D’Agostino,
Bruno Putzeys, and Jeff Rowland; reviews of and comments on eight Class D amplifiers from
Audio Research, Cary, Channel Islands, Kharma, NuForce, Red Dragon, Rowland, and Spectron;
and a second Roundtable discussion of Class D with the TAS editorial team.
Equipment Reports
32
Absolute Analog:
Funk Firm Turntable and Lyra Dorian Cartridge
Wayne Garcia on a new turntable from the man
behind Pink Triangle.
51
Stirling Broadcast LS3/5a V2 Loudspeaker
Paul Seydor on the resurrection of an audio classic.
56
Triangle Esprit Altea Esw Loudspeaker
Neil Gader’s further thoughts on a
popular French design.
Paradigm Reference Signature S8 Loudspeaker
Chris Martens on Paradigm’s all-out effort.
62
Boulder 850 Monoblock Amplifier
Max Shepherd on Boulder’s entry-level model.
65
Focus Audio Master 3 Loudspeaker
Sue Kraft on a Canadian contender.
68
The Cutting Edge
Exotica: Ascendo M-S MKII Loudspeaker
Jonathan Valin on a most unlikely success story.
120
COVER PHOTOGRAPHY BY ADAM VOORHES
58
Vienna Acoustics Beethoven Baby Grand
Loudspeaker
Sallie Reynolds finds a speaker to grow on.
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
Contents
06Letters
129 Manufacturer Comments
13
16
20
From The Editor
Industry News
Future TAS
24Start Me Up
Studio 20 v.3 speaker, Onkyo’s A-9555
integrated amp and DX-7555 CD
player.
Tom Martin checks out Stax SR-001
120
headphones.
37TAS Journal
Basic Repertoire: 100 More Best-ofby Jonathan Valin and Mark Lehman.
131
MUSIC
Recording of the Issue: In America.
Rock Etc.
Reviews of the latest CDs and LPs
Jacket, Jim Lauderdale, and more. Plus,
a Waylon Jennings box set and a Tim
131
reprints and e-prints: Jennifer Martin, Wrights Reprints,
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[email protected]
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(outside US), or write The Absolute Sound,
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included); outside North America, $71 (includes air mail).
Payments must be by credit card (VISA, MasterCard,
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checks payable to Absolute Multimedia, Inc.
Buckley audiophile pressing.
144Jazz
The scoop on the newest discs from
Steven Bernstein, Sex Mob, Nels Cline,
Branford Marsalis, Joe Lovano, Don
editorial matters: Address letters to The Editor, The
Absolute Sound, PO Box 1768, Tijeras, New Mexico 87059,
or e-mail [email protected]
Byron, Frequency, and the Grdina/
Motian/Peacock trio.
classified advertising: Please use form in back of issue.
152Classical
newsstand distribution and local dealers: Contact IPD,
27500 Riverview Center Blvd., Suite 400, Bonita Springs,
Florida 34134, (239) 949-4450
Two separate releases of the same
Shostakovich string quartets, Brahms’
Complete Piano Trios, Joshua Bell’s
publishing matters: Contact Mark Fisher at the address
below or e-mail [email protected]
Voice of the Violin, Alexei Lubimov’s
Misterioso, a Steve Reich boxset,
Publications Mail Agreement 40600599
Return Undeliverable Canadian Addresses to
Station A / P.O. Box 54 / Windsor, ON N9A 6J5
E-mail: [email protected]om
and three SACDs. Plus, a look at
three Classic 180-gram pressings
of Everest LPs.
168The TAS Back Page
12 Questions for Kevin Voecks,
by Neil Gader.
November 2006
Danny Gonzalez
Absolute Multimedia, Inc.
chairman and ceo Thomas B. Martin, Jr.
vice president/publisher Mark Fisher
advertising reps Cheryl Smith
(512) 891-7775
Marvin Lewis
MTM Sales
(718) 225-8803
The Hold Steady: Boys and Girls
Whitmore, The Sadies, My Morning
Neil Gader
art director Torquil Dewar
managing editor, Monica M. Williams
avguide.com
web producer Ari Koinuma
the-Century Classical Compositions,
Iron Maiden, Pajo, William Elliott
Robert Harley
Wayne Garcia
Jonathan Valin
Bob Gendron
reviewers and
contributing writers
Soren Baker, Greg Cahill, Dan Davis,
Andy Downing, Jim Hannon, Jacob Heilbrunn,
Sue Kraft, Mark Lehman, Ted Libbey,
David McGee, Bill Milkowski,
Derk Richardson, Don Saltzman,
Max Shepherd
Mk II and Bose Quietcomfort 2
from OutKast, the Roots, Mastodon,
Harry Pearson
senior writers
John W. Cooledge, Anthony H. Cordesman,
Robert E. Greene, Chris Martens,
Andrew Quint, Sallie Reynolds,
Paul Seydor, Alan Taffel
Barry Willis on Paradigm’s Reference
30iTas: Stax SR-001 Mk II
and Bose Quietcomfort 2
Headphones
founder; chairman,
editorial advisory board
editor-in-chief
editor
executive editor
managing and
music editor
acquisitions manager
and associate editor
hp’s equipment setup
The Absolute Sound
168
Absolute Multimedia, Inc.
4544 S. Lamar, Bldg. G-300
Austin, Texas 78745
phone (512) 892-8682 · fax (512) 891-0375
e-mail [email protected]
www.theabsolutesound.com
Letters
Where Have All
The Dealers Gone?
R
obert Harley’s Issue 163 editorial on high-end snobbery really hits the
TRUTH OR
BEAUTY?
have not been born replete with an appreciation of a vacuum-tube technology
I
and vinyl.
remarks that the choice between MAGICOs and Kharmas is a question of
mark. Exclusion benefits no one if the high end truly wishes to survive
the convenience of the new music-delivery and playback systems.
Newbies must be cultivated and enticed, not scared or rejected, because they
have enjoyed reading Jonathan Valin’s comments about the
MAGICO Mini, Kharma, and other loudspeakers [on the Forums at
AVGuide.com]. (I myself have Piega C40s which I love; pure prejudice,
of course.) My principle reason for writing is to respond to one of JV’s
However, the high end suffers from another problem, perhaps, that is even
“truth or beauty.” To me, that is a false dichotomy. If something is “true,”
more significant: the lack of dealer networks. After 10 years of enjoying a
which is not always too easy to determine, then the question whether
digital front end (and swearing that my Richard Kern-modified Sony SCD-1
it is also “beautiful” somehow has always seemed to be a moot point.
could reproduce the “absolute sound”), I decided to take the analog plunge.
I might, in fact, be very tempted by the MAGICOs were I not so
I carefully read the reviews and narrowed my choices, at least on paper, to
pleased with the Piegas, but the requirement for having the Minis
VPI and Rega. Unfortunately, despite e-mails to the manufacturers and U.S.
so far from the end wall makes it impossible for me to install them
distributors, I cannot locate a dealer in my area, Newport Beach, California. I
in my listening room. In any case, I have enjoyed JV’s commentaries.
searched the Internet and Googled my heart out, but the closest I could come
J. David Rawn
was San Diego, approximately 70 miles away. This is strange because Newport
Beach is not exactly the hinterlands.
Jonathan Valin replies: I agree with you about truth (and about
What has caused the demise of the dealer network? I do not know, but
how difficult it is to find), but “the truth” is that many listeners—
I no longer have the opportunity to spend an afternoon at my local audio
in fact, probably the majority of listeners—prefer a consistently
salon trying out the equipment between “looky loos.” The equipment is
“beautiful” sound (whether it is truthful to the source or not).
gone, replaced by low-priced home-theaters-in-a-box, or the dealerships have
That’s the point I was trying to make—perhaps ineffectually.
vanished. If they exist, someone must educate them on the need for modern
Thank you for the kind words about the Web commentary.
marketing and the use of the ’Net. (Analog should not be synonymous
And, BTW, Minis don’t have to be all that far away from a
with antediluvian.) How can the next generation become the next ardent
backwall—two and a half to three feet or so should do nicely.
audiophiles if they cannot locate and buy the equipment?
Eric Landau
Suffering Software Deficiency The Music Is Out There!
I
have read several articles in home-theater and audio publications
lamenting the fall of high-resolution audio. It cannot be argued that the
number of releases has fallen in the last two years.
What is exciting is the small labels such as AIX, Mobile Fidelity, Chesky, Hi Res,
I
n response to Wayne Garcia’s excellent editorial in Issue 164, I’d add you
can also find all kinds of good new music on the radio and on the ’Net.
For example KPFA 94.1FM (http://www.kpfa.org/) has some superb shows,
Saturday afternoons’ “Forms and Feelings” hosted by Jim Bennett, “In your
DTS, Classic, and Monster Music continue to release new music. There are a large
Ear” hosted by Art Sato, and Thursday nights’ “Here and Now” hosted by your
number of classical labels that still release DVD-Audio and SACD.
own Derk Richardson are appointment listening. Pretty much anytime is great
A good idea would be to give your readers a roadmap to areas on the Internet
for KCSM 91.1FM (http://kcsm.org), one of the last full-time jazz stations left
where high-resolution audio can be purchased. Also, encourage readers to buy
in the country. For listeners not living in Northern California, these stations do
some of this music. There are a number of great artists they have not yet heard.
have Webstreams.
Music Direct, Acoustic Sounds, and Elusive Disc are great starting points.
On the Web there are many choices both free and subscription. Just a very
I have always believed the niche for high-resolution audio was not the Top
small sample of good new music sources—hearts of space (www.hos.com),
40 listener who typically buys an album for one song, but the older professional
WFMU 91.1 in New Jersey (www.wfmu.org), and especially www.allclassical.
who loves artists and can afford 6 speakers and a high-end amp and DVD-
org —a classical station I discovered last October on a visit to Portland, Oregon.
combination player. Since I started listening to higher-resolution audio I find
In addition to your eclectic and very good music review section, all of these
myself more disappointed with the sound of CDs. There are only a few that I
sources have led me to explore new music I never would have found.
listen to anymore.
The music is out there!
DVD-Audio seems to have a second chance at life with HD DVD availability
Nick Despotopoulos
and a new set of players that can play the format. My hope is that the larger
labels reeling from falling CD sales will realize that they can sell DVD-Audio for
$20 per record on-line and pad their profits. I hope they realize that people
like me, while we are few, buy a lot of music. We also have expensive stereo
systems suffering from a software deficiency.
Derrick Robinson
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
Join the discussion of all things audio with fellow
readers and the TAS editors and writers at the
AVGuide.com forum.
Letters
Far Cry from the Weirdos
A
few thoughts. First, the current issue of TAS has by far the bestlooking cover ever. The illuminating aura it represents is a far cry from
the weirdo covers from TAS’s yesteryears.
The Meridian 808—great review! I particularly like how RH commented
along with the main reviewer [Sue Kraft]. I realize this is not always possible
but it was still nice to see.
Finally, your comment on DVD-A: This was the first time (since RH and
Two Perspectives on Growing
the High-End
I. Moving Beyond a Cottage Industry
T
he discussion in the March 2006 issue of TAS about the shape of the highend audio market is an important one. May I commend you for stepping
beyond the artificial boundaries magazines impose on themselves in
terms of product reviews and personality interviews.
Anthony Cordesman reviewed the Meridian three years ago) that any reviewer
Success in most markets is not necessarily about great products or excellent
even mentioned DVD-A. I haven’t seen it anywhere—not that you’re wrong [to
product development, though most hi-fi magazines focus on just those
ignore it], of course. It just seems strange that as soon as Red Book improves
elements. It requires a blend of skills that include market development, channel
substantially, so does DVD-A. Or is DVD-A the same as before and never
development, identification with the customer, talented staff operating with
improving? Since no one else in audio is commenting on this matter, we might
freedom and initiative, and great communications. Most hi-fi companies (my
never know….
experience is restricted to those in the U.K.) come across as operating in cottage
Thanks again for a great issue of TAS!
industry mode. It is easy enough for them to sell a few products at high margin
John Harnick
MBL, TARA, and Byrds
F
to a handful of customers. This sustains their lifestyle. It also gives them an
earning stream from what almost certainly would have started out as a hobby.
Who could be unhappy with that?
The trouble is that great companies are rarely built on such modest
aspirations. Small companies have many advantages in terms of speed of action
or many years I have enjoyed TAS and the quality of the reviews and
and flexibility. However, they also suffer from many behavioral compromises
content remains excellent. Thanks for the consistency. I especially
that prevent them from getting to the next level. Let me outline some of the
enjoyed the reviews of MBL speakers and electronics and TARA Labs
contrasts between small and medium-sized businesses for you:
cables [by JV]. I have several of these products at home, including the MBL
• Small companies are owner-managed while mid-sized businesses have
101 D speakers and TARA Zero cables, and the sound is truly remarkable, even
professional managers running various functions in the organization; the
thrilling. I’m always so happy just to be home listening to music.
owners in larger companies usually direct rather than manage
I also appreciate that you review many genres of recorded music, including
• Small companies major on micro-management of staff (usually by the owner-
electronica and hip-hop. I know that displeases some of the stodgier readers,
manager) while larger companies provide an environment for their staff which
but keep doing it, as I love reading about outraged longtime readers canceling
their subscriptions in a fit of pique. My grandfather used to say, “I’m so mad I’m
going to rip your Kleenex!” I think that fits.
facilitates initiative and independent thinking
• Small companies have a short (or no) planning horizon, with survival being the
key challenge; larger companies have medium or even long-term goals
One last thing: I completely agree with Andy Downing’s review of the Gram
• Small companies have informal or ad hoc business processes, while larger
Parsons box set. It was an unnecessary money grab—just get GP and Grievous
companies have realized that a key growth-enabler is building formalized
Angel.
business processes that can scale upwards, often through the application of
In my humble opinion, the best guy in the Byrds was Gene Clark, and for
further listening check out White Light and No Other.
Jeffrey Capshew
Patronizing the Dixie Chicks?
D
technology
• Small companies rarely get external input, particularly in the shape of non-
avid McGee’s review of the Dixie Chicks album Take The Long Way in
Issue 163 was patronizing and condescending.
executive directors or consultants with specialist skills that could complement
their own—let’s face it: most small business owners struggle to pay themselves,
let alone somebody else
• Small companies usually have a narrow ownership base, which also usually
limits the finance available to them to grow the business
• Small companies have a narrow customer base, and narrow channel
opportunity
A group of women do one album influenced by a difficult episode
If this makes you think that I am against small business, please don’t. I love the
in their lives, and they are told to move on and stop whining. I know those are
opportunities that small businesses create. I am concerned, however, that their
not McGee’s words, but he gave them currency as his own. I cannot imagine a
limitations are usually not dealt with or addressed by their proponents. I have
reviewer telling a male artist to move on and stop whining. I don’t remember
not studied the hi-fi market in the way that Atul Kanagat has started doing, but
anyone being so condescending to Bob Dylan, U2, or Neil Young. And Messrs
Dylan, Bono, and Young have done their share of whining. Are American
males so dismissive of their women that all they want from them is to sing
purrdy harmonies and look sexy?
To finish off, McGee gives the “girls” a pat on the head with a serving of
gratuitous advice. Ah yeah, a bit of patronizing from the male folk is what
women need. The tragedy is that David McGee is probably a liberal, but he has
not progressed in how he views women.
Chicks are not mad at Bush; they are mad at the stupid fans who turned on
them with hate and venom.
The Absolute Sound
• Kuzma vs. Walker—high-end
vinyl-playback shootout
player and integrated amp
• Clearaudio Ambient turntable
and Satisfy arm
Peter D’Castro
November 2006
loudspeaker
• Resolution Audio Opus 21 CD
What does George Bush’s popularity rating have to do with it anyway? Dixie
Upcoming in TAS
• Kharma Mini Exquisite
• Jamo 909 loudspeaker
• Rega Brio integrated amplifier
• Usher V-601 bookshelf monitor
• Chapter Précis integrated
amplifier
• Primare I30 integrated amp
and CD31 player
• HP’s Workshop
Letters
I would guess that 99% of hi-fi companies would fit in the small company model outlined above.
We need to find ways in which we can help the best companies move forward and mature as businesses
in terms of the behavioral characteristics I have outlined, and develop their strength as an industry working
together to promote the fantastic benefits they deliver to the customer.
Although it was interesting to hear the views of a retailer in the discussion, it is the manufacturer and
brand owner I want to hear from. Retailers fare better when they are selling products that customers
want to buy anyway. That pull in the market is rarely created by a retailer but is certainly the province
of the manufacturer. People who buy luxury products like a Patek Philippe watch or a Ferrari car are not
doing so because they want to be a customer of the local retailer of those products, but because they seek
ownership of a brand that they identify with. Sure, the retailer does a lot to help crystallize the brand
experience but I would hesitate to support a strategy that focused on retailers. Such an idea would need
to be just one part of a wider business strategy.
One of the more successful hi-fi companies in the U.K. (but not operating in the high end) is Richer
Sounds, which today owns brands like Cambridge Audio and Gale. Richer Sounds started as a retailer
of budget gear and has morphed into a vertically integrated chain that designs products, manages
outsourcing of manufacturing in the Far East, cares for brands, and delivers product to the customer. It
certainly deserves greater analysis in terms of business model.
Finally, I note that Absolute Multimedia has bought a U.K. hi-fi magazine [HiFi+]. Any analysis of the
market in the U.S. deserves to be extended to the U.K. as well, which is a key market for this industry,
though much smaller than the U.S.
Jyoti Banerje
II. Why no High-End Product Placement?
Y
ou asked your readership to comment to your forum concerning the facilitation of mainstream
acceptance of the high end. So, I accept your invitation and offer a few of my thoughts.
Where is the “product placement” of the high end?
I have rarely seen any home entertainment gear in the pictures in Architectural Digest. There are
no signs of music (or even home-video) systems at all in Martha Stewart’s or Oprah’s home-decorating
magazines, which, I’m sure, have a much larger and more mainstream audience than Architectural
Digest. Why not? Their readership has money and a history of being more than willing to spend it on
quality products.
Why aren’t high-end products regularly seen in movies and TV shows? I am not talking about specific
brands, but when someone puts music on as part of the plot in a movie or TV show, they usually use a
boombox or a generic “Asian black box” system rather than a high-end system. There are marketing
folk who specialize in product placement in movies and TV. Your proposed “High-End Association”
could utilize the services of one of these people.
Where are the high-end music systems in MTV’s Cribs show? From what I’ve seen, these music moguls
buy their listening systems at Best Buys or Circuit City. Are they aware that the high end even exists? If
you want to gain exposure, have a well-known music star or rapper talk about his music system.
About ten years ago, the quiz show Jeopardy gave away stereos featuring Klipsch speakers and
Counterpoint electronics as prizes. During the time these prizes were being offered, I had several people
ask me if Counterpoint was a good brand (they were all aware of Klipsch because of the company’s
advertising presence in Rolling Stone magazine). That was the only time that “mainstream” people ever
came right out and asked me about high-end products.
I feel that the most difficult obstacle to mainstream acceptance of the high end is the way most
people listen to music. A high-end system, due to its expense, dominance in the listening environment,
and the effort required to assemble it, practically demands that the listener to devote his entire being to
concentrating on the music it produces. Most people who have gone through the process of assembling
a high-end system are already seriously committed to actively listening to music, being regular concert
attendees or involved in creating music. (I am curious what percentage of TAS readers participate in
regular music-making activities?)
Unfortunately, the mainstream American music listener does not totally engage when listening to
music. Music has become a “soundtrack” to the rest of his life. It is a passive activity that is used to keep
other distracting noise out or to keep the aural sense engaged while doing something else. It is most
often used to create a mood for another activity.
Music to these people has become “sonic wallpaper.” High-quality audio is lost on these people. The
extra cost of a quality system is not justified to them, as they will never notice the difference. The other
activities they do while listening to music always seem to take precedence.
I very much feel that it is the indifference to the deep involvement in listening to music that will be
the biggest challenge to bringing high-end audio to the masses.
Christopher D. Gately
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
11
Editor
FROM THE
Class D Power Amplifiers—Promise or Peril?
T
he controversy over whether
Class D power amplifiers are
an advance in sound quality
or merely a concession to
convenience (see our special
report on page 72) parallels
previous technology introductions in highend audio. The most obvious example is the
transistor itself. Small, lightweight, and powerful,
the transistor seemed to be a significant advance
compared with the ancient technology of
glowing filaments in a glass envelope.
Yet, the first transistor amplifiers were hideous
in sound quality.
Despite competing
with mature and greatsounding
high-end
tube designs such as
the McIntosh 275,
transistor technology
still came to dominate
audio until the tube
renaissance was ushered in by William Zane
Johnson in 1970 with his founding of the Audio
Research Corporation.
Today, of course, transistor designs have
reached a high level of refinement and
musicality, and are no longer the clearly inferior
technology (although some would argue with
that assessment).
The second technology introduction
that parallels today’s state of Class D power
amplifiers is the Compact Disc. Again, a new
technology came along that offered advances
in convenience, form-factor, size, weight, and
cost. The first examples of the medium were
crude and amusical, but that didn’t stop CD
from quickly replacing the LP. Nonetheless, CD
sound went on to achieve a musicality (in both
software and hardware) that would have been
unthinkable in the early 1980s.
And now we have Class D power amplifiers.
Their light weight, small form-factor, high
output power, and low heat dissipation are
certainly compelling, just as the transistor was compelling to the vacuum-tube age and CD to the vinyl
era. But high-end audio is not about form-factor and convenience; it’s about the pursuit of musical
realism in our homes. That’s why the cognoscenti continued listening to vinyl records through vacuum
tubes long after those technologies vanished from the mass market. But how will history judge Class D
amplification? As a fundamentally inferior technology that has no place in the high end? As a potentially
superior technology that just needs time to evolve so that it can compete sonically with the best of
today’s conventional amps? Or as a clearly superior technology that will render obsolete the massively
inefficient linear amplifier?
Although it’s very early in the learning curve (both for designers and critical listeners), I think we
can reach a few reliable observations about Class D. First, the technology is in its infancy, suggesting
that sound quality improvements are inevitable. Look how long it took solid-state amplifiers and CD
to sound musical. From an historical perspective, Class D is now in the transistor amplifier’s 1960s era,
and in the CD’s late-1980s era.
Second, certain sonic qualities—dynamics, bottom-end weight and
control, transparency—seem to come much more easily to Class D than
to linear designs. This is somewhat true in an absolute sense, but startlingly
so when Class D amplifiers are compared to similarly priced linear models.
At a given price level, Class D outperforms conventional designs in some
performance parameters.
Third, our observations about the strengths and shortcomings of Class
D amplifiers in this issue’s reviews and Editors Roundtable are made in
comparison to megabuck reference-quality linear amplifiers. Even the most
expensive Class-D amplifier in our survey—the $6800-per-pair Kharma
MP 150—is a fraction of the price of the linear amplifiers to which it was
compared. The NuForce Reference 9 monoblocks, at $2500 per pair, are roughly one-tenth the price
of my reference Balanced Audio Technologies VK-600SEs. The linear amplifiers have the advantages
of being a fully matured, significantly more expensive technology, and of being hand-picked by
the individual reviewers as reference-quality. The Class D amplifiers were also judged purely on the
basis of their sound quality, with no concession to their advantages in price, size, weight, and lower
heat dissipation. As you’ll see in the Editor’s Roundtable this issue, those of us whose primary daily
experience is with affordable amplifiers tend to view Class D more favorably than those of us who
listen on a regular basis to cost-no-object reference units.
Fourth, it appears that Class D amplifiers are extremely sensitive to the loudspeaker load and cabling.
They will sound different in different systems to a much greater degree than linear amplifiers. This factor
helps explain the polarized reaction to some Class D amplifiers, and also suggests that the audition of a
Class D amplifier with the loudspeaker and cables with which it may be used is prudent.
Class D amplification is a potentially revolutionary technology, holding out the promise of high
output power, relatively low cost, efficient operation, small size, and yes, great sound quality. It’s far too
soon to make definitive judgments, but based on what’s already been accomplished by Class D in just a
few short years, the future will be fascinating.
“From an historical
perspective, Class-D
power amplifiers are
now in the transistor
amplifier’s 1960s era,
and in the CD’s
late-1980s era.”
12
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
Robert Harley
Editor-in-Chief
Industry
NEWS
Chris Martens
Krell Industries
mourns loss of COO
Dean Roumanis
The editors and staff of The Absolute Sound note with sadness the July 30
passing of Dean Roumanis, COO and partner of Krell Industries. Roumanis was
52.
“We mourn the passing of Dean Roumanis, long-time friend and business
partner,” stated Krell CEO Dan D’Agostino and Krell President Rondi D’Agostino.
“He was a wonderful man with a positive outlook on life—full of energy and
vision. Dean brought that positive outlook to Krell. He dealt with challenges
with forethought and vision and a highly developed sense of integrity and
compassion. A fine recording engineer and musician in his own right, he was
the kind of man you wanted to be around. Family man, lover of life, connoisseur
of music and high-end audio, he will be missed immensely.”
In 2005, Roumanis’ contemporary jazz band Acoustic Suburbanites released
an album titled Watercolors, on which Roumanis played acoustic bass. He was
also an accomplished pianist and percussionist. Earlier in his career Roumanis
worked as an analog recording engineer, founding Roumanis Records and
recording albums with musicians such as bassist George Mraz, saxophonists
Roscoe Mitchell and Gerald Oshita, and pianists Richie Bierach and Dr. John
(Mac Rebennack).
The family encourages those wishing to honor Roumanis’ life to consider
making contributions to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, an organization
Roumanis actively supported until the time of his death. Donations can be
made on-line at www.leukemia-lymphoma.org, or mailed to The Leukemia &
Lymphoma Society, Donor Services, P.O. Box 4072, Pittsfield, MA 01202.
Klipsch Group Acquires
Audio Products International
On August 15, 2006 Klipsch Group, Inc., the parent company of Klipsch Audio
Technologies and of Jamo International, announced its acquisition of the
Canadian firm Audio Products International Corporation (API), makers of
Athena, Energy, and Mirage loudspeakers. Klipsch, Jamo, and API will remain
“independently operated entities,” according to Klipsch Group, while “product
design and engineering of the API brands will also remain separate to maintain
their respective unique character and personality.”
At the same time, the expectation is that “Klipsch, Jamo and API brand teams
will work in a cooperative fashion to develop global technology platforms and
product strategies that leverage investments in R&D.” We can also expect to
see cooperative marketing initiatives among the brands. Three Klipsch-owned
distribution/management companies will handle worldwide distribution of all
Klipsch, Jamo, and API products.
16
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
RealTraps
offers on-line
educational
videos on
acoustics
Acoustics treatment manufacturer RealTraps
has released a new educational video
entitled How to Set Up and Treat a Listening
Room. The nearly 14-minute-long video
is offered in MPEG4, REAL, and Window
Media formats, and can be downloaded at
no charge from the RealTraps Web site via
this link: www.realtraps.com/videos.htm.
Though targeted toward home-theater
and multichannel-audio enthusiasts, How to
Set Up and Treat a Listening Room features
plenty of practical content that could prove
helpful and thought-provoking for stereooriented TAS readers. Using his personal
home theater/listening room to illustrate
various points, company owner Ethan
Winer talks about how to achieve optimal
frequency response, minimize standing
waves, and address resonance problems. In
particular, Winer offers suggestions on the
placement of speakers, listening chairs, and
acoustic-treatment devices.
The RealTraps Web site also offers a series
of free, downloadable “See and Hear”
acoustics lectures that address such topics
as “Comb Filtering,” “Modal Ringing and
Resonance,” and “Non-Modal Peaks and
Nulls in Small Rooms.” The lectures feature
audio datafiles designed to illustrate topics
under discussion, so that viewers have the
opportunity to hear for themselves what,
for example, comb-filtering effects sound
like. Whether you agree with RealTraps’
product philosophies or not, the video
lectures serve as a useful basic primer on
common types of acoustics problems we all
face in our homes.
Industry News
The Rocky
Mountain
Audio Fest
Returns to
Denver
The third annual Rocky
Mountain Audio Fest returns
to the Marriott at Denver’s
Tech Center this coming
October 20–22, 2006. Last year
this show, which TAS Editorin-Chief Robert Harley called
“North America’s premier hi-fi
event,” doubled in size from its
first year, boasting more than
125 exhibit rooms that were
the best-sounding of any audio
show TAS editors and writers
have attended
This year’s show features
live entertainment Friday and
Saturday nights, along with
seminars on Friday afternoon
and throughout Saturday.
This year’s RMAF adds a
few new twists: Four TAS
staffers (RH, WG, JV, and NG)
will be joined by Roy Gregory,
editor of our sister magazine
Hi-Fi+, in a “Meet the Editors”
panel. Bring your comments,
questions, and opinions to this
lively discussion of all things
audio. Roy will also put on
several of the fascinating hifi demonstrations so highly
regarded by attendees of
European audio shows. For
more information, go to www.
audiofest.net.
18
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
Changing of the Guard:
Arnie Nudell Resigns from
Genesis Advanced Technologies
On June 5, 2006, Arnie Nudell, co-founder of Infinity Systems and founder of Genesis
Technologies, resigned from his position as Chief Scientist of Genesis Advanced
Technologies. Over the years, Nudell has designed (or co-designed) a number of
loudspeaker systems now regarded as classics, including the Infinity Servo-Statik 1s,
the Infinity Reference Standards, and the Genesis Ones.
In a press release, Nudell said that “after 3 years acting as chief scientist for GAT,
it became apparent that there existed fundamental disagreements with president
Gary Koh concerning the marketing direction and future product development of
the company.” Speaking in general terms about his upcoming plans, Nudell added,
“In the near future I will be involved in developing high-end products for a new
venture in conjunction with a few other industry heavyweights. My first love is
creating state-of-the-art loudspeaker systems, which I will be pursuing in this new
venture.”
In a parallel release, Gary Leonard Koh, president and CEO of Genesis,
acknowledged that disagreements on “loudspeaker design and company direction”
led to the parting of ways. Koh observes that “the high-end loudspeaker market
is experiencing many different forces right now and we need to move in different
directions for the success of the company. It was just time for both of us to move
on.”
Both Nudell and Koh made a point of wishing one another well in future
ventures.
Arif Mardin, 1932-2006
Arif Mardin, acclaimed producer and composer, died of pancreatic cancer at the age
of 74 in his Manhattan apartment on June 25th. He was one of the last great musical
architects. The accomplishments of his forty-year career read as an evolutionary
portrait of American contemporary music. His production, composing, and arranging
credits include works from such prolific artists as Aretha Franklin, Donny Hathaway,
Dusty Springfield, Bee Gees, Bette Midler, Hall & Oates, Roberta Flack, Phil Collins,
Jewel, and many others. A 12-time Grammy Award winner, his most recent honor came
as “Producer of the Year” for the Norah Jones album Come Away with Me (he also
co-produced her follow up, Feels Like Home). Mardin was born in Istanbul, Turkey, on
March 15, 1932. He attended Istanbul University and the London School of Economics.
After a chance meeting with Dizzy Gillespie in Turkey in 1956, Mardin realized his wish
to work in music. He became the first recipient of the Quincy Jones scholarship to the
Berklee College of Music and graduated in 1961. He then moved on to Atlantic Records,
where he worked alongside the legendary team of producer Jerry Wexler and engineer
Tom Dowd. While working his way up from studio manager to in-house arranger,
Mardin began what would soon become a long and distinguished run of producing hit
records. From the Rascals’ “Good Lovin” and the Bee Gees’ “Jive Talkin” to Phil Collins’
“Against All Odds” and Bette Midler’s “Wind Beneath My Wings,” Mardin’s touch
was unbeatable. His humanitarian efforts were also highly regarded. He was honored
with the Lifting Up the World with a Oneness-Heart Award, presented at the United
Nations, and was awarded the “Shofar of Peace” from the Sephardic Community of
Los Angeles, commemorating 500 years of peace and friendship between the Jewish
and Turkish communities. Arif Mardin will be missed, but his legacy will live forever.
Michael Mercer
Future
TAS
Chris Martens
Shure E500PTH SoundIsolating Earphones
In Issue 155, Robert Harley commented
favorably on Shure’s then top-ofthe-line, two-driver, $499 E5C in-ear
Ethereal Home Theater
EM Series Speaker Cables
monitors. Shure has now raised the
Don’t let the company name fool you; Ethereal’s reasonably
three-driver E500PTH Sound Isolating
priced EM Series speaker cables aren’t just for home-theater
Earphones, which will sell for the same
applications, and they certainly don’t skimp on premium materials
$499 price.
prized by audiophiles. The cables feature 14-gauge high-purity,
bar with the release of its new flagship
The E500PTH incorporates three new
99.99% oxygen-free copper conductors, low-loss polyethylene
miniature drive units (a tweeter and two
dielectrics, and beefy gold-plated termination pins with angled tips for
“woofers”), which Shure terms “High-
better connections. Each color-coded termination pin is protected, says
Definition Drivers.” Shure likens the
Ethereal, by a “non-conductive black plastic molded overlay,” while the
sonic benefits of the drivers to the visual
cable body is covered by a protective black braided outer sleeve.
benefits of HDTV relative to standard-
Ethereal’s EM range provides good, basic high-end cables, but without the
definition television. The E500PTH also
high price. Offered in 2m, 3m, and 4m lengths, EM cables are priced at $41.99,
provides a welcome “Push To Hear”
$51.99, and $56.99, respectively. etherealhometheater.com
feature, where—at the press of a
button mounted on the earphones’
cable yoke—the volume of the
audio signal is reduced, while a
small built-in microphone is activated,
Vincent Audio Hybrid SA-31
Preamplifier and SP-331 Power
Amplifier
sounds, participate in conversations, etc.
Many audiophiles appreciate hybrid
of the E500PTH’s appeal centers on its
tube/solid-state audio components for their
noise-isolation capabilities. The E500PTH
ability to combine the best of two worlds,
offers between 30–37dB of isolation,
and now the German firm Vincent Audio has
a figure that compares favorably with
introduced two new components that should
active noise-cancelling headsets. The
make the hybrid option accessible even for
E500PTHs come with eight differently
audiophiles on relatively tight budgets.
sized sets of in-ear sleeves to ensure
Vincent’s SA-31 hybrid stereo preamplifier
enabling users to hear normal room
As with the original E5C, a big part
a comfortable fit that seals well, plus
is based on four 6N16 tubes, and provides six stereo analog inputs, two stereo analog outputs, and a stereo
two modular cables with 1/8" and 1/4"
recording output. In keeping with Vincent practice, the preamp provides such traditional features as switch-
adapters, a volume attenuator for use in
selectable tone controls and a loudness compensation circuit (because even purists sometimes play recording
airplanes, and a carrying case.
that could benefit from judicious tone-shaping). The SA-31 is priced at $499.95, making this one of the least
shure.com
expensive, full-featured, tube-powered preamplifiers we’ve encountered.
As a companion product, Vincent offers its SP-331 hybrid power amplifier, which puts out 150Wpc at 8
ohms or 300Wpc at 4 ohms, and is said to remain stable even with very low-impedance 2-ohm loads. Each
channel uses two 6N16 tubes to drive 12 Toshiba-sourced output transistors. The SP-331 is priced at $999.95.
vincent-tac.de
20
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
Future TAS
Rega Apheta Moving-Coil Phono Cartridge
Rega has announced its first-ever moving-coil cartridge, the $1695
Apheta, whose name, Rega says, means “the giving of life.”
Rega typically does not introduce new categories of product until
it has developed innovative solutions that, in one way or another,
advance the art. And the medium-output Apheta appears to be
no ordinary moving coil. Many moving coils feature so-called “tie
wire” suspensions supplemented by foam-rubber damping blocks,
and Rega argues these designs have a hard time achieving the ideal
balance between “underdamped (bright) and overdamped (warm
and bass heavy)” sound. But the Apheta does not use either tie wires
or foam blocks, and accordingly Rega promises the cartridge will
consistently deliver “super clear high (frequencies)” and “firm, tight
bass.” rega.co.uk
Avid Acutus Reference Turntable
Avid’s gorgeous Acutus turntable features a 22-pound platter, and what Avid describes
as a “frequency-adjustable, active suspension” with lateral damping rings said to prevent
“any rocking motion.” Now Avid has announced a new flagship called the Acutus
Reference, priced at $19,000. The original Acutus, priced at $13,000, will remain in the line.
The Reference provides an improved leveling mechanism that allows adjustments
Musical Fidelity kW250S:
Six Audiophile Components in
One Chassis
We frankly weren’t sure how to categorize Musical
to be made from the top sides of the suspension towers. (This mechanism will also
Fidelity’s versatile new kW250S, because it combines
now be fitted in regular Acutus turntables.) The Reference also incorporates a massive
more functions in one package than you can shake a
outboard power supply that is precision-matched to each individual Acutus Reference
stick at.
drive motor. John Bates of Music Direct, Avid’s U.S. distributor, likened the difference
The kW250S incorporates a 24-bit/192kHz
between the Acutus and Acutus Reference to the difference between hearing a good
upsampling CD player based on Musical Fidelity’s A5
33-1/3rpm disc vs. the same material mastered on a 45rpm disc.
CD player (review in Issue 155); a low-noise, low-jitter,
Current Acutus owners can buy a Reference power supply for an upgrade fee of
24-bit/192kHz DAC; an FM/DAB tuner; an mm/mc
$7000, but the upgrade will necessitate returning the original Acutus motor to an Avid
phonostage and hybrid vacuum tube preamplifier,
dealer so that the power supply can be matched to its exact characteristics.
both drawn directly from Musical Fidelity’s limited
Please note that while we show the Acutus Reference ’table here, we do not show
production kW500 integrated amplifier (reviewed in
the Reference power supply since at press time the first sample in the U.S. was already
Issue 152); and a pair of 250 watt monoblock power
in transit to TAS Editor Wayne Garcia, who will review the ’table in an upcoming issue.
amplifiers similar to those found in the kW500, but
avidhifi.co.uk
half as powerful. The price: $8000.
If do that math, you could build a strong case
that the kW250S provides roughly $13,000 worth of
equipment for less than two-thirds the price, while
taking up a fraction of the space.
musicalfidelity.com
22
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
Start Me Up
Three bargain products,
three fine performers
Barry Willis
Paradigm Studio
20 v.3 loudspeaker,
Onkyo A-9555
integrated amp,
and DX-7555
CD player
24
November 2006
Not long ago, there was a huge difference between
truly high-end audio products and their mass-market
counterparts. While there’s still an enormous chasm in price, in my
experience the performance gap between exotic brands and high-quality
mainstream electronics has shrunk. Over the past decade there’s been an almost
invisible revolution in design and manufacturing, putting performance that was
once available only to the few within reach of the many. A case in point is the
system reviewed here—Paradigm’s Studio 20 v.3 loudspeaker and Onkyo’s A9555 integrated amp and DX-7555 CD player—an affordable combo that can
hold its own against many similarly configured but much more costly rigs.
The Absolute Sound
Paradigm Studio 20 v.3 Loudspeaker,
Onkyo A-9555 Integrated Amp, and DX-7555 CD player
Paradigm Studio 20 v.3
A mid-sized two-way monitor, the $800
Studio 20 v.3 is the latest edition of a
loudspeaker that’s won nearly universal praise
for its neutrality, openness, and dynamics—
not to mention its contemporary styling
and tremendous build-quality. Featuring a
1" aluminum-dome tweeter and 7" wovenmica-polymer woofer, the front-ported
Paradigm has a curved, black, composite top
surface, wood-veneered side panels, and an
unusually robust grille that the manufacturer
suggests leaving in place during use. Rear
input terminals are two pairs of very heavyduty gold-plated binding posts, for biamping or bi-wiring.
In evolving from the original Studio
20, the v.3’s crossover network went from
third-order (18dB/octave, or “quasiButterworth”) to second-order (12dB/
octave). The port moved from back to
front, allowing closer placement to walls
without inducing boominess. The current
woofer has a “phase plug” (the conical piece
in the center) not used in the original. The
contemporary Studio 20 retains the overall
look and highly praised sonic neutrality of
the original loudspeaker, with improved
dynamics and better bass.
Using sturdy 26"-tall Ensemble stands, I
substituted the Paradigms for the Montana
EPS2 (reviewed in Issue 153) as the left/right
pair in my combined music/home-theater
system, which let me try them as a standalone stereo pair, stereo pair with subwoofer,
and as part of a 5.1-channel surround system.
I also used them as a stereo pair with the
Onkyo components, with several different
interconnects and speaker cables.
In every configuration the Paradigms
were superb performers, casting a wide,
deep soundstage populated by well-defined
instruments and vocals. This was not a
complete surprise—I once worked at a
Paradigm dealership and owned a pair of the
company’s larger monitors, and am familiar
with the brand’s sonic potential. What I didn’t
expect was how far the v.3 can carry you into
high-end territory on a discount ticket. With
a frequency response that to my ears sounds
flat from the lower midrange right on out
into the super-sonic stratosphere, the Studio
20 unmasks the essential character of every
voice and instrument it reproduces. From
the raw, rough edginess of Patti Smith’s
Land [Arista] to the cultured honey-tones of
soprano Renée Fleming’s By Request [Decca],
I was as taken by Smith’s apparent threedimensionality as I was by Fleming’s power
and emotional impact.
Start Me Up
Loudspeakers that can maintain both the
sonic apparition of a singer in space and
her unique vocal signature are rare—and
often expensive. That the Paradigms can do
this for $800 is both encouraging—musical
realism at an affordable price benefits both
artists and music lovers—and baffling: Why
do some other loudspeakers costing much
more perform no better?
Instrumentals of all varieties were
as compelling as vocals. The Paradigms
revealed every nuance in “Coracol,” the
high-intensity opening cut on Strunz &
Farah’s Americas [Mesa], a recording that
few loudspeakers can deliver in all its
rhythmic and melodic complexity. Agile
and articulate, the Paradigms offered all
of the dynamic interplay between the two
guitarists and their percussionists. Likewise
revealed was the soundtrack album from the
classic musical West Side Story [Columbia].
In “America,” several similar voices were
clearly differentiated, both individually
and in chorus. The loudspeakers delivered
the song’s quiet introduction with absolute
clarity and its big-bang crescendo without
distortion.
Musical realism at
an affordable price
benefits both artists
and music lovers
The Studio 20 v.3 is rated down to
54Hz by the manufacturer, and offers
satisfying, well-defined bass at all but the
lowermost octave. For that, you really need
a subwoofer. My James 10 SG added just the
right amount of bottom-end reinforcement
to bass-heavy cuts such as “You Did,” from
Chuck Prophet’s Age of Miracles [New West].
But jazz, opera, and chamber music fans
will probably find this loudspeaker more
than adequate in the bass department. It
doesn’t have the anemic, lightweight balance
of classic British mini-monitors, nor does
it have the fake bass of many American
speakers of similar size, whose prominent
midbass “hump” is intended to compensate
for an inability to go really low.
All things considered, the Studio 20 v.3
is very nicely balanced, capable of doing
great justice to a wide range of recordings.
Fans of every genre owe it to themselves
to give this speaker an audition, especially
those with tight equipment budgets and/or
domestic constraints that won’t allow for
larger loudspeakers. Sonically and visually
pleasing, the Paradigm Studio 20 v.3 should
perform well in almost every situation it
encounters. Its musicality would win it a
recommendation at any price—at $800 it’s a
stunningly good value.
Onkyo A-9555 and DX-7555
Introduced this past summer, Onkyo’s A9555 integrated amp and DX-7555 CD
player are in some ways throwbacks to the
past. In style, size, and purpose, they would
not have looked out of place in any hi-fi
shop in the mid-1980s. Superficially, they
don’t seem much different from dozens
of similar-looking products issued from
Japan over the past two decades, but lurking
beneath their black or silver exteriors is
cutting-edge technology that lifts them into
a realm of performance quite beyond their
price niche.
The $700 A-9555, for example, is
surprisingly lightweight for its power rating
(100Wpc into 8 ohms, 200Wpc into 4
ohms), thanks to what Onkyo calls “hybrid
Class D” switching-amplifier technology.
The phrase “digital amplifier” is one that
can provoke allergic reactions in many
audiophiles, conjuring up images of doorrattling car audio and nasty, ear-splitting
surround-sound demonstrations. Such
misgivings are well founded, but switching
amplifiers have retained their abilities to
deliver huge amounts of peak current
(i.e., ability to control loudspeakers) while
undergoing great advancements in their
abilities to convey sonic nuances.
The current generation of switching
amps can reveal subtle textures and delicate
harmonics in an almost tube-like fashion,
without tubes’ heat or noise. Among the
sonic benefits of something like Onkyo’s
“wide range amplifier technology”
(WRAT) are an extremely low noise floor,
fantastic dynamics, and precise details. The
company plans to incorporate the A-9555’s
“Vector Linear” (VL) switching-amplification
technology in its next-generation hometheater receivers and audio amplifiers. The
technology, which modulates a high-speed
switching power supply with an analog input
signal and amplification in the switching
domain, is claimed by Onkyo to yield “a
remarkable decrease in jitter…comparable
to most Class AB analog amplifiers.” Its
rigid chassis makes the amp less prone to
vibration-induced distortion, a refinement
borrowed from high-end designs.
Defeatable analog tone controls include
bass, treble, and loudness—potentially useful
features that I tried briefly to make sure
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
27
Start Me Up
they worked, but the amp’s “pure direct”
mode was too enjoyable to besmirch. Inputs
accommodate six line-level stereo sources
plus a turntable, via the amp’s “discrete
phono equalizer,” a circuit claimed to offer
the advantages of two common types of
phonostages. My old Rega 2 with Sumiko
Blue Point cartridge sounded fine through it.
In a nod to the ubiquity of the iPod, the A9555 is compatible with the Onkyo’s DS-A1
iPod dock, allowing a listener to play an iPod
through the system, charge its battery while
playing, and control its basic functions with
the A-9555’s remote.
Other amenities: The A-9555’s large volume
control is a joy to use—it feels nice in the hand
and responds nicely to small impulses on the
logically arrayed remote control. Onkyo says
the volume control function uses an “an
intermediate, variable gain stage to maintain
the audio signal well above the noise floor,
for significant improvements in S/N ratio
and output clarity, especially at low listening
levels.” In real-world use, the A-9555 is both
transparent and dynamic at all listening levels,
and a musical joy.
The Onkyo/
Paradigm
combo was an
absolute delight
Onkyo’s DX-7555 is a single-disc twochannel CD player with advancements once
found only in the priciest products—a highisolation/anti-resonant chassis, a low-jitter
clock circuit, and a Wolfson Microelectronics
digital-to-analog converter capable of
192kHz/24-bit resolution. Unusual features
include two user-selectable output filters,
either the factory-default “sharp” setting,
claimed to be flat to 20kHz, or a gradual highfrequency roll-off. The “direct digital” coaxial
output (via a dedicated cable instead of circuit
board traces) can be shut off while using the
analog outputs; the analog output’s phase can
be reversed “on the fly” using the remote; and
the display can be dimmed in four steps.
An extremely unusual feature allows some
alteration of the clock frequency, faster or
slower than the factory setting. Onkyo claims
this can affect the clarity of sound or the size
of the acoustic image. I have many doubts
about the wisdom of giving users easy access
to precision settings—especially one hyped
as accurate within ±1.5ppm—and didn’t
experiment with the clock. On the other
hand, it does give tweak-obsessed audiophiles
something to play with.
28
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
Paradigm Studio 20 v.3 Loudspeaker,
Onkyo A-9555 Integrated Amp, and DX-7555 CD player
The DX-7555 supports standard CD,
CD-R/RW, and MP3-encoded discs, in
sequential play, random play, memory
playback, or repeat modes. Coupled to the
A-9555, driving the Paradigm Studio 20
v.3, the Onkyo disc player offered a fine
combination of easy use, stable playback,
immunity from external vibration, and
airy, open, grain-free sound. It’s as capable
of communicating the emotional truth
of superb vocal music (Renée Fleming,
above) and instrumental nuance as any
disc player on the market up to a few
thousand bucks—in the two-channel realm,
it held its own against the Lexicon RT-20,
a $5000 multichannel universal-disc player.
It’s a great bargain at $600, one especially
recommended for those with no interest in
SACD, DVD-A, or multichannel playback.
Some very practical, textbook technology
types still believe that cables can’t make
much difference, especially with inexpensive
equipment. I would argue that they can make
a proportionally bigger improvement with
products like the Onkyo and Paradigm than
they do with big-bucks gear. AudioQuest,
Kimber Kable, and Nordost are but
three high-end cable makers known for
demonstrating the sonic improvements cable
upgrades can bring to budget electronics.
Here’s a simple example: The standard
throwaway interconnect that came with
the disc player was adequate, but rendered
an uninvolving acoustic. Simply replacing
that generic cable with a Chord “Siren” of
the same length changed everything for the
better: deeper, more enveloping soundstage,
richer harmonics, more cleanly etched detail
with a decrease in harshness. You might be
tempted to hook up $800 loudspeakers with
hardware-store zip cord, but upgrading to
something like the Red Rose 336 (a steal at
$5/ft.) can elevate a high-quality entry-level
system into something extraordinary.
With a Tributaries TX-500 line conditioner
supplying the power, I went “all the way” with
cabling, trying the Onkyo/Paradigm system
with the best stuff I had on hand, Nordost
SPM speaker cables and interconnects. The
irony of using cables that cost many times
more than the components they connected
wasn’t lost on me, but doing so eliminated
the “choke points” that would ordinarily
prevent most listeners from hearing all that a
system has to give. Running “flat out,” so to
speak, the Onkyo/Paradigm combo was an
absolute delight. As a team or as individual
components, they offer incredibly high value
at astoundingly reasonable prices. TAS
Specs &
Pricing
ONKYO USA CORPORATION
18 Park Way
Upper Saddle River, New Jersey 07458
(201) 785-2600
onkyousa.com
PARADIGM ELECTRONICS INC.
205 Annagem Boulevard
Missassauga, Ontario
Canada L5T 2V1
(905) 632-0180
paradigm.com
Onkyo A-9555 integrated amplifier
Power output: 120Wpc into 8 ohms
Dimensions: 17.25" x 5.75" x 16.75"
Weight: 28.7 lbs.
Price: $699
Onkyo DX-7555 CD player
Dimensions: 17.25" x 4.75" x 15"
Weight: 17.6 lbs.
Price: $599
Paradigm Studio 20 v. 3
Type: Two-way bookshelf /stand-mounted
loudspeaker
Driver complement: 1" satin-anodized purealuminum dome tweeter; 7" mica-polymer
cone woofer
Sensitivity: 90dB
Impedance: 8 ohms
Recommended amplifier power: 15–150 watts
Dimensions: 8.25" x 15.8" x 12.75"
Weight: 22.5 lbs.
Price: $800
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 and Halo A51power
amp; James 10 SG subwoofer; APC S15 and
Tributaries TX-500 power conditioners;
Kimber Kable “Palladian” AC cords; Nordost
SPM and Quattro-fil speaker cables and
interconnects; Chord “Siren” and Kimber
Kable “Hero” interconnects; Red Rose 336
speaker cable; Shakti stones
Stax SR-001
Mk II and Bose
Quietcomfort 2
Headphones
iTas
Headphones for frequent flyers
Tom Martin
If you’ve been around the audio hobby for awhile, you’ll know that
electrostatic transducers have a justified reputation for midrange and
high-frequency purity. While cruising over the north Atlantic in an Airbus A340, listening
to Ivo Janssen’s excellent piano renditions of the Bach preludes and fugues, I’m trying to sort out
whether Stax’s miniature SR-001 electrostatic headphones’ pure sound is enough to make them the
answer—the ideal in-flight headphone during this iPod era.
Right on script, the clarity and lack of grain of the SR-001s put most headphones, portable or not, to
shame. The impressive thing about the SR-001s is that they deliver a great sense of transparency without
sounding edgy or harsh.
Unfortunately, purity is not the only requirement for mobile headphones. The problem with the SR001s, at least in my ears, is that they aren’t just on the light side at low frequencies—they’re positively
anemic. The bit about “in my ears” is important because the SR-001s, despite having a headband, are
really an in-ear design, somewhat like the Etymotic and Shure ’phones. That means that they rely on
some kind of a seal between the ’phone and your ear to provide both isolation and solid bass. I’m not
sure if I simply couldn’t get the seal right or if the Stax design is just plain bass-shy, but in any event, I
couldn’t get them to sound balanced on Janssen’s piano or, for example, on Los Lobos’ Kiko. As they say,
your results may differ, and if you value treble purity highly, the Stax are worth a look.
Switching to the latest Bose Quietcomfort 2 noise-canceling headphones on this same flight was
a revelation. If you’re old enough to remember the golden era of electrostatic speakers, you may also
remember the near-universal audiophile revulsion at the mention of all things Bose. The Bose stereotype
is: big one-note bass, depressed midrange, and grainy highs.
I guess stereotypes were made to be broken, because the Bose headphones are better than that. Much
better, in fact. You still get traces of the Bose personality, in the form of strong bass and less than perfectly
smooth high frequencies. But the overall octave-to-octave balance of the Quietcomfort ’phones is quite
good, and transparency is pretty high. I would rate them on a par in pure musicality with some of the
better Sennheisers, though they aren’t quite as dynamic and involving as the Grado designs. But none of
those designs has noise cancellation, which I would rate as a must when in transit.
I also noticed that the Bose deviates from neutrality in a way that helps, psychoacoustically, in the air.
30
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
When traveling, you have excess low-frequency
noise. The noise-canceling feature helps, but
having the low frequencies on the warm side of
neutral works better than the opposite approach.
And my personal feeling is that the electronic noise
canceling used in the Bose design will work for
anyone, whereas the mechanical seal used by Stax
or Etymotic varies from person to person. When
you add it all up, I’d say that the Bose headphones,
despite their somewhat cumbersome size, are
among the top all-around travel-headphone
choices right now. TAS
Pricing
Yama’s Enterprises, Inc.
16617 S. Normandie Ave., Suite C
Gardena, California 90247
(310) 327-3913
yamasinc.com
Price: $240
Bose Corporation
The Mountain
Framingham, Massachusetts 01701
(508) 879-7330
bose.com
Price: $299
Analog
Absolute
After an 8-year absence, the man
behind Pink Triangle is back
Wayne Garcia
Funk Firm Funk
Vector Turntable
with Moth Mk
3 Incognito Arm
and Lyra Dorian
Cartridge
32
November 2006
With a shape and color reminiscent of one of those pulsating blobs from a
psychedelic light show, the Funk Firm Funk Vector—and just try to top that
name—is, if nothing else, a most eye-catching design. But the $1950 Funk is more than just
a funky shape with a funky name; it’s also a very good sounding turntable that springs from one of our most
original thinkers on vinyl playback, Arthur Khoubesserian, the man behind Pink Triangle.
Seasoned audiophiles will recall the Pink Triangle turntables that were in production from roughly 1983
to 1999. They, too, were rather unusually shaped things that became known for certain design innovations,
at least one of which has become nearly ubiquitous—the bare (as in no mat) acrylic platter. Before Pink
Triangle came along, most LPs sat on platters made of metal or some other rigid surface covered with a felt,
cork, rubber, or other type mat to dampen vibration as well protect the LPs underbelly. Reckoning that non-
The Absolute Sound
Funk Firm Funk Vector Turntable with Moth Mk 3 Incognito Arm and Lyra Dorian Cartridge
matted and undamped acrylic would create
a superior record/platter impedance match,
Khoubesserian and Pink Triangle pioneered
the acrylic platter. He added other twists,
too, such as inverting the main bearing and
mounting a low-vibration DC motor directly
on the turntable’s sub-chassis (AC motors
were the accepted standard for belt drives
of the day).
After an 8-year absence from
manufacturing—if not audio itself—Khoubesserian is back. And he’s lost none of his
fiery, freethinking spirit. As he did at Pink
Triangle, Khoubesserian, who holds a degree
in physics and has two patents pending on
the Funk design, continues to rethink the
turntable.
For example, that blobby
form isn’t strictly for visuals.
Computer
measurements
showed
Khoubesserian
that this particular shape—
basically a round-edged
triangle—was less resonant
than a more conventional
rectangular plinth (though
those, too are becoming less common). As
he put it in an e-mail exchange: “If we look
at turntable plinths in particular, these are
excited from the outside world by their point
of contact—the feet. This makes them like
an NXT speaker with an exciter, except that
now we have not one exciter but 3 or 4! And
so we run the risk of hitting a high ‘Q’ point
when our arm is then subjected to a less than
stable platform. By focusing on reducing
the dominant modes we have given our arm
(and hence cartridge) an easier ride. Funk’s
plinths have far more complex modes with
no simple solutions (or eigenvalues), at the
same time creating a more interesting visual
product for us to enjoy.”
Moving beyond his innovative acrylic
platters, Khoubesserian is now using a new
lightweight material he calls Achromat. While
I still don’t know exactly what this stuff is,
and a patent is pending, Khoubesserian’s
colorful comments remain eminently
quotable: “I find it odd that since I invented
the impedance-matched record interface in
the form of the acrylic platter back in 1980,
people have not beaten me at my own game.
Goodness knows that I spent enough time
telling everyone how good it was and more
importantly how good it wasn’t! It shouldn’t
have taken too much effort to work it
out from there...should it? Surprisingly,
experiments with solid vinyl were not as
good as I would have hoped. So the search
was on. We can ‘turn over’ a problem in our
mind, whilst asleep, whilst driving, getting
our rocks off, or whenever. So just thinking
out the physics of the vibrations passing into
the platter was to me akin to thinking about
lying in bed. Get the mattress wrong and it’s
uncomfortable; considering a memory-foam
bed and how it works, with all the bubbles
acting as a transmission line to dissipate the
energy, provided a viable answer. All that
was then left was to create the physical form
to suit records rather than our soft squiggy
carcasses! And the result? Achro. It is a pain
to deal with—acrylic is far better behaved
and more consistent. The stresses in the fine
walls all come out variably; it does its best to
confound us in our attempts to machine it
and so on but the results more than justify
the effort.”
1/2 AD
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
33
Absolute Analog
Another of Funk’s design elements is
Khoubesserian’s
likewise
patent-pending
Vector 3-pulley DC-motor drive system.
Some turntables, like the Voyd I owned many
years ago and the Audio Note models that
sprang from them, use a three-motor system
to greatly increase the effective mass of their
intentionally lightweight platters. The thinking
here is that a lightweight platter driven by three
powerful, speed-locked motors produces a
situation where the mass is stored in the motors’
torque, therefore minimizing the energy that
gets reflected and stored in the platter. But
Khoubesserian dismisses the three-motor, if not
the three-pulley, approach because he believes
the motors will always be fighting each other. As
the Funk white paper puts it, “For bearings to
work there must be a gap. Compared to [record]
groove dimensions, engineering tolerances
are large. As the motor drives the platter it
constantly tugs the bearing (in its gap) in one
dimension. No longer gyroscopic, the unstable
platter teeter-totters constantly, bicycle-style, as it
vainly struggles to stay upright.” And again from
our e-mails: “Using a belt in a derived Vector
drive, we can apply an asymmetric set of Vectors
and so to provide a first-order compensation
for this imbalance. This is especially so given the
bearing philosophy adopted in Funk, namely
a very free system where the platter effectively
‘floats’—it benefits from as little control as
possible. The principle is that we are trying to
create an isolated environment so our stylus
can go about its business scratching grooves. So
Vector is basically a way of direct-driving and
then skewing the drive to balance out various
unbalancing forces.”
The Funk arm is Rega’s familiar RB 300, here
fitted with a VTA adjustment and wired up with
Moth Mk 3 Incognito leads and supplied by U.S.
distributor Acoustic Sounds with a Lyra Dorian
medium-high-output moving coil.
The first thing of note about the Funk’s sound
is its pitch stability. The claims Khoubesserian
makes for his Vector drive are not mere designer
hyperbole, they are immediately audible. On
Walton’s Symphony No. 1 (Previn/LSO [RCA]),
for instance, this could be heard in the pitches
of individual instruments as well as their image
stability, and also in the rhythmic precision of the
full orchestra, its lively dynamic presentation, and
the quiet background the sound emerged from.
This sense of stability is part and parcel of the
Funk sound, whether you’re spinning Walton,
Thelonious Monk, or anything else you’re in the
mood for. And in this regard the Funk surpasses
any other ’table I know of in this price range.
Another surprise is Funk’s bottom end. My
experience with lighter-weight turntables—and
the Funk is very light—led me to expect a
lightweight sound here. And though the Funk
doesn’t plumb the depths the way far more
costly and massive designs will, I have to say it
was nonetheless pretty impressive. With Igor
Stravinsky conducting his delightful L’Histoire du
Soldat Suite [Columbia], the bass drum whacks
in the “Tango” section were delivered with the
kind of almost “silent” power we hear live when
the percussionist just barely taps the drum’s skin
and yet it fills the room with reverberant power.
The Funk was simply very fine across the
board. From the terrific textural qualities in
the Stravinsky suite—a lumbering bowed bass,
the rat-a-tat-tat of a snare—to its excellent
rendering of depth and its ability to easily
carve out differently recorded acoustic spaces,
to the wonderful sense of interplay between
musicians.
1/2 AD
34
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
Funk Firm Funk Vector Turntable with Moth Mk 3 Incognito Arm and Lyra Dorian Cartridge
By the way, the Funk is exceptionally easy
to set up and maintain, and you can lock
in the speed by accessing two small screws
located near the teardrop-shaped power/
speed selection knob. It never drifted over
my several-week evaluation period.
Lyra’s Dorian is a $750 medium-output
mc with a very nicely balanced and easy-tolike sound. Obviously the sounds described
above are both from the Funk and the
Dorian, and during the Walton Symphony’s
very dynamic first movement, the Dorian
showed that it’s also a terrific tracker, able
to navigate—or as Arthur Khoubesserian
would say, “scratch”—the grooves without
breaking up. The depth, quickness, rhythmic
precision, overall neutrality, and far better
than average detail I heard throughout my
sessions are a tribute to both the Dorian and
the Funk.
It’s a pleasure to report that analog of
this quality can be found for a reasonably
affordable price—especially when you
consider that I placed the combination in
a very revealing and far more costly system
than it would typically be found in. TAS
Specs & Pricing
Funk Firm Funk Vector with Moth Mk 3
Incognito Arm
ACOUSTIC SOUNDS
1500 South Ninth Street
Salina, Kansas 67402
(785) 825-8609
acousticsounds.com
Speeds: 33.3 and 45 rpm
Features: Achroplat V 0.75° dished platter, DC
motor, triple-pullet Vector drive, Sorbothane feet,
re-wired Rega RB300 arm modified with VTA
adjustment
Dimensions: 17" x 5.25" x 13"
Price: $1950
Lyra Dorian
IMMEDIA
1101 8th Street, Suite 210
Berkeley, California 94710
(510) 559-2050
immediasound.com
Output: 0.6mV
Weight: 6.4 grams
Price: $750
ASSOCIATED EQUIPMENT
Artemis Labs LA-1 linestage and PL-1 phonostage;
MBL 5011 preamp, 1521 A CD transport, and
1511 E DAC; Kharma MP-150 monoblock amps;
Kharma Mini Exquisite speakers; Kubala-Sosna
Emotion interconnects, speaker cables, power
cords, and Expression digital cable; TARA Labs Zero
interconnect and digital cables, Omega speaker
cables, and The One power cords; Nordost Thor
power distribution center; Finite Elemente Spider
equipment racks; Hannl record cleaning machine,
L’Art du Son LP and CD cleaning fluids
Type: Medium-output moving-coil
Frequency response: 10Hz–50kHz
Load impedance: 100 to 47kohms
Recommended tracking force: 1.8–2.0 grams
1/2 AD
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
35
Journal
TAS
100 More Best-of-the-Century
Classical Compositions
Jonathan Valin with Mark Lehman
At the turn of the
millennium, TAS
printed a list of the
Top 100 20th-century
classical compositions.
Here, for your delectation, are 100 more
great classical works
from the past century.
Six-and-a-half years ago—at the turn of the millennium—picking “Twentieth
Century Bests” was the vogue. Not to be outdone, my friend and colleague Mark Lehman and I
prepared a list of the Top 100 twentieth-century classical compositions, which you can find posted on TAS’s Web
site, AVGuide.com (http://www.avguide.com/film_music/music/top100classical.jsp), with links that allow you to
buy CDs and SACDs of many of the recommended works.
Perforce we had to be very choosy when we put our first list together. As a result many worthy pieces and
worthy composers were omitted. To help make up for these shortfalls, we’ve concocted a list of another 100
great twentieth-century compositions. Once again, we’ve listed the composers alphabetically, rather than in order
of merit. And once again, we’ve arbitrarily limited ourselves to a maximum of three compositions by any given
composer. As with the first list, we felt it was more important to make room for “unheard” or little-heard music
than to put forth a list made up entirely of well-known masterworks by well-known composers.
We have also listed favorite recordings of each piece. In certain instances, the recording recommended is only
available on out-of-print vinyl (indicated by an asterisk [*] following the catalogue number) or only available on CD
(indicated by a dagger symbol [†] following the catalogue number). If a recording is available on both vinyl and CDreissue, we’ve listed both versions, LP first followed by the CD or occasionally by the SACD. In a few instances,
we’ve recommended two performances of the same piece because one is available only on vinyl and the other only
on CD. In such cases you will see two conductors listed, separated by a slash, indicating that the first conducts the
performance on LP and the second on CD, e.g., “Roberto Gerhard: Concerto for Orchestra (1965). Del Mar/
Bamert (Recording: Argo ZRG 553/Chandos 9694).” In general the better sound is to be had on the LP.
Nota Bene. The list is restricted to orchestral and operatic works, along with a few oratorios—and to those
composers who excelled in this music. For chamber music we plan a separate list. The musical notes are JV’s (with
thanks to all the many sources he’s freely borrowed from).
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
37
TAS Journal
100 More Best-of-the-Century Classical Compositions
1. Thomas Adès: Powder Her Face (1995).
8. Béla Bartók: Bluebeard’s Castle (1911).
Gomez (Recording: Angel 56649 CD)†
Ludwig, Kertesz (Recording: Decca SET 311/
Thomas Adès, the latest British wunderkind, was
a mere twenty-four years old when he composed
this chamber opera about the scandalous life and
death of a libidinous British duchess. Though
Powder Her Face made waves with its sexual candor,
it is the quality of Adès’ score that makes it worth
hearing.
Decca 466377)
2. Malcolm Arnold: Guitar Concerto (1959).
9. Béla Bartók: Divertimento for Strings
Bream, Melos Ensemble (Recording: RCA LSC-
(1939). Barshai/Boulez (Recording: Speakers
2487/RCA 61583)
Corner ADEC 6026/DG 45825)
The finest guitar concerto written by a nonSpaniard. (Arnold is a Brit.) The central Lento,
an elegy for jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, is a
haunting blues.
Composed just before the outbreak of the Second
World War, the Divertimento begins pensively
and ends with Bartok’s usual cheerful, dance-like
allegro, but wedged in between is a sheer cry of
terror for what was to come.
This astonishingly original, psychologically acute
two-character opera, written in 1911 (two years
before Stravinsky’s landmark Rite of Spring), uses
dissonance, polytonality, and the marvelous music
of the Hungarian language to extraordinarily
expressive effect.
3. Grazyna Bacewicz: Music for Strings,
Trumpets, and Percussion (1958). Rowicki
10. Béla Bartók: Piano Concerto No. 3 (1945).
(Recording: Philips PHS900-141)*
Katchen, Kertesz (Recording: Decca SXL 6209/
Born in Warsaw in 1909, Bacewicz studied violin
with Carl Flesch, piano with Ignacy Jan Paderewski,
and composition with Nadia Boulanger. This
electrifying Bartókian concertante piece shows
why she is considered one of the foremost female
composers of the last century.
Written on his deathbed, Bartók’s last masterpiece
somehow combines an autumnal acquiescence
and a spring-like sense of renewal. An elegy that
only Bartók could have composed.
Linn Recut 001 CD)
the variations make up a witty history of Western
art music, from Baroque bourée to Mahlerian
funeral march.
14. Benjamin Britten: Violin Concerto (1939).
Lubotsky, Britten/Vengerov, Rostropovich
(Recording: Decca SXL 6512/EMI Classics
57510)
A memorial to those (on the losing side) who gave
their lives during the Spanish Civil War, the Violin
Concerto mixes exuberance with deep pathos.
One of the foremost twentieth-century concertos
by a Brit. (For another, see the Walton below.)
15. Benjamin Britten: Variations and Fugue on
a Theme of Purcell (1946). Britten (Recording:
Decca SXL 6110/JVC SXR0226)
A.k.a. The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, this
enormously entertaining set of variations on a
theme of Henry Purcell not only illustrates the
dynamics and colors of the orchestra’s instruments,
it also pays sweet homage to the great Baroque
composer, whose very spirit is summoned up at
the finish in a majestic coda.
16. Ferruccio Busoni: Sarabande and Cortège
(1918-19). Revenaugh (Recording: Angel SBL
11. Luciano Berio: Concertino for Clarinet,
3719/EMI CDM 7 69840)
4. Tadeusz Baird: Four Dialogues for Oboe
Violin, Harp, and Strings (1951). London
and Chamber Orchestra (1964). Rowicki
Sinfonietta (Recording: RCA ARL1-2291)*
(Recording: Muza XL 03360)*
Like the Overture to The School for Scandal Berio’s
Concertino is another music-school (the Milan
Conservatory) graduation piece and, like Barber’s,
one of tremendous charm, polish, and promise.
Though clearly influenced by Stravinsky, the
Concertino already shows Berio’s typical energy
and virtuosic solo writing.
The Italian composer, concert pianist, teacher
(Edgard Varèse, Kurt Weill, and Stefan Wolpe
were among his students), and aesthetician
originally titled these pieces Two Studies for “Doktor
Faust.” And, indeed, both orchestral interludes
were eventually imported into Busoni’s Modernist
opera about Faust. The Sarabande, like the sublime
Berceuse élégiaque recommended on our first list, is a
profound meditation on death.
12. Luciano Berio: Sinfonia (1968). Berio/
17. Carlos Chavez: Violin Concerto (1948).
Boulez. (Recording: Columbia MS 7268/Erato
Szeryng, Chavez/Szeryng, Bernstein
2292-45228)
(Recording: CBS 32-11-0064/Disco Archivia 424)
A superb concerto from Mexico’s finest composer
that combines modern with romantic in an eightsection, self-mirroring, arch-like structure of
considerable sophistication and powerful effect.
The most beautiful violin concerto written by an
American. The second movement Andante is
ineffably sad and lovely.
The bellwether of musical post-Modernism—and
an instant classic—Berio’s Sinfonia isn’t mere
pastiche. Its second movement elegy for Martin
Luther King and its amazing third movement
palimpsest of music history, set to snippets
of Samuel Beckett’s funny/forlorn prose and
layered over the gorgeous Scherzo from Mahler’s
Resurrection Symphony, make for a deeply moving
summation of a century of musical and existential
angst and social and political upheaval.
An exquisite and exquisitely crafted concerto from
a fine Polish composer that boasts exceptionally
lyrical writing for both oboe and orchestra.
5. Samuel Barber: Overture to The School
for Scandal (1932). Schippers (Recording:
Columbia Odyssey Y33230/Sony 62837)
Composed by Barber when he was a twentytwo-year-old student at the Curtis Institute in
Philadelphia, this sprightly, exhilarating overture
wasn’t written for an actual performance of
Sheridan’s famous comedy. It was, instead, intended
to capture the play’s antic spirit. And so it does.
6. Samuel Barber: Violin Concerto (1939).
Stern, Bernstein (Recording: Columbia MS
6713/Sony 64506)
7. Samuel Barber: Knoxville: Summer of 1915
13. Benjamin Britten: Variations on a Theme
(1947). Price, Schippers (Recording: RCA LSC-
of Frank Bridge (1937). Marriner/Britten
3062/RCA 61983)
(Recording: Argo ZRG 860/JVC SXR0226)
Barber sets James Agee’s touching prologue to
A Death in the Family to music that is every bit as
well-crafted and heartrending as that of his Violin
Concerto.
Now widely regarded as the best English
composer of the twentieth century, the thentwenty-three-year-old Britten ostensibly wrote this
early masterpiece for string orchestra as a tribute
to his mentor, the composer Frank Bridge. In fact,
38
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
18. Aaron Copland: Piano Concerto (1926).
Bernstein (Recording: Columbia MS 6698/Sony
Classical 60177)
As Leonard Bernstein once noted, Copland was
weaned on the rhythms of jazz and American
pop, and this vibrant early piano concerto was
his attempt to incorporate both into symphonic
music.
19. Roque Cordero: Violin Concerto (1974).
Allen, Freeman (Recording: Columbia M32784/
Sony Custom Marketing DSO-1111)
A student of Ernst Krenek, the Panamanian
Cordero is often considered one of the most
TAS Journal
illustrious “black” composers of classical music. He
wrote this Koussevitsky Award-winning concerto
using a modified 12-tone technique.
20. John Corigliano: Piano Concerto
(1968). Somer, Alessandro/Douglas, Slatkin
(Recording: Mercury Golden Import SRI 75118/
RCA 68100)
The American composer’s Piano Concerto is, as
he himself described it, “extremely virtuosic and
theatrical”—a delightfully colorful and spectacularly
energetic work, primarily tonal in idiom, save for
the dodecaphonic second movement Trio.
21. Gordon Crosse: Purgatory (1966).
Lankester (Recording: Argo ZRG 810)*
Deeply interested in literature and drama (he
partnered successfully in several works with the
celebrated English poet Ted Hughes), British
composer Crosse composed this one-act opera
using a symbolist play by W. B. Yeats for his
libretto.
22. Luigi Dallapiccolo: Il Prigioniero (1944-48).
Dorati/Salonen (Recording: Decca Headline
10/Sony 68323)
Another small-scale opera, this one a psychological
torture story set during the Spanish Inquisition but
inspired by the Fascist tyranny of World War II.
The music is based on three 12-note tone-rows,
each row symbolizing a theme of the opera’s
plot—prayer, hope, and freedom. The Italian
composer Dallapicollo was also an influential
teacher.
23. Peter Maxwell Davies: Missa Super
L’Homme Armé (1968). Davies. (Recording:
L’Oiseau Lyre DSLO 2/Decca 475 6166)
This parody mass for speaker and chamber
orchestra by Britain’s most outrageously theatrical
composer is as clever and funny as post-Modernist
music gets. (At one point, an organ passage is
played back on LP; when the record gets “stuck,”
the chamber players start to “harmonize” with the
stuck note!) Curiously moving at its finale, it is, like
so much contemporaneous art, not merely parody
but parody in service of a seriousness that can be
achieved in no other way.
24. David Diamond: Rounds for String
Orchestra (1946). Schwarz, L.A./Schwarz,
Seattle (Recording: Nonesuch 79002/Delos
3189)
Rounds is the American Diamond’s most popular
and best-known orchestral work, illustrating, par
excellence, his gift for strong melodies, rhythmic
variety, and intricate counterpoint.
100 More Best-of-the-Century Classical Compositions
Debussy once called the (discarded) violin concerto
version of these three Impressionist pieces “a
study in gray painting”— thinking, perhaps, of his
friend, the artist James McNeill Whistler. Its colors
and harmonies are subtle and subdued, but this
is typical of Debussy, than whom no one in the
20th century (or before) was a more exquisite (or
influential) colorist.
26. Claude Debussy: Images for Orchestra
(1905-1911). Munch (Recording: RCA LSC-2282/
31. Roberto Gerhard: Concerto for Orchestra
RCA CRCA 61956 Hybrid SACD)
(1965). Del Mar/Bamert (Recording: Argo ZRG
Although he spent a grand total of a single day
in Spain, Debussy’s musical impression of that
country, Ibéria, is the most famous of this trio of
orchestral suites—and one of the most famous
pieces of “Spanish” music.
553/Chandos 9694)
27. Georges Enescu: Roumanian Rhapsody No.
1 (1901). Dorati (Recording: Speakers Corner
25. Claude Debussy: Nocturnes (1900). Paray
40
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
Gerhard’s atonal Concerto for Orchestra is a work
of remarkable craft and imagination—a concerto
without any of classical music’s traditional unifying
structures that, nonetheless, bounds forward with
ceaseless energy and invention, like a vast and
intricate set of variations on no particular theme
(or, perhaps, on the theme of time itself).
AMER 90235/Mercury Living Presence CMER
4756185 Hybrid SACD)
32. Sofia Gubaidulina: Introitus (1978).
A neo-Romantic orchestral pastiche that captures
the color and exuberance of Rumanian folk
dance. Though Enescu, who in addition to being
a distinguished composer was also a celebrated
violinist, pianist, conductor, and teacher, would go
on to write more “serious” music, this delightful
early rhapsody remains his most famous (and
popular) work.
Haefliger, Klee. (Recording: Sony Classical SK
28. Manuel de Falla: Nights in the Gardens
of Spain (1909-1915), Soriano, De Burgos
(Recording: Alto LEMI 545/EMI Classics 64746)
Inspired by the nationalist example of Norway’s
Edvard Grieg, the Spaniard Falla set out to write
the music of his homeland. Although Nights was
originally composed as a set of nocturnes for solo
piano, Falla later added lush orchestration to the
austere piano line and produced an Impressionist
masterpiece. The textures, colors, and scents of the
three twilit gardens—the Generalife (surrounding
the Alhambra), the Sierra de Córdoba, and a third
that is not named—could not be more effectively
evoked in sound.
29. Irving Fine: Symphony (1962). Leinsdorf
(RCA/Desto DST 7167/Phoenix USA PHCD106)
A student of Walter Piston and Nadia Boulanger
at Harvard, the American Fine developed a style
remarkable for its melodic lyricism and lucid
polyphony. Tragically, he died of a heart attack just
eleven days after conducting the premier of this
Symphony with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
30. Roberto Gerhard: Dances from Don
Quixote (1941-49). Dorati (Recording: Argo
ZRG 752)*
(Recording: Speakers Corner AMER 90281)*
music of this Catalonian-born composer, and
certainly near at hand in these Dances adapted
from his ballet Don Quixote. This does not mean that
Gerhard’s music sounds conventionally “Spanish,”
like Falla’s. Gerhard is one of the distinguished
composers who adopted Schoenberg’s twelvetone method, though he sounds little like the
Second Viennese School, either. He had his own
quite original voice.
Although Gerhard became a naturalized British
citizen, his native Spain is seldom far from the
53 960)†
While this gorgeous concerto for piano and
chamber orchestra owes a clear debt to Ligeti, its
wisps of color and melody that seemingly rise
into a vaulted chamber like smoke from a censer
truly conjure the divine mystery of the Mass.
(The Introitus is the entrance of the Mass.) The
Russian Gubaidulina has said that, because of
her family heritage (Russian Orthodox, Muslim,
Jewish, and Catholic), she is where East meets West.
In her music, which is often religious, spirit meets
substance.
33. Howard Hanson: Symphony No. 2 (1930).
Hanson (Recording: Mercury SRI 75007/
Mercury CMER 432008 Hybrid SACD)
An influential composer, conductor, and teacher,
the American Hanson not only wrote a good deal
of distinguished music, but as the conductor of
the Eastman Rochester Symphony Orchestra, he
also popularized the works of several generations
of American composers (although he holds the
dubious distinction of turning down Bartók
for a staff position at the Eastman School of
Music). His Second Symphony, the “Romantic,” is
probably his best-known piece.
34. Karl Amadeus Hartmann: Concerto
Funebre for Violin and String Orchestra (1939).
Gertler, Ančerl/Faust, Poppen (Recording:
Supraphon 1 10 0508/ECM 465779)
This great concerto for violin and string orchestra,
written in 1939 to protest Hitler’s occupation
of Prague, is not only a document of moral and
political courage (Hartmann was a German);
it is the most sadly prophetic piece of pre-War
German music, presaging clearly, powerfully, and
TAS Journal
heartbreakingly the tragedy that Hitler was to usher
in.
35. Hans Werner Henze: Symphony No. 1
(1947/1963). Henze (Recording: DG 2707
029/DG 429 854)
At the center of this short three-movement
symphony (revised by Henze to chamber orchestra
size in 1963) is an exquisite Notturno that is a
veritable Emperor’s nightingale—a thing of gold
and gold enameling. Though the German Henze
would go on to write much more radical, politically
charged music (for which, see below), he never
wrote anything lovelier.
36. Hans Werner Henze: The Raft of the Frigate
Medusa (1968). Moser, Fischer-Dieskau, Henze
100 More Best-of-the-Century Classical Compositions
Melodiya MELCD1000936)
Swiss composer Honegger’s powerful, moving
Third Symphony, the “Liturgique,” is based on
the Catholic liturgy, but the pity it expresses and
forgiveness for sins it seeks clearly go beyond the
liturgy—to the war that had just ended and the
terrible cruelty and suffering it entailed.
great Russian composer. Though influenced
by his friends and contemporaries Prokofiev
and Shostakovich, Kabalevsky was here equally
inspired by the romantic concertos of Tchaikovsky
and Rachmaninoff.
46. Günter Kochan: Fourth Symphony (1984).
Flor (Recording: Nova 885265/Berlin Classics
41. Andrew Imbrie: Legend for Orchestra
21722)
(1959). Jorda (Recording: CRI SD152/Citadel
Kochan was the best of the “second generation”
of East German composers (those born between
the wars). Though vaguely programmatic, as a lot
of East German symphonic music is, Kochan’s
Fourth begins with a long agonized elegy for
the victims of the Second World War that is
as searingly powerful as any of Shostakovich’s
wartime compositions.
88117)
American composer Imbrie writes works whose
structures, in NYT critic Anthony Tommasini’s
well-chosen words, “honor the precedents of
the classical tradition, but speak with a gnarly and
arrestingly modern harmonic voice.” Legend is one
of his finest large-scale pieces.
(Recording: DG 139 428-29/DG449 871)
A good deal of twentieth-century music is
“political”—how could it be otherwise in a century
where the arts themselves were either under attack
or being co-opted by the State? This oratorio,
based on a murderously brutal instance of social
injustice that contributed to the French Revolution,
is perhaps the most powerful of Henze’s many
Marxist works, because the most theatrically
effective and humane.
37. Bernard Herrmann: Symphony (1941).
Herrmann (Recording: Unicorn-HNH UN175003/Unicorn-Kanchana UKCD 2963)
Famous for his film scores (Citizen Kane, Vertigo,
Psycho, Taxi Driver), Herrmann was also a
distinguished classical composer, and the neoRomantic Symphony is among his finest works
42. Charles Ives: Three Places in New England
47. Zóltán Kodály: Háry János Suite (1926).
(1912-1921). Hanson (Recording: Mercury SR
Dorati (Recording: Mercury SR 90132/Philips
90149/Mercury Living Presence CMER756274
32005)
Hybrid SACD)
Delightful suite, incorporating Hungarian folk
songs, drawn from the music Kodaly composed for
his picaresque opera about the mythical Hungarian
peasant-soldier hero who claims, among other tall
tales, to have single-handedly defeated Napoleon’s
armies.
Made up (as Ives’ works are) of many simultaneous
melodic lines (many of which are derived from
folk songs and hymns), big tone clusters, and
sharp surprising changes in intensity and texture,
this impressionistic evocation of three places—the
St. Gaudens memorial on Boston Commons,
Putnam’s Camp in Connecticut, and the
Housatonic River at Stockbridge, Massachusetts—
is the influential American composer’s most
popular (and most oft-played) piece.
43. Leos Janácek: The Cunning Little Vixen
(1922-1923). Newmann/Mackerras (Recording:
48. Joonas Kokkonen: Through a Glass Darkly
(1977). Baumgartner/Berglund (Recording:
Finlandia 323/Ondine 860)
At first turning his chamber orchestra (with
harpsichord) into a virtual pipe organ, the Finnish
composer creates music worthy of the great and
mysterious text from St. Paul that inspired it.
Supraphon 2PAL-2012/London 417129)
38. Paul Hindemith: Nobilissima visione (1938).
Martinon (Recording: RCA LSC-3004/RCA High
Performance 09026-63315)
Superbly crafted suite taken from the German
composer’s score for a ballet (choreographed by
Leonide Massine) based on the life of St. Francis.
The closing fugue is a wonderment.
A winsome operatic parable based on a popular
Czech comic strip about an antic vixen. The score
is pure musical magic. (For research, the then70-year-old Janácek actually hid in the woods in
camouflage, to hear the sounds of birds and watch
the foxes play.)
49. Hermann Koppel: Symphony No. 5 (1956).
Atzmon (Recording: DaCapo 8226027)†
Influenced by Nielsen, Stravinsky, and Bartók, the
Danish composer’s Fifth Symphony combines
elements of all three with Koppel’s own
considerable gift for melody and rhythm.
44. Leos Janácek: The Makropoulos Case
50. Erich Wolfgang Korngold: Symphony in
39. Paul Hindemith: Violin Concerto (1939).
(1923-1925). Mackerras (Recording: London
F sharp (1947-1952). Kempe (Recording: RCA
Fuchs, Goosens/Stern, Bernstein (Recording:
OSA 12116/Decca 4303722)
ARL1 0443/Varese Sarabande VSD 5346)
Classic-Everest SDBR-3040/Sony 64506)
A superb tragicomic opera about a woman who
has the key to eternal youth—but no longer wants
to live on in a world in which friends and lovers are
inevitably lost to a mortality that cannot touch her.
The great overture (and who, other than Mozart,
wrote better overtures?) is, by itself, worth the price
of admission.
A genuine wunderkind who was writing highly
esteemed operas (Violanta, Die Tote Stadt) when he
was a teenager, the Austrian Korngold emigrated
to Hollywood in the mid-30s and became one
of the most celebrated composers of film music
(The Sea Hawk, The Adventures of Robin Hood,
King’s Row). The old-fashioned Romanticism
of the Symphony in F sharp is both a key to
why Korngold fell out of favor with modern
audiences—and why he found so much success
earlier in the century.
Big, raw-boned, and Romantic, Hindemith’s
marvelous violin concerto has the sweep of one
of the great 19th century concertos, though its
sound is pure 20th. Though his star declined
somewhat in the second half of the century, as
Schoenberg’s and Bartók’s ascended, Hindemith
was once ranked alongside these two (and Igor
Stravinsky) as one of the touchstone composers
of the early-to-mid 20th century; this stellar piece is
a good example why.
45. Dmitri Kabalevsky: Piano Concerto No. 3
(1952). Feltsman, Mansurov/Gilels, Kabalevsky
(Recording: HMV-Melodia ASD 3078/Olympia
D 269)
40. Arthur Honegger: Symphony No. 3 (1946).
Mravinsky (Recording: EMI ASD 2064/
42
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The Absolute Sound
Brilliant, thorny, ultimately sweepingly romantic
and gorgeously melodic piano concerto by the
51. Lars-Erik Larsson: Violin Concerto (1952).
Gertler, Frykberg (Recording: Turnabout TV-S
TAS Journal
34498/Sony SK 64140)
A student of Berg, the Swede Larsson started off
as a neo-classicist, but in his later works (such as
this Concerto) combines (beautifully) twelve-tone
techniques with the late Romanticism of Sibelius.
100 More Best-of-the-Century Classical Compositions
have included many of Mahler’s other symphonies
as well as song cycles like Kindertotenlieder, but chose,
instead, to leave room for less-known composers
and compositions.)
56. Bohuslav Martinü: Double Concerto for 2
52. György Ligeti: Lux Aeterna (1965). Ligeti
String Orchestras, Piano and Timpani (1938).
(Recording: Wergo 4852998721/Wergo
Ancerl/Mackerras (Recording: Artia 16650/
B000025QZQ)
Supraphon 103393)
In the a cappella choral work Lux Aeterna,
the Rumanian Ligeti adds contrapuntal
complexity to the intricate sound world he
called “micropolyphony”—a world built on
extraordinarily dense polyphony here achieved
through the kaleidoscopic use of speech sounds.
Stanley Kubrick chose this eerie, ethereal piece for
the monolith sequences of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Martinu’s often-gorgeous melodic style derives, in
part, from his fellow Czech Dvorák, his rhythmic
vitality from the greatly influential example of Igor
Stravinsky. Both melos and drive are combined in
the Double Concerto.
53. Douglas Lilburn: Symphony No. 2 (1951).
In 1945, the deeply religious Frenchman Olivier
Messiaen began to compose three works on the
theme of human (as opposed to divine) love, using
the Tristan and Isolde myth as his inspiration. This
gargantuan ten-movement symphony (written
on commission for the Boston Symphony
Orchestra) was the second of the three. As in all
of his music, Messiaen seeks to find a way to turn
musical composition into religious experience. In
this quest, he reaches out for new resources of
sound—birdsong, the Ondes Martenot, Balinese
percussion instruments, all of which (and many
more) find their way into Turangalila.
57. Olivier Messiaen: Turangalila Symphony
(1946-1948). Previn (Recording: EMI SLS 5117/
EMI Classics 69752)
Heenan (Recording: Jerusalem Records ATD
8203/Kiwi CD SLD-90)
OK, in places this New Zealand composer’s work
sounds like movie music, but it is thrilling movie
music. A big, old-fashioned, ultra-Romantic
symphony that many of you will adore.
54. Witold Lutoslawski: Symphony No. 1
(1941-47). Krenz/Wit (Recording: Wergo WER
60044/Naxos 8554283)
It took the great Polish composer over six years
to complete this piece—in part because of World
War II and in part because of his characteristic
meticulousness. Neo-classical in structure,
fundamentally tonal in idiom, and expertly crafted,
the symphony echoes Bartók and Prokofiev,
especially in the second movement, but the powerful
feelings it expresses —no doubt influenced by the
war and its finish—are Lutosklawski’s own.
55. Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 5 (19011902). Bernstein (Recording: Columbia MS
6468/Sony Classical 063084)
Filled with turbulence, despair, triumph,
and a bittersweet joy that culminates in its
exquisite Adagietto—his marriage proposal to
Alma Schindler (claimed conductor Wilhelm
Mengelberg)—Mahler’s Fifth (“The Great”) is as
much psychological drama as musical. Though his
disciple Arnold Schoenberg is the most influential
composer of the century (for which, see below),
there might not have been a Schoenberg had
Mahler not opened wide the gates of intense
personal expressiveness—often morbid, often
ecstatic, always autobiographical, with its memory
traces of ländler, waltz, and military march—in
music of daring candor, monumental dimensions,
and subtle means. Along with Debussy and
Strauss, the Austrian forms the headwaters of the
twentieth century. (See our first list for other Mahler
recommendations, and note that we could easily
44
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
61. András Mihaly: Cello Concerto (1953).
Perényi, Lehel (Recording: Hungaroton LPX
11556/Hungaroton HCD 31989)
A haunting neo-Romantic concerto from a littleknown Hungarian composer, who was also the
first-chair cellist of the Budapest Opera and an
excellent conductor. A disciple of Bartók, Mihaly
did not compose a good deal nor was he widely
recorded, but the little music that he did write was
well-made and lovely.
62. András Mihaly: Violin Concerto (1959).
Kovács, Lukács (Recording: Qualiton LPX
1068)*
This superbly crafted, highly chromatic work is one
of the finest violin concerto by a Hungarian since
Bartók’s, which clearly influenced it. The second
movement Andante, built on inversions of the
first movement’s themes, is downright beautiful.
63. Darius Milhaud: Cello Concerto (1935).
Starker, Susskind (Recording: Angel 35418/EMI
Classics 68485)
While the Mihaly cello concerto is great from start
to finish, here you rather have to overlook the first
movement, which is the Frenchman Milhaud at his
most frivolous. The second movement, however,
ushers in a Milhaud you may never have heard
before—a composer of high seriousness, subtle
craft, and deep feeling, uninflected by irony.
64. Carl Nielsen: Symphony No. 3 (1911).
58. Ernst Hermann Meyer: Symphony for
Bernstein. (Recording: Columbia MS 6769/
Strings (1957). Hauschild (Recording: Nova
Sony Classical 47598)
885110/BMG 74321-73508)
A pure Nordic delight by Denmark’s finest
composer. The famously buoyant first movement
of the “Sinfonia Espansiva” will lift you with joy,
and the second movement, with its wordless solos
for soprano and baritone, is a paragon of musical
serenity.
One of the Founding Fathers of Socialist Realist
music in the former DDR, its most eloquent
musical theoretician, and its finest composer,
Ernst Meyer perfected a music that was at once
affirmative, but fiercely discordant. From its
majestic opening bars to its concluding Allegro, his
Symphony for Strings is a masterpiece that stands
comparison to any of the great twentieth-century
works for string orchestra.
59. Ernst Hermann Meyer: Violin Concerto
(1964). Oistrakh, Suitner (Recording: Nova
885057)*
Many consider this anguished, highly chromatic
violin concerto to be Meyer’s finest piece. Oistrakh’s
performance is famously celebrated.
60. Nikolai Miaskovsky: Cello Concerto (1944).
Rostropovich, Sargent/Mǿrk, Järvi (Recording:
EMI SXLP 30155/Virgin Classics VC 5 45282 2)
Like Prokofiev (who was his close, lifelong
friend—they met as students of RimskyKorsakov), Miaskovsky was a gifted melodist, and
this cello concerto is a perfect case in point.
65. Krzystof Penderecki: St. Luke Passion
(1963-1966). Various (Recording: RCA VICS6015/Naxos 8.557149)
The finest musical setting of a Gospel Passion
since those of Bach, whom the Polish composer
pays tribute to by using the B-A-C-H motif (B flatA-C-B natural) throughout. The work is entirely
atonal, often aleatory, and full of inventive musical
touches like tone clusters that destabilize pitch,
quarter-tone harmonies, and distributed melodies
(in which each note of a phrase is given to a
different instrument or voice). For all its musical
modernism, Penderecki’s Passion is, like Bach’s, a
devoutly religious, moving, and patriotic work.
66. Walter Piston: Violin Concerto No. 1 (1939).
Kolberg, Herrmann (Recording: Mace 9089/
Naxos 8.559003)
A great American pedagogue (he headed the
TAS Journal
Music Department at Harvard and had many
celebrated pupils, including Leonard Bernstein,
Elliot Carter, and Irving Fine), Piston was greatly
influenced by Stravinsky and his music tends
towards a Stravinsky-like neo-classicism (though
he also studied Schoenberg’s twelve-tone method).
Like his charming ballet The Incredible Flutist, the
First Violin Concerto is a delightful, entirely
accessible work.
100 More Best-of-the-Century Classical Compositions
some consider his best) was written in America
just as World War II began, and its more daring
harmonies and entirely sharper, more sinister tone
certainly reflect the times (as does his reiteration of
the Dies irae theme that seemed to haunt him in
his last three pieces—for which, see above).
73. Maurice Ravel: Rhapsodie espagnole
(1907). Reiner (Recording: RCA-Classic Records
LSC-2183QP/RCA CRCA 61250 Hybrid SACD)
67. Sergei Prokofiev: Symphony No. 1
(1916-1917). Weller (Recording: London CS
6897/Decca 433 612)
Yet another phenomenal graduation exercise,
Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony is famously
tuneful. But then Prokofiev was the greatest
melodist of the century, as his First Violin Concerto
and ballet Romeo and Juliet, both recommended
below, amply demonstrate.
The French craze for Spanish music produced
any number of masterpieces, but in this famously
colorful and exciting rhapsody, which predates
Debussy’s Iberia by a year, Ravel is, in the words
of the great Spanish composer Manuel de Falla,
“more Spanish than the Spanish themselves.”
Perhaps it was Ravel’s heritage (his mother was
Basque) that allowed him to treat this material with
such authenticity.
432006 Hybrid SACD)
This orchestral suite, the first large-scale piece
in which from start to finish Schoenberg
“emancipated the dissonance” with his atonal
(he preferred “pan tonal”) approach, met with
boos at its London premiere in 1912. Now it
is hard to understand how a work of such utter
originality, extraordinary craft, and remarkable
expressiveness could not have been cheered to
the rafters. Schoenberg perfected a language that
was to have a greater influence on 20th century
music than that of any other composer. This was
not because atonal and, subsequently, serial music
were simply de mode; it was because—and still is
because—certain feelings and experiences could
only be expressed by a music whose tilted rhythms,
otherworldly harmonies, and harsh beauty fit the
rough, red contours of this past century like a
glove. Schoenberg triumphed—in so far as he did
triumph—because of what he allowed composers
to say, and not just because he gave them the
method with which to say it.
68. Sergei Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No.
74. Maurice Ravel: Daphnis and Chloë
1 (1916-1917). Milstein, Giulini (Recording:
Suite No. 2 (1909-1912). Paul Paray/Munch
Angel S 36009/EMI CDM 5 76862)
(Recording: Speakers Corner AMER 90281/RCA
One of the most gorgeous concertos ever
composed for violin and orchestra with an
unforgettable, ethereal ending.
Hybrid SACD)
78. Arnold Schoenberg: Violin Concerto (1935-
Taken from a ballet score—Ravel called it a
“symphonie choréographique”—for orchestra and
wordless chorus, this exquisite suite, the textures of
which are like windblown silk, is widely considered
one of the great composer’s best. (When Diaghliev
premiered the ballet in London with the Ballet
Russes in 1914, he omitted the wordless chorus,
prompting Ravel to write an angry letter to The
Times.)
1936). Zeitlin, Kubelik (Recording: DG 2530
69. Sergei Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet
(1935-1936). Maazel (Recording: Decca SXL
6620/London CSA 2312)
Arguably the loveliest of all ballet scores, by turns
majestic and intimate, witty and passionate, and as
meltingly sweet and poignant as first love.
70. Giacomo Puccini: Madame Butterfly (1904).
75. Ottorino Respighi: The Pines of Rome
De Los Angeles, Santini (Recording: Angel S
(1924). Reiner (Recordings: RCA-Classic
3604/EMI Classics 63634)
Records ALSC 2436Q/RCA CRCA 68079 Hybrid
Heart-breaker about a young Japanese girl seduced
and abandoned by a callous American naval officer.
If you’re unmoved by Cio-Cio-San’s exquisite aria
“Un bel di,” then Puccini simply isn’t for you.
SACD)
71. Sergei Rachmaninoff: Variations on a
Theme of Paganini (1934). Rubinstein, Reiner
This tone poem, the sequel to the Italian composer’s
Fountains of Rome (1917), is not merely a pictorial
triumph; it also makes clever use of musical history,
referencing Gregorian chant, military fanfares, and
folk tunes to illustrate its tour of some of Rome’s
Christian and pagan monuments.
(Recording: Classic Records LSC-2430/RCA
CRCA 63009 Hybrid SACD)
76. Hilding Rosenberg: Violin Concerto No. 2
The 16-bar theme of Niccolo Paganini’s Caprice
in A Minor (from his virtuosic 24 Caprices
for Solo Violin) has inspired many composers
(including Liszt and Brahms). None has written
a better set of Paganini variations than this from
Rachmaninoff, which, in its reiterated Dies irae
theme also references Paganini’s mythical “pact
with the Devil.” Arguably Rachmaninoff’s most
accomplished piece for piano and orchestra.
(1951). Spierer, A. Jansons (Recording: Caprice
1225/Caprice CD 21367)
Rosenberg (pronounced “Rosenberry”) has been
credited with introducing musical modernism to
Sweden, and his later works employ a modified
twelve-tone system of his own devising. The
foremost Swedish composer of his generation,
his music is strikingly original and well crafted. The
Second Violin Concerto is widely regarded as a
masterpiece.
72. Sergei Rachmaninoff: Symphonic Dances
77. Arnold Schoenberg: Five Orchestral Pieces
Productions APLP 005/APCD 005)
(1910). Dorati (Recording: Speakers Corner
Rachmaninoff’s “last flicker” (his final work—and
AMER 90316/Mercury Living Presence CMER
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
“I am delighted to add another unplayable work to
the repertoire,” said Schoenberg upon completion
of his twelve-tone violin concerto. Difficult
it is; unplayable it is certainly not, having been
performed often since Krassner and Stokowski
premiered it in 1940 and recorded better than
a dozen times. Reconciling “the demands of a
densely structured, polyphonic compositional
technique and the traditional concessions to the
brilliant and effective virtuosity of the solo part”
was the problem Schoenberg set himself—and
brilliantly solved.
79. Arnold Schoenberg: Piano Concerto (1942).
Brendel, Kubelik (Recording: DG 2530 257/DG
000174102)
Originally commissioned by Schoenberg’s student
Oscar Levant (who found it unplayable—for
which, see above), the Piano Concerto was
“conceived as a single-movement form displaying
the characteristics of a multimovement sonata
cycle.” The concerto does, in fact, divide into four
sections, which Schoenberg himself labeled: “Life
was so easy”; “Suddenly hatred broke out”; “A
grave situation was created”; and “But life goes
on.” A terse summary of his life in America, after
fleeing the Nazi regime in Austria.
80. William Schuman: Symphony No. 8 (1962).
Bernstein (Recording: Columbia MS-6512/Sony
Classical 63163 )
(1940). Johanos (Recording: Analogue
46
257/DG 000174102)
An enormously influential teacher (he headed
the Juilliard School of Music for many years),
the American composer once said of his work:
TAS Journal
“A composition must have two fundamental
ingredients—emotional vitality and intellectual
vigor.” His dark, powerful Eighth Symphony,
commissioned for the opening of Lincoln Center,
has both. Though not a memorable melodist,
Schuman was a past master of counterpoint and
rhythm.
81. Humphrey Searle: Symphony No. 1 (19521953). Boult/Francis (Speakers Corner-Decca
ADEC 2232/CPO Recordings 999541)
A pupil of Webern, Searle is perhaps the foremost
British composers of serial (twelve-tone) music,
although (like Berg) his own fundamentally
Romantic spirit never allowed him to completely
renounce tonality or classical forms, as in his
splendid First Symphony.
82. Roger Sessions: Violin Concerto (1935).
Zukofsky, Schuller (Recording: CRI 676/
Composers Recordings 676)
Along with Piston, the most influential American
teacher during the last century, Sessions is
generally regarded, in Nicolas Slonimsky’s words,
“as one of the most important composers of
the century, while actual performances of his
work are exasperatingly infrequent.” One might
add “recordings of his work” are exasperatingly
infrequent, as well. There are reasons for this, as
Slonimsky also notes. Sessions was ahead of his
time, and his music is often difficult to absorb
(he developed his own form of serialism, rich in
dissonance). Nonetheless, he is a composer well
worth hearing, and his Violin Concerto, thorny
though it may be, is a masterpiece.
suppressed in 1948 for political reasons, this fourmovement concerto—replete with coded personal
messages, a devilish Scherzo, and a monumental
Passacaglia—is one of Shostakovich’s best.
larkish side of Stockhausen, who, despite his
substantial mid-century influence on “serious”
classical composers, is probably at his best when he
isn’t taking himself seriously.
86. Jean Sibelius: Symphony No. 2 (1902).
91. Richard Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier (1911).
Barbirolli (Recording: RCA Gold Seal 25001/
Schwarzkopf, Karajan (Recording: EMI SLS810/
Chesky CD3)
Angel 67609)
Wintry, noble, thrillingly heroic, the famous Second
Symphony stands, Janus-like, on the cusp of the
nineteenth-century and the twentieth. Sibelius is
not only the musical embodiment of Finland and
of Finnish nationalism, he is, in critic Marc Vignal’s
words, the “aristocrat of symphonists.”
After the daring chromaticism of the scores to his
two great operas Salome and Elektra, Strauss did a
complete volte face with this delightful Mozartian
romantic comedy, turning his back (forever) on the
musical modernism that he helped pioneer.
92. Igor Stravinsky: Firebird Suite (1910).
87. Jean Sibelius: Violin Concerto (1903-1905).
Dorati (Recording: Classic Records SR 90226/
Heifetz, Hendl (Recording: Classic Records LSC-
Mercury Living Presence CMER 470643 Hybrid
2435/RCA CRCA 61744 Hybrid SACD)
SACD)
Of the many great 20th century violin concertos,
this—Sibelius’ only concerto—is high among the
most beautiful and virtuosic. Rather resuscitated
by Heifetz, who plays it on our recommended
recording, it has (deservingly) become part of the
standard repertory.
Stravinsky’s first complete ballet for Diaghilev’s
Ballets Russes. A score that alternates passages of
intense rhythmic excitement with moments of
exquisite beauty.
93. Igor Stravinsky: Petrouchka (1911).
Monteux (Recording: Classic Records LSC-211/
88. Nikos Skalkottas: Violin Concerto (1938).
RCA CRCA 67897 Hybrid SACD)
Demertzis, Christodoulou (Recording: BIS
Rather a warm-up for the groundbreaking Rite
of Spring (1913). In this, the second great ballet
Stravinsky wrote for Diaghilev, the music imitates
the mechanical movement of the puppets
on stage, with Stravinsky’s sometimes savage,
sometimes delicate rhythms—and he was the
century’s great master of rhythmic variety and
invention—both underlining and commenting
upon the tragicomedy.
904)†
A concerto written by one of Schoenberg’s “most
gifted” (Schoenberg’s words) students. Although
the Greek composer wrote twelve-tone music, his
style was highly individual—you would not mistake
his Violin Concerto for a work by Schoenberg or
any of his other pupils.
89. Valentin Silvestrov: Symphony No. 5
83. Dmitri Shostakovich: Lady Macbeth of
(1982). Robertson (Recording: Sony SK
94. Karol Szymanowski: Fourth Symphony
Minsk (1934). Rostropovich (Recording: EMI
66825)†
[Symphonie Concertante for Piano with
49955)
It has been said about this post-Modernist Ukranian
composer that he tries to integrate all the strands
of twentieth-century music (tonal, modal, atonal,
neo-Romantic, neoclassical, serial, aleatory) into
his own. The results are at once pastiche-like (filled
deliberately with echoes of other composers—in
Silvestrov’s Fifth Symphony of Gustav Mahler,
in particular) and elegiac, like a vast coda to the
entire era of late Romanticism and the century of
experimentation that followed from it.
Orchestra] (1932). Blumenthal, Kord/
Daring, sexy, strident, savagely ironic operatic
adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. A work of
unalloyed modernism that nearly cost Shostakovich
his life. (Stalin himself is said to have written the
review in Pravda—and it was not a rave.)
84. Dmitri Shostakovich: Piano Concerto No. 2
(1957). Bernstein (Recording: Columbia /Sony
SMK 89752)
Written expressly for his son (the pianist Maxim),
the Second Piano Concerto boasts, in the second
movement Andante, the single most beautiful
piece of music that Shostakovich ever penned.
85. Dmitri Shostakovich: Violin Concerto No.
1 (1955). Oistrakh, Mitropoulos/Chang, Rattle
(Recording: Sony Columbia Masterworks MHK
63327/EMI Classics 46053)
Dedicated to Oistrakh (who plays it on our
recommended LP) and who helped fashion
the revisions after Shostakovich’s music was
48
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
90. Karlheinz Stockhausen: Stop (1964-1965).
Stockhausen (Recording: DG 2530442/
Stockhausen 4)
A student of Frank Martin and disciple of Olivier
Messiaen and John Cage, the German Stockhausen
was a pioneer of serial and electronic music. This
light, raucous, amusing piece for orchestra (divided
into six groups, which includes some amplified
instruments played back through loudspeakers)
was written, rather amazingly, in seven hours
during a seminar in Cologne! Stop represents the
Rubinstein, Wallenstein (Recording: Unicorn
UN1-75023/RCA CRCA 63032 Hybrid SACD)
A masterwork from the foremost twentiethcentury Polish composer. Szymanowski combined
late Romanticism (and its expressively chromatic
but tonal palette) with French impressionism,
Polish nationalism, and his own great gifts for
melody, harmony, and rhythm. Though he subtitled
it a Symphonie Concertante, Szymanowski’s
Fourth Symphony is an orchestral work in which
the piano plays a substantial solo part. Not as
densely or complexly scored as his three earlier
symphonies, the Fourth is exciting music written
with utter clarity and Szymanowski’s customary
beauty—and has, since its first performance, been
a popular success.
95. Karol Szymanowski: Violin Concerto No. 2
(1932-1933). Szeryng, Krenz (Recording: Philips
6500 421/Philips 464 979)
Szymanowski’s last major worked (composed
100 More Best-of-the-Century Classical Compositions
soon after the Fourth Symphony), the Second Violin
Concerto is, like the Fourth Symphony, simply
wonderful—lyrical, dance-like, and in its Harnasie-like
climax downright thrilling.
96. William Walton: Sonata for String Orchestra
(1971). Thompson (Recording: Channel Classics
CCS SA 23005 Hybrid SACD)†
Once regarded as “the next big thing” on the British
music scene, Walton was soon overshadowed by his
younger and more prolific rival, Benjamin Britten.
Nonetheless, he composed well-crafted music that
is unmistakably British in character and grandly
Romantic in style, all of it blessed with Walton’s
superb gift for instrumental writing. He orchestrated
this lovely Sonata for String Orchestra from his own
String Quartet in A minor.
97. William Walton: Viola Concerto (1929).
Primrose, Sargent/Kennedy, Previn (Recording:
Columbia Odyssey Y-35922/EMI Classics 67264)
Deep, soulful, and melodious, this early Walton piece
is widely considered one of the finest concertos of the
century; it was inspired by the First Violin Concerto of
Sergei Prokofiev (of whom Walton was an admirer).
98. Moshei Vainberg: Symphony No. 4 (1959).
Kondrashin (Recording: Melodiya ASD 2755/
Olympia OCD 622)
Vainberg was greatly influenced by Shostakovich,
who befriended him, when the Polish composer
escaped to the Soviet Union in advance of the Nazis,
(Shostakovich dedicated his Tenth String Quartet to
Vainberg.) Vainberg’s Fourth Symphony shows the
influence of the older composer clearly, without being
slavish or sacrificing its own considerable emotional
wallop or its roots in Jewish and Polish folk song.
99. Ralph Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a Theme
of Thomas Tallis (1910). Barbirolli (Recording:
Angel S36101/Angel 67264)
Vaughan Williams’ first masterpiece, the Fantasia
resulted in part from the work the British composer
took on as editor of The English Hymnal. The Hymnal’s
“Third Psalter Tune” (by the Elizabethan composer
Thomas Tallis) became the basis for this fantasy,
scored for string orchestra and string quartet. In
places, the composer manages to make the string
orchestra sound like a church organ, with the quartet
representing the swell box.
100. Akio Yashiro: Piano Concerto (1967). Iwaki/
Yuasa, Okada (Recording: Japanese Columbia
OS-10025-J/Naxos 8-555351)
A complex, exciting, finely crafted, Bartókian piano
concerto from one of Japan’s leading proponents of
musical modernism. TAS
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
49
Equipment
Reports
The
Ressurection
of a Classic
Stirling Broadcast LS3/5a V2 Loudspeaker
Paul Seydor
In their heads,
all but the
most fanatic
LS3/5a cultists
know the
object of their
passion is far
from perfect
“Wow, those things really sound rich. What are they?”—my wife Danielle
upon hearing Stirling Broadcast’s revival of the classic BBC LS3/5a minimonitor. Danielle’s no audiophile, but she knows what she likes. As her reaction to most speaker systems is an
understated but devastating, “Can you just hook the Quads back up again, please?” this qualifies as a rave. Not much
later our close friend Jennifer stopped by—like Danielle, no audiophile but a serious music lover who also loves my
Quads. Same response, even one of the same adjectives: “What a big rich sound!” When a speaker flips the skirts
of the two ladies, I pay attention.
Originally designed in the mid-seventies by the BBC as a small monitor for vans, control rooms, and other small
quarters, the LS3/5a had a remarkable run for well over two decades before production ceased in the late nineties
owing to KEF’s no longer finding it financially worthwhile to manufacture the T27 tweeter and B110 midrange/
woofer that formed the nucleus of the design. Although it was never intended for consumer use, audiophiles were
not long in discovering its virtues.
First and foremost is a midrange of quite extraordinary richness and presence, with an almost palpable thereness,
particularly on voices and acoustic instruments. Second is its sheer openness. At the time of its introduction in 1975,
only speakers without enclosures (Quads, KLH Nines, Magneplanars) exhibited greater freedom from boxiness.
Third is superb imaging and soundstaging. And fourth, rarely remarked upon but noticeable: a subjectively “bigger”
presentation than that of most mini-monitors or, to put it another way, less of the miniaturization effect. Soloists,
instrumentalists, jazz trios, string quartets, and so forth are projected with a realism that is still rather startling.
The reasons for this last, I’d guess, is because the LS3/5a was so cannily designed for its designated purpose that
on much music its dynamic and bass limitations pass almost unnoticed, which also obtains in domestic use given a
medium-size or smaller room and a not too heavy hand on the volume pot. To be sure, there is virtually no deep bass
and midbass is light, but a clever equalization circuit in the crossover that puts a slight boost (2–3dB) in the upper
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
51
Stirling Broadcast LS3/5a
V2 Loudspeaker
bass around 100–125Hz ensures that the
speaker never, ever sounds thin; on the
contrary, it is rather warm and full.
With the exception of the original
Quad ESL, no other speaker, perhaps
no other single audio product, has
acquired so enthusiastic, focused, and
loyal a following, and none so large or
vocal a one. As of 1998, when it ceased
production, some 100,000 pairs were in
circulation, with 3000 pairs sold in its last
year alone. The immediate result was that
the used price shot up and stayed there,
and a groundswell of clamor developed
for its return.
Doug Stirling’s U.K.-based Stirling
Broadcast was for many years involved
in servicing LS3/5as and even for a short
time manufacturing them under BBC
license. When the supply of KEF drivers
dried up for good, Stirling began to think
seriously about making the LS3/5a anew.
The first thing he did was hire Derek Hughes,
the son of Spendor’s Spencer Hughes and an
accomplished designer in his own right, who
has long experience manufacturing the original
at Spendor. (Derek is also auteur of the Spendor
S3/5, one of the best mini-monitors to follow
the LS3/5a.) When Spendor was bought out,
Hughes left and landed at Harbeth, where he
now works with another of the most talented
of current designers, Alan Shaw, designer of the
HL P3, another of the best post-LS3/5a minimonitors.
The whole story of its development, along
with the history of the LS3/5a, is too long to
retell here (see sidebar). The gist of it is that
while it was possible (though hardly cheap
or easy) to duplicate cabinet size, materials,
and construction, what was to be done about
drivers? Reputed to be a genius with crossovers,
Hughes developed a sophisticated network that
managed to make the new proprietary drivers,
sourced from SEAS and Scan Speak, mimic the
response of the original KEFs. But as they’re
not KEF originals, honest man that he is,
Stirling added a “V2” to his model designation,
even though his LS3/5a is fully licensed by the
BBC.
Drivers aren’t the only issue. Fourteen years
after the LS3/5a’s introduction, the BBC
discovered that a number of units already in
the field were failing to meet spec, while it was
getting increasingly difficult for the KEF drivers,
the woofer in particular, to be manufactured
within acceptable tolerances. The problem was
solved with a combination of matching drivers
by computer and a new crossover, resulting in
among other things an overall impedance drop
52
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
to 11 ohms from the original 15 and a second
pair of binding posts for biwring (thus also
providing an easy way to distinguish which side
of the dividing line a unit comes from).
Like classic car buffs, vintage equipment
cultists typically equate older/original with
better, and so it goes with the 15-ohm LS3/
5a, which many believe to be lusher, more
romantic, particularly on voices. But U.K. audio
writer Ken Kessler, who knows this speaker
and its iterations as well as anybody on earth
and a lot better than most, arranged a shootout
five years ago of ten LS3/5as from all vintages
and several important licensees. The
winner by a whisper was Harbeth’s,
not only an 11-ohm version but from
one of the later licensees. Chartwell’s
15-ohm version placed second. Stirling
opted for the 11-ohm version, not least
because it was both easier to manage
and far more reliable in ensuring unit-to
unit matching. However, as regards the
enclosure, Stirling returned to its origins:
the V2’s may be the only cabinets that
are an exact copy, including materials
and construction methods, of the
Kingswood Warren cabinets used for
the small number of very early LS3/5as
that were manufactured at the BBC’s
in-house R&D center, units that have
acquired near Arc of the Covenant status
among true believers.
So, is the Stirling Broadcast LS3/5a
V2 a true LS3/5a? The brief Derek
Hughes was handed was or should
have been impossible, yet the answer
has to be a triumphant “Yes!” Even
right out of the box the Stirlings are proud
descendants of their royal lineage—the tactile
midrange, the projected presence, the warm
upper bass, the stellar imaging, the deceptively
large presentation—they’re all back. One of
my longstanding references is “Do Nothing
Till You Hear from Me,” from Verve’s Ella
Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook,
which I have on both vinyl and CD. Though
mono only, this 1956 recording is one of the
most beautifully realistic I know. It opens with
Ella, holographically present front and center,
accompanied only by piano and guitar. At the
bridge, Ben Webster’s saxophone takes over, so
strong and vibrant that as it expands to fill the
room you can actually sense the studio walls.
Specs & Pricing
ACOUSTIC SOUNDS, INC.
P.O. Box 1905
Salina, Kansas
(888) 926-2564
acousticsounds.com
Type: Two-way infinite baffle
Driver complement: Stirling SB4424 bass/midrange
and SB4428 tweeter
Frequency response: 78Hz–20kHz
Sensitivity: 83dB
Nominal impedance: 11 ohms
Dimensions: 7.4" x 11" x 6.6"
Weight: 10.8 lbs.
Price: $1595/pair
ASSOCIATED EQUIPMENT
SME Model 30 turntable; Sumiko Celebration
and Dynavector 17D II cartridges; Phonomena
phonostage; Cayin Audio A-88T and Pathos Classic
One integrated amps, Quad 99 and 303 preamps;
MC 275 Series IV amplifier; Sony XA777ES SACD
player; McIntosh MDA1000 D/A converter, MCD
1000 transport, and 861 universal player; Quad
988, ESL-57, Harbeth Compact 7, and Spendor
SP3/5 speakers; Audio Physic Minos subwoofer;
Kimber Select and 8VS interconnects and speaker
cable
Stirling Broadcast LS3/5a
V2 Loudspeaker
He is followed by Stuff Smith’s languid,
soulful violin played in its lower register.
The Stirlings really strutted their stuff
with this recording, bringing all three
performers right into the room in bold,
vivid colors.
Since it is manufactured under BBC
license, theoretically at least the V2
is or should be interchangeable with
any other LS3/5a. As it’s been fifteen
years since I’ve listened to the originals
with any regularity, just to make sure I
wasn’t relying on audio memory alone,
I borrowed a pair of 15-ohm Spendor
units in near-mint condition. While they
do not sound identical to the V2s, being
smoother, mellower, and less aggressive
above 1kHz, they are close enough that
I am inclined to agree with Kessler that
the principal differences owe to break in.
Compare two dynamic speakers identical
in every particular except that one is twenty
years old, the other brand new, and the
differences will be of the same kind and
order as what I heard between the Spendor
and the Stirling.
The V2’s bass response is fractionally
more extended with a little better definition,
and it can play slightly louder, but it still won’t
satisfy anyone who dismisses the original
for its shortfalls in these areas. And while I
wouldn’t recommend it to music lovers whose
main listening is the standard symphonic
repertoire, one afternoon I did play Mahler’s
Second and was pleasantly surprised by how
effectively its gigantic proportions were
suggested—suggested, not reproduced.
But “improving” the design was not the
point. While in their heads all but the most
fanatic LS3/5a cultists know the object of
their passion is far from perfect, in their
hearts they still want it back with all its
virtues, flaws, and idiosyncrasies intact. This
means that transparency and resolution, while
excellent, are not of the first magnitude. It
also means that what in my view is the single
most controversial aspect of the original’s
tonal profile is still with us. Beginning at
200Hz the response gradually rises to a
2dB peak between 1kHz and 1.5kHz, after
which it drops precipitously back to the
midrange level until about 3.5kHz, where it
dips sharply at the crossover and comes back
up again. The aural consequence is a subtle
lightening of the overall tonal balance and
texture, as if everything were pitched slightly
higher with a correspondingly slight loss of
body in the lower midrange. Accompanying
this is a subtle nasality, rather as if vocalists
54
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
had caught a very mild head cold. Several
Sinatra recordings in particular revealed this.
Switch to Quad 57s or 63/988s, Spendor’s
SP1/2, or some of the current Harbeths,
and suddenly Ella’s chest tones are back in
their full throatiness, the lower register of
Ben Webster’s voluptuous tenor is as fat and
fleshy as I know it to be, and Stuff Smith’s
violin sounds less like a viola.
This response anomaly has been a constant
thorn in the LS3/5a’s development. One of the
reasons for the crossover redesign in the late
eighties is that owing to driver and materials
irregularities, that 1kHz–1.5kHz peak was
found to be up as much as 6dB in some
units, which is certainly unacceptable (see
Alan Shaw’s article, cited in the sidebar).
I asked Doug Stirling if he and Hughes
had considered designing it out entirely.
“If I recall correctly we did go down
that road with the early prototype, but it
immediately lost that LS3/5a sound,” he
replied. “We wanted the authentic LS3/5a
sound—and this meant ‘warts and all.’ ”
At only 2dB, the effects of the peak are
for the most part not only relatively benign
but for many constitute an attractive
coloration that is judged very musical.
Indeed, I wonder if it doesn’t account for
the speaker’s fabled “magical” presence.
That rise would, among its other effects,
subtly emphasize the first few harmonics
over the fundamentals, which would
almost by definition give the presentation a
somewhat richer than real character (hence
my wife’s and her friend’s reactions). And
the presence peak would explain the nasality.
Meanwhile, the sharp drop back to level by
1.5kHz keeps anything really nasty from
developing in the 2–4kHz range, where even
quite small elevations can be unpleasant.
One consequence of living with Quads
is to make you keenly aware of (not to say
impatient with) tonal anomalies. Still, I
wouldn’t want my reservations about those in
the LS3/5a to obscure my overall respect for
what is by any measure a landmark design in
the history of audio. Although it’s been well
over fifteen years since I’ve owned a pair, they
were once one of several valued references
and I’ve much enjoyed this recent reunion. To
give the little devils their due, that old black
magic that I once knew so well still weaves a
pretty bewitching spell. TAS
Other Gear &
Recommended Reading
As for other components, studiously avoid anything with excessive warmth, a lower midrange
trough, and especially a presence peak. Stands? The sturdier the better, but it’s far more important
to get the speakers at the right height of around 24–26 inches and fired straight ahead so that
you can sit about 30º off axis. This last is absolutely critical. The response is flattest at that angle;
on axis it’s too bright and the nasality gets worse.
Thanks to Robert E. Greene for his measurements (a very close match to those provided
by Stirling Broadcast), and to Ken Kessler for generously sharing his long experience with the
LS3/5a. Of course, neither of these gentlemen is responsible for any opinions I’ve expressed.
Those interested in pursuing the fascinating history of this remarkable speaker should start with
Trevor Butler’s “A Little Legend: the Story of the BBC LS3/5a” (HiFi News 1989, reprinted in Ken’s
anthology Sound Bites). Then move on to three additional HiFi News pieces: Ken’s own review of
the Stirling (September 2005), his “BBC LS3/5a Shoot Out” (June 2001), and Alan Shaw’s revealing
“Inside Story of the LS3/5a” (November 2004). The LS3/5a Web site is a garden of earthly delights
for enthusiasts: http://www.ls35a.com. PS
Michael Fremer’s
21st Century Vinyl DVD
Twenty-First
Century Fix
A DVD that audiophiles should own
Jonathan Valin
Despite occasional moments
where
the
slip
of
its
production budget shows,
Michael Fremer’s DVD 21st
Century Vinyl is a charming,
humorous, genuinely useful
introduction
to
tonearm
setup and its parameters, as
well as an affectionate tribute
to the medium that Fremer has
spent so much of his working
life writing about—THE 33rpm
long-playing record. In a little
over three hours of running time, The Man
from Stereophile takes us through the alignment
of cartridges and tonearms on Pro-Ject RM5, Rega P5, and VPI Scoutmaster turntables,
dispensing little nuggets of wisdom along the
way, including his belief that those folks who
tweak VTA on each and every record are
wasting time that could be better spent listening
to music—a point I wholeheartedly agree with.
(As Fremer points out it takes an enormous
movement of the tonearm to effect even a
single-degree change in VTA.)
Although watching someone set up a cartridge
and tonearm is just a little less nerve-wracking
than doing the job yourself, and is in many ways
something more easily written about than taped (as
Fremer himself concedes), if you are unfamiliar
with the procedures whereby pivoted arms are put
into proper tangency with record grooves you will
find 21st Century Vinyl very helpful. Even old hands
will enjoy the segment of the DVD devoted to
how records are “cut,” featuring Sterling Sound’s
George Marino and his state-of-the-art Neumann
lathe, and though a bit too complicated for video
(a DVD-ROM explains this and other topics in
greater detail), Fremer’s technique of adjusting
azimuth to minimize crosstalk and maximize stereo
separation—which involves the use of a voltmeter
and one of Wally Malewicz’s ingenious analog
accessories—is also interetsing.
Whether you’re new to analog or, like me, as
old as the hills and dales in my oldest records, 21st
Century Vinyl is a worthwhile purchase. TAS
21st Century Vinyl, Michael Fremer’s Practical
Guide to Turntable Set-Up. Fullscreen (1.33:1),
Color, Dolby Digital 2.0 (stereo). MF Productions.
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
55
Equipment
Report
Triangle Esprit Altea
Esw Loudspeaker
Further thoughts on a popular French design
Neil Gader
I
n the months following my review of the
Triangle Esprit Altea Es (Issue 156), Triangle
Electroacoustique announced some key
revisions to its popular mid-line offering. Given
that the Altea was already very good, I seized
the opportunity to check out the new “Esw”
version. Outwardly, this three-way floorstander
is nearly identical to its predecessor. However,
eagle eyes will notice the larger 80mm aluminum
dustcap of the woofer, a change said to optimize
the rigidity-to-mass ratio. Internally, there have
been key modifications to the driver’s coil. The
net result is said to be an additional 5Hz of bass
extension. While the midbass driver remains
unchanged, the tweeter’s phase plug has also
been redesigned, resonant dampening has been
increased, and there’s now damping behind the
tweeter dome to absorb backwaves.
The results are plain to hear. The Altea remains
a generous-sounding speaker. It’s musically lively
and dynamically engaging, with outstanding
extension and output. And it’s easy to drive. The
Esw version, however, polishes the strengths
of the original and ameliorates (although not
completely eliminates) its weaknesses. I was
initially satisfied by what I described as a “holistic
and balanced overall approach to the music.” But
I thought the speaker stalled a bit in the upper
mids, was a bit plummy in the low bass, and
beset with vestiges of port overhang. The quasihorn loading of the tweeter had a directivity that
narrowed the sweet spot and detracted from
driver integration and coherence.
Now, overall tonal balance has improved
substantially. The upper-midrange dip and treble
rise of the earlier version have been addressed to
a worthwhile extent. The soundstage sweetspot
has widened. Pitch definition is more precise
and low-frequency response has newfound
extension and a reduction of port boom. I
can’t vouch that it’s a “flat” five cycles deeper,
but qualitatively it’s better defined and viscerally
more exciting. As a result the Altea is more
rewarding to listen to when following low-level
midbass cues like the softly struck kickdrum
that emerges during Mary Chapin-Carpenter’s
“Quittin Time,” from Party Doll [Columbia].
Driver integration has improved and the
transition to the tweeter shows refinement,
but the mids still sit in the shade of the tweeter
a bit too much for my taste. However, my
ambivalence regarding the directivity of the
tweeter has mostly abated, as Triangle has
struck a more pleasing balance in this latest
incarnation. On the one hand, it creates a focus
and sensation of whipstick transient speed and
an immediacy that is addicting. On the other,
there is the sensation of a bit too much steering
of high-frequency information that leads to
a narrower horizontal window. For example,
piano and violin will at moments sound a bit
too brilliant, emphasizing attack and diminishing
the flow of harmonics that follow. And when
I hear harmonizing voices there’s an upperfrequency energy that tips the balance towards
great articulation but reduces the earthiness of
the performances.
The latest generation Triangle Altea is a
worthy heir to its predecessor. While some
speakers make you want to sink into the nearest
well-worn armchair and take a nap, the Altea
Esw reproduces music with the intention of
getting you up on your feet and onto a dance
floor. That’s my kind of speaker. And here’s the
kicker. Although “new and improved” suggests
a price increase, the Altea has actually dropped
a hundred bucks. Now that’s an improvement
you can not only hear but feel each time you
reach for your wallet. TAS
Specs & Pricing
EPITOME AV, INC.
210 Springview Commerce Drive, Unit 140
DeBary, Florida 32746
(321) 283-2266
epitomeav.com
triangle-fr.com
Driver complement: 1" titanium-dome tweeter,
6" cellulose-pulp midrange, 6" cellulose-pulp
woofer
Frequency response: 50Hz–20kHz
Sensitivity: 91dB
Impedance: 8 ohms
Recommended amplifier power: 50–300 watts
Dimensions: 7.9" x 39.8" x 13.4"
Weight: 44.1 lbs.
Price: $1499
ASSOCIATED EQUIPMENT
Sota Cosmos Series III turntable; SME V pick-up
arm; Shure V15VxMR cartridge; Sony DVP-9000ES
and Simaudio Moon Supernova disc players;
Plinius 9200 and NAD M3 integrated amplifiers;
TARA Labs RSC Air 1, Nordost Baldur and Blue
Heaven interconnects; Crystal Cable and Kimber
Kable BiFocal XL speaker cables; Wireworld Silver
Electra and Kimber Palladian power cords; Richard
Gray line conditioners; Sound Fusion Turntable
stand
Equipment
Report
Paradigm Reference Signature S8 Loudspeaker
An all-out effort from a traditionally value-oriented, price-conscious firm
Chris Martens
P
aradigm enjoys a solid reputation for
building modestly priced loudspeakers
that deliver strong performance for
the money, but that fact raises an important
question. What would happen if a traditionally
value-oriented, price-conscious firm such as
Paradigm put the design-pedal to the metal, so
to speak, to create a more expensive speaker?
The answer would be the $5700 Reference
Signature S8—by far the most ambitious and
best-sounding loudspeaker the Canadian firm
has yet produced.
The S8s are tall, deep, ported floorstanders
that incorporate four—count ’em—7" mineralfilled polypropylene woofers, a 7" mica-filled
polymer mid/bass driver with a phase plug, and a
1" waveguide-loaded, gold-anodized, aluminumdome tweeter with a phase-correction bar.
Curved-wall enclosures help minimize internal
reflections, while stunning veneered finishes help
the S8 look the part of a serious flagship. Eager
to find out if the speakers sounded as impressive
as they looked, I wired the S8s into my reference
system, and their sound did not disappoint. The
qualities that caught my ear from the outset were
their neutrality, resolving power, and killer bass.
When I say the S8s sound “neutral” I mean
that they show a remarkable top-to-bottom
evenness and freedom from coloration, so that
I came to prize these speakers for their essential
honesty. Paradigm claims the S8s maintain broad
frequency response within very tight tolerances
(41Hz–22kHz ±2dB) across a broad listening
window that extends up to 30º off axis, which
perhaps explains their well-balanced sound. Like
other highly accurate loudspeakers the S8s tend
to be sonic chameleons, so that they adopt as
their own the sonic characteristics of whatever
recordings they are fed. Put on a comparatively
bright and forward-sounding LP, such as Keith
Jarrett’s Solo-Concerts: Bremen, Lausanne [ECM],
and the speakers exhibit a brilliant, intensely
focused sound that places Jarrett at the front of
the stage. But put on a relatively dark and more
distant-sounding recording, such as the Schwarz/
Royal Liverpool performance of Hovhaness’
Symphony No. 66 “Hymn to Glacier Peak”
[Telarc], and the S8s emphasize the rich, warm
sonorities of the orchestra, and gives the listener
a medium-distant perspective on the very deep
soundstage. The point is that listeners can trust
58
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
the S8s to show how recordings actually sound,
whether for better or for worse.
Next, the S8s offered high levels of resolution
across the entire audio spectrum—a quality many
guest listeners commented upon. After sampling
a smorgasbord of well-recorded material through
the S8s, Arnie Williams, Managing Editor of our
sister magazine The Perfect Vision, turned to me
and said, “Those Paradigms don’t miss much,
do they?” And he’s right; the S8s make even the
subtlest variations in textures and timbres easy to
discern.
Lately, I’ve been sampling some lovely records
put out on the German label Stockfisch, and
one new favorite is the SACD just like love from
folksinger/songwriter Steve Strauss. I thought I
had a good handle on the luscious sound of this
album, but when I played the disc through the S8s
my jaw nearly hit the floor. The S8s immediately
began telling me things I didn’t know about
the recording. The song “Dead Man’s Handle”
features a haunting chorus where Strauss sings:
Burning both ends of the candle
Dipping deep into the midnight oil
Leaning heavy on a dead man’s handle
Lord take me home… to my baby.
From previous listening experiences I knew
something was special about the sound of the
chorus, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on
what it was until I heard the song through the S8s.
With unerring clarity, the S8s revealed that the
producer momentarily applied a dab of reverb to
emphasize the words “Lord take me home,” then
backed the reverb out to restore normal voicing
on the phrase “to my baby.” The S8s effortlessly
unveil these kinds of fleeting details, enabling
listeners to discern and then appreciate the finer
points of favorite recordings.
One minor shortcoming, however, is that the
S8 tweeters and mid/bass drivers occasionally
carve the leading edges of transients with just
slightly more force than is realistic. This isn’t
a glaring fault by any means, but it sometimes
creates the impression that the speakers are
trying too hard to impress listeners with their
transient speed and clarity. The good news,
though, is that appropriate cables can essentially
eliminate the problem. In particular, I discovered
that Furutech Alpha Reference interconnects
and speaker cables had the serendipitous
effect of maximizing both the S8s’ clarity and
smoothness at the same time. Because the S8s
make the effects even of minor system changes
apparent, prospective owners will want to choose
ancillary equipment carefully. Some might find
that the S8s supply more information than they
bargained for, where others—like me—will find
the speakers delightfully revealing.
The third characteristic that impressed veteran
and neophyte listeners alike was the S8s’ superb
bass. What made the S8s’ bass so good was the
way the speakers pulled together the four pillars
Paradigm Reference Signature
S8 Loudspeaker
of great low-frequency reproduction: speed,
power, extension, and control. Play a recording
with loud low-frequency content—a personal
favorite is the plunging synth-bass glissando
from “Root Beer” in Thomas Newman’s
American Beauty soundtrack [Dreamworks]—
and the S8s can be downright scary (the mind
reels at hearing low frequencies rendered so
powerfully and so cleanly). Yet the S8s also do
bass finesse with the best of them. I listened
to Stanley Clarke’s inspired acoustic bass
solo on “The Hilltop” from Chick Corea’s
My Spanish Heart LP [Polydor], and savored
the way the S8s let me hear not only Clarke’s
blinding fingering speed, but also his dead-on
intonation and confident, sure-handed touch
on the fingerboard. Paradigm says the S8s’ bass
extends solidly to 28Hz (-3dB), though I found
the speaker offered at least some usable output
below that frequency. Nevertheless, extreme
low-frequency aficionados might want a sub
to extend bass response to 20Hz or lower.
Paradigm offers a Signature subwoofer for that
purpose, but I think most listeners would be
satisfied if not thrilled by what the S8s do on
their own.
The only area where I felt the S8s did not live
up to their full potential was imaging. Specifically,
I heard occasional small midrange and treble
discontinuities that drew my attention to the
faces of the speakers, temporarily disrupting
their otherwise three-dimensional sound. What
caused these discontinuities? I speculate that
they result from low-level interactions between
the S8’s drivers and grilles—grilles Paradigm
says should always be kept in place. Paradigm
uses an unusual isolation mounting system for
its drivers, one upshot of which is that thick
metal driver-frames protrude about ¼" forward
from the baffle surface. To compensate,
Paradigm provides “anti-edge-diffraction” grille
frames that fill the gaps between and around the
drivers, presenting a gently curved front surface
free of sharp edges that could cause diffraction.
On paper the frames seem like a good idea, but I
can’t help but wonder whether, in practice, they
might be holding the S8s back from realizing
even greater potential.
The Reference Signature S8s are beautifully
made, big-hearted loudspeakers whose
sophisticated, high-resolution sound makes
them unequivocal performance leaders in their
class. More than that, the S8s are so good in so
many different areas that they put significant
pressure on many speakers in the $6k–10k/
pair price range. But most of all the S8s make
listening to music a rich feast for both the heart
and mind, which is precisely what fine high-end
loudspeakers ought to do. TAS
Specs & Pricing
Paradigm Electronics Inc.
205 Annagem Blvd.
Missassauga, Ontario
Canada L5T 2V1
(905) 632-0180
www.paradigm.com
Type: Three-way floorstanding
Driver complement: Four 7" mineral-filled
polypropylene woofers; one 7" mica-fill
polymer mid/bass driver; one 1" gold-anodized
aluminum-dome tweeter
Sensitivity: 91dB in room/88dB anechoic (1W/1m)
Impedance: 8 ohms
Recommended amplifier power: 15–500 Watts
Dimensions: 8.25" x 48.5" x 20.5"
Weight: 100 lbs.
Price: $5700-$6500 (depending on finish)
ASSOCIATED EQUIPMENT
Wilson Benesch Full Circle analog system,
Musical Surroundings Phonomena phonostage,
Musical Fidelity Tri-Vista SACD player and
kW500 integrated amplifier, Rogue Audio
Metic preamplifier, NuForce P-8 preamplifier
and Reference 9 Special Edition monoblocks,
Audio Research 300.2 power amplifiers,
Magnepan MG1.6QR and Wilson Benesch Curve
loudspeakers, Dynaudio Contour S R/SUB250
satellite/subwoofer system, RGPC 1200S power
conditioner, Furutech and Cardas cables, RPG and
Auralex room treatments
The qualities that caught my ear from the
outset were the S8s’ neutrality, resolving
power, and killer bass
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
59
Equipment
Report
Vienna Acoustics Beethoven
Baby Grand Loudspeaker
From Austria, a speaker to grow on
Sallie Reynolds
I
’ve recently found a number of moderately
priced loudspeakers that qualify as
bargains—ones that allow you to grow
a system around them, upgrading other
components before you reach the speakers’
limits. The reference in my small room remains
the $3000 Spendor S8e. In my large room, it’s
the $4300 Acoustic Zen Adagio. Both are
clean, transparent, musically rich, and balanced
across the audible spectrum.
Though rare, such speakers exist at most
price points. Last year, I reviewed a sweet pair
that cost under $3000—the Vienna Acoustics
Mozarts. They were fine performers, small
and pretty, and had some interesting design
elements. They fairly shone in a small system
that was clean and accurate. Definitely units to
grow on.
Now comes Mozart’s bigger brother, the
Beethoven Baby Grand. While the Mozart is a
2.5-way design, the Baby Grand is a three-way.
To my ears, the Baby Grand has much of the
same sound I liked in the Mozarts: clarity across
the board, the mesmerizing kind that pulls
you into diverse recording spaces and opens
up the stage; sweet, lovely high frequencies—
where high percussion instruments sing, ring,
tingle, and finally decay into velvety silence;
and a midrange that, even more adeptly than
their smaller siblings, untangles complexities,
even on thick orchestral tuttis. You can hear
instrumental voices astonishingly clearly,
and lyrics, even from a chorus, cleanly and
vibrantly. Yet the Beethovens avoid that clinical
über-clarity that unravels music into strands of
achingly clear dry voices twisted into a noose.
At $3500 the Baby Grand competes in
a different category from the Mozart. And
because it, too, reaches beyond its rank, you’ll
need a more highly resolving system to bring
out its potential. Are they speakers to grow on?
I set the Baby Grands up in my large system
and auditioned them using a number of fine
recordings, including one of a fantastic singer
who has taken the European concert circuit
by storm, Mariza. On Fado Em Mim [Times
Square Records], her voice is such that you
could fall in love with it over a car radio.
62
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
With extraordinary dynamics and power, she
sings fado—melancholy Portuguese songs of
“fate” and nostalgia for places and loves that
exist only in our desires. She phrases lines as
heart-achingly as Edith Piaf ever did. Mariza’s
dynamics, forceful and delicate at the same
time, require a system that can handle power
and subtlety at once. The Beethovens, along
with the Musical Fidelity kW500 amplifier and
A5 CD player, sailed through with ease.
On Lou Harrison’s Gamelan Music [Music
Masters Classics], the Baby Grands brought out
the various voices of the gamelan “orchestra”
with bell-like clarity—the high percussion
ringing and fine, the low gongs thundering
and reverberant. Harrison’s small melodies
combine the alien and the familiar, drawing
you into a strange journey on a little boat
of chords and progressions lying just within
reach of our Western ears and expectations.
Again, small and large dynamics married well,
and the Beethovens unveiled subtle dynamics
within the soundfield without breaking the ties
between instrumental lines, allowing the
full orchestra to shine.
On The Great Organ at St. Mary’s Cathedral
[Reference Recordings], the Beethovens’
Specs & Pricing
SUMIKO
2431 Fifth Street
Berkeley, California 94710
(510) 843-4500
sumikoaudio.net
vienna-acoustics.com
Type: Three-way floorstanding loudspeaker
Driver complement: Two 6" woofers; one 6" midrange driver, one 1" silk-dome tweeter
Frequency response: 30Hz–22kHz
Sensitivity: 91dB
Impedance: 4 ohms
Recommended Power: 40–250 Watts
Dimensions: 6.7" x 38.9" x 12.9"
Weight: 65 lbs.
Price: $3500
ASSOCIATED EQUIPMENT
Musical Fidelity kW500 integrated amp and A5
CD player; Primare 130 integrated amp; Spendor
S8e and Acoustic Zen Adagio loudspeakers; REL
Q-108E subwoofer; Nordost Heimdall wiring;
Acoustic Zen Hologram II speaker cable, Absolute
interconnects, Tsunami II and Gargantua II power
cords
swelling lows can be felt in your gut, as they
should. With the addition of a REL Q108
subwoofer, those lows were room-filling
yet did not lose their musicality. And the
Beethovens perused the organ’s upper ranks,
so small and exquisite, as delicately as if
turning pages of whisper-thin papyrus. The
overall experience was deliciously musical
and sweet.
Then I put the Acoustic Zens back in the
system, and heard the “wholeness” of music
I had forgotten while lost in the clarity of the
Beethovens. I am talking about the feel, the
“presence” of a musical event. The Acoustic
Zens and the Spendors have it, even though the
Spendors lack the Beethovens’ pure extension
at the frequency extremes, and the fullness
of the Adagios sometimes veils the smallest
sounds. (This last may be a generic tradeoff
until you hit multi-driver behemoths.)
“Wholeness,” or “continuity,” means to
me that waterfall, that living “breath,” of
music—a coherent sense of life that breaks
up whenever any one element stands out.
The refined bits are glorious; they grab you.
You listen to a singer’s phrasing, the melodic
growl of the lowest orchestral instruments
that opens Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the
Left Hand [Chandos], or the rollicking,
tender cimbalom on Kodály’s Háry János
Suite [Mercury]. But without the complete
wash of sound behind the details, some of us
find ourselves outside the music looking in.
One listener said, “I’d be happy listening to
the Beethovens forever, if I hadn’t heard the
Acoustic Zen Adagios first.”
The Baby Grands
were sparkling and
completely seductive
To test-run both speakers (with and
without subwoofer) on this one characteristic,
I listened closely to orchestral CDs. On
McPhee’s Tabuh-Tabuhan [Mercury], a
recording that also includes Roger Sessions’
Black Maskers and works of Virgil Thomson,
the Beethovens’ specificity made McPhee’s
Western instrumental recreation of the
gamelan more pleasing and comprehensible
than did the Adagios’ fuller sound. But
on Sessions’ difficult suite, I needed the
rich wash of the whole to avoid feeling
discombobulated by his individual, rather
frenetic, lines. Thomson came through
beautifully on both, his lilting melodic
phrases a bit richer on the Adagios, a fraction
clearer on the Baby Grands (a sweet flute solo
in Symphony on a Hymn Tune melted my very
bones). On the Háry János, the Baby Grands
were sparkling and completely seductive;
the Adagios made it all marginally, almost
indescribably “darker,” yet more alive, as
you’d hear it in a concert hall (where you may
miss some small details within the glorious
whole). On both, the low lows were clean
and powerful—grandly palpable. I liked the
Beethovens with the subwoofer in, but subs
don’t fill in the “gestalt” of music.
Despite its imperfections, the Vienna
Acoustics Beethoven Baby Grand is the best
loudspeaker I’ve heard at this price. And yes,
until you’re ready to make a big leap forward,
one to grow on. TAS
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
63
Equipment
Report
Boulder 850 Monoblock Amplifier
Perfecting the technique of “deep focus”
Max Shepherd
W
hile filming Citizen Kane
in 1941, legendary
cinematographer
Gregg Toland first perfected the
technique called “deep focus.” His
goal was to shoot the film in such
a way that the audience would feel
like it was looking at reality rather
than a movie. Shooting with a much
smaller aperture setting than had
previously been used and hundreds
of times more illumination, he was
able to photograph the set in such a
way that the camera captured space
the way the human eye does, i.e.,
with all of the objects in the scene,
whether in the foreground or in the
background, simultaneously in focus, thus the
term “deep focus.” Toland’s work revolutionized
cinematography forever.
Boulder Amplifiers, while not revolutionizing
audio forever, has nonetheless achieved an
equally dramatic “deep focus” effect with its
new entry-level (for Boulder) 850 monoblock
amps. The $10,000/pair 850s recreate the
musical reality of a performance by bringing all
the performers, whether in the foreground or
at the back recesses of soundstage, into sharp
focus. Where Toland achieved his effects by
using lens settings and illumination, the Boulder
850 amps achieve theirs through remarkable
details, dynamics, and resolution.
Unlike a movie where the camera records
the image of a set filled with props and people,
an audio system has to create an image in the
listener’s mind of an unseen performance space.
And this the Boulder does in spades. The 850s
consistently created a soundstage that wrapped
around my ears and dissolved the walls of my
listening room. As I noted at one point in my
audition, “the soundstage ate my speakers
and then it ate my room.” Not only was the
soundstage wide and tall, it was, depending on
the piece, deeper than I have ever before heard
in my listening room.
But this cavernous, black soundstage was
only one aspect of the overriding characteristic
of the 850s: its ability to present more musical
information more realistically than my reference
system ever did before. With the 850s, the way
Jennifer Warnes used her breath to create
phrasing on Famous Blue Raincoat [AriolaEurodisc] was more apparent, better conveying
the emotional content of the song. The 850s
also consistently revealed more of the timbre
of instruments. For example, the shimmer
of the cymbal in Keith Jarrett’s Out of Towners
[ECM] radiated out like the rings of Saturn. The
clarinet in Yo Yo Ma’s Obrigado Brazil [Sony] had
more apparent woodiness and, thus, threedimensionality. The soundboards of pianos
sang, stretching out the decay of the notes and
chords that hung in the air until they became
mere whispers. And more importantly, pianos
sounded like pianos, which I find to be a good
test of any system.
The 850s also excelled at placing performers
correctly within its large, black soundstage,
highlighting their performances by surrounding
each player with a greater sense of air. For
example, the 850s clearly separated the members
of the Keith Jarrett Trio and Eva Cassidy’s
Band in Live at Blues Alley [Blix], locating each
performer in three-dimensional space and
eliminating any sense of congestion in the
middle of the soundstage.
In this same way, the 850s teased out each
line of a musical performance—an attribute
most noticeable on large orchestral pieces. For
example, on track six of Obrigado Brazil there
is a passage where a violin is playing ever so
faintly near the top of its range while the cello
and other instruments are playing much more
robustly in the foreground. The 850s never lost
track of that violin’s voice or of the musical
phrase it was playing. This resolution was also
apparent with Pierre Fournier’s reading of the
Dvorák Cello Concerto [DG], where the oboe is
playing quietly toward the back of the orchestra.
With the 850s, the oboe’s voice was never lost
nor its tonality diminished. It was presented
with the same clarity and accuracy as the louder
instruments in the foreground. In fact with the
850s it was possible to shift one’s attention to any
instrument playing in the orchestra or group, to
mentally wander around the soundstage so to
speak, and stop and enjoy a given instrument
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
65
Boulder 850 Monoblock
Amplifier
wherever it was located in the soundstage. It was
this aspect of the 850s’ performance that created
the sense of “deep focus.”
Indeed the 850s’ resolution was really its
outstanding attribute, because when an amp is
able to preserve low-level detail, all aspects of
the performance are enhanced. The soundstage
is more three-dimensional, instruments are
more realistic in timbre, lyrics are better
articulated, vocals are more life-like, and the
music is ultimately much more engaging. While
it is a small thing, being able to hear Jacqueline
du Pré’s fingers rocking on the strings of her
cello while her bow pushed against the strings’
resistance greatly increased my enjoyment of
and engagement with her version of Dvorák’s
Cello Concerto on EMI.
The ability of these amps to provide the
listener with more, and more realistic, musical
information extended to the low frequencies.
Bass passages were consistently clean, taut,
and weighty. In addition, the 850s’ low-level
resolution meant that they did not cut off the
tails of decaying notes. Bass drum notes, for
example, just hung in the air until they drifted
away. Treble was airy and accurate without glare.
And transients were fast and clean. Overall, the
850’s were simply very musical.
I really enjoyed the Boulder 850 amps. They
brought a new level of realism to my system.
And while they are not cheap at $10,000, they are
certainly worth considering if you’re shopping in
this price range. TAS
The Technical Scoop
Boulder’s 850 amplifier is relatively small, just 8.5" wide, and weighs only about 30 pounds.
Though the design is simpler and hence less costly than Boulder’s other efforts, the front plate,
top cover, and rear plate are all made of machined aluminum. The appearance of the 850 is
rather utilitarian, resembling an elongated shoebox with a perforated side. However, Boulder
used the same feet on the 850 that it uses on all of its 1000 series products (the feet are made
of constrained-layer dampening materials), and, according to Boulder, no additional isolation
should be necessary.
The 850 has a three-stage, balanced, instrumentation-style input section. This reputedly
lowers noise and reduces distortion while at the same time providing a benign load to any
preamp or source driving the amp. The amp is entirely linear and uses no switching circuits,
either in the power supply or the output section.
Power output is rated at 200 watts into 8 ohms. The 850 has a maximum output power of
800W. AC power is filtered internally and power-supply common-mode rejection is extremely
high to keep power clean, quiet, and optimized. The amplifier is fully protected from overvoltages, current and voltage clipping, DC, under-voltages, thermal overload, and shorted
outputs.
The output section is Class AB, using an active bias system: The amplifier detects the load and
current draw at the outputs and ramps up bias to match the outputs section’s needs accordingly.
The bias then slowly ramps down over a period of 30 seconds unless another peak is detected
and the bias must be kicked up again. Biasing is not based on the input signal, as it is more
important to know what the output section of the amp is doing than what the preamp is
passing along. This keeps the amp running as efficiently as possible and holds generated and
radiated heat to a minimum. Multiple smaller filter capacitors are used (instead of two large
ones) to lower power-supply impedance. Multiple microcircuit gain stages are also used, with
the majority of the gain being handled by the first stage to maximize bandwidth.
As much of the amplifier’s design as possible was completed with surface-mount parts.
This eliminates lead inductance and reduces the overall size of the circuitry, thus reducing
capacitance, increasing board-layout efficiency, lowering noise, and allowing for four-layer
circuit-board construction. Full external power control (standby/on) by means of Boulderlink or
12V trigger in custom installation applications is possible. MS
Specs &
Pricing
BOULDER AMPLIFIERS
3235 Prairie Avenue
Boulder, Colorado 80301
(303) 449-8220, ext. 101
[email protected]
Power output: 200Wpc, 8 ohms
Number and type of audio inputs: One XLRbalanced
Dimensions: 8.5" x 7.38" x 15.25"
Weight: 30 lbs.
Price: $10,000
ASSOCIATED EQUIPMENT
Esoteric DV-50 digital sources (modified by
the Upgrade Company); Aesthetix Calypso
preamp; McIntosh MC 402 amplifier; Shunyata
Hydra 8 line conditioner; Shunyata Aires
Interconnects; Gemini speaker cables, and
Anaconda power cords; modified Salamander
rack
Equipment
Report
Focus Audio Master 3 Loudspeaker
Can a handsome Canadian contender woo an audiophile’s heart?
Sue Kraft
A
friend recently complained that
I get so excited about every new
component to come along that
it’s almost as if I’ve never heard a decent
stereo before. My first thought was
to suggest that this person complain
instead to the TAS editors for sending
me so much cool stuff to review. But
then I decided I could do one better—
invite my friend over for a listen to the
Focus Audio Master 3 loudspeaker
and see if he could come up with a
reason why I shouldn’t be excited.
It didn’t take but a few minutes for
my surprised visitor to admit that
the Master 3 was, indeed, one of the
most well-balanced and musically
expressive loudspeakers he’d ever
heard. With no apologies for my
enthusiasm, I’d have to agree.
In addition, the Focus Master 3
is simply a gorgeous speaker, with
the kind of impeccable build-quality
that will withstand the scrutiny of
even the pickiest among us. (As well
it should, with a window sticker of
$20,870 per pair.) The piano-black
finish couldn’t be any sexier than a
man in uniform, and I love the midheight, easy-access silver/rhodium biwire binding posts ’round back. When
it comes to eye-candy, these speakers
are seriously hot.
Standing five feet tall and weighing in
at 175 pounds each, these beauties can’t
be spirited into the house unnoticed, but
once installed, the slim profile and small
footprint of the Master 3s make them less
imposing than you might think. While my
14-foot by 20-foot main listening room
seemed a perfect fit for this speaker, a
slightly smaller space might work just as
well. But don’t hold me to that, as I’ve not
tried it. I’m just guessing based on a bottom
end that never showed the slightest hint
of bloat or flab, and probably wouldn’t
overwhelm given a few less feet of width or
length to work with.
Before doing any serious listening to the
Master 3, I’d recommend allowing plenty of
68
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
break-in time and installing the spikes. Fresh
out of the box and without being anchored to
the floor, the imaging of this speaker leaves a
lot to be desired. A week or so of 24/7 playing
time helped, but it wasn’t until I enlisted the aid
of a friend to help me get the spikes in place
that the imaging finally came around. The
Master 3 is voiced with the spikes installed,
so if you hear a pair that doesn’t sound quite
right, before passing judgment make sure it is
properly anchored. The improvement is quite
dramatic.
Once broken in, nailed down, juiced up,
and bi-wired with the Vitus Audio Andromeda
speaker cables, I heard what has to be among
the most beautifully lush and fleshed-out, lifesized and inviting midranges in all of high-end
audio. Although I’d highly recommend the
bi-wiring part, you might need to find a more
affordable cable than the Andromeda at $5865
per 2.5m pair. I doubt many in this hobby have
pockets that deep—and if you do, and are
currently single, give me a call. All I can say
is that this stuff is, by far, the most seductive
wire I’ve ever heard. I call it the no-going-back
cable that unfortunately, has to go back as I
can’t afford it. It will be downright painful to
part with. But thanks anyway to Kam at Focus
Audio for allowing me to give it a try.
Getting back to the Master 3, image lines
weren’t necessarily soft, but perhaps just
a bit diffuse, leaning this speaker towards
the warmer, more forgiving side versus the
similarly priced B&W 800D. In a side-by-side
comparison, the superior accuracy of the 800D
was most evident in the upper frequencies.
When I listened to a 20-bit remaster of Count
Basie’s “Freckle Face,” from Basie Big Band
[Pablo], percussive brush strokes were a bit
slurred and hazy through the Master 3. The
800D’s improved clarity, focus, and extension
on top were able to more accurately (and
remarkably) capture and articulate the essence
of a brush having individual wires or strands.
And while the trumpet and trombones may
have been smoother via the Master 3, next to
the 800D they lacked a bit of the leading edge
luster that makes a horn sound like a horn.
In defense of the Master 3 (which I really
like), images were by no means homogenized
Focus Audio Master 3
Loudspeaker
Inside the Master 3
The Master 3 is the entry level of Focus Audio’s Master Series
lineup. The flagship Master 2 tips the scales at over 220 pounds
and sports a pair of 11" Nomex/Kevlar Hexacone bass drivers
versus the dual 9" units of the Master 3. According to Focus
Audio designer Kam Leung, this is the main difference between
the two models. I was curious as to the reason for the use of
dual tweeters, as I believe only one other company (Dynaudio)
uses this configuration. Kam was quite helpful in answering all
my questions, so I’ll let him explain in his own words: “One of
the significant configurations of the design is to have double
tweeters. What I have found is that most of the large speaker
systems have very good dynamics in the midrange and bass, but
lack the piercing force at live performance levels for the high
frequencies. With a double-tweeter configuration, the voicecoil of the tweeter travels less distance and stays well within
the linear portion of the magnetic field. The result will be much
less distortion and more dynamic headroom (less stress). This is
essential for accurately portraying micro and macrodynamics. The
tweeter we are using is a special version of the Revelator from
Scanspeak of Denmark, known for its detail and musicality.”
Rounding out the driver complement are two 5.5" Nomex/
Kevlar Hexacone midrange drivers from Eton of Germany. The
heat pipe (similar to a phase plug) is an exclusive Focus Audio
design built by Eton to enhance the linearity and openness of
the midrange presentation. Crossover components have been
selected by audition. The capacitors are high-current Multicaps,
and the inductors heavy-gauge Litz-wound air coils. They are
soldered point-to-point using silver-content solder and connected
to the drivers with silver wiring. The cabinet is internally braced
to reduce resonance, and all acoustic-damping materials are
carefully selected and positioned for optimum sound quality. SK
Specs & Pricing
FOCUS AUDIO
43 Riviera Drive Unit #10
Markham, Ontario
Canada L3R 5J6
(905) 415-8773
[email protected]
focusaudio.ca
Type: Three-way bass reflex floorstanding
loudspeaker
Driver complement: Two 1" Revelator soft-dome
tweeters; two 5.5" Nomex/Kevlar Hexacone
midrange; two 9" Nomex/Kevlar Hexacone
woofers
Frequency response: 25Hz–25kHz
Sensitivity: 92dB
Nominal impedance: 4 ohms
Dimensions: 11" x 64" x 17.5"
Weight: 175 lbs.
Price: $20,870
7070 October
November
2006
2006
TheThe
Absolute
Absolute
Sound
Sound
ASSOCIATED EQUIPMENT
Meridian 808, G08, and Marantz PMD-320 CD
players; AVA Ultra DAC; Meridian G02, Sonic
Euphoria passive, and AVA Ultra preamps;
Meridian G57, Atma-Sphere Novacron OTL, and
McCormack DNA-500 amps; Coincident Super
Eclipse, Von Schweikert VR4jr, and B&W 800D and
704 loudspeakers; Coincident TRS, Paul Speltz anticable, Harmonic Tech speaker cable, Harmonic
Tech, Audio Magic interconnects; Cardas RCA
to XLR adapters; Elrod, JPS power cords; Bright
Star Audio, Symposium Svelte shelves; Chang
Lightspeed Encounter, PS Audio Ultimate outlet;
Echo Busters, ASC room treatment
or run together. I lived with this speaker
for nearly two months and enjoyed every
minute. But I knew before I even did the
comparison that the pinpoint accuracy of
the 800D would be tough to beat—and I
was right. On the very complex Sheffield
Labs CD The Usual Suspects, images were
impressively life-sized and sufficiently wellplaced with the Master 3. But again, next to
the 800D, the superior specificity of images
had each note and instrument literally
“popping” from the soundstage. And I don’t
mean “popping” as in being forward. I mean
“popping” as in being so precise and distinct
as to immediately catch the ear. The Master
3 does have a delightfully spacious, roomenveloping presentation that can actually be
quite intoxicating at times. But the tradeoff
here is looser imaging, and a speaker that
doesn’t exhibit the same exemplary control
as the B&W 800D.
In addition to its luscious midrange,
there were a host of other qualities I found
almost as alluring, including a broad, floorto-ceiling soundstage, vigorous dynamics,
scads of detail, superb linearity, and excellent
top-to-bottom tonal balance. And did I
mention the flab-free and fleet-footed bass
response? Listening to one of my longtime
favorite Telarc discs, Pomp & Pizazz, I had
to pop the hood on the McCormack DNA500 amp to see if there might be a nitrous
bottle hidden inside. And what’s really cool
is that the Master 3 “comes to life” at very
reasonable volume levels—a definite plus for
those who have to worry about disturbing
the neighbors. You wouldn’t expect such a
large speaker to be so lively at lower volumes
or disappear so easily, throwing a massive
and three-dimensional soundstage.
While the McCormack DNA-500 had
a bit more speed and bass extension—and
isn’t exactly chopped liver when it comes to
smoothness and musicality, either—switching
to the Levinson Nº436 monoblocks I have
in house for review brought the Master 3 to
absolute ecstasy, with a level of refinement
and sophistication seldom heard in the world
of transistors. Listening to my latest obsessive
favorite, the self-titled CD from Nickel Creek
[Sugar Hill Records], the endless layering and
beautifully sculpted images were enough to
give me a case of the warm fuzzies. I can
recall thinking on more than one occasion
during this review that I didn’t think solidstate could get any better.
While the Master 3 may not possess the
hallmark imaging of a speaker like the B&W
800D, I still have a hard time finding fault,
as its performance couldn’t have been better
balanced or more sonically pleasing. Once the
speaker is properly set up and paired with the
right components, that coveted midrangeto-die-for awaits, along with your very own
“wall of sound” and a fleet-footedness to
rival the best. Never mind the drop-dead
gorgeous looks and meticulous build-quality
of this speaker. At $20k we’re talking some
serious money, but at least in my view, this
is a serious speaker that justifies the asking
price. My audiophile cohort actually summed
it up quite well after his listening session that
day when he said, “What more could you ask
for?” This one will be a real heartbreaker—
and backbreaker—to return. TAS
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
71
Spectron
Musician III
Kharma
MP150
Rowland
201
72
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
Red Dragon
Leviathan
Cover Story
CIAudio
D-200
250
Watts
Cary Audio
A 306
13
Pounds
Is Class D the
Future
of High-End
NuForce
Reference 9 SE
Amplification?
ARC
300.2
Robert Harley, Neil Gader, Wayne Garcia, Chris Martens, Jonathan Valin • Photography by Adam Voorhes
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
73
Is Class D the Future of High-End Amplification?
O
nce relegated to subwoofer amplifiers and cheap home-theater-in-abox units, Class D power amplifiers are starting to be taken seriously
by high-end audio designers. The introduction of Class D amplifiers
from some of the high-end’s preeminent marques, such as Audio
Research and Jeff Rowland Design, lends credibility to
the technology—Class D is no longer just the province of inexpensive Chinesemade products.
But is Class D technology really up to the standards of high-end audio?
Can these diminutive little powerhouses deliver the musical performance of
conventional linear amplifiers? Are we trading away sound quality for the lure of
efficiency, low heat dissipation, and a small form-factor?
To examine this potentially revolutionary technology in depth, we’ve prepared
this special report. Our coverage begins with a technology primer, followed by
a Roundtable discussion between some of today’s most respected amplifier
designers—who come down on both sides of the issue. We continue with
reviews of eight Class D amplifiers accompanied by comments by other reviewers,
a candid discussion among TAS’s senior editors that sums up their impressions
of Class D technology, and, finally, a table showing which Class D amplifiers are
currently on the market. Robert Harley
Class D Power Amplifiers:
A Technology Primer
Robert Harley
T
he advantages of Class D power amplifiers are well known.
They are small and lightweight, produce virtually no heat,
have very high output, and are relatively inexpensive. But just
how do these miniature marvels deliver so much power from a bricksized chassis that you can hold in the palm of your hand?
Class D power amplifiers operate in a completely different way
than the traditional power amplifiers in use since the early 1900s.
The conventional “linear” amplifier with which we’re all familiar has
two “classes” of operation, A and B, with a third class (AB) a hybrid
of the two.
Let’s take Class A first. In a Class A amplifier, a transistor (or tube)
amplifies the entire musical waveform. The output transistor acts as
a continuously variable valve that partially “opens” and “closes” to
allow current to flow to the speaker. Specifically, a small, continuously
variable signal at the input (the low-level audio signal) acts as the
control on this valve that modulates a large current flow through the
loudspeaker. Vacuum tubes are known as “valves” in other parts of
the world for good reason.
A pure Class A power amplifier is large, heavy, and requires
massive heatsinking relative to its output power. It consumes almost
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November 2006
The Absolute Sound
as much power from the wall outlet at idle as it does at full power.
A single-ended triode (SET) amp is an example of pure Class A
operation. Some Class A amplifiers use two output devices, one of
which amplifies the mirror image of the signal. This is called “pushpull” operation. In push-pull Class A, both output devices are active
for the whole signal. You can think of a push-pull amplifier as a
two-man saw. In Class A, while one is pulling, the other helps by
pushing.
Class B operation uses “complementary pairs” of transistors or
tubes, with one transistor handling one half of the musical waveform
and the other transistor amplifying the other half of the waveform.
Class B always works in push-pull mode because when one of the
two transistors is off, the other must take over. This is like a two-man
saw where, while one man is pulling, the other takes his hands off
the saw. Another way to consider Class B operation is one transistor
“handing off ” the audio signal to its partner at the waveform’s zerocrossing point.
Nearly all power-amplifier output stages operate as a hybrid of
Class A and Class B, creating the familiar Class AB designation. A
Class AB amplifier operates in Class A mode for the first few watts
Is Class D the Future of High-End Amplification?
of its output power, and then switches to Class B mode. The more
power the amplifier can produce in Class A before switching to Class
B, the hotter it runs and the more heatsinking it needs.
Both Class A and Class B operation are extremely inefficient
(especially Class A). Most of the power consumed is wasted as heat.
In a typical Class AB amplifier, 80% of the power pulled from
your wall outlet is turned into heat and only 20% into output
power to drive the loudspeakers (when the amplifier is putting
out 25% of its maximum power). Even when operating at
maximum output power (the most efficient condition), a Class
AB amplifier’s efficiency is less than 60%. A pure Class A design
has an overall efficiency in practice of perhaps 10%.
Class D amplifiers work in an entirely different way.
The output transistors don’t partially open and close in a
continuously variable manner; they switch fully on or fully
off. This is why Class D amplifiers are also called “switching”
amplifiers. Although it may seem intuitive that devices operating
in an on/off mode are digital, Class D amplifiers are actually
purely analog in nature. Many people mistakenly refer to Class
D amplifiers as “digital,” or even believe that the “D” in “Class
D” signifies digital operation. They are in fact analog, even
though some use digital circuitry in the process of computing
the switch-control signal.
This method of converting a low-level audio signal into a
high-level signal with power-switching transistors that can drive
loudspeakers is extremely efficient. If a Class AB amplifier is
generally about 25% efficient (25% of the power it consumes is
delivered to the loudspeaker), Class D amplifiers are generally 90%
So Class D is highly efficient. But
what about that business of chopping
up the musical waveform? How can
transistors that are turning fully on
and fully off reproduce a continuous
analog waveform? Isn’t that like trying
to turn hamburger back into steak?
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November 2006
The Absolute Sound
(or more) efficient. This dramatically reduces the need for
huge power transformers, banks of output transistors, and
huge extruded aluminum heatsinks. These are the largest,
heaviest, and most expensive elements of a Class AB power
amplifier—and at least 75% of their function is to dissipate
power from your wall outlet in the form of heat.
The Class D amplifier’s tremendous efficiency is why it
can be small, light, and relatively inexpensive for its output
power. The photo to the left shows a Class D output-stage
module that can produce four channels of 250W into 8
ohms. It is 3" by 4" and just 1.5" in height. The output stage
(and power supply) from a conventional linear amplifier
of this power would be 50 times this module’s size and
weight.
So Class D is highly efficient. But what about that
business of chopping up the musical waveform? How can
transistors that are turning fully on and fully off reproduce
a continuous analog waveform? Isn’t that like trying to turn
hamburger back into steak?
To understand how a continuously variable analog
signal can be represented by a stream of on/off pulses, we need
to look a technique called pulse-width modulation (PWM). In
pulse-width modulation, the audio signal’s amplitude is encoded
in the pulse-stream’s on/off duty cycle—that is, the ratio of the
time spent between the on and off states. The illustration below
shows the relationship between an analog waveform and its PWM
representation. Full-scale positive is represented as long streams of
the “on” state; full-scale negative is represented by long streams
of the “off ” state. In the absence of a signal, the pulse stream has
a 50/50 duty cycle, alternating evenly between on and off. The
audio signal is thus encoded in the pulse widths. The pulse train is
remarkably analog-like; you can actually see the sinewave’s shape in
the PWM pulses.
In a Class D amplifier, the audio signal is converted into a PWM
signal after the input buffer, and the PWM stream drives the output
transistors to turn them fully on or fully off (Class D output stages
use MOSFETs almost exclusively). The switching frequency is
several hundred kilohertz. The transistors in a Class D amplifier
must be able to turn on and off very quickly, and precise timing
circuitry is required to make the whole thing behave correctly.
The output from the switching transistors is then put through a
crucial element of Class D design—the low-pass output filter. The
passive low-pass filter smoothes the waveform and removes the
modulation (switching) noise, leaving only the original waveform.
The reconstruction filter in a PCM digital-audio system (CD player)
Is Class D the Future of High-End Amplification?
performs the same function. The
output filter in a switching amplifier
can be as simple as an inductor in
series and a capacitor in parallel with
the loudspeaker load.
The output filter’s design is of
paramount importance. The filter
must remove the switching noise
(typically several hundred kilohertz)
while not introducing amplitude rolloff or phase shift in the audioband.
The steeper the filter, and the closer
its cutoff frequency to 20kHz, the
greater the audioband phase shift. A
gentler filter, or one whose cut-off
frequency is far above the audioband,
will introduce less audioband phase
shift but allow more switching noise
to reach the output. In practice, all
Class D amplifiers put out some highfrequency noise at their binding posts.
This is why many Class D amplifiers
interfere with radio reception; the
loudspeaker cables act as an antenna,
broadcasting this switching noise into
the local vicinity. This is another reason
that Class D amplifiers can sound
different in different systems; ancillary
products vary in their susceptible to pollution by this radiated noise.
The output filter interacts with the loudspeaker in ways that
are unpredictable to the designer of the Class D amplifier. The
loudspeaker’s impedance magnitude affects the filter’s cut-off
frequency (and thus the amount of audioband phase shift), and the
loudspeaker’s phase angle (how inductive or capacitive a load the
loudspeaker presents to the amplifier—which changes as a function
of frequency) interacts with the Class D amplifier’s output filter. In
essence, the loudspeaker’s inductance and capacitance become part
of the filter, modifying the filter’s characteristics. This is perhaps why
Class D amplifiers vary so much in their sound quality when used
with different loudspeakers, and might explain the widely disparate
views of certain Class D amplifiers (see the review of the NuForce
Reference 9 monoblocks and the associated comments in this issue,
for example).
Designing a Class D amplifier is a very different exercise than
creating a traditional linear Class AB design. The transistors must
be turned on and off with incredible precision. This balance is
so delicate that any stray capacitance or inductance could cause
distortion on one hand or the amplifier going up in smoke on the
There’s no question that Class-D
technology will dominate massmarket audio products, from the
amplifiers in flat-panel televisions
to car audio to home-theaters-in-abox. The size, weight, heat, and cost
advantages are just too compelling.
78
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
other. That’s why switching amplifiers are almost exclusively built
with surface-mount components. (Conventional circuit boards and
“through-hole” construction introduce capacitance and inductance
variations that can cause the Class D amplifier’s output stage not to
function correctly.) There’s also quite a bit of mathematics behind
a switching output stage; the popular ICEpower module was the
result of four years of research at the Technical University of
Denmark.
For these reasons, most amplifier manufacturers buy an “offthe-shelf ” output-stage module and driver chip from one of
several OEM suppliers. The amplifier manufacturer then designs
the surrounding circuitry, power supply, and chassis, and perhaps
even modifies the module with higher-quality parts. It’s worth
noting that the purity of the DC supply to the switching transistors
is of paramount importance. The output transistors effectively
connect the DC supply to the loudspeaker terminals; any noise or
ripple in the DC will be fed to the loudspeaker. Ripple (a 120Hz
modulation of the DC supply caused by imperfect filtering of
the incoming 60Hz AC power) on the power supply will cause
amplitude modulation of the audio signal.
The ICEpower module, shown above, was developed for Bang
& Olufsen, and is used in the Rowland line as well as in the Cary A
306 (among others). Another popular module is the Tripath, used
in the Audio Research 300.2. (Tripath calls its technology Class T
rather than Class D.) The Kharma MP150 employs a technique
developed by Bruno Putzeys when he was at Philips Applied
Technologies. (Bruno also designed the entire Kharma MP150—
for which, see the Designer Roundtable in this issue).
There’s no question that Class D technology will dominate massmarket audio products, from the amplifiers in flat-panel televisions
to car audio to home-theaters-in-a-box. The size, weight, heat,
and cost advantages are just too compelling. Whether switching
technology is good enough to displace linear amplifiers in the quest
for the absolute sound is still an open question.
Is Class D the Future of High-End Amplification?
Designer
Roundtable
How do high-end amplifier designers
view Class D technology? Are Class
D switching amplifiers really up to the
standards of the high end?
Dan
D’Agostino
To answer these and other questions,
we brought together three preeminent
engineers in the field: Dan D’Agostino,
founder of Krell Industries and its
lead design engineer; Jeff Rowland,
founder of Jeff Rowland Design Group
and its principle designer; and Bruno
Putzeys, designer of Class D modules
and the man behind the Kharma MP150
amplifier reviewed in this issue.
Jeff
Rowland
Bruno
Putzeys
Robert Harley
Robert Harley:
Class D switching amplifiers—once relegated to powered
subwoofers, car stereos, and cheap home-theater-in-a-box units—have
moved into the mainstream of high-end audio. Is this push toward Class D
driven by sound quality or convenience? Are we trading high fidelity for the
functional advantages of Class D, such as efficiency, low heat dissipation,
and small form factor?
the power, the presence, the staging, or any of those things. We attribute
this to the fact that the technology isn’t finished—the devices aren’t fast
enough and the filter technology is not ideal for every speaker system
that’s out there. We basically have come to a conclusion that switching
technology doesn’t even remotely approach what we’re doing in the
linear domain.
Through the 90s we were looking at what the next step in
amplification would be, and examined all kinds of different topologies. I
approached it with a completely open mind. We looked at a number of
platforms, including TriPath and other companies who offered their own
PWM modules. [Class D amplifiers employ pulse-width modulation; nearly all Class
D amplifiers are based on a modular output stage sourced from one of a handful of
companies. See the technology background article on page 74 of this issue—RH]
I ran into a company by accident at CES called ICEpower, and thought
I’d give it a try. I looked at the module as a building block, the way any
designer would look at different transistors or discrete components. It’s
fundamentally a power-conversion technology. I tried some of the firstgeneration modules and was initially impressed by their performance.
After some research, I concluded that the technology was getting to be
quite mature. I started adding my own value-added components and
techniques and found that the overall performance I could achieve was
quite astounding. It fulfilled the promise of higher performance, but also
had the advantages of smaller size and higher efficiency. It’s also a “green”
technology. We achieved increased performance over what could be done
in the traditional linear realm.
Bruno Putzeys:
Jeff Rowland:
In the high-end market, the push is certainly driven by
sonics. I see it happening in two phases. The initial vanguard of high-end
Class D amps, which includes several amplifiers that are still very popular,
weren’t mature and sounded very different from what we’re used to
from good linear designs. They caught people’s attention by virtue of
sounding different, not necessarily better. Until recently, no switching
amplifier had decently low output-impedance or reasonable distortion
figures at higher frequencies. Ironically, this gave them a euphonic edge
over amplifiers that behaved correctly, in much the same way that tubed
amplifiers continue to make an impression on people. These firstgeneration Class D amplifiers impressed by their artifacts, which (by
chance) happened to sound pleasing. Although this helped establish a
presence in the high-end market for this technology, I’m happy to say
that we’re now at the second stage, where Class D amplifiers can satisfy
the truly discerning listener and not just the novelty-seeker.
What accounts for the sonic differences among switching
amplifiers that use the same module? It seems as though some companies
have a “house sound” in their switching amplifiers that parallels the
house sound in their linear designs.
Harley:
Dan D’Agostino: We’ve tried all those switching modules because I’ve always
wanted to build a very, very large power amplifier for a subwoofer with that
technology. Our sonic experience with switching amplifiers is significantly
different from what Jeff reports. We can’t get anything in the switching
domain to sound anything like what we build in the linear domain, nor have
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November 2006
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That should not really be a surprise. I prefer to be absolutely
agnostic about the technology that’s used to obtain a certain sonic result.
These days I can make a linear amplifier and a switching amplifier that
sound absolutely identical. There are only a few correct basic topologies
Putzeys:
Is Class D the Future of High-End Amplification?
for building a linear amplifier. Of course there are many people trying out
other ideas, and usually these have more or less obvious flaws, but the basic
foundation of all good linear amplifiers is roughly similar throughout. And
yet, linear amplifiers that are built along very similar lines but by different
people have their particular “house sound,” as you call it. A similar thing
happens when different people start with the same Class D circuit.
Part of that has to do with how one translates sonic requirements into
technical criteria. You can say you want a particular kind of sound, but in
the end you have to get your hands dirty, pick up the soldering iron, and
do something technical that corresponds to what you want to do sonically.
So that sets some parameters in the design. After that—and much to my
personal frustration as an “audio objectivist”—there’s still a lot of influence
from the kinds of components you use, such as capacitors and resistors.
You use these things to tune toward a certain kind of sound. Everyone has a
different conception of what a good amplifier should sound like, so it’s quite
clear that different designers strive to achieve their own interpretation.
I take exception to your comment that people “design”
switching amplifiers, because most of them are based on somebody else’s
chipset. What you’re really doing is designing the output filter in a way that
expresses your idea of what an amplifier should sound like, because as
everyone knows, there is no ideal filter for switching amps yet. We’ve had
some great results with switching power supplies. We built a six-kilowatt
switcher that is a pretty amazing thing, and using that with a linear output
stage seems to work really well. I have not had very good results with any of
the Class D chipsets that I’ve seen out there, so again, my opinion is still that
this technology isn’t finished. I think it has a lot of maturing left to do.
D’Agostino:
When I talk about how I design amplifiers it’s probably, indeed,
very different from what the majority of people do. Most designers just
look at what is available in terms of modules, but I actually make original
circuits from the ground up, using discrete transistors and so on. Superficially
speaking, they are very simple discrete circuits where the performance really
hinges on the math behind it. So far I’ve not yet come across any integrated
circuits that allow me to build an amplifier of the performance level that I
want to achieve.
There are too many switching amplifiers around currently that do
not fulfill even the most basic requirements of an amplifier. The basic
requirement of an amplifier is that it has a specific voltage gain, that it has
low distortion at all audio frequencies and that the output impedance is so
low that the loudspeaker can really not influence the amplifier’s behavior.
Almost none of my competitors have anything remotely resembling this,
and certainly in the integrated-circuit domain I’m not seeing people even
trying to achieve this.
Putzeys:
Harley: How much influence can the designer have over
switching-amplifier sound using the same module?
“I found that the overall
performance I could
achieve with switching
technology was quite astounding.
It fulfilled the promise of higher
performance, but also had the
advantages of smaller size and higher
efficiency.”
Jeff Rowland
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November 2006
The Absolute Sound
Rowland:
We don’t make our own power transistors; we don’t make
our own capacitors. I look at the module as a component I’m buying to
which I’m adding my value by applying my experience with input circuitry,
power-supply technology, resonance control, and other techniques to
add value and performance to an off-the-shelf component. I treat the
module as a component to which I’m adding better parts and design
techniques to get the finished result of an amplifier that realizes my goal
of what an amplifier should be.
Harley: So you’re saying there’s a huge variation in the implementation of
the same modules?
Rowland: There seems to be. There are a number of
different modules
out there, and many amplifiers are simply those modules put in a box.
But you can go much further than that.
There have been several thousand man-hours of research put into the
ICEpower module—this was a research project for a number of years at
the Technical University of Denmark. I’m basically just taking advantage
of the work that has already been done. It’s got a lot of math that’s way
over my head as an electronics designer; I’m just riding on the back of
the work that has been done and implementing it for use in high-end
amplifiers.
Dan, you think that the technology is just not mature enough
now. Do you hold out hope in the long term for switching amplifiers?
Harley:
D’Agostino: I haven’t been holding out a lot of
hope Robert, to tell you
the truth. We don’t use outsourced designs or modules or anything like
that at Krell. We like to do our own designs on everything we do here.
Other people may get great results with off-the-shelf modules, but it’s
just not our way.
For me a switching amplifier is explained in a simple ramp response
of a 1kHz square wave. That tells me everything about that amplifier
that I ever want to know. When I can see a square without a lot of fur
and dirt on it, then I’ll be interested in it, but as of yet I haven’t seen
anything that even remotely resembles a clean square wave. That’s it in
a nutshell for me because I guess I’m an old-school guy. I like to see
waveforms come out the way they look at the input, and that’s not what
we get with switching amps.
Harley: Do all switching amplifiers introduce distortion that’s visible on
a 1kHz square wave?
D’Agostino: They’re covered with fur and dirt. As long as switching amps
can’t pass a clean waveform, I have a hard time being interested in them.
You can say anything you want about how you can model the sound
and make ideal filters and tailor the sound, but at the end of the day
if you put a signal in, the signal should look the same coming out. I
find switching amps unusable for music or anything else that I would
be interested in. I’m sure other people have different opinions, and that’s
fine. That’s why we live in America.
Is that inherent in the technology, do you think, or just in the
current implementation?
Harley:
D’Agostino: All the modules on the market that I’ve tested do the same
thing. Now maybe you can filter out that fuzz to some degree, but it’s still
there. I like the output of my amplifier to look like the signal from the
generator. When I put those waveforms in and they come out looking
funny, I have to think that when I put music in the music will come
out funny, too. I also don’t feel comfortable with putting my name on
something that somebody else designs.
Is Class D the Future of High-End Amplification?
It’s like the iPod—it sounds great until you put it on a real system and
then it doesn’t. We have a parallel here in a new technology trying to grow
up and be a real audio product, and it’s not going to happen right now.
I haven’t ever conducted a comparison in which I couldn’t
determine a clear winner. It’s never been my experience to listen to any
switching amplifier and walk away saying, “Yeah, that sounds right, that
sounds like music.” And I’ve listened to them all, at least those that are
commercially available.
From my perspective I haven’t yet heard any switching amplifier that
remotely resembles what a good linear amplifier does, but, on the other
hand, people interpret sound in different ways.
D’Agostino:
Harley: Where are we on the learning curve with this technology?
Putzeys: Pretty
Dan D’Agostino Perhaps no company in audio enjoys a more distinguished
reputation for engineering innovation and product excellence than Krell.
Founded in 1980 by Dan and Rondi D’Agostino, Krell consistently has
BIOS
much all over the place. Class D amplifiers that are now
on the market run the gamut from really primitive and intuitive designs
all the way to boxes that are indistinguishable from good linear amplifiers
with only the presence of a small 400kHz [carrier] residual to tell the
difference. Everybody is on a different stage on the learning curve. On
the mature end you have amplifiers that behave really well on the test
bench, don’t color the sound, and don’t disturb radio reception. On the
immature end you find flawed concepts like digitally controlled switchers
that don’t even have a flat frequency response and that kill any radio in the
building. So there isn’t really something like “the state of the art of Class
D,” precisely because everybody is at very different stages in the evolution
of the technology.
won laudatory reviews and wide-ranging praise from the industry’s most
knowledgeable and discerning commentators and reviewers.
Both Dan and Rondi had gained valuable insight about the needs and desires
of high-end customers by the time that destiny brought them together. What
they both clearly understood was the nature of high-end product design: High-
Harley: Jeff, what’s your view on that subject? Do you see large improvements
end audio is driven by the ongoing quest of the audiophile and music lover to
coming down?
experience true excellence in design, execution, and performance. It was on
this premise that the company, Krell Industries, Inc., was founded.
Yes, I concur with Bruno. I haven’t pitched my tent anywhere
along the line of the evolution of this technology, because as we speak
there is more development to come, but all new technology has to have a
beginning point, and you carry it through its natural evolution. Yes there is,
as Bruno says, a wide variation in the intuitive simple designs and the more
mature designs. I won’t say it’s a mature technology, but from our experience
we have seen it deliver on its promise. There are a lot of improvements
coming. Switching technology definitely will progress, but the results that
we have gotten in the last four years have been quite amazing.
Harley: Will switching amplifiers one day dominate the high-end market?
Rowland:
In the past twenty-six years, Krell has grown and flourished. Each year has
brought performance innovation in product design and expansive corporate
development. Dan D’Agostino’s keen understanding of the importance of
the development of and investment in new designs and technologies has
significantly impacted the high-end audio marketplace worldwide. Competitors
with a lesser vision have all but disappeared. Rondi’s business leadership,
knowledge, and enthusiasm for high-end audio products are an inspiration to
the entire Krell staff.
Bruno Putzeys (born 1973, Brussels, Belgium) graduated cum laude at the
National Technical School for Radio and Film, specializing in the subject of
power stages for switching audio amplifiers. For 10 years he worked at the
Rowland: I don’t think they will dominate so much as become an option, in the
Philips Applied Technologies Lab in Leuven, Belgium, where he developed
same way that solid-state hasn’t dominated vacuum tubes. The nature of highend audio is that everybody has his own favorite technology, and customers
have their own likes and dislikes and prejudices, and that’s the beauty of it. We all
have our own pride and prejudice, and that will always exist.
various digital- and analog-controlled Class D amplifiers, noise-shapers, and
modulation methods, and invented among others the “UcD” Class D circuit. In
2005 he left Philips to divide his time between Kharma and Hypex, after having
consulted for both for several years. Further activities include designing highperformance discrete AD/DA converters and analog signal-processing circuits
Putzeys:
Jeff pretty much nails the situation there. Class D is a
technology that not everybody can easily launch into, which means that
for Class D to become a very significant part of the high-end market,
quite a number of companies would have to be doing what Jeff did—go
to third parties and actually buy knowledge. Yet, the high-end market is
a place where few companies are willing to be seen doing anything less
than rolling their own circuits from scratch. That alone would account for
the fact that many non-Class D products will remain on the audiophile
market.
Also, and again very importantly, I myself am completely agnostic
about how one achieves the results, and I simply reject the notion that
any technology should be inherently superior, in sonic terms at least, to
the other. For me it’s been a running joke to make a Class D amplifier
that beat my previous linear design, and then when I’ve done that I go
back to linear design and I’ll make a new one that beats my best Class
D amplifier, and I keep going back and forth like that just for the heck
of it. That’s never going to stop. If in, say, five years, you take the very
best Class D amp and you take the very best linear amp and you set one
against the other in a listening shoot-out, there will be no clear winner.
Someone who’s really good at designing linear amplifiers but who doesn’t
feel up to the task of designing a switching amplifier should by all means
stick to his guns.
84
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
for Grimm Audio. Bruno holds several patents in the fields of digital audio and
power conversion and has published extensively in these and related fields.
Jeff Rowland’s career as an audio designer began as a happy coupling of
ability and opportunity that has produced one of the most highly regarded and
widely recognized names in audio. One of the founding fathers of the high-end
industry, Rowland is approaching four decades of unquestioned excellence in
the art of music reproduction and has demonstrated a unique artistic vision
that has withstood both the test of time and the critique of generations of
audio lovers.
A one-time student of the prestigious DeVry Institute of Engineering
Technology and a former Ampex Corp. engineer, Rowland began experimenting
with amplifier design in the late 1970s. These pursuits began to bear fruit in
the form of one-off custom creations that quickly caught the attention of
Colorado audiophiles. By 1984, Rowland had garnered sufficient fame from
the audio community to launch Rowland Research, a company that would
shortly become Jeff Rowland Design Group, one of the most respected brand
names in the history of audio.
JRDG continues to chart an unpredictably creative course in audio design that
remains faithful to its owner’s intent “to reach a level of fidelity that transcends
transparency and conveys the true essence and inspiration of music.”
2"
Is Class D the Future of High-End Amplification?
Is This the Future of High-End Amplification?
4.9"
Kharma
MP150
Wayne Garcia
86
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
The Kharma MP150 has been my reference amplifier since I received a
pair in March to go with the company’s gorgeous-sounding Mini Exquisite
speakers (a review of which will appear in our next issue). Before that,
I’d briefly heard only one other Class D amplifier in my system, the Edge
G.5. Though a bit lightweight-sounding, the G.5 shared many of the virtues
we appreciate in Edge’s other solid-state gear—a warm, open, lovely sound,
free of darkness and grain. As I read and spoke with colleagues about other
Class D amps (and read reviews of some “hot” models), early indications
were that Class D was some kind of electronic putty, able to be molded by its
manufacturer to sound like other electronics in a given manufacturer’s line—
Edge sounds like Edge, ARC like ARC, Rowland like Rowland, etc. (This still
seems to be the case, but to a limited degree.)
Well, Kharma makes no other amps, so nobody knows what ideal it was
voiced to. But I can say that my experience with Class D, which now spans five
models heard in my system, leads me to two early conclusions. One is that the
Kharma and Edge models had given me unrealistically high expectations for
this still young technology. In my opinion, most Class D is not only not up to
even a mid-level linear amplifier, it is, like early CD playback, often dreadfully
bad. The other is that Kharma’s MP150 is the best Class D amplifier I’ve
heard—and that by a country mile.
Am I damning the MP150 with faint praise? Nope. The Kharma, and I
haven’t a clue as to why, sounds more like a Class AB design than does any
other Class D model of my experience. Perhaps most significantly so in the
upper frequencies, where most Class D amps simply sound wrong, so wrong
they can—again, like nascent CD playback—induce headaches. The treble of
the MP150 is still a little lacking in extension and solidity, but it is notably airy.
Jonathan Valin comments on the Kharma MP150
The Kharma MP150 was the first Class D amp I heard—and would that all of them had turned out to be
as good. No, the 150 does not completely sidestep the top-end compression of Class D/T amplification,
although it is the only Class D amp I’ve heard that does not make orchestral bells sound rather more like
doorbells or rattled chains, or suck most of the air and energy out of the top treble. The Kharma is, in fact,
very airy—and not just in the treble. It may not be quite as minutely detailed as the incredibly detailed
Rowland 201 in the midband (that snare drum in The Pines of Rome, for instance, isn’t separated out from
the roar quite as clearly, although you do hear it), but it is everywhere bigger, bloomier, more energetic than
its competition, sounding just that much more like a very fine Class AB amp—and like live instruments.
I don’t know all that its author, the celebrated Bruno Putzeys (see our Designer Roundtable in this issue),
has done differently here, but I do know that parts-quality is extremely high (discrete transistors and FETS
are used throughout), that the transformer and power supply are expensive custom-made items, that the
aluminum billet chassis is very carefully shielded, and that the amp does not use an oscillator (eliminating
oscillator jitter).
Of all the Class D/T amps in this survey that I have heard or reviewed, the MP150 is the sole one I could
recommend without serious reservations for a high-end system. No, it is not the equal of an ARC Ref 210
or MBL 9008—nor should it be at its price point. What it is is a very good solid-state amplifier that gives you
a taste of what a great solid-state amplifier is capable of. If this quality of Class D amplification is the way
of the future, then the future may be rosier than certain other amps in this survey might lead one to think.
That said, what the Kharma MP 150 could use—what all of the Class D amps in this survey could use—is
Power: 100Wpc into 8 ohms;
150Wpc into 4 ohms
Inputs: Balanced (XLR)
Dimensions: 4.9" x 2" x 10.9"
Weight: 7.1 lbs.
DISTRIBUTOR
SPECS/PRICE
broader bandwidth and higher linearity (particularly in the treble).
Unlike the other three designs I auditioned for this survey, the MP150 is a beautifully
balanced amplifier. No frequencies stand out, and none is disconnected from the whole.
When Nina Simone sings “Don’t Explain,” from Verve’s Four Women boxset, the flute,
triangle, piano, and acoustic bass are all beautifully integrated with her voice. The piano is
warm and weighty, with a good sense of its percussive nature, the bass big and full, the flute
breathily metallic, the triangle just barely there but easily heard.
And talk about transparency—check out Thomas Adés’ Asyla [ECM], a well-recorded
and marvelous piece of music. It begins with sparse orchestration, and with the Kharma you
hear all the way back (tremendous depth is one of this little baby’s hallmarks). With the other
amps I sampled, you get either a clinical clarity that disguises itself as transparency (but isn’t
because it lacks air) or the sonic equivalent of a theater scrim overlaying the players. But the
MP150 clearly separates each instrument like stars against a perfectly clear evening’s sky.
The MP150 has a beautiful way with dynamic shifts, too. Listen to Gidon Kremer’s latest
ECM recording of the Bach sonatas and partitas for solo violin, where Kremer’s spirited
yet lovely playing dances with microdynamic life; or in a more raucous mode, the Yeah
Yeah Yeahs’ “Gold Lion,” from Show Your Bones [Interscope], where the opening kick and
snare drums, and later the full band, all but burst out of
the speakers.
Interestingly, the MP150 is the smallest and lightest of
the amps I tried. But when it comes to tonal naturalness,
ambient recovery, frequency balance, continuousness,
transparency, depth, and sheer musicality, it is, for these
ears, the only Class D I know of that I would choose to live
with. It may not have quite the weight and texture, bloom, or high-frequency extension of a
really fine linear design, but it comes mighty close and is among the most beautiful-sounding
amplifiers I know, regardless of type.
356 Naughtright Road
Long Valley, New Jersey 07853
(908) 850-3092
[email protected]
gttgroup.com
ASSOC. EQUIP
Price: $6800
GTT AUDIO
Artemis Labs LA-1 linestage and
PL-1 phonostage; MBL 1521 A CD
transport, 1511 E DAC, 5011 preamp,
and 9007 amplifiers; Kharma Mini
Exquisite speakers; Kubala-Sosna
Emotion interconnects, speaker
cables, power cords, and Expression
digital cable; TARA Labs Zero
interconnect and digital cables,
Omega speaker cables, and The One
power cords; Nordost Thor power
distribution center; Finite Elemente
Spider equipment racks; Hannl
record cleaning machine, L’Art du
Son LP and CD cleaning fluids
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
87
Audio
Research
Corporation
300.2
satisfying amps I’ve ever had in my system. But that said, let me express the
concern that the 300.2 often might not be heard at its best, owing to its unusual
warm-up requirements. Specifically, I found that this amplifier needed to be
powered up for 24-to-48 hours or more before its sound fully gelled (and even
then, improvements continued to accrue). To hear the 300.2 be all that it can be,
keep it powered up 24/7.
When I reflect on the sound of the ARC 300.2, I think first about the
amplifier’s dynamics and overall expressiveness. Because more than many
amplifiers I’ve tried, the 300.2 consistently sounded vibrant and alive. In part,
the 300.2’s dynamic strengths stem from the fact that, by any standard, it is a very
7"
Chris Martens
Audio Research’s $3995 model 300.2 power amplifier is a 300Wpc
design based on Tripath Class D (or as Tripath would have it, “Class T”)
amplification technology. At its best, the 300.2 is one of the most musically
powerful amplifier. The ARC’s high output and ability to drive difficult loads are a big help when it comes to handling the explosive
demands of rock or large-scale orchestral material. But there’s more to this story than raw power, because the 300.2 also does a great
job of reproducing the leading edges of transients and the complex envelopes of individual notes.
Straight from the carton, the 300.2 tends to overcook the leading edges of transients and to make mids and highs sound transparent,
yet disjointed. But after a day or two of warm-up the ARC’s sound is transformed, so that problems with overwrought transients
mostly melt away, even as midrange fundamentals and high-frequency overtones come into alignment. Once those issues are resolved,
new channels of musical communication are opened. Valerie Joyce’s rendition of the Hendrix song “Little Wing,” from New York Blue
[Chesky], nicely showcases the 300.2’s strengths. First, the ARC shows that much of the action in Joyce’s voice centers in upper-register
inflections so subtle that many amplifiers have trouble revealing them. But the 300.2 makes Joyce’s vocal inflections easy to follow, so
that you feel you can almost read the artist’s mind. Next, the amplifier lets you hear and feel acoustic bassist Jon Hebert stretching to
reach the soulful high notes that Hendrix originally played on his Stratocaster. Finally, the ARC shows the reverberant recording space
itself, allowing listeners to visualize the performers’ positions in the room, and to hear their movements as they play.
While all these good things become possible because the 300.2 is highly transparent, transparency is not really this amplifier’s defining
characteristic. Good though the ARC is, the comparably-priced NuForce Reference 9 Special Edition monoblocks are even better at
resolving low-level details, but that observation misses the central point. The point is that the 300.2 offers dynamic expressiveness that
just won’t quit—a quality that makes it easy to hear variations in the attack, sustain, and decay of notes, and so to understand more
clearly what musicians have to say. Though the 300.2 certainly sounds pure, its greater strength is its ability to show where and how
musicians emphasize particular notes or phrases to adding meaning to performances.
88
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
Is Class D the Future of High-End Amplification?
19"
To my ear, one of the things that some of the lesser Class D/T amps, like
this model from ARC, miss is—for lack of a better word—“substance.”
The 300.2 just doesn’t sound quite as solid, rooted, and dimensional
as a (good) conventional Class AB amplifier, tube or solid-state—or as
instruments and vocalists do in life.
To put this differently, if you were to think of an amplifier as a light
source illuminating what’s on the soundstage, then something like the
ARC 300.2 doesn’t have all the “modeling” of, say, the Class AB ARC
Reference 210 (which, at $20k, is admittedly much more expensive) or
even the $6.8k Kharma MP150. The 300.2’s illumination is too soft and
full-on, like a feathered light shining straight ahead rather than like a
series of spots hung above the stage. It doesn’t cast the highlights and
shadows that bring out the shape, texture, and depth of instrumental
images; neither does it fully light up the space between and among
images, nor illuminate the sharp dynamic contrasts and brilliant
harmonics in a series of notes to the same extent as something like
Audio Research’s own Ref 210. For instance, in the opening movement
of the Prokofiev Third Piano Concerto [Speakers Corner/Mercury],
Byron Janis’ Steinway sounds just the slightest bit muted top-to-bottom
through the 300.2. As a result some of the brilliance and daring of his
SPECS/PRICE
Power: 300Wpc into 8 ohms,
Horowitz-like playing is scanted. Horowitz himself once said: “If you
500Wpc into 4 ohms
want me to play only the notes without any specific dynamics, I will
Inputs: Single-ended (RCA)
never make one mistake.” The 300.2’s slight flattening of dynamic
Dimensions: 19" x 7" x 14.25"
contrasts and slight washing out of timbre makes Janis sound a bit
Weight: 39.2 lbs.
like he’s trying to avoid making a mistake. Consequently some of the
Price: $3995
drama of his great performance is squelched.
As is the case with the Rowland 201 (for which, see below), there
is also something definitely askew in the 300.2’s top octave, which
(like the Rowland’s) sounds unnaturally airless and curtailed to me. As
DISTRIBUTOR
Is Class D the Future of High-End Amplification?
Jonathan Valin comments on the ARC 300.2
I should add that the 300.2 offers bass that is tight and punchy,
and whose razor-sharp transients that can make the sounds of
electric bass guitars or kick drums fairly jump off your speakers. I
tried bassist extraordinaire Victor Wooten’s Soul Circus [Vanguard]
through the 300.2 and heard a slap-bass sound so compelling it
made me want to get up and boogie. While the 300.2 does not
offer quite the low bass weight or “traction” that the NuForce
Special Edition monoblocks do, its mid and upper bass are
easily competitive with the best I’ve heard in terms of textural
refinement and transient speed (granted, the very expensive MBL
9011s probably offer even better bass, but those mega-amplifiers
are a special case audio reality unto themselves).
Because the ARC sounds so expressive and full of life, it is
more engaging on an emotional level than most other amplifiers.
Instead of presenting “good sound” in a vacuum, the 300.2 gives
listeners the sense of participating in musical conversations. In
that context, the ARC’s ability to convey emotional content makes
all the difference.
AUDIO RESEARCH CORPORATION
a result, instruments like the bells in the first movement of The Pines
3900 Annapolis Lane North
of Rome [Classic/Everest] sound more like rattled chains than bells; as
Plymouth, Minnesota 55447
was the case with the Rowland (and perhaps with Class D/T amps in
(763) 577-9700
general), it’s as if some treble harmonics and dynamics and air are just
www.audioresearch.com
plain missing (or way down in level or mixed with noise). There may be
a little band of roughness in the ARC’s upper mids, as well, that hypes
upper-midrange transients without adding dynamic range elsewhere
ASSOC. EQUIP
or real extension on top.
Wilson Benesch Full Circle analog
in a curiously ARC-like way. (ARC amps typically sound as if they are
Phonomena phonostage; Musical
weighted, just the slightest bit, to the presence range.) Its bass, though
Fidelity Tri-Vista SACD player and
not as deep and full and powerful as that of Class AB amp (or of live
kW500 integrated amplifier;
music), has decent sock and extension.
Rega Apollo CD player; Rogue
Audio Metis preamplifier; NuForce
P-8 preamplifier, Reference 9
and Reference 9 Special Edition
monoblock power amplifiers; Red
Dragon Audio Leviathan Signature
monoblock power amplifiers;
Magnepan MG 1.6, Paradigm
Reference Signature S8, and Wilson
Benesch Curve loudspeakers;
Cardas and Furutech speaker cables
and interconnects; RGPC 1200S
power conditioner; Auralex and
RPG acoustic treatments
90
On the plus side, the 300.2 is very clear, clean, bright, and forward
system; Musical Surroundings
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
On the whole the 300.2 sounds like ARC, but ARC Lite.
Channel
Islands
Audio
D-200
92
November 2006
is passionate about sound quality, but more than many he believes components
should offer solid build-quality and reliable, trouble-free performance at sensible
prices. Amen to that.
CIAudio’s small, cube-shaped 200-watt D-200 monoblocks sell for $2299,
and are based on Philips/Hypex UcD (Universal Class D) modules. A user
can order D-200s with either 26 or 32dB of gain (the latter for use with passive
preamplifiers), and with single-ended or balanced inputs.
At Vawter’s suggestion, I gave the D-200s about 100 hours of burn-in, and
observed gradual improvements in their sound. Once I began critical listening,
what struck me about the D-200s was the sweetness and delicacy of their
midrange, the warmth and quickness of their midbass, and an overall presentation
that, paradoxically, sounded at once detailed yet smooth—almost to the point of
sonic politeness.
To zoom in: The D-200’s midrange sweetness is the sort that makes both male
and female voices sound graceful, rich, and articulate, though with rough edges
sometimes slightly smoothed over. A good example is Dave Alvin’s “California
Snow” from Blackjack David [MFSL, SACD], where Alvin’s rich, storyteller’s voice
is presented vividly, but with its gritty, gravelly textures toned down a bit. Similarly,
the D-200’s midrange makes strings in general and solo violins in particular sound
achingly beautiful, though with high harmonics and inner details diffused just a
little.
The D-200s’ handling of high-frequency details left me with mixed reactions.
Compared to many good Class AB amplifiers, the D-200s reproduce low-level
details extremely well, but as high-frequency details become progressively more
subtle the D-200s eventually allow fine textures to melt into soft diffuseness—the
sonic equivalent of a cinematic dissolve to white. As a result, perceived transparency
and soundstage focus are diminished, at least to some degree. The good news is
that the D-200s are never guilty of the sort of unnatural, overwrought transients
that drive many of us nuts. But the tradeoff is that the D-200s fall just short of
the breathtaking transparency and three-dimensionality that amplifiers such as the
NuForce Reference 9s and Audio Research 300.2 can provide.
5.5"
Is Class D the Future of High-End Amplification?
Chris Martens
Dusty Vawter, President of Channel Islands Audio, has a refreshingly
different slant on audio design. Like any serious high-end manufacturer, he
6.25"
The Absolute Sound
Is Class D the Future of High-End Amplification?
The D-200s’ midbass is pleasingly warm and weighty, with a good measure of
transient snap that makes basses (acoustic, electric, and human) sound articulate and
evocative. Listeners will appreciate these qualities on recordings such as bassist Charlie
Haden’s Nocturnes [Verve], where the ever-tasteful Haden makes musical points not
through flashy pyrotechnics, but through delicate variations in attack, sustain, and
voicing. The D-200s midbass clarity is comparable to, if not better than, that of many
contemporary Class AB amplifiers, though today’s best Class D amplifiers (all costing
more than the D-200) offer even better low bass and greater low-frequency control.
Finally, the D-200s sound unfailingly smooth and self-assured, even on complicated,
densely layered material such as Respighi’s Pina di Roma [Deutsche Grammophon, LP].
Grace under pressure is one of the D-200’s most appealing characteristics, though it
comes at the price of a tendency toward sonic “politeness” that very slightly dampens
the vividness of the overall sound. But don’t get me wrong; on the whole, the D-200s
sound quite expressive. It’s just that there is an elusive layer of dynamic accuracy and
expressiveness that the D-200s can’t quite reach. After playing reference recordings
on the D-200s, the first word that comes to mind might be “smooth.” After hearing
the same recording through the NuForces or ARC 300.2, the one-word description
might change to “alive.”
The Channel Islands Audio D-200s are solidly built amplifiers that exhibit no
operational quirks whatsoever, which is more than you can say for some high-end
products. The CIAudios also earn high marks sonically, in most respects equaling
(or surpassing) the sound of more costly Class AB amplifiers. But the D-200s’ most
direct competition comes from the NuForce Reference 9s, and a comparison forces
listeners to assess their sonic priorities. For those seeking warmth, clarity, and detail—
all tempered by overarching smoothness, the D-200s will be ideal. But for greater
overall transparency, three-dimensionality, and more lifelike dynamics, the NuForce
Reference 9s (or the more expensive Audio Research 300.2) would get my nod.
SPECS/PRICE
Power: 200Wpc into 8 ohms,
325Wpc into 4 ohms
Inputs: Single-ended (RCA) or
optional balanced (XLR)
Dimensions: 6.25" x 5.5" x 8"
Weight: 15 lbs.
Price: $2299
DISTRIBUTOR
CHANNEL ISLANDS AUDIO
567 W. Channel Islands Blvd.,
PMB #300
Neil Gader comments on the Channel Islands D-200
Hueneme, California 93041
(805) 984-8282
I liked the D-200 primarily for its pint-size, generally good sonics. It does everything well through the middle range of
ciaudio.com
the frequency spectrum but falls off dynamically as music reaches its extremes. Its treble still sounds a bit peaky and
thin—a cello’s upper register being a prime example—and the D-200 is not able to resolve a piano’s textural complexity
or convey its soundboard and reverberations in the bass. Its imaging and soundstaging were only average, and it lacked
the deep-water silences that enable top-level amps like the Rowland or Spectron to recover low-level minutiae. The CI
is very pleasurable for the money and exudes solid build-quality, but it lacks the kind of octave-to-octave dynamism and
transparency of this survey’s leaders.
94
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
Chris Martens
Many of us dream of owning cost-no-object amplifiers such as the ASR
Emitter II or the MBL 9011 monoblocks, but since few of us can afford
those king-of-the-hill amps, some good real-world alternatives are plainly
needed. Two of the finest sensibly-priced amplifiers I have found are the Reference
9 and Reference 9 Special Edition monoblocks from NuForce. I won’t tell you the
NuForces equal ASR’s or MBL’s offerings (that would be unrealistic), but I will tell
you they capture more than a little of the sonic flavor of those top-tier products.
The Reference 9s ($2610/pair) are compact, 160-watt, Class D monoblocks
that feature switch-selectable balanced and single-ended inputs. NuForce VP Casey
Ng stresses that these are “analog switching amplifiers” that offer wide bandwidth,
minimal phase shift, and the ability to drive low-impedance loads. The Reference 9s
were designed by NuForce chief technology officer Tranh Nguyen, who developed
the power system for the Tomahawk missile and holds several patents relevant
to Class D amplification. But enough background. What makes these amplifiers
special?
The Reference 9s offer extraordinary resolution and transparency, shedding light
on low-level musical details without imposing excess brightness. The Reference
9s gave me a taste of the whole-cloth integrity of the MBL 9011s and the focusgoes-on-forever clarity of the ASR Emitter II, rendering instrumental and vocal
timbres with great purity. On good live recordings, such as Eva Cassidy’s Live at
Blues Alley [Blix Street Records], the NuForces brought my system alive with the
sort of crackling, electric intensity typically experienced only in live music venues—
intensity heightened by the amps’ ability to capture the delicacy of Cassidy’s voice,
the scorching heat of electric guitar solos, and the punch of the electric bass. No
matter how complex material became, the Reference 9s never sounded congested.
The amplifiers also produced wide, deep soundstages thanks to their uncanny ability
to reproduce small reverberant details that help define the acoustics of recording
spaces.
Next, the NuForces, whose damping factor is greater than 4000, delivered
powerful and exceptionally well-defined low end. When the Ref 9s tell woofers to
jump, the drive units simply salute and comply with no questions asked. As a result,
the Ref 9s can extract great bass from ostensibly “hard-to-drive” speakers such as
Magnepans, while making bass textures and details, as on acoustic bassist Dave
Holland’s Emerald Tears [ECM, LP], intelligible as never before. One small caveat:
1.8"
Is Class D the Future of High-End Amplification?
NuForce
Reference
9 Special
Edition
8.5"
96
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
Robert Harley comments on
the NuForce Reference 9
SPECS/PRICE
The NuForce Reference 9 SE monoblocks took me by surprise, with
Power: Reference 9, 160Wpc into 8 ohms, 300Wpc into 4 ohms;
startling dynamics, a big and transparent soundstage, and outstanding
Reference 9 Special Edition, 150Wpc into 8 ohms, 250Wpc into
resolution. The musical presentation was better in every way than
4 ohms
the twice-the-price Cary A 306. The NuForce amps had a subtle,
Inputs: Balanced (XLR) and single-ended (RCA) (both models)
sophisticated, and refined quality reminiscent of the best high-end
Dimensions: 8.5" x 15" x 1.8" (both models)
gear, coupled with explosive transient impact and center-of-the-earth
Weight: Reference 9, 9.7 lbs.; Reference 9 Special Edition, 7.5 lbs.
bottom-end solidity and power. There was a cognitive disconnect at
Price: Reference 9, $2610; Reference 9 Special Edition, $4200
seeing those little boxes on the listening room floor and simultaneously
hearing such a huge and powerful presentation.
The Reference 9 SEs did, however, have some of the same “chalky”
DISTRIBUTOR
coloration in the upper midrange and lower treble I heard from the
NUFORCE (NPHYSICS)
Cary A 306, along with a bit of truncation of the air riding on the top
356 South Abbott Avenue
octave.
Milpitas, California 95035
The Reference 9 SEs weren’t in the territory of the Kharma MP150,
(408) 426-4165
but at a third the price (and about one-tenth the price of my reference
nuforce.com
Balanced Audio Technologies VK-600SE monoblocks), the NuForce
amplifiers are worth an audition.
I can’t recall an audio product producing such polarized response
among different listeners as the Reference 9. Chris Martens thinks
no similarly priced linear amplifier comes close in sound quality. Roy
Gregory, editor of our sister publication HiFi+, had a negative reaction
to them, as did Wayne Garcia, as you will see from his comment below.
Overall, I give the NuForce Reference 9 SEs a thumbs up.
Perhaps Class D amplifiers in general, or the Reference 9 SEs in
particular, interact with the associated components to a greater degree
than do other amplifiers. Whatever the reason, an audition in your
The NuForces’ offer excellent low-frequency clarity and punch, but they do
not compensate for recordings or loudspeakers that inherently lack bass.
Finally, the NuForces offer lively, expressive dynamics, which I appreciated
both on leading-edge transients and on orchestral swells. The only catch is
that it’s easy to forget these expressive amplifiers produce “only” 160Wpc,
and when pushed hard the Ref 9s will run out of steam before 500Wpc
blockbuster amplifiers might. But paradoxically, at reasonable volume levels
the NuForces often sound more authoritative and alive than higher-powered
amps do.
What about shortcomings? Well, the Reference 9s don’t easily present the
sort of holographic, “glowing from within” midrange qualities that some fine
tube amplifiers (e.g., the VTL Siegfrieds) do. They also show a certain accurateto-a-fault, garbage-in/garbage-out quality that can expose flaws in recordings
and ancillary equipment alike (some listeners misinterpret this quality as excess
brightness). But in the end faithfulness to the source is what makes these
amplifiers so rewarding.
NuForce recently released $4200/pair Special Edition versions of the
Reference 9s that incorporate better power-supply boards with “low-ESR
capacitor” banks, improved input sections with dedicated power supplies,
and pure, oxygen-free copper input wiring. The 150-watt SEs are slightly less
powerful than their standard counterparts, though the difference is too small
to hear. But what you can hear is the SE’s superior bass and upper-midrangeto-treble clarity, plus heightened focus and delicacy. Are the SEs worth the
extra money? Let your system guide your decision. The more revealing your
speakers and ancillary components are, the more you’ll appreciate what the
SEs do.
Over the past year, NuForce improved the already good Reference 9 design,
while pushing sound quality to the next level with the Special Edition model.
Together, these monoblocks offer some of the best sound that sensible sums
of money can buy in today’s high-end marketplace.
own system seems prudent.
Wayne Garcia comments on the Reference 9
More than any other amp in this survey the NuForce is going to
generate controversy. My colleague Chris Martens is crazy about it, our
EIC Robert Harley thinks it’s pretty good, and I think it’s terrible. To my
ears—and in my system, which seems to be critical of some of these
critters—this amplifier is not transparent; it’s cold and clinical with that
kind of false “clarity” that fools us into thinking it’s transparent when it
really isn’t. Take the Adés piece I described in my Kharma review. Heard
over the NuForce, the soundstage seems like it has a sheet of glass
laid over it. Yeah, it’s “clear,” but it foreshortens the recording’s superb
depth, adding a slight but audible layer of opacity. Plus, its background
noise isn’t as low or as pure as the Kharma’s. On the Bach violin solos,
Kremer’s violin is all sharp strings and bow (admittedly, like many ECM
recordings, this is a cool, borderline steely disc), with almost no sense
of the instrument’s body and little dynamic nuance, which sucks the
poetry out of Kremer’s beautiful playing. And on the Nina Simone disc,
her voice, when pushed, gets brittle; the recording’s ambience seems
bathed in dry ice; there’s no bloom anywhere; and the upright bass is
all pluck with no weight.
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
97
Red Dragon
Audio
Leviathan
Signature
Is Class D the Future of High-End Amplification?
Chris Martens
98
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
Red Dragon Audio’s Leviathan Signature monoblocks are based on what
designer Ryan Tews terms “highly modified” Bang & Olufsen ICEpower Class
D amplifier modules, where modifications aim to eliminate EMI problems and
to minimize microphonically-induced distortions. The stunning Leviathans come
trimmed in thick slabs of exotic hardwoods, feature glowing red dragon logos on top,
put out a whopping 500Wpc, are built like tanks, and sell for $5995. Better still, the
Leviathans offer an immediately likeable sound whose defining characteristics include
effortless dynamics, rock-solid 3-D imaging, and smooth, mellifluous voicing.
Joseph Stalin once famously observed that “quantity has a quality all its own.” Stalin’s
comment comes to mind because the Red Dragons produce such copious quantities
of power that they reproduce music—especially loud and complex passages—with
a disarmingly graceful yet muscular dynamic ease. I put on the Solti/Chicago LP of
Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 [London] and was delighted to hear the Leviathans sail
through the dramatic conclusion of the symphony without any signs of stress (or
distress). While the same observation perhaps applies to other good high-powered
amplifiers, the Red Dragons bring extra measures of expansiveness and—where the
music warrants—explosive immediacy to the table. Though the Leviathans cannot
match the razor-sharp transient attack of the Audio Research 300.2 or the dynamic
scope and sweep of the MBL 9011s, their vigorous, full-bodied sound always puts
listeners at ease.
The Leviathans also produce vivid, three-dimensional images of almost sculptural
solidity—a quality that became strikingly apparent on “Songbird” from the late Eva
Cassidy’s Eva by Heart [Blix Street]. I never had the privilege of hearing Ms. Cassidy
in concert during her too-brief lifetime, but those who have report being struck by
hearing a huge, ethereal voice emanating from a comparatively petite person, and that
is precisely the image Dragons conveyed on “Songbird.” I attribute the amplifiers’
imaging prowess to their unusually round, full, and articulate midrange sound.
The Dragons’ soundstaging is also good, though not quite on a par with their
imaging. The Leviathans are held back by a tendency to downplay elusive, low-level,
high-frequency details that, when present, can help define the boundaries of acoustic
spaces. Where ultra-transparent amplifiers such as the ASR Emitter II describe
5.5"
100
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
SPECS/PRICE
Power: 500Wpc into 8 ohms,
1000Wpc into 4 ohms
Inputs: Balanced (XLR—RCA
adapters included as standard)
Dimensions: 10" x 5.5" x 14.5"
Weight: Approx. 20 lbs. (varies with
hardwood selection)
Price: $5995
DISTRIBUTOR
soundstages with blueprint-like precision, the Dragons leave
listeners with a generally accurate, yet partially incomplete, picture
of recording spaces.
The Leviathans’ tonal balance falls slightly on the warm side
of neutral—a quality that, for many listeners, might be the perfect
working definition of “musicality.” Midrange is clear and articulate
with a hint of almost tube-like lushness. On “You Don’t Know
Me” from Patricia Barber’s Nightclub [Mobile Fidelity Sound
Lab, SACD], the Dragons’ caught the dark, seductive timbre of
the singer’s voice while suggesting, through delicately rendered
vocal inflections, her pensive, wistful mood. But sometimes
the Leviathans’ midrange can sound too smooth, meaning the
Dragons give a polished, burnished presentation, while competing
amplifiers such as the ARC 300.2 sound more vivid and alive.
Up high, the Red Dragons are never the treble “fire breathers”
their names suggest. On they contrary, they sound coherent and
smooth in the critical upper midrange-to-treble transition region.
But that said, I would observe that when the Leviathans err, they
do so by very slightly rounding off treble transients and textures.
Nevertheless, I suspect some listeners might prefer the Dragons’
smoothness to the essentially accurate but hyper-revealing treble
response some amplifiers provide.
Finally, the Leviathan’s bass is appropriately weighted and
sumptuously textured. Some amps, such as the NuForce
monoblocks, offer greater bass transient snap, extension, or
grip, but few can match the Dragon’s midbass pitch-definition.
I thoroughly enjoyed Ron Carter’s Blues Farm [CTI, LP] through
the Leviathans because they revealed the variety of voices Carter
pulled from his acoustic bass, and were energetic enough to
capture his exuberant playing.
The Red Dragon Leviathan Signature monoblocks represent
a praiseworthy first effort from Ryan Tews. The Leviathans
offer enormous power and solid value for money, though they
face stiff competition from better-established players such as the
$3995, 300Wpc, Audio Research 300.2. Nevertheless, the Red
Dragons command respect, not just because they’re powerful, but
also because their smoothness, warmth, and dynamic ease give
listeners the priceless gift of relaxation.
RED DRAGON AUDIO
474 West 500 South
Provo, Utah 84601
(801) 361-7138
reddragonaudio.com
WG comments on the
Red Dragon Leviathan Signature
Chris and I are in somewhat more agreement when it comes to the
sound of the sexy-looking Red Dragon. This is a warm, euphonic
design. It restores the breath and feeling to Kremer’s Bach, the
ambience and humanity to Nina Simone, and most but not all of the
depth to the Adés, albeit not with the transparency of the Kharma.
Though it is powerful, the Leviathan does not bring to the Yeah Yeah
Yeahs disc the cannon-shot-like bass of the NuForce or Cary designs,
but it sounds much more like a real drum kit, and the acoustic guitar
has more warmth, body, and texture. On the downside I found the
bass and treble sounded as if cut from a different sonic cloth than
the midrange—a little fat and leaden down bottom, and, like so
many Class Ds, both rolled and a bit strange and unpleasant-sounding
up top.
Is Class D the Future of High-End Amplification?
10"
Is Class D the Future of High-End Amplification?
Jeff Rowland
Design Group 201
Jonathan Valin
Beautifully made (it is certainly the best-looking Class D amp of the lot, with a
body carved from a billet of 6061 aluminum and a wavy faceplate straight out of
Rowland’s Classic line), the 250Wpc Jeff Rowland Design Group 201 monoblock
amplifier is the second-best Class D offering I’ve heard. Like all Rowland designs,
2.6"
the 201 is ever-so-slightly warm in tonal balance, rich and solid in tone color, and fairly
lively from the upper midrange through the bass. Like several of the other amps in this
survey, the 201 is built around the B&O ICEpower Class D module, with Rowland’s
own proprietary modifications added on. The result is a Class D amp that sounds like a
Rowland, albeit with a little less energy than a typical Class AB Rowland and a peculiarto-Class-D/T compression of the top treble (for which, see below).
You can clearly hear the Rowland’s strengths and drawbacks on a challenging piece
like Alfred Schnittke’s Quasi una sonata [EMI ASD 3870]—a quirky violin/piano duo
played to a fare-thee-well (which some of you may be tempted to bid before the finish)
by violinist Gidon Kremer and pianist Andej Gawrillow. (As its title suggests, the
Schnittke duo is “almost a sonata,” only a sonata that can’t quite get started—never
making it past its thunderous opening bars, turning the extreme dynamic/harmonic
capabilities of the two instruments into the “themes” that are stated, developed, and
recapitulated.)
8.4"
102
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
SPECS/PRICE
DISTRIBUTOR
ASSOC. EQUIP
Is Class D the Future of High-End Amplification?
The 201 sounded quite lovely and lively in the midrange and bass on
the constant stream of well-recorded staccatos and pizzicatos that makes
up Schnittke’s post-Modernist prank. To my ear, however, there seemed to
be something missing from its treble. You could hear the problem on the
piano’s sforzandos and little noodling runs in the top octaves, where the 201
seemed to squeeze much of the brilliance out of the instrument’s treble
register. The highest-pitched notes just didn’t sound as big spatially, as fully
articulated harmonically, or as powerful dynamically as those of the piano’s
other registers, as if the Steinway had turned into a child’s piano in the top
octaves. Ditto for Kremer’s violin. With the 201, his occasional, eerie, veryhigh-pitched glissandos on an open E string simply evaporated into silence
well before they would have (or did) with my reference Class AB amps,
the ARC Reference 210 and MBL 9008. The 201 didn’t just roll or soften
the treble (as Rowlands often do by design); it cut it off, and with that, the
articulation of very-low-level harmonics and dynamics and the full duration
of high-pitched notes.
On the other hand, something like Classic’s superb reissue of the Everest
LP of The Pines of Rome [Classic/Everest SDBR 3051] showed off the
201’s considerable virtues, among which is a plethora of inner detail in the
midband reproduced with a clarity that is exceptional even by ARC and MBL
standards. For instance, the hard-to-hear tapping of the snare drum buried
deep in the orchestral hubbub of “The Pines of the Villa Borghese”—with
its frenetic depiction of children playing soldiers—was as clear as, well, a
drum. (So was everything else, for that matter.)
Unlike its topmost treble, the 201s midrange was also unusually open
and bloomy, with superb reproduction of harmonics. For instance, the
overtones of the pedaled low-to-mid-register notes of Andrej Gawrillow’s
piano in the Schnittke piece hung in the air at least as clearly and as long as
they did with the Ref 210 (a great tube amp, mind you) or the MBL 9008 (a
solid-state paragon of resolution of decays).
The 201s’ exceptional midband is accompanied by good, solid, deep
bass. Rowlands have always been outstanding in the bottom octaves—the
original Rowland MC6 (not the current ICEpower model, which I haven’t
auditioned) had, perhaps, the most powerful low end I’ve heard from any
amp save for the MBL 9008s and 9011s.The 201 offers a good taste of
Rowland clarity, color, speed, and authority in the bass, though it does not
challenge the original MC6 (or the MBL 9008/9011).
Bottom line: Along with the Kharma MP150, I prefer the Rowland 201
to the other Class D amps I’ve heard—in so far as I prefer Class D amps
at all. Like all Class D/T, it seems to me to have a highly problematical
treble—which, I think, is either bandwidth- or PWM-related—but its sins
are of omission (although this is a little like saying that leaving your baby in
the car on a hot day is a “sin of omission”). Outside of its top treble, the 201
plays with considerable beauty, outstanding clarity, and fair-to-good power,
and I could probably recommend it for systems that are a bit on the hot
side, although that treble definitely needs listening to before contemplating
a purchase.
Power: 250Wpc into 8 ohms;
500Wpc into 4 ohms
Dimensions: 11.5" x 2.6" x 8.4"
Weight: 13 lbs.
Price: $4900
JEFF ROWLAND DESIGN GROUP
2911 North Prospect Street
Colorado Springs, Colorado 80907
(719) 473-1181
jeffrowland.com
Walker Proscenium Black Diamond record playing
system, Kuzma Stabi Reference XL turntable
and Air Line tonearm; Air Tight PC-1 and London
Reference cartridges; MBL 1611 E transport/1621 A
digital-to-analog converter; MBL 6010 D and Audio
Research Reference 3 preamps; Audio Research
PH-7 and Lamm LP2 Deluxe phonostages; Audio
Research Reference 210, Lamm ML2, MBL 9011, and
MBL 9008 amplifiers; MBL 101 E, Ascendo M-S, and
MAGICO Mini loudspeakers; TARA Labs “The Zero”
interconnect, Omega speaker cable, and “The One”
power cords; Shakti Hallographs; Winds Arm Load
meter; Clearaudio Matrix record cleaning machine;
Cable Elevators; Walker Audio Velocitor, Valid Points,
and Custom Equipment Stand; Richard Gray Power
Company 600S/Pole Pig
Neil Gader comments on the Rowland
Research Model 201
As it did with JV, the Rowland also placed second on my list,
just below the Spectron Musician III. I’m in general agreement
with his view that the Model 201 delivers unhyped, naturalistic
virtues, and have little to add to Jonathan’s review. In fact, I
was a little taken aback just how similar the amp sounded to
my memory of the Rowland Concentra integrated amp that I
reviewed some years ago. Like the Concentra, the Model 201
is earthy, slightly dark overall, with a sweet, almost butterscotch
color to the sound. As JV expressed it, “lovely and lively in the
midrange” pretty much sums it up. His reservations about the
treble didn’t strike me quite as strongly, but my impression that
the Rowland’s overall signature is darker and less open and airy
in the highest registers is clearly leaning in the same direction.
JV also posits that there is something going on with Class D
treble reproduction that needs further analysis and ultimately
further refinement. I agree. To my ears it’s almost as if we’re
being reminded of the early artifacts of transistor-era treble.
But rather than getting edge and grain, we’re getting less
information. A different kind of distortion? Time will tell.
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
105
Cary
Audio
Design
A 306
With an 18-inch-wide chassis and a weight of 50 pounds, the A 306 isn’t the
prototypical switching amplifier that you can hold in the palm of your hand.
Much of the A 306’s heft comes from the unit’s dual power transformers,
which are comparable in size and weight to those found in a linear amplifier. (A
third transformer supplies the control circuitry.) Cary believes that good powersupply design is of the utmost importance in a switching amplifier, and went to
great lengths in the A 306 to create a massive supply. Indeed, the A 306 is rated
at a whopping 600Wpc into 8 ohms and 1100W into 4 ohms. A linear amplifier
of this power would weigh several times the A 306’s 50 pounds. Conversely, the
other Class D amplifiers reviewed in this issue are a fraction of the Cary’s size and
weight (although none puts out as much power).
15.8"
The A 306 is built around the ICEpower module (see the accompanying technical
background article on Class D amplification). Cary modifies the module, as well as
adds its own circuit designs around the ICEpower unit. The fully balanced A 306 was
voiced with full-range electrostatic loudspeakers, which present both a low impedance
and a reactive load (which can spell trouble for some switching amplifiers).
The unit is housed in a gorgeous, all-aluminum chassis with no visible screws. The
front panel contains an etched-crystal panel that illuminates the Cary Audio Design
logo in a soft blue light. Binding posts are the outstanding Cardas units, which are
vastly better than five-way posts. A rear-panel switch selects between unbalanced and
balanced inputs.
The Cary was the first Class D power amplifier I auditioned outside those in
AV receivers and powered subwoofers. I was immediately struck by its bottom-end
wallop, dynamic effortlessness, and seeming unlimited power reserves. Orchestral
crescendos were reproduced with no sense of strain, congestion, or change in
soundstaging—and I’m used to the extraordinary dynamics and bottom-end of the
BAT VK-600SE monoblocks.
106
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
Is Class D the Future of High-End Amplification?
5"
Robert Harley
Cary’s A 306 Class D amplifier, part of the new Designer Series that
includes the superb CD 306 CD/SACD player I reviewed in Issue 164, is
big and heavy enough to be mistaken for a conventional linear amplifier.
SPECS/PRICE
Power: 600Wpc into 8 ohms,
1100Wpc into 4 ohms
Inputs: Balanced (XLR) and singleended (RCA)
Dimensions: 18" x 5" x 15.8"
Weight: 50 lbs.
DISTRIBUTOR
Price: $5000
CARY AUDIO DESIGN
1020 Goodworth Drive
Apex, North Carolina 27539
(919) 355-0010
caryaudio.com
Wayne Garcia comments
on the Cary 306
released this model, but it surely won’t do the company’s
reputation any good. Aside from muscle and a big ol’
whomping bottom end, which I’ll admit was exciting on a rock
CD like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Show Your Bones [Interscope],
the 306 has nothing to recommend it. Its top end sounds
108
ASSOC. EQUIP
I’m not sure what the folks at Cary had in mind when they
Cary CD 306, Meridian 808, and
Esoteric P-03 and D-03 digital
playback; Mark Levinson No.326S
preamp; Wilson Audio MAXX 2
loudspeakers; Nordost Valhalla
wrong. It not only lacks air; it is strangely rolled off yet jittery-
interconnects and MIT Magnum
bright. Its midrange has a weird shimmering nature, like heat
MA speaker cables; Shunyata
rising off hot pavement; it lacks detail; and unlike most Class
Research Hydra-8 and Hydra-2
D models, which are tiny or relatively so, this thing is the size
power conditioners and Anaconda
and weight of a Class AB unit, which robs it of Class D’s tiny-
and Python power cords; room by
is-cool factor.
Acoustic Room Systems
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
Is Class D the Future of High-End Amplification?
Spatially, the A 306 had only fair soundstage depth, and width was somewhat
constricted. The overall perspective was a little forward and aggressive, with
recorded detail (percussion, for example) tending to be presented at the front of
the soundstage. I also thought the A 306 tended to blur individual instrument’s
spatial outlines as well as their tonal colors. I got less of an impression of distinct
performers within the soundstage through the A 306 than I did, for example, with
the NuForce Reference amplifiers. There was a kind of opacity and thickness to
the presentation that just sounded wrong.
In the mids and treble the A 306 sounded different from all the linear
amplifiers I’ve heard. There was something mechanical and artificial about
the sound. Massed strings, for example, had a kind of “chalky” coloration that
made the sound somewhat synthetic rather than natural and organic. I heard
this artificial quality on other instruments as well. The tune “Valentino” from
Victor Feldman’s Secret of the Andes (originally a Nautilus direct-to-disc, now
re-released as the XRCD title Audiophile) features Hubert
Laws on flute; through the A 306 the flute lacked the
sense of air moving through a tube. This character wasn’t
present in instruments with less upper-midrange-to-lowertreble energy (bass clarinets, for example), and only became
apparent on violins, saxophones, cymbals, and other
instruments rich in high-frequency overtones. The extreme
top end sounded closed-down, reducing the impression of
air and extension.
I have the greatest respect and admiration for Cary’s
SET amplifiers, their linear solid-state designs (the Cinema
Series is outstanding), and the company’s terrific CD 306
CD/SACD player. Unfortunately, that design expertise
didn’t translate into the Class D world, at least as realized
in the A 306.
Is Class D the Future of High-End Amplification?
Spectron
Musician
III
Neil Gader
110
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
John Ulrick, the founder and designer of Spectron, has a wealth of
switching amplifier experience that few in the industry can match. In the
late 1960s he was a co-founder of Infinity (with Arnie Nudell), and is credited
with designing the first Class D amplifier back in 1974. It’s no surprise then
that Spectron uses Ulrick’s own in-house-designed power modules rather than
sourcing modules from outside vendors.
Tipping the scales at a fighting weight of fifty pounds, the Musician III would
be easy to typecast as the brutish, 550Wpc “heavy” in this survey. But it actually
plays against type. It carries a hammer but at its sonic heart can be found a
character brimming with subtlety and detail. By this I mean the Spectron is an
amplifier that seems to find ways to make sense of the deepest complexities of
musical textures, micro-dynamics, and harmonics—whether in a flurry of warpspeed piano arpeggios, the placement of a bassoon, the weight of bass viols, or
the attack and golden bloom of the brass section in Glinka’s Russian and Ludmilla
Overture (Reiner/Chicago [RCA]). Listening to Appalachian Journey [Sony], it’s
easy to get lost in the sophisticated interplay of bassist Edgar Meyer and cellist
Yo Yo Ma during “1A,” but the Spectron tracks images like a bloodhound. And
because it is so unearthly quiet it not only gets timbre right, it expresses how an
instrument’s energy is released, launched if you will, towards the audience. There’s
the low-level shudder in the hall as a bass drum is lightly struck, the long sustain
of a piano chord, or the quiet rattle of a cymbal near the back wall. And just like a
live performance, you’re suddenly able to key on unseen images. It’s as if you can
almost track pianist Evgeny Kissin’s left and right hand movements over the keys
and the rustling of his clothing as he shifts his body on the bench during Pictures
SPECS/PRICE
700Wpc into 4 ohms
Inputs: Balanced (XLR) and singleended (RCA)
Dimensions: 19" x 5.25" x 13.5"
Weight: 50 lbs.
ASSOC. EQUIP
DISTRIBUTOR
Price: $4995
SPECTRON
9334 Oso Avenue Unit E
Chatsworth, California 91311
(818) 727-760
spectronav.com
Sota Cosmos Series III turntable, SME V
pick-up arm; Shure V15VxMR cartridge;
Sony DVP-9000ES and Simaudio Moon
Supernova digital players; ATC SCM20-2
and MBL 121 loudspeakers; TARA Labs
RSC Air 1 and Nordost Baldur and Blue
Heaven interconnects; Crystal Cable and
Kimber Kable BiFocal XL speaker cables;
Wireworld Silver Electra and Kimber
Palladian power cords; Richard Gray line
conditioners; Sound Fusion Turntable
stand
5.25"
Is Class D the Future of High-End Amplification?
At An Exhibition [RCA]. This recording can sound pancake flat, but the Spectron
finds the stage and the hall’s dimensions like few others I’ve heard. But these attributes don’t apply only to the classical repertory. For something
completely different try “Why We Thugs,” from seminal rap artist Ice Cube’s
latest Laugh Now, Cry Later [Lench Mob]. The song lays down an establishing
synth-string vamp, a high-impact kick drum and bass, sophisticated doubletracked vocals, and low-level synthesized sound cues arrayed across an impeccable
if electronically manufactured soundspace. The Spectron lives for this sternumcracking challenge, yet even at brain-deadening levels it never coarsens or sacrifices
the smallest details.
Gifted with near-pulverizing power reserves (try 1400W into 2 ohms), the
Spectron’s bass control is virtually uncompressed and unshakable. There are no
flat spots as a bassist runs up and down the fingerboard. This amp also makes
me ponder the issue of headroom, particularly for less sensitive speakers like the
MBL121 and my reference ATCs. The Spectron enlivened not just the ultimate
extension of these power gluttons but restored weight, dynamics, and warmth to
the mid and upper bass, an area crucial to conveying music’s scale and majesty. It
also reminds me that realizing a speaker’s full potential is not necessarily a given
with any so-called “high-power” amp.
Tonally, the Musician III is as neutral as they come—smooth across the
octaves, and with top-notch interconnects and a good warm-up, not a whiff
of spotlighting in the upper octaves. Treble is pristine and displays none of the
whitish grain or transient blur that plagues many amps, Class D or otherwise.
Yet an initial impression still holds. It still sounds slightly muted on top, a bit
lacking in the amount of air that liberates a recording—less so than the darker
Rowland Model 201, cleaner than the Channel Islands, but not as extended as the
Chapter Précis (a Class D integrated design). This issue is only benignly subtractive,
however, and it doesn’t dampen my enthusiasm for this amp. Although I didn’t
have the opportunity to listen to a couple of the more exotic “Ds” in this survey,
and I hope I do, I have to admit that regardless of “Class” the Spectron Musician
III punched my time clock like few other amps I’ve heard.
Power: 550Wpc into 8 ohms,
13.5"
Chris Martens comments on the Spectron Musician III
Among the Class D amplifiers I’ve tried, Spectron’s Musician III proved one of the best at reproducing spatial cues in recordings—a quality I think is essential for
musical realism. The Spectron did a good job of getting sound to break free from the front surfaces of loudspeakers and to “breathe,” and it also presented
soundstages whose reverberant characteristics, and width and depth dimensions were realistically portrayed. Good transient behavior was another of the
Spectron’s strengths. What impressed me was the way the Musician III faithfully reproduced fast-rising bursts of energy from brass or percussion instruments, or
from pianos, yet without subjecting listeners to the piercing, ice-pick-in-the-eardrums pain of overwrought leading edges.
Like Neil Gader, I thought the Musician III’s tonal balance was neutral over most of the audio spectrum, and that its highs sounded ever so slightly subdued.
The latter quality became evident as I listened to Péter Tóth perform Liszt’s Sinistre—Unstern! [Stockfisch, SACD]; through the Spectron, the midrange of Tóth’s
piano sounded wonderfully clear, yet its higher overtones did not fully open and bloom as those of a real piano would. Where I differ, albeit slightly, from Neil’s
assessment is in the area of the Musician III’s bass. I agree the amplifier offers excellent low-frequency pitch definition and control, but I found its bass a bit lightly
balanced relative to many amplifiers (Class D, and otherwise) that I’ve heard.
112
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
Is Class D the Future of High-End Amplification?
Editor’s
Roundtable
Jonathan
Valin
Chris
Martens
Neil
Gader
Wayne
Garcia
Robert
Harley
What’s the consensus of TAS’s senior editors about whether
Class D amplifiers are ready for the high end? What are our overall
impressions of this potentially revolutionary new technology now that
we’ve got some experience with a range of products?
To answer those questions, we recorded a conference call with
Jonathan, Wayne, Neil, Chris, and me in which we sum up our
listening impressions and views. —Robert Harley
I’d like to get a general idea of what each of thinks of
this new technology. I’ll start by saying that my first experience
with Class D, through the Cary, was not positive. It had a
tremendous sense of power and dynamics, but was thick, murky,
and congealed. The NuForce [Reference 9 SE monoblocks] amps
were a big improvement, with exceptional dynamics, tremendous
transparency, and very good resolution. The Kharma MP150 was
another step up in performance.
With all three amplifiers, however, I heard a somewhat mechanical
sound in the upper midrange and treble that was the opposite of
warm, lush, and involving. The upper treble also sounded a bit
rolled off, not in the sense of lacking treble energy, but the feeling
of air hanging in the top octave was missing.
I also thought the Cary and the NuForce had a skewed dynamic
balance; the bottom end had exceptional dynamics, but the dynamic
range narrowed as a function of frequency. The amplifiers sounded
bass-heavy. These characteristics were significantly less audible with
the Kharma than the other two, but there seemed to be a common
sonic thread among all three amplifiers.
Robert:
I agree almost completely with what you just said. For
me, Class D on the whole—with the exception of the Karma
MP150, which is, I think, in a Class D of its own—has been a
disappointment. There’s something wrong with the treble of Class
D amplifiers. I don’t know exactly what’s going on, but there’s a
kind of a compression of dynamics, harmonics, and spatiality in
the top octaves of the Class D amplifiers I’ve heard. Top-octave
Jonathan:
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November 2006
The Absolute Sound
piano loses some of its sparkle and brilliance. Orchestral bells end
up sounding like doorbells. And air, which is quite audible on a
linear amplifier like the Ref 210 or the MBL 9008 (and in life),
just...vanishes.
When I was listening to The Pines of Rome with the Rowland
amplifier, which has some genuine virtues in the midrange, I had the
weirdest sensation I think I’ve ever had listening to a stereo system. It
was almost as if I could see a horizontal line running right through the
center of the MAGICO Mini tweeters. Below that line, the speaker
was filled with information and fairly lively dynamics (although to me
Class D amps certainly don’t sound as dynamic as you’ve just said,
Robert; they actually sound rather muted). Above that line there was
no information at all. It was just…empty, airless space.
You know, I agree with everything that has been said,
particularly the use of the word “muted.” I think that summarizes
my impressions of what’s going on in the highest octaves. In
some ways I kept harkening back to the introduction of transistor
equipment and I was thinking that maybe Class D might be in its
infancy in some regards, although in comparison to the introduction
of transistors, the sound is much more pleasant and the problems
more subtractive than additive—which gives me a certain hopeful
enthusiasm. The midrange was usually very solid and kind of rich.
Overall the sound was a little bit dark, and in the uppermost octave
I never really heard that transistor-style grain structure, which could
be so annoying, but, like Jonathan and Robert said, the treble was
kind of squeezed and truncated.
Neil:
Is Class D the Future of High-End Amplification?
It’s interesting, Neil brought up early transistor
designs. Particularly with the Cary, the Red Dragon, and
the NuForce, what I was reminded me of was early CD. I
think the NuForce, as I wrote in my comment, is probably
going to be the most controversial, because I know that
Chris is crazy about it, and Robert liked it quite a lot, too.
For me, that amplifier sounds very sterile. It lacks microdynamics. If you put on a solo violin piece, for example,
the violin didn’t have any poetry; the dynamics were kind
of squished. The top end just gave me a headache. It
almost had a jittery quality, like early CD. I also found the
amp not to sound of a piece. The bottom end, by and
large, was exaggerated. The top end was both razor-cut
and glassy.
Except for the Kharma, I couldn’t live with any of
these Class D amps, personally. I agree that it’s an exciting
technology, but for me a lot of the current crop just isn’t
ready for prime time.
Wayne:
Well, my reactions do differ from the group’s a bit.
What I found was that there seemed to be a dividing line
between Class D amps. I’d say that a good half of the
ones that I’ve heard fit the description that’s been given.
You know, the sense of the top being sawed off—the
compressed sound up top and lack of expressiveness. The
two that were the biggest exception to the rule were the
ARC and the NuForce. I’d put them and the Kharma in a
different category. I haven’t found them to have problems
with micro-dynamics or to lack transparency. Admittedly
I often listen to what might be, relative to the group, midpriced speakers, but I’ve also heard them on things like the
MBL 101Es and found them to be more transparent to my
ears than they may have seemed to the rest of the group.
To me, the three defining characteristics that leave
me pretty excited about the technology are: really tight
bass—typically much tighter than I hear from most Class
AB amplifiers—really decent handing of the leading
edges of transients, and much-better-than-average
transparency. Now, I’m not saying we get up into MBL
9011 territory, but then, few things do. I found that the
better Class D units tended to win when compared to
like-priced or even a fair amount of more expensive Class
AB amps.
Chris:
I was impressed overall with the bottom end
of the amplifiers I heard, although it did seem a bit
Robert:
“Until some of these
fundamental problems
with bandwidth, linearity,
and distortion are fixed,
Class D will remain more
of a convenience than a
legitimate high-end
amplification alternative”
exaggerated, as though the amps are more dynamic in the
bottom end than in the treble.
That’s what I found, too, Robert, and I found
some of the bass almost seemed detached from the rest,
as if it were pumped up somehow. These amps didn’t seem
to integrate as well in my system—again, except for the
Kharma.
Does anybody else hear these almost jittery kinds of
things that I was complaining about that I heard from three
of these models? Something on the top end that bothered
me, that just didn’t sound right?
Wayne:
I had the impression that acoustic instruments
sound a little bit like synthesizers.
Robert:
If you’re not reproducing the entire harmonic
series of any instrument with linearity, particularly any
instrument in the midrange or higher, naturally it’s gonna
sound strange.
Jonathan:
Well we also have to keep in mind that we’re
comparing these things in very high-resolution systems to
our reference analog or linear amplifiers.
Chris:
I was also comparing them to the sound of
music—to the absolute sound. And compared to the real
thing, not to the expensive thing, I thought most of these
Class D amps were just plain weird.
Jonathan:
It seems to me that no matter what you’re
comparing to, if you hear these problems going on
something is wrong.
Wayne:
I think we are isolating one particular factor [treble
response] to the disadvantage of a lot of these amps. I found
that a couple, the Spectron for one, created a wonderful
black background for the midrange instruments like piano
to bounce off of. I actually got a certain kind of focus on
individually hammered piano notes that I rarely get from
other amplifiers.
Neil:
One thing I observed with at least a couple of the
Class D amps was that they seemed to be much more
sensitive to both interconnect cabling and speaker cabling
than most of the Class AB amps. I was able to make
that jittery quality in the treble go away by picking cables
carefully, and, in particular, in some cases by picking power
cables carefully.
Chris:
Let’s fact it: All amps have limitations. But Class
D amps seem to have more than most, and the ones they
have seem to be more fundamental than most. No one
here is kissing the technology off. It’s way too early in the
game to do that. I think what most of us are saying is that
Class D amps are still very much works in progress. For
me at least, until some of these fundamental problems with
bandwidth, linearity, and distortion are fixed, Class D will
remain more of a convenience than a legitimate high-end
amplification alternative. TAS
Jonathan:
What do you think about Class D? Join the discussion with other
TAS readers and editors at a special Class D forum at avguide.com.
116
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
Brand: Red Dragon Audio
Web site: kharma.com
Web site: reddragonaudio.com
Model: 150M
Channels: 1
Model: Matrix MP150 monoblock
Channels: 1
Output power (8 ohms): 150W
Output power (8 ohms): 100W
Price: $2649 each
Price: $6800/pr.
Model: Leviathan Signature
Channels: 1
Output power (8 ohms): W00W
Price: $5995/pr.
Model: 150.2
Channels: 2
JEFF ROWLAND DESIGN GROUP
Brand: Kharma
Web site: audioresearch.com
RED DRAGON
AUDIO
Brand: Audio Research
KHARMA
AUDIO RESEARCH
A Sampling of High-End Class D Amplifiers
Brand: Jeff Rowland Design Group
Web site: jeffrowland.com
Model: 201
Channels: 1
Output power (8 ohms): 250W
Price: $4900/pr.
Model: 301
Channels: 1
Brand: Rotel
Output power (8 ohms): 600W
Price: $5295
Web site: nuforce.com
Web site: rotel.com
Price: $29,800/pr.
Model: RB-1092
Model: 501
Channels: 2
Channels: 1
Model: 300.2
Channels: 2
Model: IA-7 class D integrated
amplifier
ROTEL
Brand: NuForce
NUFORCE
Output power (8 ohms): 150Wp
Output power (8 ohms): 300Wpc
Channels: 2
Output power (8 ohms): 500Wpc
Output power (8 ohms): 500W
Price: $3995
Output power (8 ohms): 50Wpc
Price: $2499
Price: $6900/pr.
Model: RB-1091
Model: MC 606
Model: Reference 8.5
Channels: 1
Channels: 6
Brand: Channel Islands
Channels: 1
Output power (8 ohms): 500W
Output power (8 ohms): 250Wpc
Web site: ciaudio.com
Output power (8 ohms): 100W
Price: $1499 each
Price: $12,800
Price: $995 each
Model: D-100
Model: RMB-1077
Channels: 1
Model: Reference 9
Channels: 7
Output power (8 ohms): 100W
Channels: 1
Output power (8 ohms): 100Wpc
Brand: Spectron
Price: $1599/pr.
Output power (8 ohms): 160W
Price: $2499
Web site: spectronav.com
Price: $1250 each (standard) or
Model: D-200
$1305 each (with WBT Next-Gen
Model: Reference 9 Special Edition
Channels: 1
connector option)
Channels: 1
Output power (8 ohms): 200W
Price: $2299/pr.
Model: Reference 9 Special Edition
SPECTRON
CHANNEL ISLANDS
Price: $1195
Model: Muscian III
Channels: 2
Output power (8 ohms): 150W
Output power (8 ohms): 550Wpc
Price: $2100 each
Price: $4995
Model: Premiere
Price: $2100 each
Channels: 5-6
Output power (8 ohms): 550Wpc
Web site: caryaudio.com
Price: $7495 and $7995
Brand: PS Audio
Web site: psaudio.com
Channels: 2
Price: $5000
Brand: Carver
Web site: carverusa.com
Model: 300.2
Channels: 2
Output power (8 ohms): 95Wpc
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Model: 700.2
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Output power (8 ohms): 225Wpc
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Model: 1200.2
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Model: GCC 100
Integrated Control
Amplifier
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(8 ohms): 100Wpc
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Model: GCC 250
Integrated Control
Amplifier
Channels: 2
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(8 ohms): 250Wpc
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Model: GCC 500
Integrated Control
Amplifier
Channels: 2
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(8 ohms): 500Wpc
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Model: GCC 500
Integrated Control
Amplifier
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(8 ohms): 500Wpc
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Model: Troubadour
Model: GCMC 100
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TaCT AUDIO
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CARVER
Output power (8 ohms): 150W
Brand: Cary Audio
PS AUDIO
CARY AUDIO
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Web site: tactaudio.com
Model: M 2150 (integrated)
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Model: BOZ 216/2200
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Price: $9000 (2-ch; $3000 per 2-ch
module)
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
119
THE
Cutting Edge
Exotica: Ascendo M-S MKII Loudspeaker
The Ascendo M-S MKII loudspeaker from Germany is one of the most unlikely
success stories in high-end audio.
When I first heard the M-S at last year’s CES I was impressed enough to ask its importer, Darren Censullo of
Avatar Acoustics, for review samples. Not that I was knocked over by its sonics—not in a tiny Vegas hotel room,
not after coming off reviews of two indisputably great (and quite different) loudspeakers in the MBL 101 E
Radialstrahlers and the MAGICO Mini mini-monitors. The Ascendo was certainly promising, but the truth is I was
as much curious about how the thing worked as how good it would end up sounding in my room—it was and is
so damn improbable.
The M-S’s tweeter is one of the chief oddities about this odd duck. A horn-loaded monopole ribbon housed
in a tall, piano-black, rectangular box, it sports a prodigious appendage—a long, solid, channeled and graduated
122
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
Jonathan Valin
Ascendo M-S MKII
Loudspeaker
The Cutting Edge
(in millimeters) stainless steel tube attached
to a stainless-steel plate set in the rear of the
enclosure. This tube is made to slide into a
hollow stainless-steel holder mounted high up
on the Ascendo M-S’s massive chrome-plated
stand. Once the tube is fitted in the holder, the
entire tweeter-enclosure can be moved forward
and back more than a foot in either direction,
then secured in place by two massive setscrews.
(Because of the tweeter-enclosure’s eccentric
shape and weight-distribution, sliding it in its
holder is a two-man job, as is mounting the large,
hefty woofer enclosure—for which, see below.)
Why did Ascendo make its tweeter so
adjustable? In two words, “time alignment.”
Using a tape measure and the chart printed in
the instruction manual—which cross-references
the distance between your listening position and
that of the woofer box and the distance between
124
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
the floor and your ears—you can calculate
the precise spot on the graduated rule of the
tweeter’s mounting tube that will ensure perfect
time-alignment of the tweeter, mid/bass driver,
and subwoofer at your listening chair—no matter
what size your room, where in it you sit, how far
away you are from the speakers, or how high or
low your chair or sofa. You then slide the entire
tweeter-enclosure to precisely that spot and
fasten it in place with the setscrews.
The Ascendo’s highly adjustable tweeter is
only one of its singularities. Below the suspended
tweeter-enclosure is a much larger, piano-black,
rectangular box concocted of MDF and bitumen,
which “hangs” at its rear on a dimpled support
post welded to the main strut of the speaker
stand. In front, the speaker rests on two special
composite-material feet, which sit, in turn, on the
big stainless-steel footers of the stand. Mounted
Ascendo M-S MKII Loudspeaker
in a sealed-box sub-chamber at the top-front of
this hanging garden of an enclosure is a newly
designed SEAS 8" paper-cone mid/bass driver
with a big aluminum phase plug in its center.
(Yes, you read that right—a paper cone.)
Directly below the mid/bass unit is a port
that, at first, makes you think that the Ascendo
M-S is an outsized vented two-way. In fact, the
port has nothing to do with the 8" acousticsuspension mid/bass driver.
Near the bottom of the same massive box that
houses the mid/bass driver, invisible to the eye, is
another large driver—an 11" Eton “Hexacone”
subwoofer (a Hexacone driver has a diaphragm
that combines a core of honeycombed Nomex
with front and back layers of Kevlar)—which,
like the mid/bass cone, is also mounted in a
sealed sub-enclosure. Crossing over to the mid/
woof at about 80Hz, this subwoofer fires up into
the large tuned sub-chamber above it and then
out through the front port—a configuration
known as “bandpass bass.”
A ribbon tweeter, a paper-cone acousticsuspension mid/bass driver, a Hexacone
bandpass sub…how in the world could such
a concatenation of drivers and drive systems
sound like a single cohesive sound source, rather
than a multitude of separate sources, each with
its own distinct signature?
Well, here’s how.
Ascendo’s chief engineer, Jürgen Scheuring,
who is a Professor of Physics and one very
smart cookie (Ascendo has won a great deal of
financial support from the German government
and also makes a celebrated room/speaker
measurement system—Room Tools—used by
DG and German BMG, among others), tells
me that the ability to precisely time-align the
ribbon tweeter is one of the chief reasons the
M-S doesn’t sound incoherent, like every other
speaker I’ve heard that has attempted to mate
a ribbon or electrostatic or planar driver with a
cone driver. In addition, mounting the ribbon in
its own enclosure (with also houses the crossover
of the loudspeaker) mechanically decouples it
(and the crossover) from the big mid/woofer/
subwoofer box and the floor.
Though the paper-cone mid/bass driver
looks “conventional,” even plebian by MBL or
MAGICO standards, it was carefully selected by
Scheuring and his Ascendo design team for its
high speed, low distortion, and lack of “material”
coloration. The choice of a sealed box enclosure
was made to further enhance speed, linearity,
and low levels of coloration.
As for the M-S’s low end, a bandpass woofer
can produce very fast, very deep bass from
a relatively small driver in a relatively small
enclosure (the MBL 101 E uses one), but unless
artfully implemented bandpass bass can quickly
The Cutting Edge
become wildly time-and-phase incoherent
outside its passband, causing group delay in the
crossover region. To minimize this problem,
Scheuring and his team employed two patented
techniques they call “dynamic-current-damping”
and “S.A.S.B” (semi-symmetrical bandpass).
I will allow Scheuring to explain: “We have
a speaker for the mids and upper bass in a
sealed space and a woofer that looks similar to
a bandpass for the very low end. The trick is to
design the impedances of these two speakers,
including the crossover and box volumes, so that
they are damping each other electrically.
“Normally a bandpass woofer is designed
symmetrically, meaning it has a rising edge in
frequency response on the lower side, a plateau
in the working area, and a rising edge on the
high side. Ascendo takes a different tack. We use
a third-order high-pass crossover at an unusually
low crossover point from the “outside” mid/
bass driver to the “inside” woofer. Though
low-pass crossovers aren’t typically employed
in a bandpass design, our inside woofer also
uses a second-order crossover to couple it
to the outside mid/bass driver. The result is
very good electrical damping between the two
drivers, which means the bass is very fast, phase
behavior is very good in the crossover region
(there is no step in the group delay), and, due to
the bandpass design, there is acoustical damping
below the tuning frequency (which also speeds
up the bass compared to a ported design, which
completely loses control below resonance)—all
the advantages of a bandpass woofer without
the disadvantages of high group delay in the
crossover region.”
Got that?
Well, if you don’t, try this: Scheuring modeled
the M-S on the highly time-and-phase-coherent
sound of the Quad electrostat and, by Gott,
that’s what his speaker sounds like—a Quad
with killer dynamics, killer extension in the bass,
and even sweeter, slightly more extended treble.
I don’t want to let this cat out of the bag
too soon, but of all the speakers that have
come through my listening room over the past
ten years—including the MBL 101 Es and the
MAGICO Minis—my little listening panel,
which has heard ’em all, preferred the Ascendo
M-S’s.
It’s easy to understand why—despite their
weird “this-can’t-possibly-work” looks, the MS’s are simply great sounding. They do virtually
everything right and very little wrong.
Thanks to Schuering’s ear and electromechanical alchemy, the M-S’s sound
sensationally “of a piece” from top-to-bottom
(very Quad-like, indeed), are gorgeously rich
in tone color everywhere they play, image with
natural size and dimensionality, have unusually
126
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
good deep bass (down 3dB, referenced to
1kHz, at 28Hz in my room) and sweet, soft,
quick, deceptively detailed treble, are very nearly
as dynamic as those kings of lifelike dynamics,
the MBL 101 Es, and register changes in
preamplification, amplification, front end, and
source with considerable transparency.
They are also—and this is the notch they fit
in—equally good on all kinds of music at any
and all volume levels.
Unlike the MAGICO Minis (without subs),
the M-S’s do power music with authority. Though
they don’t have quite the subterranean extension
of MBL 101s, they go more than deep enough
to reproduce synth, 5-string bass, bottom-octave
piano, contrabassoon, bass drum, organ, and full
orchestra with lifelike power, pitch, and color
and, unlike the 101s, they don’t have to be jacked
up to loud levels to strut their stuff.
In validation of Scheuring’s claims of
superior time-and-phase coherence from the
bass through the lower mids, the M-S’s also have
simply remarkable pace, making the tempi of
every kind of music crystal clear and turning
good rock numbers (and even certain lightclassical music) into irresistible toe-tappers.
The Acendos are excitement machines. You
simply can’t listen to them playing back Janis
wailing about how she’s gonna “Try just a little
bit harder” [Columbia] or Carlos Kleiber and
the Vienna Phil playing the Fledermaus Overture
[Columbia], without pounding your feet, moving
your ass, and feeling the urge to get up and dance.
The MBL 101 Es are the only other speakers
of recent memory that have had this kind of
electrifying effect and, for all the other virtues
of great hi-fi, that direct connection to the pulse
Ascendo M-S MKII Loudspeaker
of the music—that feeling of being overtaken,
bodily, by joy, without willing it or struggling for
it—is, ultimately, the chief thing this hobby is
about.
At the same time, and almost magically, the
Ascendos (here a bit less like MBLs and a lot
more like Quads) are capable of extraordinary
delicacy of timbre and texture, sounding simply
gorgeous on small-scale music, and particularly
lovely on strings (including guitar) and voice. To
hear their combination of pace, dynamic power
and nuance, extension, low-level resolution, and
timbral beauty on something like the difficult
but extremely well-recorded Schnittke Quasi
una sonata [EMI], with its combination of
extreme fortissimos and extreme pianissimos
played in virtually every form of staccato and
legato known to man, is something to behold.
Likewise, the M-S’s handling of the pizzicatos
throughout the Czech composer Petr Fiala’s
nifty neo-Bartókian Third String Quartet
[Panton]—is there, I wonder, a string quartet that
has had a great influence on twentieth-century
chamber music than Bartók’s own incomparable
Third?—and of the wonderful diminuendo in
the Allegro feroce, where the first violin seems
to run screaming off into the woods, is simply
marvelous.
Speakers that can combine the sheer dynamic
excitement of the MBL 101 Es and the subtle
grace and nuance of the Quad 57s are rare on
the ground. The Ascendo Ms do just this. And
so, I’m sure you’re thinking, I should agree
whole-heartedly with my listening panel and
name the Ascendo M-S’s primus inter pares (first
among equals).
The trouble is I don’t agree whole-heartedly. I
agree half-heartedly.
Here is the thing: The Ascendo M-S’s are
capable of sounding as beautiful, dynamic,
nuanced, lifelike, and engaging as anything I’ve
heard. For the way they can connect you to the
pulse of the music—any music—they are worth
every penny Ascendo asks for them (and then
some). But…they aren’t perfect.
For one thing, in comparison with the
MAGICO Minis—whose neutrality is, thus
far in my experience, unsurpassed and whose
ability to disappear completely into a wide,
deep soundstage, within which they conjure up
extraordinarily lifelike semblances of vocalists
and instrumentalists is nonpareil—the Ascendos
sound just the slightest bit dark and boxy.
The slight darkness of the M-S’s balance
can actually be explained via quasi-anechoic
measurements (which I conducted with Jürgen
Scheuring himself, using his own Room Tools
software). Though the M-S’s measure within
±2.5 dB of ruler-flat from below 30Hz to
above 12kHz and aren’t at all “jumpy” (full of
Ascendo M-S MKII Loudspeaker
little dips and peaks) anywhere, their response
does rather fall into two plateaus, one of which
is “up” about 2.5dB (vis-à-vis 1kHz) and the
other which is down the same amount: A flat
but slightly elevated bass and lower midrange
plateau is followed by a sharp dip down at 1k
and another flat plateau that is “down” about
2.5dB, extending out into the high treble, which
then rolls off steeply above about 12–14kHz.
Now this measurement both is and isn’t a true
reflection of the Ascendo M-S’s potential in a
larger room than mine—and shows, to an extent,
the limits of quasi-anechoic measurements via a
single microphone with speakers whose drivers
are widely spaced. Raising the test microphone
closer to the ribbon tweeter proves that its
response is actually extended well into the ultrasonic range (as one would expect of a ribbon).
Nonetheless, from my listening seat, which is
situated well below the elevated tweeter (as was
the test microphone), the speakers do sound a
bit dark overall—weighted more toward the
bass and lower mids and less toward the slightly
softer and less hard-hittingly dynamic, although
still gorgeously colored and detailed, upper mids
and treble. Just as the anechoic measurements
suggest.
The speakers’ slight boxiness, which limits
soundstage width—the Ascendos when aimed
at your listening position (as they should be for
perfect tweeter time-alignment) do not image
much “outside their boxes,” although they do
spectacularly well in depth and height in the space
between their enclosures)—isn’t a matter of
diffraction effects or box resonances; it is, rather
a sense that there are boxes “there,” like walls, at
either side of the ’stage. In other words, unlike
the Minis or the MBL 101 Es, the Ascendos do
not disappear completely as sound sources.
Understand that instruments aren’t “pinned”
to the drivers or the separate enclosures of the
M-S’s; they float free of the boxes in the space
between them. It is just the slight tonal darkness
and the way the enclosures limit the width of
the stage that make the boxes more noticeable.
In a bigger room, where the speakers could be
The Cutting Edge
more widely spaced, or angled less directly at the
listener, this would be ameliorated.
So where do the Ascendos stand in my
hierarchy of top-notch loudspeakers?
The MAGICO Minis are a connoisseur’s
speaker—and, because of their unparalleled
neutrality, extraordinary resolution, and terrific
dynamics, a superb reviewer’s reference. They will
tell you more, more honestly than anything else
I’ve yet heard, about what is on a recording, and,
provided the recording is first-rate, will reproduce
it with the highest realism. They will also tell you
what is upstream of them with greater honesty
than any component I’ve had in my home. That
said, they are limited in the bottom octave, require a
goodly amount of power to drive, and, compared
to either the MBL 101 E or the Ascendo M-S’s
image with slightly less-than-life-size height. (Be
aware, however, that I will be reviewing the Minis
with an exceptional subwoofer system that may
well eliminate these few reservations—resulting in
a legitimate “super-system” that costs less than the
MBLs or the Ascendos.)
The MBL 101 Es are the purest examples
of excitement machines I’ve ever auditioned
in high-end audio. From top to bottom, they
bring every kind of music to irrepressible life,
with dynamics and pace that light up your body
and lift your spirits—the way music itself does,
heard live. In these, perhaps most key, regards,
they are the best loudspeakers I’ve ever heard.
They also disappear into the soundfield as
completely as MAGICO Minis, throw an even
larger soundstage than the Minis (although
their center-imaging is slightly vaguer than the
Minis), and are the finest speakers for listening
to off-axis in the world. That said, they take a
tremendous amount of power to drive to their
best (thriving on MBL’s own very expensive
amps), are not quite as neutral (or as neutralsounding) as Minis, and because of their peculiar
power requirements are not as transparent to
sources as Minis or Ascendos. (The MBLs tend
to tell you what they thrive on, and not what the
other stuff sounds like.)
As for the Ascendos, they are a nice
combination of fidelity and excitement—a cross
between Minis and MBLs. They deliver a high
measure of the same sonic thrills that the MBL’s
do par excellence—truly lighting up your body
with musical pleasure on any kind of music. At
the same time they can play softly with a great
deal of the nuance, loveliness, and superfine
resolution of the MAGICOs—and with a good
measure of the same “realism.” Yes, they are a
little dark in overall balance (so are the MBLs).
But they are easier to drive than either of the
other two speakers (particularly the MBLs), have
more natural soundstage/image height than
the Minis, and are slightly more transparent to
sources than MBLs. (The Ascendos do prefer to
be tri-wired, BTW, and are equipped for same, so
they will cost you a bit more in cabling.)
I don’t think you could go wrong with any of
these three superb loudspeakers. Which one is
right for you is something you’ll have to decide
for yourself, although I’ve already told you which
one my listening panel picked. TAS
Specs & Pricing
AVATAR ACOUSTICS
13401 SW 96 Avenue
Miami, Florida 33176
(305) 608-6079
(888) 991-9196
avataracoustics.com
[email protected]
Type: Three-way, hybrid ribbon/cone floorstanding
loudspeaker
Driver complement: Ribbon tweeter, 8" papercone mid/bass, 11" Hexacone woofer
Sensitivity: 88dB/1W/1m
Impedance: 8 ohms
Power-handling: 600W
Dimensions (with stands): 20" x 61.5" x 25.5"
Weight: 264 lbs.
Price: $46,000 in true piano lacquer with polished
stands; $36,000 in lacquer finish with painted
stands available in any RAL color
JV’s Exotica Reference System
Analog source: Walker Proscenium Black Diamond
record playing system; Kuzma Stabi XL/Air Line
Moving-coil phono cartridge: Air Tight PC-1
Moving-iron phono cartridge: London Reference
Digital source: MBL 1611 E transport/1621 A
digital-to-analog converter
Solid-state linestage preamp: MBL 6010 D
Tube linestage preamp: Audio Research Reference 3
Phonostage preamp: Audio Research PH-7, Lamm
LP2 Deluxe
Solid-state amp: MBL 9011 monoblock, MBL 9008
monoblock
Tube amp: Audio Research Reference 200, Lamm ML2
Large speaker: MBL 101 E
Small speaker: MAGICO Mini
Connection: Tara Labs “The Zero” interconnect,
Tara Labs Omega speaker cable, Tara Labs “The
One” power cords
Accessories: Shakti Hallographs, Winds Arm
Load meter, Clearaudio Matrix record cleaning
machine, Cable Elevators, Walker Audio
Velocitors, Walker Audio Valid Points, Walker
Custom Equipment Stand, Richard Gray Power
Company 600S/Pole Pig
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
129
Manufacturers Comments
Kharma MP150 Amplifier
Thanks for the review of the MP150.
Kharma has made electronics in the past but
when the loudspeakers and cables started to
grow, electronics had to take a back seat.
After some years I met Bruno Putzeys, and
we decided to explore the boundaries of
high-end electronics.
The first results were mixed, and it even
came to a point were I asked myself if this
[Class D] technology was suitable for high
end. No matter how conveniently sized and
efficient, I felt the sound must come first.
After many tweaks with components and
some proprietary technologies (upon which
patents are pending) we finally reached
a result that was very promising. It has
become clear to me during this journey that
every component in the design has a sonic
footprint; therefore there is never an end
to the possible quality of the final product.
The sonic quality of a design is not as much
dependent of the principal of the design,
but how that principle is executed.
The MP150 is our entry-line amplifier
which we have already improved upon with
our soon-to-be-released Exquisite EXQ350 and after that, preamplifiers.
Charles van Oosterum
President and Chief Designer
NuForce Reference 9
We at Nuforce believe accuracy is the most
natural sound in the world, and we try hard
to get close to the ultimate truth without
resorting to “shaping” or “voicing” our
product. As Robert Harley stated, please
audition the Nuforce amplifiers in your own
system, especially in any complicated and
delicately balanced setup (i.e. warm cable for
a bright preamp, etc.). We also wish to point
out that Wayne Garcia’s experience was not
typical, that is, Nuforce dealer and Nuforce
would have provided post-sales services to
resolve any customers’ issues.
Paradigm Reference Signature
S8 Loudspeaker
Chris’ comment about the Reference
Signature S8 Loudspeakers being “sonic
chameleons” struck home for me, not
just for recordings, but also for associated
equipment as well. When all the pieces come
together right, the S8s are magic. But use an
amplifier that’s a touch forward, and that’s
what you’ll hear. Use a front end that’s a bit
two dimensional, and that’s what you’ll get.
I suspect that some of Chris’ impressions
about transient performance and imaging
would change as he tries other associated
equipment, much like what happened when
he experimented with cables
Jack Shafton
Director of Sales & Marketing
Jason Lim
CEO, Nuforce Inc.
(recently renamed from Nphysics, Inc.)
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
131
W
ith a receding hairline, slight gut, business-casual appearance, and horn-rimmed glasses, Craig
Finn looks like a moonlighting college English professor, the type that when class breaks,
heads to a watering hole with students and decompresses over a couple of cold ones. Given
his magnetic songwriting, sociological insight, and witty one-liners, The Hold Steady vocalist might as
well teach creative writing. For the past few years, he’s penned incomparably sharp portraits of suburbia
and its inhabitants’ splintered lives. A loose concept record that geographically references Finn’s current
address (Brooklyn) and original hometown (Minneapolis), last year’s Separation Sunday, along with
2004’s Almost Killed Me, chronicle the traps, indulgences, conflicts, and losses associated with the eternal
quest to stay young, find meaning, and kill boredom. The Hold Steady shares and channels these themes
with the passion of early Bruce Springsteen, with whom the quintet has another commonality—a sincere,
soulful rock n’ roll sound that references seize-the-day glory, barroom swagger, and sentimental reflection.
Music
Rock
etc.
Named after a line from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Finn pulls off the artistic trifecta on Boys
and Girls In America, whose title says it all. A handful of Finn’s colorful characters from previous
albums sporadically reappear, but the focus remains on young love—its awkwardness, pressures,
conventions, fallacies—and the hells that opposite sexes force upon one another. Sonically, the
production is bigger and better, boosted by wider soundscapes, louder instruments, added
openness, and enhanced dynamics. Rhythms still stab, but they possess smoother contours,
dissolving into saltier baths where an endless stream of catchy hooks flow from the faucet.
From the initial restless notes of the opening “Stuck Between Stations,” Boys and Girls In
Recording
of the Issue
America announces itself as the stuff of arena-rock dreams, Saturday night lights, and out-on-the-
The Hold Steady: Boys and
Girls in America.
John Agnello, producer.
Vagrant 698.
streets tussles. Making the first of several metaphorical references to the Mississippi River, Finn
and company put on the nines and, guitar necks held perpendicularly, sail away on a Southern rock
groove. It’s a style that flairs up throughout, the twin guitars’ screeching leads and power-chord
rhythms cavorting across amphetamine fields. Rolling percussion and cresting pianos give “Party
Pit” a grand entrance before the jittery song spins into an Italianate waltz dependent on a painkilling alcoholic binge. Whoa-oh choruses, skirt-swirling joy, and momentous pomp send “Massive
Night” up to kiss the stars before Finn’s trademark irony sends the prom-dance tale crashing to earth.
This is the area where The Hold Steady excels, that ever-so tricky business of matching lyrics with
arrangements so that there’s no divide between the two. It’s not enough that amplifiers crunch, crescendos
twirl, or organs burn. As Finn’s conversational wordplay, sing-speak vocals, and candid narrations wring out
subjects’feelings,thebandrespondswithmovesthatmakelistenersexperiencethepleasuresofrecreational
addictions, the emptiness of brief comforts, and the frustrations of repeated letdowns. Emotionally,
Finn is fearless, scared, blacked-out, belligerent, plastered, exasperated—whatever the song demands.
Migraine headaches and excessive drug use on “Chips Ahoy” boil into a nervous processional, the
tune’s funky stops and choppy riffs sweating like a detox patient. Moods turn sympathetic on “You
Extraordinary
Can Make Him Like You,” Finn a sage adviser on relationships, dealers, and compromise. “Chillout
Tent” sees romance bloom after two concertgoers meet while recovering in first-aid after ingesting
Excellent
too many mushrooms and pills. The Reputation’s Elizabeth Elmore sultrily sings the role of the girl
in what could’ve been a Grease showstopper. There’s also a pair of astonishing ballads, the crooned
Good
“First Night” and acoustic “Citrus,” each spiked with vividly allegorical verse and metaphoric contrast.
Fair
By the time the members harmonize on the a cappella intro to the closing “Southtown Girls,”
it’s clear the boys are back in town and going out in a blaze of glory. “Southdown girls won’t
blow you away/But you know that they’ll stay,” they sing with a rough-you-up cool, announcing
Poor
that you can’t always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need. Bob Gendron
Further Listening: Thin Lizzy: Live and Dangerous; Husker Du: Zen Arcade
Music
November 2006
Sonics
The Absolute Sound
133
Music
Rock etc.
to Black Thought and guest rapper Peedi Crakk’s
rugged rhymes about surviving in the streets.
Sonically, the mixes aren’t as sharp as those
on most rap albums, likely because the Roots
actually play their own instruments, allowing for
spatial cues that don’t always translate on digital
recordings. Nonetheless, the delineation between
instruments is strong even though Black Thought’s
vocals don’t always have ample separation from
the bass. No matter.
Imbued with sense of lyrical and musical
urgency that has been largely absent from much of
the Roots’ recent work, Game Theory is a welcome
return to form from the Philadelphia ensemble that
deserves to be recognized not only for its intellectual
abilities, but for its style.
Soren Baker
Further Listening: Black Star: Mos Def
& Talib Kweli are Black Star; Common:
One Day It’ll All Make Sense
The Roots:
Game Theory.
The Roots, producers.
Island Def Jam 722202.
The Roots hold a peculiar place in rap’s pantheon.
As a band, their only legitimate predecessors are
Stetsasonic, the animated crew whose alumni
include production mastermind Prince Paul (De
La Soul, Big Daddy Kane). As a performance act,
they are one of the few modern hip-hop groups
who actually have a show that took thought and
talent to assemble—and execute. But other than
1999’s superb Things Fall Apart, buoyed by the
Erykah Badu-assisted single “You Got Me,”
the Roots have largely been relegated to critical
darlings. In most fans’ eyes, they are known as
“‘that’ rap band that puts on good shows.” And
they haven’t been able to grow beyond being rap’s
“band” because their most charismatic persona
is drummer ?uestlove (not lead emcee Black
Thought) and their music has always seemingly
been more enjoyable in theory than practice.
Fortunately, Game Theory has many of the
same qualities that made Things Fall Apart so
memorable: quality grooves, compelling subject
matter, and less of the experimental drivel that
derailed their earlier releases. With bass-piano
chords and samples from classic soul records,
“Don’t Feel Right” has a pleasantly muscular
groove. Here, Black Though bemoans the traps
many young African-Americans succumb to,
confidently rapping “I try to school these bucks
but they don’t wanna listen/That’s the reason
the system making this paper from the prison.”
“Take It There” gets its political might from an
ominous voiceover, and musical changes add to
the tune’s spooky, industrial wasteland-like vibe.
“Long Time” gleefully glides along thanks to
warm strings and a lush guitar, a nice juxtaposition
Music
134
Sonics
November 2006
Extraordinary
The Absolute Sound
but concise; at times it sounds as if the filler has
filler (such as the nine, patience-testing minutes
of “A Bad Note”). In addition, a cavalcade of
guest stars (everyone from Snoop Dogg to Macy
Gray) bogs down the proceedings.
The sonics are fair, with the wide soundstage
on “Morris Brown” recreating the sensation
of being in the bleachers for a college-football
halftime show, though at times the low end lacks
the needed pop.
Most interesting is the obvious divide
between the star players, who appear together
on only two tracks (including the uninspiring
first single “Mighty ‘O’”) and seem headed for
an unavoidable divorce. Dre continues his sonic
experimentation, dabbling in hackneyed blues
(“Idlewild Blue”), trippy electronica (“Life Is
Like a Musical”), and cringe-inducing scat (“PJ
& Rooster”) while Big Boi delivers the banging
hip-hop of the album’s sharpest cuts. “Peaches”
is the best of these, Boi’s sensitive divorce ballad
tugging at the heartstrings even as his nimble flow
makes mincemeat of the beat. Andy Downing
Further Listening: Pigeon John: Sings
the Blues; Outkast: Aquemini
Outkast: Idlewild.
Earthtone III and
Organized Noize, producers.
LaFace 75791 (CD and LP).
Outkast’s André “3000” Benjamin and Antwan
“Big Boi” Patton functioned as a dynamic duo
for nearly a decade before the trial separation
of 2003’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below—
essentially two dueling solo discs packaged as
a mammoth double-album—showed the first
cracks in a growing rift. The album, as audacious,
overwhelming, and inventive as anything in the
group’s impressive catalog, had the feel of a
last fling, Big Boi remaining true to street-level
hip-hop as André 3000, like Sly Stone or Prince
before him, ventured further into the cosmos.
So there is some level of surprise that, amidst
numerous breakup rumors, the pair reunited
for Idlewild, the movie soundtrack to the longdelayed film of the same name. Taking its cues
from the movie, which is set in a 1930s Georgia
speakeasy, the music leans heavily on swing-era
jazz, Dre jumping and jiving like Cab Calloway
reincarnate as Big Boi provides the lyrical pop on
deep grooves such as the marching-band-fueled
“Morris Brown.” With 25 tracks and a run time
in excess of 78 minutes, the album is anything
Excellent
Good
Heartless
Bastards:
All This Time.
Heartless Bastards, producers.
Fat Possum 1044.
Erica Wennerstrom, singer/songwriter for the
Heartless Bastards, has a voice like a lava flow. A
thick, dark alto, it’s viscerally explosive, emotionally
unrelenting, and the perfect antidote to the toxicity
of American Idol. Showcased to great effect on
the band’s 2004’s debut Stairs and Elevators (and
make no mistake, this is her band), Wennerstrom
established the Cincinnati-based trio as gritty
blues-rockers with an address just a garage or two
removed from the punk scene.
However, a little something happened to the
Bastards on their way to the sophomore All This
Time. It can be heard in the jumpy, reverb-washed
piano vamp of the opening “Into the Open.” As
if proclaiming a manifesto, Wennerstrom sings
“Thing’s are coming into focus/I’ve got wind
Fair
Poor
Music
Rock etc.
in my face/And it’s guiding me on.” Newfound
identity and assurance—the art of shaking off
inner demons and alienation, and wrestling with
desires and ambition—is the central theme here.
Wennerstrom (piano and guitar), Mike
Lamping (bass), and Kevin Vaughn (drums
and percussion) haven’t completely rejected
the bar-band edge. But they’ve jettisoned
the more derivative aspects while embracing
an increased minimalist ethic drawn from
bands like the White Stripes. The difference
is an evolution of richer soundscapes
wherein drums, bass, and guitar seem to
swallow one another in creating a harmonic
paste of energy and rhythm so thick that
you almost wade through it as part of the
listening experience. In some ways, the sound
resembles a film negative; treble contrasts are
minimized beneath a groundswell of bass
resonances and kick-drum stomp. Not for
imaging purists but striking in its own, unique
way.
136
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
As a bookend to the opening cut, the
closing “Come a Long Way” concludes with
Wennerstrom choosing optimism over angst,
resolve over ennui, and seeking light rather
than encouraging the darkness. The Heartless
Bastards have become what every young
band dreams of achieving—they’ve become
authentic. Neil Gader
Further Listening: PJ Harvey: Rid Of
Me; The Pretenders: Learning to Crawl
Iron Maiden:
A Matter of Life
and Death.
Kevin Shirley, producer.
Sanctuary 4768 (CD and two-LP).
Mastodon:
Blood Mountain.
Matt Bayles, producer.
Reprise 44364 (CD and two-LP).
Fantasy-based concept records and metal have
walked hand-in-hand for an eternity, the match
ideally pairing lyrical imagination with dramatic
scope.
Following an acclaimed sophomore effort
that loosely chronicled Moby Dick, Mastodon
has created a story about scaling a bewildering
peak—and encountering bloodthirsty wolves,
unified tree-people colonies, and ice gods—
that recounts the members’ hunt for a crystal
skull and their need to insert it inside their heads
to reach the next phase of human existence.
The Tolkien-esque premise would flounder
in the hands of a lesser band, but the Atlanta
quartet is up to the thematic and musical
challenges. Any concern over the group having
sacrificed its elephantine might in exchange for
commercial acceptability in light of its signing
to Warner Brothers is rendered mute; Blood
Mountain is as complex and uncompromising
as its predecessors, the latest evolution in the
quartet’s forward-thinking chemistry and
cutting-edge sound.
Weaving together a web of thrash, prog,
psychedelic, and blues disciplines, Mastodon
continues its idiosyncratic approach to pace,
contrast, and angularity. The key element
remains Brann Dailor’s unfathomably dynamic
drumming, which pulls from the jazz world’s
sense of off-kilter spacing and color. Dailor’s
manhandling of rhythm sways tempos from
side to side, his arm-twisting rolls launching
soirees, and double-bass thunder igniting
landslides. The percussionist’s mates are
equally proficient, their instruments lances
that carve fills and coalesce on arpeggio runs
that, akin to the songs’ breadth, stem from a
classical school of thought.
Shredding passages mutate into a shootsand-ladders series of harmonized solos on
“Crystal Skull,” a wall-pounding squall that
sucks listeners into a black abyss. Acoustic
flourishes and fluid notes lighten the load
of “Sleeping Giant,” the tune crushing as
it consoles. Bench-pressing intensity and
vocoder effects recreate the alien lifeforms
of “Circle of the Cysquatch,” while on
“Siberian Divide,” knotty turns and grinding
clusters respond to tales of hypothermia and
cannibalism. Mastodon embraces a cosmic
sensibility throughout, turning to Queens
of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme to supply
hallucinatory background vocals for “The
Colony of the Birchmen,” and on the reverbmisted “Pendelous Skin,” the band explores
outer dimensions of fractal folk.
Be it Egyptian slavery or the flight of Icarus,
Iron Maiden is legendary for the pursuit
of afterlife topics and mythical escapism.
The English band’s first studio record since
conquering U.S. audiences on last summer’s
Ozzfest tour, A Matter of Life and Death
continues this pattern, its arresting single “The
Reincarnation of Benjamin Breeg” concerning
a fictitious character disturbed by demons and
wrecked by nightmarish apparitions. Beginning
as a lullaby from a grave, the song slowly
cocoons its way out of the darkness before
a head-battering riff materializes, leading into
a black-mass processional that peers into the
mind of a man saddled with the blood of a
thousand souls. Speaking of the latter, the epic
“Lord of the Light” depicts an alternative hell
presided over by a kinder beast.
Yet most of the album revolves around
the phenomenon of war and its associated
causes, repercussions, questions, and feelings.
Musically, the band responds in kind, building
on the rawness of 2003’s Dance of Death
while maintaining mystical wizardry and
dreamcatching luster. While recent Maiden
releases lacked the last word in consistency and
focus, the band’s 14th effort storms back with
a saber-rattling spirit no doubt motivated by
the now-infamous conflict waged with Sharon
Osbourne. Few singers make a song sail like
Bruce Dickinson, whose note-bending vibrato,
multi-octave reach, and wall-scaling croon let
fly throughout. His emotive howl serves well
the contemplations of religion, death, and
morality, all of which have been previously
tackled by the sextet, yet never so closely or
thoroughly connected to contemporary times.
As it’s been for more than a quarter of
a century, Maiden’s touchstone remains
its soaring melodies and fluid fireworks.
“Different World” wastes no time in rushing
the gates and surging forward, Steve Harris’
punching-bag bass going ten rounds with the
triple-guitar attack. Inspired by the threat of
nuclear destruction and widespread terrorism,
“Brighter Than A Thousand Suns” comes on
like a cavalier troop en route to battle, and akin
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
137
Music
Rock etc.
to most of the tracks, is divided by shadowy
interludes. “The Longest Day” manages to
sonically parallel the crawling-on-all-fours,
trudging-through-muck D-Day experiences
it references, the nearly eight-minute tune a
showcase for the group’s hallmark overlapping
leads, ominous tonalities, and walloping
marches. Impassioned and majestic, A Matter
of Life and Death plays as if Maiden’s future did
indeed hinge on the outcome.
Both albums are available as limited-edition
LPs. As he did on Leviathan, Matt Bayles
preserves Mastodon’s thickness while allowing
songs to breathe. Dailor’s floor-shaking
beats and firm drive illuminate the spacious
midrange, and while there’s a slight mushiness
to background vocals, it doesn’t subtract from
a forceful footprint and solid balance that,
when blared, give the impression of water
rushing through a broken ship’s hull. At coproducer Harris’ suggestion, Kevin Shirley did
not master Maiden’s record. While customary
frequency boosts are absent and levels require
an additional turn of the volume knob,
the results have wonderful bite, snap, and
transience that would otherwise be diluted.
Nicko McBrain’s drums authoritatively crack,
Dickinson’s prison-break vocals shudder, and
the band naturally pulls together as a truly
cohesive unit. BG
Further Listening: The Mars Volta:
Frances the Mute; Led Zeppelin:
Led Zeppelin II
in all manner of sonic exploration, from the
underworld belch of the former’s Spiderland
to the latter’s flashy guitar pyrotechnics. That
makes it all the more surprising that the
longtime Louisville resident’s solo output,
released under the moniker Papa M and, more
recently, as Pajo, has a distinctly pastoral feel.
His latest, 1968, could have been recorded
that very year, the music abuzz with fingerpicked guitar, gently plodding timpani, and Pajo’s
wheatfield-rippling coo, as calming and steady as
a spring breeze. “Insomnia Song” is as sleepless
as its titles suggests, the slight reverb on the guitar
strings making it sound as if Pajo has positioned
himself cross-legged in the listener’s living room.
“Wrong Turn” blends the soft rainfall of pingponging electronics with the front-porch jangle
of wind chimes. “Let It Be Me” sways lazily
back-and-forth like a tree swing, the tune nudged
forth by jaunty blasts of harmonica.
The music’s almost-neighborly feel stands in
direct contrast to its content. 1968 opens with
the devil knocking at the door and closes with
“I’ve Just Restored My Will to Live Again,” a
heaven-bound Pajo curious about the manner
his wings are “whipping to and fro.” In between,
the singer wields a knife; hides bleeding in a tree;
holds a gun to a man’s head; and, on “Let It Be
Me,” finds redemption through the love of a
woman, Pajo intoning, “Without your sweet
love what would life be?” The listener, having
witnessed violent outbursts and bloody chases
through nighttime forests and dreary basements,
is keenly aware of the answer to this question.
The sonics are fair to good, with a natural
soundstage that draws the listener closer for the
goosebump-inducing campfire narratives. The
low end lacks real punch, though that could be
by design as Pajo balances violent lyrics with a
comparatively sunny musical backdrop. AD
Further Listening: Bonnie Prince Billy:
I See A Darkness; Mountain Goats:
All Hail West Texas
Previous collaborations between Chip “Wild
Thing” Taylor and Carrie Rodriguez have
yielded three fine duet albums, and now
Taylor has seen fit to discreetly recede into
the background as Rodriguez launches what
should become an interesting solo career.
In this case, being in the background means
Taylor remains a nuanced presence, as coproducer with Rodriguez, and as the writer or
co-writer of 11 of the dozen songs here.
A band that includes Bill Frisell on electric
guitar, Alison’s brother Viktor Krauss on
upright bass, Greg Leisz on pedal steel, lap
steel, and dobro, Taylor on acoustic guitar,
and Rodriguez on fiddle conjures a dreamy,
minimalist soundscape that can be as positively
hypnotic in its ethereal restraint as the title
track is inscrutable and bracing in its mystery.
(It’s also one of three cuts that take on a jazz
tint, thanks to Javier Vercher’s searching sax
punctuations.). Even when the festivities
take on the drive of a hoedown, as in the
spry “Never Gonna Be Your Bride,” which
becomes a showcase for Rodriguez’s hot
fiddling, no one instrument ever gets too far
out there; from emotions to music, everything
is played close to the vest.
Lucinda Williams is the most obvious
influence on Rodriguez’s approach as a writer
and singer, and although she doesn’t puzzle
over or beseech God with Williams’ ferocity,
the moving hand of some greater power is
acknowledged in the hymn-like “He Ain’t
Jesus.” A cry for strength by Providence is the
animating impulse of the weary “St. Peters,”
complete with an existential shrug of a
denouement when Rodriguez sighs, “Oh, well,
that’s it for me.”
Rodriguez’s vocals have a forceful presence
in the mix, a move that must’ve been an
intentional contrast to music that is masterly in
its use of silence as a narrative device. Despite
her often forceful physicality, Rodriguez is
brave enough to admit to feeling a fair share
of metaphysical dislocation. Her angst is our
gain. David McGee
Further Listening: Kasey Chambers:
The Captain; Lucinda Williams:
Essence
The Sadies: In
Concert Vol. One.
The Sadies, producer. Yep Roc 2122
(two CDs).
Pajo: 1968.
David Pajo, producer.
Drag City 315.
With both his previous band, Slint, and Billy
Corgan’s short-lived post-Smashing Pumpkins
project Zwan, guitarist David Pajo engaged
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November 2006
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Carrie Rodriguez:
Seven Angels
on a Bicycle.
Chip Taylor and Rodriguez,
producers. Back Porch 56003.
My Morning Jacket:
Okonokos.
My Morning Jacket, producer. ATO/
RCA 86210 (two CDs).
The double-live album, like tight pants, long
hair, and Jack Daniels, has become one of
those rock n’ roll conventions, embraced by
everyone from the Rolling Stones to wanker
extraordinaire Joe Satriani. A pair of new
Music
Rock etc.
records originating from the North (Toronto’s
the Sadies) and South (Louisville’s My Morning
Jacket)—as different as the locales might
suggest—attempt to justify the continuing
double-live trend, with varying results. On
Okonokos, MMJ delve into extended guitar jams
as long as their warlock-beards, diverging only
briefly to dabble in art rock and (gulp) reggae.
The Sadies’ In Concert Vol. One is a more diverse
affair, the unassuming Good brothers (Dallas
and Travis) venturing into country-fried rock,
surf-guitar excursions, and god-fearin’ religious
revival.
Recorded by Steve Albini during a twonight stand at Lee’s Palace in the band’s
hometown, In Concert shares more than song
selection (a mournful “Evangeline”) and
musicians (keyboardist Garth Hudson guests)
with The Band’s Last Waltz. A spirit of
collaboration fuels many of the cuts, whether
it’s Neko Case adding a glint of hope to
“Hold On, Hold On” or Jon Langford driving
“Memphis, Egypt” with whiskey-on-the-rocks
vocals. But even with over two-dozen guests,
the Sadies are never overwhelmed, imbuing
originals and a host of wisely chosen covers
(Roger Miller, Pink Floyd) with an energy that
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sometimes lacks in the band’s studio efforts.
“Ridge Runner Reel” finds the Good brothers
locked in a rapid-fire, finger-picking duel, the
pair picking up speed until the song threatens
to careen off the canyon trail. “Higher
Power” could be a Depression-era spiritual.
“1,000,002 Songs” sounds like the last dance
at a Mississippi juke joint.
As with most live recordings, the sonics
are spotty at times, especially with vocals. But
Albini, recording onto two-inch tape, captures
a natural soundstage that approximates the feel
of seeing the band in concert and maintains
that joyous essence through nearly two hours
of music.
Okonokos, MMJ’s first official live album,
recorded over two nights at the Fillmore in
San Francisco, is a spottier affair, buoyed by a
handful of high points. The skittish soul revue
of “Wordless Chorus” is still a wonder, singer
Jim James breaking off into a keening falsetto
and letting loose a series of reverb-drenched
howls. “One Big Holiday” is a knotty guitar
jam, James donning a Flying V for a deluge of
kinetic solos. The epic “Dondante,” the set’s
peak, blossoms from a muted pulse into a fullband rave-up, James conjuring hidden spirits
with tormented moans. Too often, however,
the band’s extended instrumentals meander
aimlessly. As placid as an island lagoon, the
listless “I Will Sing You Songs” stretches out
for an unforgivable eight minutes. Even more
frustrating is that, with significant editing, the
album’s 21 tracks could’ve been pared down to
a jaw-dropping single disc.
The sonics are fairly exceptional for a live
recording, though the drums lack the needed
punch, surprising since drummer/bear Patrick
Hallahan smacks his kit with the authority of a
heavyweight delivering a knockout blow. AD
Further Listening: Lucinda Williams:
Live at the Fillmore; Lynyrd Skynyrd:
One More for the Road
Jim Lauderdale:
Bluegrass.
Lauderdale, Randy Kohrs, and Bill
Vorndick, producers.
Yep Roc 2137.
Jim Lauderdale:
Country Super Hits.
Odie Blackmon and Lauderdale,
producers. Yep Roc 2136.
As a mainstream country writer with a
portfolio of upper-echelon chart entries by
the likes of George Strait and Patty Loveless,
Jim Lauderdale doesn’t need big solo hits
to make his nut—or to give him a career.
He does fine, thank you, and can focus on
producing a regular output of interesting
solo efforts, work them a bit on the road,
then head back into the studio for another
go-‘round. These latest simultaneously
released long players explore the heart of
Lauderdale’s art—one a collaboration with
Nashville tunesmith Odie Blackmon on a
straight-ahead set of mainstream country (the
ironic titled Country Super Hits) and the other,
Bluegrass, continuing a personal journey that
has already yielded two classics with Ralph
Stanley. On the country album, Lauderdale
takes a lean, mean band and heads for the
honky-tonk hills. He adds a bit of south-ofthe-border spice to the infectious “She’s Got
Some Magic Going On” and to the angular
musings in “Two More Wishes.” But for the
most part, the twangy guitars, crying pedal
steels, jittery fiddles, and aching harmonies
evoke an earlier era of country music, the
pre- and post-Nashville Sound, when songs
like these had a shot at being country hits.
Lauderdale’s voice is a bit huskier than it was
on Lonesome Pines, and this added ballast, plus
a more pronounced Carolina drawl he’s now
employing, adds a certain edge to love ballads
such as “Cautious” (on the country album)
and heightens the depth of feeling on the
bluegrass album’s gospel-ish “My Treasure,”
a brooding love song Lauderdale’s buddy
Ralph Stanley would knock out of the park.
There’s plenty of impressive picking on
Bluegrass, but it’s all in service to Lauderdale’s
well-crafted songs, most of them centered on
love, the good and the bad of it. There’s a bit
of philosophizing about seizing the moment
in the strutting “Time’s a Looking Glass,” an
overt tribute to George Jones, with a Possumlike vocal keying the barroom tearjerker “It’s
So Different,” and blue doesn’t get any bluer
than Lauderdale delivers on the tender, lowkey weeper “Forever Ends Today.” Working with various co-producers,
Lauderdale fills out the soundscape on the
country album with ensemble work and keeps
his voice prominent in the mix, whereas on
Bluegrass the feeling is more intimate, although
there’s much activity across the spectrum as
solo instruments emerge. DM
Further Listening: Patty Loveless:
Mountain Soul; Willie Nelson: Oh Boy
Classics Presents Willie Nelson
William ElliotT
Whitmore:
Song of the Blackbird.
Mike Lust, producer.
Southern 28130 (CD and LP).
William Elliott Whitmore does not sound like a
28-year-old white boy from Iowa, and his music
does not sound of our time. But then Whitmore
is not your typical young songwriter. He lives on
the family horse farm in a small cabin without
electricity, telephone, or running water, and
started writing songs in his late teens as a way
of dealing with the death of both parents.
Whitmore plays banjo and acoustic guitar in a
basic but effective style, and delivers his words in
a throaty rasp that sounds like he plundered the
grave of some long dead Mississippi bluesman.
Song of the Blackbird completes a trilogy that
began with 2003’s Hymns For the Hopeless.
A storyteller with a deep sense of history,
religion, and personal connection to the earth,
here Whitmore sings bleak tales of loss, floods,
and, drought. Though he’s often solo, organ,
piano, and drums accompany about half the
record’s nine tracks. “One Man’s Shame”
has a herky-jerky carnival beat that conjures
images of Tom Waits. “And Then the Rains
Came” is a brief instrumental built around
three repeated chords while “Take It On the
Chin” finds Whitmore’s banjo and a kick drum
aiding a father’s advice to his young son about
life’s hardships. As with the seasons, though,
Whitmore brings a certain sense of comfort to
the birth/life/death/rebirth cycle of life.
The recording is straightforward and
natural sounding. Whitmore’s banjo and guitar
are captured with a fine sense of body, with
convincingly realistic string tones and textures.
As is typical of most popular music recordings,
there isn’t a lot of air around the players, but on
a few tracks, the organ, piano, and drums hint at
depth perspective, and the bottom end is taut,
tuneful, and punchy.
If Whitmore’s music is reminiscent of other
artists’ work, the resemblance goes no deeper.
He has an original voice and his own tales to
tell. Wayne Garcia
Further Listening: William Elliott
Whitmore: Ashes to Dust; Dock
Boggs: Country Blues
The Harry Smith
Project: Anthology
of American Folk Music
Revisited.
Rani Singh and Hal Willner,
producers. Shout Factory 826663
(two CDs, two DVDs).
Noticed by a select few upon release in 1952,
Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music
gradually grew in stature and influence, its thematic
documentation of murder ballads, wooden-church
gospel, death-ridden country, and traditional song
acting as a preservation device and providing
instant stimuli to many who encountered it.
Reflecting common experiences, historical events,
and creepy desires, the compilation continues
to reveal secrets and truths about humankind.
Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen cited the
set’s immeasurable impact on their careers; critic
Greil Marcus devoted a book to its characters
and cultures, famously dubbing them the “old,
weird America.” Reissued in 1997, the collection
recently achieved gold-record status, solidifying its
evolution from a batch of odd, mysterious 45s to
a lasting pantheon of American culture.
At the turn of the millennium, producer
Hal Willner helped celebrate Smith’s tableau
by overseeing a series of concerts in which
contemporary acts reinterpreted its songs.
Recorded at London’s Royal Festival Hall,
Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Center, and UCLA’s Royce
Hall, the two-CD The Harry Smith Project distills
five shows into a manageable 33 tracks. An initial
DVD serves as a concert film, while a second
Music
Rock etc.
contains a feature-length film examining Smith’s
undertaking’s connection with modern artists.
There’s no shortage of diversity or participants—
nor should there be, particularly given Smith’s
intentions and personality.
Beth Orton puts herself on trial via a smoky
“Frankie,” its sadness stopping the hands of a
clock. Beck and guitarist Smokey Hormel deliver
a creaky, everything-is-broken read of “Last Fair
Deal Gone Down” while Wilco brightens the
corners on “James Alley Blues,” vocalist Jeff
Tweedy cleaving in half the narrative’s divisive
love-hate emotions. Trombonist Roswell Rudd
teams with Sonic Youth for “Dry Bones,” a
performance that barrels toward damnation as
the collaborators speak to Moses from on high.
Lou Reed conveys a church bell’s toll and coffin
lid’s shutter on the mighty blues “See That My
Grave Is Kept Clean.” Bill Frisell, Don Byron, and
Percy Heath stamp “This Song of Love” with a
jazz bent, though nobody embraces Smith’s free
spirit like Pere Ubu’s David Thomas, who on
“Way Down the Old Plank Road” gets drunk on
barnyard moonshine and cries over a jamboree
of general-store horns, hand-percussion taps, and
bluegrass banjos. It’s enough to make Nick Cave
get religion on “Shine On Me.”
Given the different venues, the sonic
perspectives vary, and while none grate, they lack
dynamic depth. Vocals and acoustic instruments
are captured fairly well. The scratchiness and
flatness of the original Anthology are gone, but so
too are the rawness and antique textures. BG
Further Listening: Lou Reed: Magic
and Loss; Richard Thompson: 1000
Years of Popular Music
Waylon Jennings:
Nashville Rebel.
Rob Santos, producer. RCA Nashville/
Legacy 89640 (four CDs).
Logically presented, authoritatively annotated,
and packing a mighty punch in its historical
sweep and emotional depth, this four-disc box
overview of Waylon Jennings’ monumental
career practically justifies the fading CD era.
That’s not to say there aren’t some omissions—
his formative if brief stay with A&M at the
outset of his career is represented only by the
Buddy Holly-produced “Jole Blon,” hardly the
best recording Jennings made for the Herb
Alpert-Jerry Moss startup (his best work at A&M
was produced by Alpert), and a late 80s jump to
MCA, which produced one terrific album in Will
the Wolf Survive, is represented by only five cuts.
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
145
Music
Rock etc.
But those years were laden with
inconsistent studio work and
dubious production choices.
That’s okay—Nashville Rebel is
about the music that will endure
’til the end of time, most of
which Jennings cut for RCA.
On that count, this collection
hits a tape-measure clout. Discs
one and two, especially, just keep
coming. The first documents the
period from 1958-1969 when
Jennings was finding his voice
and beginning to find his sound
within the Nashville mainstream
framework, working his way
through compelling folk-rock
in the early 60s and by 1966’s cover of Harlan
Howard’s “Nashville Rebel,” hinting at what was
to arrive by way of Fred Carter’s snarling lead
guitar work and his own ornery vocal attitude. At
the same time, he was developing into a versatile,
intuitive interpretive singer, bringing tense drama
to “Love of the Common People” and a richly
textured emotional palette from which he painted
a desperate scenario in 1968’s horn-enriched
“Something’s Wrong in California.” Disc two gets
to the heart of the matter, its 1970-1974 timeframe
chronicling the rise and rise of the Outlaw
movement. On disc three, spanning 1974-1980,
Waylon consolidates his gains and casts a jaundiced
eye on what’s been wrought in
“Don’t You Think This Outlaw
Bit’s Done Got Outta Hand,” a
process that began on disc two
with “Are You Sure Hank Done
It This Way.” On the fourth disc
(1980-1995), Jennings simply
makes good music his way, with
duet help from Willie Nelson,
Jessi Colter, Hank Jr., and his
Highwaymen mates.
This mesmerizing display
of power, presence, and soul
has benefited from impeccable
remastering by the everreliable Vic Anesini, who with
producer Rob Santos, gives the
music and a rich, room-filling
mix of cleanly delineated instrumental work
and strong, resonant vocals that punch right
through some ambitious arrangements. DM
Further Listening: Johnny Cash: The
Legend; Willie Nelson: Revolutions of
Time: The Journey 1975-1993
HOT
WAX
Tim Buckley: Goodbye and Hello.
Jac Holzman, producer.
4 Men With Beards 4M132 (180-gram LP).
brilliant vocalist and decent enough guitarist, Tim Buckley—
father of Jeff Buckley—was a restless and experimental
musician who died in 1975 at the age of 28. 1967’s Goodbye
and Hello was his second studio album, and even though it shows the
folk-jazz-blues-rock-psychedelic influences he would push to extremes
on subsequent records, it was his most conventional (and commercially
successful) work. Unfortunately, it also sounds pretty dated.
“No Man Can Find The War” may be sincere and still all too
topical, but Buckley’s protest-song style and vocal delivery verge
on the overwrought. “Pleasant Street” contains lyrics to make you
cringe—“Walking ’round in Christian licorice clothes”—while
“Hallucinations” begins with guitar noodlings that invoke them
before settling into a raga-like mode that proves to be one of the
LP’s high points. “Once I Was”…a soldier, a hunter, a lover…is
another nice tune, but the title track is a mess of a thing that sounds
sort of like the Moody Blues—only better than that even more
dated-sounding band.
I didn’t have an original Elektra pressing on hand to compare
with this 4 Men With Beards reissue, but the sound is pretty good.
Though dynamically compressed and frequency-extreme limited,
there’s a musical honesty that transcends those problems. Buckley’s
beautiful voice, at times forceful, others fragile, still others feminine,
is well served, as are the various guitars, vibes, and other instruments,
which even convey a decent sense of studio ambience. Buckley is
an artist who deserves to be heard, but start with either the live disc
noted below, or his final release, Greetings from L.A. WG
Further Listening: Tim Buckley: Dream Letter—Live in
London 1968; Jeff Buckley: Live at Sin-é
A
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November 2006
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Music
Jazz
Sex Mob: Sexotica.
Good and Evil,
producers. Thirsty Ear 57171.
Steven Bernstein’s
Millennial Territory
Orchestra: MTO Volume 1.
Bernstein, producer. Sunnyside 1158.
A gifted arranger, audacious trumpeter, savvy
bandleader, and irrepressible frontman, Steve
Bernstein has maintained two separate working
bands to feed his expansive musical appetite.
While he takes devilish delight in walking the
cutting edge with his electrified “downtown”
quartet Sex Mob, Bernstein dips into a whole
other bag with his acoustic nine-piece Millennial
Territory Orchestra, a wildly eclectic crew
which tackles obscure tunes from the 1920s by
Music
148
Sonics
November 2006
Extraordinary
The Absolute Sound
the likes of Benny Moten, Tiny Parham, and
McKinney’s Cotton Pickers while also putting
its little big-band stamp on modern pop fare. In
both settings, the wily Bernstein strikes a balance
between chaos and order, blending freewheeling
improvisation and individual expression
into organically shifting arrangements, while
showcasing his own soulful approach to muted
trumpet and slide trumpet.
Sexotica, Bernstein’s sixth outing with
Excellent
Good
Sex Mob, pays tribute to American popular
composer Martin Denny, who pioneered
a genre with his best-selling 1957 debut,
Exotica. Like 2001’s John Barry songbook,
Sex Mob Does Bond, the homage to Denny is
similarly off-kilter. Tweaked in the studio by
the underground production team of Good
and Evil (Brooklynites Danny Blume and
Chris Castagna), this amalgam of electronica
and exotica is as strangely compelling as it is
Fair
Poor
Music
Jazz
challenging. Subharmonic tones blend with
jungle drums, tribal chants, bird calls, cricket
sounds, log drums, assorted chimes and gongs,
and little ear cookies that fly in and out of the
pumped-up mix, serving as a provocative
backdrop for the dissonant harmonies and
spiky solos laid over the top by Bernstein and
his frontline cohort Briggan Krauss on alto
and baritone saxes. Overall, the producers did a
masterful job of blending acoustic and electric
elements into a dense, sonically complex, and
highly experimental mix that goes well beyond
Sex Mob’s live band sound. Sexotica retains the
essence of the band’s organic interaction while
surrounding it with inventive dub-style effects
and swirling psychedelia.
Bernstein wails with distortion-soaked
abandon on “Luvin Blume” as he trades bleating,
shenai-like statements with Krauss’ alto. On one
of the jazzier offerings, “Dick Contino’s Blues”
(named for a popular accordion star from the late
40s), he soars majestically on slide trumpet while
bassist Tony Scherr walks frantically on his deeptoned upright and drummer Kenny Wollesen
swings undernearth with bristling brushwork.
Bernstein and Krauss also engage in an animated
conversation between slide trumpet and baritone
sax here, demonstrating their kindred hookup.
The slamming “Kid Rock Deluxe” is anchored by
Scherr’s humungous bass groove and augmented
by Wollesen’s coloristic, everything-including-thekitchen-sink drumming. Mike Dillon adds tablas
on the enchanting closer, “7 Bars,” a piece that
fully embraces the spirit of Denny’s exotica—
right up until the moment that Scherr stomps on
his fuzz box and all sonic hell breaks loose. The
moods conjured throughout Sexotica are often
entrancing, but beware of the sonic shrapnel that
can strike unpredictably and with all the subtlety
of a wrecking ball.
On Millennial’s long overdue debut, MTO
Volume 1, Bernstein’s band of killer New York
improvisers and musical upstarts delivers
authentic renditions of late 20s hot jazz like
“Boy in the Boat,” “Toby,” and “Happy Hour
Blues,” as well as a swinging arrangement of
the uplifting Depression Era anthem “Pennies
From Heaven” and inventive takes on John
Lennon’s “Cry Baby Cry,” Prince’s “Darling
Nikki,” and King Curtis’ “Soul Serenade.”
Outstanding solos are turned in by trombonist
and plunger specialist Clark Gayton (“Nikki”),
tenor saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum (“Toby”),
violinist Charlie Burnham (“Ripple”), guitarist
Matt Munisteri (“Pennies,” “Toby”), clarinetist
Doug Wieselman (“Soul Serenade”), and
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November 2006
The Absolute Sound
baritone saxophonist Erik Lawrence (“Cry
Baby Cry”). Special guest Doug Wamble also
turns in a scintillatingly soulful reading of Stevie
Wonder’s Motown classic, “Signed, Sealed,
Delivered.” The whole riotous aggregation is
powered by the remarkably flexible rhythm
tandem of drummer Ben Perowsky and
bassist Ben Allison. And Bernstein—part Don
Redman, part Sun Ra—presides over it all,
simultaneously conducting while stirring the pot
with playfully subversive glee. Recorded and mixed at Brooklyn Recording
by Andy Taub, all the elements of this
ensemble—from Munisteri’s chunking L5 rhythm guitar and Allison’s deep-toned
upright bass to Burnham’s buoyant fiddle work
and all that honking brass—brilliantly blend
together and resonate with rich, acoustic purity.
Bill Milkowski
Further Listening: Nils Petter Molvaer:
An American Compilation; Yohimbe
Brothers: The Tao of Yo; Doug
Wamble: Bluestate
Nels Cline: New
Monastery: A View
into the Music of Andrew Hill.
Jeff Gauthier, producer; Rich Breen,
recording, mixing, mastering.
Cryptogramophone 130.
The latest work from Los Angeles freejazz guitarist and Wilco member Nels Cline
makes an eloquent, cross-generational case
against drawing a straight line between
“mainstream” and “avant-garde” jazz. The
ways Cline’s skronky guitar, Andrea Parkins’
amplified accordion, Bobby Bradford’s brassy
cornet, Scott Amendola’s widespread drum
patterns, and a variety of bleeping electronic
effects rub against Devin Hoff ’s stately
bass pulses and Ben Goldberg’s gorgeous,
looping clarinet lines will challenge anyone
whose idiomatic preferences are sharply
defined. But listeners willing to venture into
more ambiguous terrain will be consistently
enthralled by the way these amazing players
use the music of pianist Andrew Hill as their
point of departure.
Now 69, Hill is back in the jazz limelight
thanks to his renewed affiliation with the
Blue Note label, where he built his reputation
in the 1960s upon such albums as Black Fire,
Judgment!, and Compulsion. Other than creating
four suites—including the inspired, jaunty
pairing of “Yokada Yokada” with “The
Rumproller” and a 23-minute tour de force that
links “No Doubt,” “11/8,” and “Dance with
Death”—Cline exercised a light hand in his
arrangements, encouraging the players to
find their own authentic voices in the music.
While certain passages feel “scored” and
crystallize various moods, from playfulness
to melancholy to brooding contemplation,
they quickly give way to spirited solos and
collectively improvised variations. Catchy
melody lines and solid hard-bop-derived
rhythms abound, but they open up and leave
conventional changes and cadences behind,
underscoring Cline’s note that Hill’s music
“has always been unpredictable, perhaps
a bit knotty, always forward-looking and
beautiful.”
In a notable sonic feat, the electronics
sound as “natural” and distinct as the
acoustic instruments, and the exquisitely
balanced and transparent mix places the
players (including Cline’s twin brother,
Alex, on additional percussion) in a fairly
tight, center-stage huddle that pulsates at
the edges, as if the ensemble is inhaling and
exhaling as one. Derk Richardson
Further Listening: Andrew Hill:
Point of Departure; Ben Goldberg
Quintet: The Door, The Hat, The
Chair, The Fact
Branford Marsalis:
Braggtown.
Marsalis, producer.
Marsalis Music/Rounder 874946.
One of the most consistently astounding
working bands on the jazz scene, along with
Wayne Shorter’s current quartet, Branford
Marsalis’ crew has developed an uncanny
chemistry on the bandstand over the past five
years. It recreates that same remarkable groupthink in the studio on Braggtown, named for a
section of Durham, North Carolina, where
Music
Jazz
Marsalis has lived for the past four years.
Recorded in the acoustically brilliant Hayti
Heritage Center in Durham (where Branford
recorded Occasion, last year’s series of pianosax duets with Harry Connick, Jr.), Marsalis
and engineer Rob Hunter leaned more on the
live-room sound than reverb, keying off the
drums to set the tone for the mix. The quartet
kicks it off in high-flying fashion with Marsalis’
“Jack Baker,” a kinetic 14-minute excursion that
sounds like it might’ve been inspired by Coltrane’s
“Resolution” section of the A Love Supreme
suite. Marsalis shows a newfound openness to
taking it “out” here, stretching harmonically
while being spurred on by his bandmates—
pianist Joey Calderazzo, bassist Eric Revis, and
drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts—and by his own
increased powers on the tenor horn. His sheer
technical facility is breathtaking on the surging
opener, allowing him to execute his unending
stream of ideas with unerring conviction and
heightened intensity. Marsalis also digs in on
tenor on Revis’ “Black Elk Speaks” and on
Watts’ explosive “Blakzilla,” both high-energy
burnouts paced by Tain’s rolling polyrhythmic
thunder, Revis’ deep-toned anchor and flawless
time feel while walking in uptempo mode, and
Calderazzo’s stabbing, harmonically provocative
piano comping. For a change of pace, Marsalis
tackles Henry Purcell’s “O Solitude,” a 17thcentury classical opus arranged for tenor
sax, piano, and bass, and underscored by
Watts’ sensitive brushwork. While mindful of
maintaining the compositional integrity of this
calming chamber-like piece through the first six
minutes, Branford improvises with impunity
over the form for the last two minutes, with
triumphant results.
Elsewhere on Braggtown, Branford
demonstrates a beautiful sensitivity and
lyricsm on soprano sax on Calderazzo’s
crystalline ballad “Hope” and on his own
introspective “Fate.” And he conveys a
sense of jauntiness with the soprano on his
whimsical, “Sir Roderick, the Aloof.” BM
Further Listening: Von Freeman:
Good Forever; Pete Zimmer Quintet:
Burnin’ Live at the Jazz Standard
Joe Lovano
Ensemble: Streams
of Expression Featuring the
Birth of the Cool Suite.
Lovano, producer.
Blue Note 41092.
Call it a red-hot love song to cool jazz.
152
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
Saxophonist Joe Lovano reunites with
arranger, conductor, and composer Gunther
Schuller on Streams of Expression Featuring the
Birth of the Cool Suite, an ambitious concept
album that celebrates post-WWII jazz. The
centerpiece of this recording, “The Birth
of the Cool Suite,” was commissioned
by the Monterey Jazz Festival in 2001 to
commemorate Miles Davis’ 75th birthday.
But the terrorist attacks of 9/11 prevented
Schuller from premiering the 25-minute
work, constructed around three tracks
(“Moon Dreams,” “Move,” and “Boplicity.”)
from Davis’ 1950 landmark album The Birth
of the Cool.
Schuller is right at home with this material;
he played French horn and conducted
the original version of “Moon Dreams”
on those seminal sessions. And Lovano,
with his intelligent improvisation and bop
sensibilities, is the perfect foil for Schuller’s
big-band arrangements. The music swings
easily from a tightly knit frame one minute
to funky and loose instrumental forays the
next, thanks to Schuller’s inveterate skills
and an ace 11-piece ensemble that includes
Lovano on both tenor sax and alto clarinet. A
pair of new trio tunes—“Blue Sketches,” by
Lovano, and “Buckeyes,” by trumpeter Tim
Hagans—round out the “Cool” suite. This is
retro-cool that is as fresh and inventive today
as it was when Davis first defined the relaxed
West Coast sound with the likes of Gerry
Mulligan, Lee Konitz, and Max Roach.
A second five-song suite, “Streams of
Expression,” composed and arranged by
Lovano, sandwiches the Davis tribute.
It incorporates a wider range of musical
influences, from the Third Stream jazz with
which Schuller is identified to folk to avant
garde. The album’s reflective closer, the trio
blues “Big Ben,” finds Lovano manning an
experimental aulochrome, a twin-horned
instrument that looks like something Rahsaan
Roland Kirk would have played.
Sonically, the disc boasts marvelous
production that compliments the rich
textures of these arrangements, and a wide
soundstage that is more than able to showcase
these talented players. Greg Cahill
Further Listening: Joe Lovano: 52nd
Street Themes; Miles Davis: The
Birth of the Cool
Don Bryon: Do The
Boomerang: The
Music of Junior Walker.
Hans Wendl, producer.
Blue Note 41094.
Perennial poll-winning clarinetist Don Byron
has shown a sudden interest in tenor saxophone,
beginning with 2004’s Grammy-nominated IveyDivey, his tribute to Lester Young. With this
homage to Junior Walker—the robust-toned
tenor player most noted for “Shotgun,” his
gritty Motown hit from the mid-60s—Byron
exhibits a warm, pungent tone and fluid facility,
closer in spirit to Eddie Harris’s legato style than
Walker’s rough, staccato attack. He testifies with
passionate intensity on the slow 12-bar “Satan’s
Blues,” then sings melodically through his horn
on the catchy boogaloo “Hewbie Steps Out.”
Throughout Do The Boomerang, Byron conveys
a real sense of fun on the upbeat material and
revels in the company of drummer Rodney
Holmes, bassist Brad Jones, Hammond B-3
organist George Colligan, and guitarist David
Gilmore, who nearly steals the show with this
fretboard flash on the jaunty, gospel-flavored
“Ain’t That The Truth,” the minor-key blues
“Cleo’s Mood,” and the group’s spirited rendition
of the all-time party classic “Shotgun.”
Byron does pull out the clarinet for the funky
dancefloor number “Do The Boomerang,” and
he’s featured on bass clarinet on the beguiling
soul staple “What Does It Take (To Win Your
Love).” Special guest Chris Thomas King
handles the urgent vocals on the infectious title
track, adding stinging six-string work to boot.
King also sings on the infectious “Pucker Up,
Buttercup” and shares vocal duties with Dean
Bowman on a rousing rendition of the superfunky James Brown vehicle “There It Is,” which
also features trombonist Curtis Fowlkes playing
Fred Wesley to Byron’s Maceo Parker.
The adventurous bandleader-conceptualist
has shown an infinite capacity for
experimentation on past outings, in which he
has delved into the musical worlds of klezmer
Music
Jazz
king Mickey Katz and vintage cartoon composer
Raymond Scott, classical icon Igor Stravinsky
and funk icon Sly Stone, and pop tunesmiths
Herb Alpert and Henry Mancini. On Do The
Boomerang, he delves into down-home territory,
putting the fun back into funk in the process.
The separation of instruments here—from
Holmes’ snap-crackle-popping backbeats on the
snare and his throbbing bass drum thumping,
to Gilmore’s slinky Strat rhythm parts and
stinging lead lines, to Colligan’s velvety cushion
on Hammond B-3 organ and Byron’s big tenor
tones—is crystal clear, lending a crisp, punchy
presence. BM
Further Listening: Medeski, Scofield,
Martin & Wood: Out Louder; Stanton
Moore: III
Frequency:
Frequency.
Steve Wagner, producer. Thrill Jockey
164.
The advent of Frequency provides a promising
burst of fresh energy in the experimental,
wide-open territory that the Art Ensemble of
Chicago dubbed “Great Black Music: Ancient
to the Future.” The Chicago-based quartet of
Nicole Mitchell (flutes, melodica, Egyptian harp,
vocals, and plastic bag), the Ethnic Heritage
Ensemble’s Edward Wilkerson (tenor sax,
clarinet, wood flute, and bells), Fred Anderson
collaborator Harrison Bankhead (contra bass,
cello, wood flute, and bells), and Avreeayl Ra
(percussion, kalimba, Native American flute,
and vocals) comes packing an Art Ensemblelike arsenal of miscellaneous “little instruments”
and uses them to set up ephemeral site markers
that momentarily pop up in a spacious aural
landscape.
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
154
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
The kick-the-can quality of the
improvisations—bells tinkling over here,
cymbal splashing over there, flutes fluttering
in tandem and then spiraling off in separate
directions—parallels the Eastern notion
of the universe coming into being as the
creator plays hide-and-seek with itself, and
makes the spiritual nature of such titles as
“Take Refuge,” “Satya,” “Fertility Dance,”
“From the Other Side,” “Optimystic,” and
“Serenity” as palpable as possible. Ever
since John Coltrane, Don Cherry, and
others imbued jazz with an explicit quest
for greater self-knowledge in the 1960s, it’s
been easier to hear “the search” in these
sorts of free-form, African-roots-affirming
performances. Here, one almost loses sight
of the players’ awesome command of
their instruments, seduced instead by the
profound, complex moods that vary from
(frequently) contemplative to (sometimes)
SACD
Gordon Grdina/
Gary Peacock/Paul
Motian: Think Like
the Waves.
Grdina and Tony Reif, producers.
Hybrid multichannel.
Songlines 1559.
Guitarist and oud player Gordon Grdina is a
protégé of bassist Gary Peacock. The two met
in 2000 after a Keith Jarrett concert, after which
Grdina spent five years honing his chops with
the jazz veteran. A Vancouver native who has
close ties to the Pacific Northwest’s vibrant
avant- and chamber-jazz communities, Grdina
possesses strong melodic sensibility. Think
Like the Waves teams him with Peacock and
drummer Paul Motian, an auspicious pairing
that highlights Grdina’s introspective playing
and should prove comfortable for fans of
ECM’s chamber jazz.
Overall, the material ranges from the
straight-ahead “Combustion” to the more
abstract “String Quartet #6,” and finds Grdina
hysterically ecstatic; the nearly 19-minute
“Satya” makes a brilliant, representative
journey from the former to the latter.
Although the sound is a bit like a live
performance projected through a PA, with
slightly exaggerated edginess in the treble and
almost artificial separation of instruments,
the clarity, airiness, and comfortable low
end are welcoming rather than off-putting.
And in sum, Frequency’s auspicious debut
immediately puts the quartet at the forefront
of an avant-garde that knows its roots and
leaps toward the future. DR
Further Listening: Nicole Mitchell
Black Earth Ensemble: Hope, Future
and Destiny; Art Ensemble of Chicago:
Non-cognitive Aspects of the City
splitting his time between electric guitar and
oud. While Grdina cites the 1960s work of
Jarrett, Paul Bley, and Ornette Coleman as
major influences, many of these tracks are most
reminiscent of a young Pat Metheny, pleasant
and competent but not always inventive.
Fortunately, Grdina’s Arabic leanings are never
far away. These Middle-Eastern-influenced
compositions, most notably “Renunciation”
and “Morning Moon,” are rooted in the Arabic
improvisational technique known as taqasim.
Peacock and Motian have no difficulty rising to
the challenge. But the problem with alternating
between jazz and Arabic music is that, for the
most part, these different-sounding tracks
don’t mesh. For example, you’d never guess
that the same person is responsible for both
the oud and the guitar. For his part, Grdina,
who has studied with Kurdish oud master
Serwan Yamolky, is most effective on “100
Years,” where he employs Middle Eastern
modes as a guitarist, blending ancient Arabic
styling with modern jazz.
As with many Songlines titles, Think Like
the Waves is a hybrid SACD. In multichannel
mode, the guitar is heard in the front right and
left speakers, the rhythm section in the center
channel while the rear speakers offer ambient
sound. The simple mix results in an open,
uncluttered soundstage. GC
Further Listening: Anour Brahem:
Le Pas Du Chat Noir; Brian Prunka
Quartet: In Praise of Shadows
Music
Classical
Shostakovich:
String Quartets Nos.
3, 7, 8. Hagen Quartett.
Hans-Ulrich Bastin, producer;
Elizabeth Kemper, engineer.
DG 477 6146.
Shostakovich:
String Quartets
Nos. 3, 7, 8. St. Lawrence String
Quartet.
Mark Willsher, producer and engineer.
EMI 59956.
Among the Shostakovich recordings released
in this 100th birthday year are these two
fine discs of the same three Quartets. Both
ensembles are world class, and if I prefer the
Hagen, it’s only by a slim margin, perhaps
influenced by the group’s overt brilliance as
well as engineering that yields a more upfront,
direct sound with its own allure—highly
detailed, slightly on the dry side, and more inyour-room than the in-the-hall ambience of
the St. Lawrence disc.
The Third Quartet, dating from 1946, helps
illustrate some of the differences. Both groups
pace the cantering opening well, though the
St. Lawrence captures a fraction more of its
inherent jauntiness. Its first movement is less
episodic than the Hagen, which sometimes
rushes passages and exaggerates tempo
variations. But the Hagen’s harder-edged
ensemble sheen is hard to resist, as is its
dramatic flair, typified by the vigorous pings of
the plucked string passages. Both groups excel
in the moving lamentations of the Adagio. The
fifth and final movement, the work’s longest,
harkens back to that opening melody—now
subdued, exhausted—that ends the work by
Music
158
Sonics
November 2006
Extraordinary
The Absolute Sound
evaporating into thin air. It’s moving in both
versions, though the Hagen Quartett sustains
more of its intensity. Still, both groups capture
the piece’s rage and disillusionment.
Dating from 1960, the Seventh is dedicated
to the memory of the composer’s late wife,
Nina. Intensely personal, it’s the shortest
of Shostakovich’s fifteen quartets. The St.
Lawrence’s version includes the slowest version
of the Lento movement I’ve come across. It’s
beautifully colored and played, but at a lower
temperature. I prefer the Hagen’s treatment,
flowing yet more sustained and ghostly.
DG’s recording illuminates details like cello
glissandos that have less of an effect in EMIs
warmer sound, the latter further compromised
by violin prominence that occasionally borders
on shrillness.
The Eighth, also from 1960, is the most
popular of Shostakovich’s quartets, often done
by premiere ensembles as well as in Rudolf
Barshai’s arrangement for string orchestra.
The frequency of self-quotations embedded
in the piece, including the DSCH motif
sounded in the opening and subjected to rude
treatment elsewhere, help mark this as one
of Shostakovich’s most personal, agonized
works. But it’s also full of catchy melodies and
inventive treatment of the instruments, so no
biographical exegesis is required to appreciate
music of such harrowing suffering and violent
outbursts.
Again, subtle differences in ensemble sound
and interpretive views apply. The Hagen is
cooler, technically impressive, and at times
slightly generalized, but very exciting. So is
the St. Lawrence, despite its concern with
tonal color and more leisurely pacing in outer
movements, which tend to slacken intensity.
Timings on most of the CD’s 13 movements
find the St. Lawrence slower, the faster Hagen
generally close to the composer’s markings and
to earlier Soviet recordings by his friends and
compatriots. Dan Davis
Further Listening: Shostakovich
Quartets (Emerson Quartet);
(Borodin Quartet)
Excellent
Good
Brahms:
Complete Piano
Trios. Trio Wanderer.
Jean-Martial Golaz, producer and
engineer. Harmonia Mundi 901915.16
(two CDs).
Some Brahms fanatics may grouse at the
designation Complete Piano Trios for this set.
Missing is the A major trio, discovered in the
1920s in manuscript form without attribution,
but considered by many to be real Brahms and
recorded many times as such. The Beaux Arts
Trio’s 1960s two-LP box set included the first
recording of the A major work. It’s also worth
noting that the version of the B major trio, op.
8 that’s usually played (and recorded here), is
an extensive reworking of the youthful original
undertaken 35 years later by the notoriously
self-critical composer. One could argue that
a truly “complete” set of the Brahms trios
would include both iterations of op.8.
Those cavils aside, the French Trio
Wanderer—Jean-Marc Phillips-Varjabédian
(violin), Raphael Pidoux (cello), and Vincent
Coq (piano)—have the full measure of the
Brahmsian spirit. In op. 8 and the two later
masterpieces, op. 87 in C major and op. 101 in
C minor, the players provide a clear sense of
structure and proportion. The performances
have good forward momentum and never
bog down. Every movement is carefully
shaped without losing spontaneity, and it’s
very clear that the three artists are listening
carefully to one another in the best chamber
music tradition. These intelligent, thoughtful
musicians deliver on the big picture; technical
matters are never an issue.
As compensation for the lack of the A
major work, we get the first of Brahms’
three piano quartets, op. 25 in G minor, to fill
out disc two. Trio Wanderer is joined in this
enterprise by violist Christophe Gaugué, who
matches the playing of his colleagues as well as
can be hoped for. It’s a solid reading, though a
little of the ensemble magic generated by the
Wanderers alone is lost.
The sound from the small hall in La Chauxde-Fonds, Switzerland is robust and open,
Fair
Poor
Music
Classical
close up with warm string sonorities and
good dimensionality to all the instruments.
Violin and cello are clearly positioned in front
of the keyboard to achieve natural balances.
Andrew Quint
Further Listening: Brahms: Piano Trios
(Beaux Arts Trio); Shostakovich: Piano
Trios (Trio Wanderer)
Joshua Bell:
Voice of the
Violin. Orchestra
of St. Luke’s.
Michael Stern, conductor. Grace Row,
producer; Charles Harbutt, engineer.
Sony/BMG 82796-97779.
Maybe Joshua Bell owed his label big-time
for his previous release, a terrific recording
of the Tchaikovsky Concerto accompanied
by Michael Tilson Thomas and the Berlin
Philharmonic (review, Issue 157). That’s one
explanation for Voice of the Violin, a musically
unnourishing collection of familiar classical
ditties arranged, mostly, for fiddle and
orchestra.
No one can accuse Sony/BMG of not
knowing what its doing. Bell’s awfully similarsounding Romance of the Violin has resided
on the Billboard classical chart for two years,
spending three entire months in the Number
One slot. So why not produce, at minimal
effort on everyone’s part—except for the
PR folks, who have outdone themselves
with pin-up style pictures of the photogenic
musician—another CD of soulfully rendered
down-tempo material? We hear Schubert’s
“Ave Maria” and Rachmaninoff ’s Vocalise;
Fauré’s “Aprés un rêve” and Tchaikovsky’s
“More than the lonely heart.” There’s a pair of
Heifetz arrangements (Debussy’s “Beau Soir”
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November 2006
The Absolute Sound
and Ponce’s “Estrelita”) and transcribed arias
from Donizetti, Bizet, Massenet, and Dvorák.
Sometimes the material works (one of
Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words), sometimes
not (“In trutina” from Carl Orff ’s Carmina
burana). It’s all beautifully played but, invariably,
there’s no development of the melodic
material, no adornment of the tune other
than the occasional double-stop. The most
rewarding selection is the one on which guest
Anna Netrebko actually sings—a ravishing
performance of Richard Strauss’s “Morgen,”
during which Bell knowingly entwines his
independent melody around the soprano’s.
The sonics are no bargain either, seemingly
intended for headphone, auto, or upscalerestaurant listening. The violin is oversized and
lacking in body; the orchestral presentation
is flat and airless. The tone of Bell’s exalted
“Gibson ex Huberman” Stradivarius is a touch
coarse, which ain’t right.
Obviously, Joshua Bell wasn’t coerced into
making this record, and he may be laughing all
the way to bank. But Bell is a serious, top-flight
artist, and those who don’t know his many
more substantial efforts should make it a point
to hear some. AQ
Further Listening: The Joshua Bell
Edition: Vol. 1; Tchaikovsky: Violin
Concerto (Bell) (SACD)
Misterioso: Music
by Silvestrov, Pärt,
Ustvolskaya.
Alexei Lubimov, piano; Alexander
Trostiansky, violin; Kirill Rybakov,
clarinet. Manfred Eicher, producer;
Stephan Schellman, engineer. ECM
1959.
Alexei Lubimov’s collaboration with younger
colleagues (violinist Alexander Trostiansky
and clarinetist Kirill Rybakov) results in an
important release; Lubimov is also closely
associated with Ukrainian composer Valentin
Silvestrov, whose Post Scriptum and Misterioso
comprise half of this CD. Post Scriptum is a
1991 sonata for violin and piano, its attractively
wistful melody alternating with faster variations
until it fragments and fades away. The 1996
Misterioso is a clarinet solo “with piano” that
tests the instrument’s capabilities, with wide
dynamic levels from whispers to piercing
fortissimo high notes and a tonal palette that
includes tonguing and reed effects. The piano
is often reduced to shadowy bass rumblings,
the music again withering into nothingness.
Both works capture the listener in a subtle web
of sound at the intersection of nostalgia and
gloom.
An effective clarinet-piano arrangement
of Arvo Pärt’s brief Spiegel im Spiegel serves
as a minimalist amuse bouche for the knotty
music of Galina Ustvolskaya. A Shostakovich
protégé, her early works, like the 1949 Trio,
bear traces of the master’s style in ways that
her sculptural later works do not. But even
in that heyday of Stalinism, her music was a
severe, often forbidding entrance to a private
world. The Trio for clarinet, violin, and piano
is her most accessible piece, sparely scored,
witty, and harmonically adventurous, even
including catchy tunes like the one in the last
movement whose energy drains away to the
end, crushed by the piano’s brutal bass notes.
Why this hasn’t become a standard repertory
piece is beyond my understanding. Her 1952
Violin Sonata belies its stark reputation
on repeated hearings, revealing subtleties
of expression in its obsessive rhythmic
motifs and emotionally loaded violin-piano
interactions.
The authoritative performances are blessed
with sound that has all the clarity and warmth
one could ask for. Instrumental balances and
timbres are true; passages of violin harmonics
never sound like electronic overlays. Best of all,
there’s immediacy to sound and performance,
making this a must for anyone interested in the
post-Shostakovichian era. DD
Further Listening: Silvestrov:
Metamusik; Silvestrov: Postludium
(Lubimov)
Steve Reich: Phases:
A Nonesuch
Retrospective.
Robert Hurwitz, producer. Nonesuch
79962 (five CDs).
There is nothing minimalist about Nonesuch
President Robert Hurwitz’s commitment to
Steve Reich. Hurwitz brought Reich to the
label in 1984 (after both had left ECM) and
in 1997 oversaw the compilation of a ten-CD
box set, Works 1965–1995. Now, coinciding
with international celebrations of the New
York composer’s 70th birthday, Nonesuch
has issued another Reich career retrospective.
Because three relatively recent pieces, Triple
Quartet, Cello Counterpoint, and You Are
(Variations) are the only works not included
in the previous collection, this five-CD set
might be seen as redundant. But repetition,
with variation, is a hallmark of the style, which
Music
Classical
HOT
WAX
Respighi: The Pines of Rome, The Fountains of Rome.
London Symphony Orchestra, Malcom Sargent, conductor.
Bert Whyte, producer and engineer. Classic/Everest SDBR 3051
(180-gram LP).
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 9. Prokofiev:
Lieutenant Kije Suite.
London Symphony Orchestra. Malcom Sargent, conductor. Bert Whyte,
producer and engineer. Classic/Everest SDBR 3054 (180-gram LP).
(like those of Terry Riley and Philip Glass)
earned Reich’s music the short-shrift label of
“minimalism.” And just as Reich’s use of the
canon form (which he called “phases” in his
early tape music of the 1960s) and variablelength cycles of beats and time (influenced by
Balinese gamelan, African, and jazz idioms)
gives us multiple aural perspectives on melodic
patterns, timbres, and rhythmic relationships
as well as allows us to find our own emotional
resonance in the sound, so the programming
of Phases’ five discs causes the pieces to reflect
new light on one another in the musical
equivalent of reorienting the mirrors and
windows in a simply but elegantly decorated
house.
Sandwiching Cello Counterpoint (played by
Maya Beiser) between New York Counterpoint
(clarinets played by Evan Ziporyn) and
Electric Counterpoint (Pat Metheny, guitars), for
instance, and then framing that threesome
within You Are (Variations) (the Los Angeles
Master Chorale) and Triple Quartet (Kronos
Quartet) creates a unique single CD and
highlights aspects of Reich’s architecture and
instrumentation that might be comprehended
differently in other contexts. Similarly, disc two
brings together two of Reich’s most powerful
personal confrontations with his Jewish
cultural heritage—Different Trains (taped voices
and Kronos) and Tehillim (four female singers
plus the Schonberg Ensemble and Percussion
Group The Hague); the pairing reveals both
his varied approach to vocal works and the
deep passion that informs this supposedly
reductionist music. In another neat turnabout,
the disc concludes with the richly textured
Eight Lines (performed by Bang on a Can),
which preceded Tehillim on Works.
While certain signature and epic Reich
pieces are absent (including Clapping Music,
162
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
De Falla: The Three-Cornered Hat.
London Symphony Orchestra, Enrique Jorda, conductor. Bert
Whyte, producer and engineer. Classic/Everest SDBR 3057 (180-gram LP).
There have been several occasions, recently, when I’ve wondered in print why a reissue outfit
bothers to release yet another version of a musical chestnut. Take Respighi’s tone poem The
Pines of Rome. It’s not that this 1924 successor to his 1917 “hit,” The Fountains of Rome, isn’t an
evocative piece of light classical music. As an orchestrator Respighi was as fine a colorist as
Italy produced in the early twentieth century (he studied orchestration with Rimsky-Korsakov,
no less), and Pines’ delightful mix of children’s song, plainchant, military anthems, and (in its
third movement) the famous recording of birdsong remains lively and lovely. However, there
is a veritable forest of Pines on LP and CD, the most celebrated of which (among audiophiles),
the Reiner/CSO rendition [LSC 2436], has itself already been reissued by Classic!
So why has Classic now given us these much less well-known Everest recordings of the
Pines and Fountain, of the Kije Suite, of The Three-Cornered Hat, when all this music has been
re-released (several times by Classic) in blockbuster sound and terrific performances? I’m
tempted to answer, as Sir Edmund Hillary did of another Everest, “Because they are there
(and Classic’s Mike Hobson secured the rights to them).”
But, you know what? That wouldn’t be fair.
It may come as a surprise to you—it certainly did to me after the horrendous job Sargent
and the LSO did with Mussorgsky’s Pictures [Classic/Everest SDBR 3053]—but this Pines is
a superb performance. It is also, and once again unlike the Pictures, superbly well recorded.
No, this three-track 35mm Everest doesn’t have the marmoreal solidity of the Reiner, but
outside of the arrival of the Roman legions in the concluding “Appian Way” (with its organ
pedal point and braying brass), Respighi’s music isn’t made of marble—it is made of wind,
air, sunlight, the swaying of the pines, and the snatches of music, human and natural, caught
in their branches.
Recorded in Walthamstow Hall by Bert Whyte and lovingly remastered by Len Horowitz
and Bernie Grundman, this Pines is a genuine marvel of sonic transparency—simply gorgeous
from start to finish.
While the other discs in this set are also very well-recorded and played, if I were to single one
out, it would be The Pines of Rome, which not only stands alongside the Reiner as a monument
of the Golden Age of Stereo, but stands every bit as tall. Jonathan Valin
Four Organs, Six Marimbas, City Life, and The
Cave), such defining works as Come Out,
Drumming, Music for 18 Musicians, and The Desert
Music make Phases a brilliantly representative
and irrefutable answer to the question, “Why
should every fan of classical, world, or pop
music care about Steve Reich?”
Despite the 20-year time span, the sonic
quality of the recordings is uniformly fine,
which is hardly surprising from a label and artist
dedicated to faithful realization of creative
intentions. Soundstages are spacious but not
overly wide, and the challenge of percussionoriented music is met with clear but smooth
transients that make the essential Reichian
elements of musical pulse and ensemble unity
especially luscious. Derk Richardson
Further listening: Kronos Quartet
Performs Philip Glass; Bang on a Can
All Stars: Terry Riley: In C
Music
Classical
SACD
Pärt: Da pacem. Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir,
Paul Hillier, conductor; Christopher Bowers-Broadbent, organ. Robina
G. Young and Brad Michel, producers; Brad Michel, engineer. Hybrid multichannel.
Harmonia Mundi 807401.
No musician has been more devoted to the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt than Paul Hillier. First
for ECM and more recently for Harmonia Mundi, Hillier has recorded a series of invaluable discs
presenting Pärt’s work and has written a well-regarded book analyzing his art. This new SACD of
shorter religious choral pieces nicely serves as an introduction to Pärt’s singular musical language of
the past three decades and will also be welcomed by seasoned Pärt-isans.
Early in his career, Pärt utilized serial and experimental “collage” techniques. Then, in the late
1960s, he embarked on an intensive study of early music, emerging in the mid-1970s with the
first compositions in his tintinnabuli style, a deceptively simple, richly expressive syntax using very
few melodic voices at any given time along with triadic harmonies. Da pacem collects eight works
composed between 1976 and 2004 that represent the wide range of moods and effects possible
with the tintinnabuli methodology. There’s the measured, jewel-like purity of the
title track, the terpsichorean rhythms of the first of the Two Slavonic Psalms, and
the matter-of-fact narrative text of Dopo la vittoria (Following the Victory), the latter
describing how the Te Deum hymn came into existence. Salve Regina indeed sounds
“like a dream sequence from a film about a peasant community crooning a halfremembered song,” as Hillier’s insightful liner notes put it. Organist Christopher
Bowers-Broadbent, a contemporary music specialist, provides idiomatic support for
three of the pieces.
It’s hard to imagine better performances. And the choral recording is superb—
revealing individual voices but also delivering the powerful, greater-than-the-sumof-its-parts massed vocal sonority of one of the world’s great professional choral
groups. The multichannel gives a close up look at the ensemble, and still there’s loads
of air around the singers. The decay of the sound at pauses is exceptionally natural,
illuminating the space of the two Tallinn churches where the program was encoded.
AQ
Further Listening: Baltic Voices 1, 2, and 3 (SACD);
Rachmaninov: All-Night Vigil (Hillier) (SACD)
Strauss: Four Last Songs. Death and
Transfiguration. Wagner: Tristan und Isolde:
Prelude and Liebestod.
Christine Brewer, soprano; Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Donald
Runnicles, conductor. Robert Woods, producer; Michael Bishop,
engineer. Hybrid multichannel. Telarc 60661.
On this collection, Telarc presents a sumptuously recorded hour of familiar death-related
fare by Wagner and Strauss, led by the ASO’s Principal Guest Conductor, Donald
Runnicles. The considerable vocal duties fall to American soprano Christine Brewer.
A top-notch performance of Tristan’s Act I Prelude and Liebestod (the latter
generally played in concert without a vocalist) can provide a compressed, Cliff Notes
version of the emotionally wrenching four-hour opera—but not here. A luxuriant
orchestral sonority notwithstanding, Runnicles fails to generate the necessary mood
of malaise in the Prelude for the Liebestod to provide a sense of release. Brewer’s
enormous vocal instrument has a slightly opaque quality that doesn’t quite suit
the Irish princess. Though her top notes are certainly secure, a touch of stridency
occasionally creeps in.
Brewer’s dusky soprano is a better match for Strauss’s autumnal songs, though
these performances don’t approach classic renditions by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf,
Lucia Popp, or Renée Fleming—all currently available on budget and mid-priced
reissues. While Brewer’s singing is attractive as melismatic vocal virtuosity, she doesn’t communicate a gentle expression of love at the end of life, the
composer’s intent. Although the four settings are very much of a piece, they each have their own distinct character that the singer doesn’t differentiate.
Least successful is Tod und Verklärung. This ultimate example of program music fails to paint a mental picture. The opening pages are missing the
somber, oppressive essence of the deathbed, and the transition to the “Transfiguration” section is not optimally stage-managed to get a sense of
crossing over to the Other Side.
Telarc’s sound is dark, rich, and potent, if not especially detailed. The size of Brewer’s vocal apparatus permits a mid-hall perspective for the
surround version, but in multichannel, there’s a vaguely disembodied quality to her voice. I prefer the stereo DSD option for the soprano’s portion of
the program. AQ
Further Listening: Strauss: Four Last Songs (Fleming/Eschenbach); Wagner: Orchestral music (Kreizberg) (SACD)
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November 2006
The Absolute Sound
Greenberg: Symphony No. 5.
Quintet for Strings.
London Symphony Orchestra, José Serebrier, conductor; Juilliard
String Quartet with Darrett Adkins, cello. Steven Epstein,
producer; Richard King, engineer. Hybrid multichannel. Sony
82876.
The label of “genius” has been applied to classical composers in two ways. First,
there are those who as mature artists have created a body of work that is uniquely
communicative, enduring, and spiritually meaningful. Composers like Beethoven,
Wagner, and Stravinsky fall into this category. Then, there are instances of
extreme, almost freakish, precocity. Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Saint-Säens are
the names most frequently trotted out; Erich Wolfgang Korngold is the last
well-known instance. Jay Greenberg, born in 1991, certainly qualifies under the
second definition. At three, he invented his own method of notating music; at
eight, he was cranking out piano sonatas on a weekly basis. And please note that
this Sony SACD holds Greenberg’s Fifth Symphony, composed between 2003
and 2005. Nos. 1 and 2 were written when he was ten. For Greenberg, musical
works are imagined as complete entities and “composing,” mostly, involves
getting down on paper what he has heard in his head.
What does Greenberg sound like? His style is conservative, evoking music of
a century ago. Greenberg employs a distinctive advanced tonal language, though
at times listeners will hear echoes of Bartók, Hindemith, Holst, and others. He
devises enchanting melodic materials—the perky little tune of the Scherzo’s middle section, or the lyrical flute and clarinet solos of the third movement—
and Greenberg’s ability as an orchestrator is remarkable. Mind-boggling, as well, is his command of large-scale form and dramatic structure.
The disc is filled out with Greenberg’s String Quintet, written for a standard quartet plus cello, like Schubert’s D.956. The opening Adagio misterioso
manifests a tonal lability that contributes to a mood of searching restlessness. The second and third movements are dominated by a strong rhythmic
impulse as Greenberg quite idiomatically utilizes the chamber forces.
José Serebrier was a child composer himself and leads the LSO enthusiastically; the Juilliard’s degree of commitment is apparent from its intense
performance. The Symphony was recorded at Abbey Road Studios and has good front-to-back layering, with coherence of the sound at climaxes.
Greenberg’s Quintet was taped in a theater at SUNY Purchase and the sonics offer both immediacy and a sense of the venue. AQ
Further Listening: Korngold: Orchestral Works Vol. 1 (Albert); Mendelssohn: Octet (Emerson)
November 2006
The Absolute Sound
165
BACK PAGE
12 Questions for Kevin Voecks,
Director, Revel Products
Neil Gader
Was there an event that spurred your early interest in
the high end?
I was interested in the quality of sound reproduction before I could
say it was the “high end” per se. But by high school I was into the
big Fulton towers—totally lost and with no hope of being saved from
becoming a complete audio nut.
Was there a system you dreamed of as a teenager?
I kind of did put together whatever I wanted to because I started
selling equipment. And, earlier, the large Advents were a big player
at that time. They were a real advance—at least everyone believed
so. In junior high school I had double-stacked Advents. I’m appalled
at the concept now and all the side effects but that wasn’t a big deal
then. Plus building Dynaco 400s and other big power amps was a
lot of fun.
Why did you choose to design loudspeakers?
Because even at that point it was evident they were the single
biggest challenge for getting really good sound quality—with phono
cartridges maybe number two.
So are you saying that other component designers no
longer face big challenges?
No, but it’s still the case that loudspeakers are the most imperfect
components, and one could argue they are the greatest challenge—
not strictly electronic or electrical but electro-acoustical, so there is a
broad arena of issues you have to deal with.
You design monopolar dynamic-driver speakers. What
about considering electrostatic, dipole, or ribbon
designs?
No, we investigated all of the various technologies, particularly at
the beginning of Revel, which was ten years ago. We had complete
freedom to go down any path. Even though I believed that I already
knew the answer, we really looked at all the possibilities with an open
mind. It was evident that the inherent limitations of other approaches
were much greater obstacles than with traditional dynamic design.
But there are some terrific alternative speaker
designs out there, aren’t there?
One could say there are good designs that have taken a different
fundamental approach, but I don’t think any of the other technologies
can ultimately result in sound quality that is as good.
Do you consider yourself in the analog or digital camp?
Clearly well-executed digital. There’s no contest, and now with
high-resolution formats, especially the requirements of the HD
DVD camp, we’ve got another shot at a high-quality digital format
making it all the way to the listening room. I think that’s very
exciting.
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November 2006
The Absolute Sound
What’s the biggest innovation in loudspeakers in the
last 10 years?
Creating listening tests that aren’t influenced by junk and nuisance
variables, and being able to measure in a way that really points to
what we know we can hear.
Do you have an audio engineering hero?
Because of my specialization it has to be Floyd Toole. He’s been
responsible personally and through the people he has trained and
worked with over the years for a huge percentage of the real advances
in how speakers sound. It’s quite remarkable.
Are there any misperceptions about Revel speakers?
I think that due to advertising and to a certain extent the press,
people tend to look for something they can see, cone materials for
example. Clearly what makes all the difference is that the speakers
are designed as a whole and that there aren’t weaknesses in any of
the aspects. For example, the values of the crossover components are
at least as important as anything else in the loudspeaker, but that’s
not something you can point to in an ad. But to great degree it’s the
soul of the speaker.
What’s the best advice you can offer high-end
consumers?
The biggest impact, for better or for worse, is their choice of
loudspeaker, and then how it’s placed in the room and whether
they’ve paid any attention to room acoustics. After that, making
sure there’s enough real power from the amplifiers. I think that
people underestimate microdynamics that are often several times
the average level. Adequate power really helps them sound totally
unclipped and really clean.
What kind of speakers will you be listening to in 10
years?
I believe there will still be loudspeakers with generally the same basic
technologies as now. There’s really no indication that there will be a
truly radical shift. TAS

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