Welcome back to Sunday Morning Hi Fi, a weekly blog that celebrates high-end audio, discusses new gear, and seeks to discover great music.
One of the pleasures I take on a Sunday morning is throwing on a record or making a high-res playlist, and then cooking breakfast. But, this weekend was a little different. I promised my significant other that we would go camping, so breakfast was spartan: iced coffee (more like slightly cool coffee), and oatmeal. Even though we were lost in nature, we didn’t leave the hi fi entirely behind. We brought along a cool wireless speaker for some fireside tunes, the Harman/Kardon Onyx Studio. While the Onyx Studio is definitely a “lifestyle” product, it should be at the top of the list for any audiophile looking for a wireless Bluetooth speaker that actually sounds decent. I will discuss it further in the gear section.
Since we are in the great outdoors at Garner State Park southwest of San Antonio, I thought I would keep this Sunday morning as portable as possible. Besides the aforementioned Harman/Kardon Onyx Studio, there is a brand-new product to discuss: the Sony NWZ-A17 high-res portable music player. I will also talk about some superb new in-ear earphones from NuForce, the Primo 8.
Now I don’t mean to be contradictory, but I’m going to discuss the vinyl versions of all the music below. Despite the lack of portability, I mention the vinyl because it’s pretty easy to find the digital downloads of all these bands, either on HDtracks, Bandcamp, Acoustic Sounds, Music Direct, or the artist’s website. Not all of them are available in high res, but you will be able to find at least the FLAC/AIFF/WAV versions. What I love about Bandcamp is that when you purchase vinyl, it comes with an instant FLAC/AIFF/WAV download of that album. Bandcamp is sometimes the only way to find the vinyl of up-and-coming bands, and the pressings are generally limited, so if you like what you hear you should jump on the chance to buy it. Of the music below, the only vinyl I had trouble locating was Buena Vista Social Club Live at Carnegie Hall. I bought this 2-LP vinyl about seven years ago, and it is in my opinion one of the greatest live albums of all time. I have faith that if you are as big a fan of Buena Vista as I am you can track down the LP. Check Discogs or Musicstack for availability.
But, back to the portability. Keep a lookout for my upcoming article on digital and portable music, which is an introductory guide to high-res portable audio, streaming music services, and computer-based audio. It won’t be a dissertation, but hopefully it will shed some light on the subject—even for veteran digital audiophiles. My highest recommendation for those looking for a streaming music service is Spotify. No other service has the user interface, music catalog, apps, and component integration that Spotify has. During the entire four-hour drive to Garner State Park, I streamed music from playlists I built on Spotify. Even though Spotify is limited to 320kbps (about one-fifth the bitrate of a CD), access to 20 million songs and the ability to stream that music via Bluetooth to my car stereo, home stereo, and portable speakers is well worth the $10-a-month price tag. As cellphone networks become faster, I’m sure we will see Spotify move to at least CD-quality sound. Even though Qobuz is finally available in the U.S., the lack of portability makes Spotify my preferred service. For the times when we didn’t have cellphone service, Spotify has a feature that allows you to download up to 3,333 songs for offline playback. Yes, it’s an arbitrary number, but that should be plenty to keep you rockin’ at all times.
Happy Sunday. Since I’m camping, the music recommendations lean toward folk, Americana, jazz, and blues. Whether you’re home enjoying some vinyl or high-res audio on your reference system, or traveling around this beautiful country while streaming music, I hope you enjoy some of the music recommendations below. I’m sure most of you will have heard several of these albums; at the same time, I hope you discover something new. If you have recommendations of your own, feel free to share your favorite music in the comments section. Not only do I want to hear from you, but your fellow readers will want to hear from you as well.
Enjoy your Sunday Morning Hi Fi!
Kenny Burrell - Midnight Blue
Kenny Burrell’s Midnight Blue is in my opinion the greatest jazz-guitar album of all time. When the 45RPM Analogue Productions reissue hit the market, I had to get it. This is one of those albums that is a must-own for every audiophile, and is truly spectacular. The sonics are incredible, the vinyl is almost dead silent, and the music is just right to kick off your Sunday morning. Don’t shy away from the $50 price tag; this is an investment in your aural soul. This album seems to be a hit no matter when I put it on, whether during a wine party, lounging after work, or waking up Sunday morning. Burrell’s guitar work is silky and seductive, and is uplifting when you need a boost, or calming when you need to relax. Pressed on 200g virgin vinyl, this reissue is absolutely stellar. You won’t regret buying it. More info
Buena Vista Social Club – Live at Carnegie Hall
Live at Carnegie Hall is probably the greatest live album of all time. Play this album through your reference system, and your listening room will come alive with the ambiance of Carnegie Hall, Ry Cooder, and friends. The vinyl is high quality, durable, and will provide years of joy. I’ve hauled the vinyl to audio shows and people are universally stunned by how good this vinyl sounds. Plus, the music is just incredible. The only problem is that the vinyl seems to be fairly scarce now, so it will take a little bit of digging to find a new copy. Again, like Midnight Blue, this is one of those must-own albums that belongs in every audiophile’s home. Search Discogs and Musicstack if you can’t find it at Nonesuch records. More info
EDIT: A brief explanation as to why this album is one of the greatest, if not the greatest live album, is needed. The Buena Vista Social Club was a popular hangout for Havana musicians during the 1940s and 50s, yet was closed after the Cuban revolution. In 1996, Ry Cooder made his way down to Havana to record an album, and after some fluke events he decided to record an album celebrating Cuban music and its heritage. What ensued was the Buena Vista Social Club, and after Live at Carnegie Hall and a subsequent documentary by Wid Wedmer were released, this album essentially re-ignited a worldwide love for Latin American--and specifically Cuban--music. This came at a time when tensions were high with Cuba, especially after the dissolution of the USSR, which was the main financial supporter of Cuba. It can be argued that this album spurred a détente between the U.S. and Cuba, and is responsible for the resurgence of Latin American music. Plus, the music is great and the sonics are superb. Worth every penny.
Tinariwen – Tassili
Tinariwen is an amazing group of former Tuareg independence fighters who found a calling playing music. And the fusion is irresistible: Take blues, rock, folk, and fuse it with traditional Tuareg music, and you have an infectious album that is unlike anything you have ever heard. Tasilli is the album that put these guys on the map, but their latest album Emmaar is equally powerful and emotional. More info
Blitzen Trapper – Furr
Blitzen Trapper has been around for a long time, and Furr is not a new album, but it is—in my opinion—their best. Is it rock? Is it folk? Is it bluesy country? Is it punk? Who knows, but this album is really great, especially the songs “Furr” and “Black River Killer.” I wouldn’t consider this an “audiophile” album, but it’s definitely good music and worth a listen. More info
Hiss Golden Messenger – Poor Moon
Hiss Golden Messenger is another one of those multi-genre musicians that can’t really be defined. Spotify labels him as “country rock,” but that sounds like pop country you would hear on a college radio station. Poor Moon definitely has some country influence, but I would classify it more as folk-Americana country blues, or something like that. Hiss Golden Messenger continues the long history of American folk music and blends it with some rock, some blues, and country to create a mellow amalgamation of genres that is both great music and emotionally stirring. As I mentioned above, when purchased via Bandcamp, you can get the album and the FLAC download for $18. Highly recommended. More info
Hiss Golden Messenger – Haw
Haw is Hiss Golden Messenger’s penultimate album (a new one just came out), but it continues the theme from Poor Moon and builds upon it to create a more refined and infectious sound. Hiss Golden Messenger really comes into his own on this album, and is a perfect addition to Poor Moon. Whichever album you like better, your friends and family will love this folky blues musician, and so will you. More info
Shinyribs – Well After Awhile
Shinyribs has a funny name, and is even funnier when you see him live in concert, but his folk-blues country is upbeat, infectious, and makes you want to dance. The standout song on this album is “Who Built the Moon,” which is one of those songs you can listen to a hundred times and still love. Some of the songs are kooky, a little eccentric, and definitely unique, but that’s part of the beauty of this album. More info
Sony NWZ-A17: $299
Sony has just announced their brand-new NWZ-A17 high-res portable music player, which builds on the long history of the Walkman (and is probably a response to Neil Young’s Pono Player). Normally, I wouldn’t get very excited about another portable player, but this one is unique. Yes, it plays all of your standard formats up to 192/24, but what makes this player special is the fact that it is 2.4 ounces, has 64GB of built-in memory (expandable to 128GB), and is capable of 50 hours of playback. Let me say that again: 50 hours of playback time! From 2.4 ounces! This thing is slim, has a rudimentary touch screen, and will officially launch in November. I haven’t listened to it yet, but with 50 hours of playback, you could listen to high-res music for a very long time without running out of juice. More info
Harman/Kardon Onyx Studio: $399
The Harman/Kardon Onyx Studio is a flat-ish, circular speaker about one foot in diameter, and is capable of connecting with any Bluetooth enabled device. When at home, it is powered by a standard AC plug; but when you’re on the go, the Onyx Studio has a built-in battery capable of up to 8 hours of playback. While camping, the speaker had enough power to last the weekend, though we only used it for an hour or two at any given time. Still, this little guy sounds way better than those inferior Beats or Jawbone speakers that cost a lot and deliver very little. No, you won’t be blown away by three-dimensional soundstaging, but this speaker will provide plenty of great sounding music without the distortion of those little speakers. More info
NuForce Primo 8: $499
The NuForce Primo 8 in-ear earphones are superb. The wires wrap around your ear so they stay securely in place while jogging or going to the gym, and if you take your time and find the ear piece that fits your ear canal, you will be rewarded with really amazing sound. Nice, taut bass, great midrange response, and highs that don’t pierce your eardrums. These things are worth an audition if you can; if you can’t audition them, they are worth the risk of buying them without hearing them; that is, if you don’t own earphones already. The only issue I had with them was sweaty ears. I live in Texas, and Texas is a really hot place. Using these earphones while hiking or working out was a little sticky after a couple hours of use, and I had to wipe them off several times. Though, this is probably the case anytime you use earphones in a hot environment. Other than that, these little guys are priced right for the amount of performance you get. More info