Like almost everybody else who grew up in the sixties, I can honestly say that rock ’n’ roll changed my life. In particular, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band changed my life. That girl doll on its psychedelic album cover might as well have had “Welcome Jon Valin” written on her sweater instead of “Welcome the Rolling Stones,” because when the Beatles went rogue, so did I. I tuned in, turned on, grew my hair long (“Ooo, it’s getting good in the back”), and dropped out almost before I’d dropped in. Needless to say, the results weren’t all peace and love; in fact, my foray into hippiedom, which in some form or another persists to this day, was (and continues to be) mostly a sobering lesson in the sad gap between the way we’d like things to be and the way they actually are. Nonetheless, to quote Pike Bishop, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
What has brought on this crashingly boring confessional is a totally unexpected epiphany I had over this past weekend, when I was visited by Greg Beron of United Home Audio (http://www.unitedhomeproducts.com), who brought with him his latest two-track, 15ips, reel-to-reel tape deck, the fabulous UHA-HQ Phase 11. Greg has been working and reworking his highly modified TASCAM Pro decks for six years now, and the Phase 11 is unquestionably his masterpiece.
Differences between it and the Phase 9 are manifold and, as you will soon learn, easy to hear, but, for the record, here are some of the technical improvements: The Phase 11 has a new dedicated and overbuilt power supply; each of its gain stages is now individually charged by its own separate bank of capacitors; the Phase 11 also incorporates Beron’s new “G3” dual-mono, differentially balanced preamp; and all electronic parts such as resistors, caps, connectors, internal wiring, and recording/playback heads were chosen after countless auditions of parts from many manufacturers. Says Beron: “I kept swapping and experimenting over the last two years till I was happy with the synergy and the sound. This process involved many listening sessions with various friends. The sessions were divided into frequency ranges, where we only listened to the ‘highs’ for weeks, then the ‘mids’ for weeks. Same with the low end, until we could find nothing to pick at.”
Additionally, the internal wiring of the Phase 11 has been greatly improved. “We found that hyper-pure ‘cast’ solid silver wire ($$$$) from the playback head through the deck to the output connectors really improved dynamics and detail,” says Beron. “We even used solid silver wire on the boards. This special wire is double-shielded and has a braided Teflon dielectric. That braid sounds much better than typical solid extruded Teflon. On the record head we used the same manufacturer’s wire but in ‘cast’ copper, as the copper sounded better for recording.” Beron says that here are no “lesser-quality” components in the signal path of the Phase 11, not even an adjustment pot: “We govern the output of the deck by a proprietary process of gain stage adjustment and low impact resistive tuning.” Also, all parts are now shielded with mu-metal—tape heads, boards, outputs, inputs, etc. Finally, the Phase 11 uses new, very-low-output, low-impedance tape heads, which have been matched to the new “G3” preamp for perfect continuity. (I should also mention Patrick Sinegal of Reeltronix [http://reeltronix.com/] whose incredibly sexy, lightweight, and, IMO, superior take-up reels are new options.)
But Beron hasn’t just been busy building a better mousetrap. The problem with two-track, 15ips, reel-to-reel tape, as I noted when I reviewed Beron’s UHA-HQ Phase 9 deck two years ago, wasn't the hardware; it was the dearth of software. Sure, there were The Tape Project tapes (http://www.tapeproject.com). But they cost a fortune, were few in number and often highly variable in sound (depending on the condition of the master). The best-sounding of them—like Arnold Overtures or Nojima Plays Liszt (both from Reference Recordings)—were, to quote my bud Music Editor Mark Lehman, the most realistic source material ever offered for home playback. The least were easily matched and bested by choice LPs of the same material.
Since I reviewed the UHA-HQ Phase 9, however, I have been, well, not exactly flooded but slowly and steadily supplied with reel-to-reels mastertapes (or dubs of same) from a variety of fresh sources cultivated almost entirely by Mr. Beron. These include several great-sounding SonoruS Series classical tapes from Yarlung Records (http://www.yarlungrecords.com/analog.html#) and some 50 classical, pop, and jazz titles from the great Swedish audiophile label Opus3 (http://www.opus3records.com/am_list.html). In addition, Mastertape Sound Lab (http://www.mastertapesoundlab.com/MasterTapeSoundLab/Catalogue.html) has nearly one hundred superbly recorded pop, jazz, and classical titles (engineered and mastered by Costas Metaxas), a company called UltraAnalogue Recordings (http://ultraanaloguerecordings.com/store), whose tapes I haven’t yet heard, offers a dozen or more choice classical titles, and Jonathan Horwich of International Phonograph, Inc. (http://internationalphonographinc.com/master_tapes.html) offers a number of superb jazz recordings (engineered and mastered by Horwich himself). In the near future, there is a strong possibility that other audiophile labels (I won’t mention names lest I jinx anything, but trust me you would be impressed) may join in.
Hearing the super quality of these new tapes (and dreaming about the promise of more to come) so wowed me that I decided to revisit reel-to-reel, which was the occasion of Greg’s visit. Little did I know, however, that he had an ace up his sleeve.
Before revealing that ace, let me make something clear. In my listening room, at the moment, I have, in the $140k Raidho C4.1, the most realistic full-range speaker system I (or any of my listening panel) have ever heard. I also have, in the $55k Soulution 501 amps and $26k Soulution 520 full-function preamplifier, what is in many ways the most realistic (and certainly the most unstintingly powerful and dynamic) electronics I’ve had in my home. Wired with Crystal Cable’s superb Absolute Dream and sourced by the two finest turntable/tonearms/cartridge combos I’ve heard—the $100k+ DaVinciAudioLabs AASGabriel ’table with DaVinci Master’s Reference Virtu tonearm and Ortofon MC Anna catridge, and the Walker Proscenium Black Diamond Mk IV record player with the Goldfinger Statement cartridge—this is simply a phenomenally lifelike (given a phenomenally lifelike LP) playback system.
Lest you get the wrong idea, I’m not bragging about my good fortune. What I’m doing is stating a fact: This is the most realistic stereo system I’ve ever had in my home (and the most consistently realistic I’ve heard, anywhere).
That the sonic excellence of such a system could be not just a little bit improved, but unequivocally, unforgettably, sensationally, dramatically, earth-shakingly improved would have seemed laughable had I not heard this very thing happen on Saturday evening.
What changed—what turned a perfect 10 into an 11? Well…the UHA-HQ Phase 11, which is to the Phase 9 as, oh, the Audio Research Reference One preamplifier is to the Audio Research Reference 40.
All my life I’ve been an analog hound, and I will remain one because, next to tape, vinyl is the most realistic medium. (And, no, I don’t love it because it’s the medium I listened to when I first got laid—to that, all I can say is at least I did get laid, Manny.) But…the record player, even the very greatest ones (like the two I use as references), is no longer the king of sources. Where there was room for argument with the UHA-HQ Phase 9, there is no room with the Phase 11. This is simply the best source component I’ve ever heard by a considerable margin.
The sonic improvements over Beron’s earlier deck are so many and so large that there would be no end of listing them, but several stick out. For one thing, there is the bass. I’ve never heard bass like this from a stereo—so ferociously powerful (on recordings with powerful bass, about which I will have more to say in a moment) that it makes the cushions on the couch on which I sit flex in and out, and yet so taut and clear and defined it is like a dream of what high-fidelity bass could be. And then there are the dynamics. This is an area in which tape has always been superior, since its dynamics seem continuous, as they do in life, running like a ramp from soft to loud rather than inching up in discrete levels like the steps of a staircase, as they seem to do on digital sources and, to a lesser degree, on vinyl. This said, on hard transients, I’ve always felt that vinyl has had a slight edge over tape, almost literally—a crisper, quicker, more explosive leading edge. That, too, has changed with the Phase 11, where on something like the second movement of the Penderecki Trio (on Yarlung) pizzicatos are every bit as crisp, quick, and explosive as they are on LP.
But let’s face it: While I know the music of Penderecki and am very familiar with the sound of violin, viola, and cello, I don’t know this particular (and quite wonderful) piece. Wowed as I was (and I was) by the Phase 11/Yarlung, what would happen, I wondered, if I heard a piece of music I was extremely familiar with in countless iterations on vinyl and digital? You know, something like the album that changed my farchachdat life farchachdat ever. Something like, oh, Sgt. Pepper?
Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, what, I ask you, are the chances of a mastertape (well, a second-gen dub) of Sgt. Pepper walking into mine? And yet that is exactly what happened. Thanks to Greg Beron and Bruce Brown of Puget Sound Studios (http://pugetsoundstudios.com), who does all the high-res mastering for Music Direct (as well as all the mastering for Dave Wilson and Peter McGrath, among many other notables) and occasionally loans 15ips, two-track, reel-to-reel dupes of safety masters to vendors for shows and to reviewers for audition (alas, they are not for sale), I got to hear the impossible. I got to hear the mastertape of Sgt. Pepper!
I want to be very clear here, because, truthfully, I would’ve swooned if the mastertape of Sgt. Pepper had sounded terrible. Which, BTW, is pretty much the way the album (in stereo) has always sounded, no matter whose version you’re talking about. Anemic in the bass, dry and brittle and bath-tubey in the mids, crudely mixed (very left/right) with obvious manifold overdubs. Oh, there are some variations from cut to cut, but for the most part Sgt. Pepper didn’t make it to Number One on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Best Rock Albums of All Time—or Number One, with a dagger, in my heart—because of its audiophile-grade sound.
But the sound wasn’t awful. It was anything but awful.
If you think The Beatles couldn’t rock, I truly wish you had the same chance that I had—to hear this mastertape on this stereo via Greg’s Phase 11 machine. Folks, to say that this was a “better” sound, even “an extraordinarily better” sound, doesn’t cut it. This was a revolution.
I don’t know where to begin; the net effect was so overwhelming. Of course, the bass is the weakest thing on vinyl and digital. You hardly even know Paul is playing, much less rocking. But on the mastertape…on the mastertape, boys, it is an entirely different story. Here is Paul’s bass guitar the way you’ve always wanted to hear it—full, deep, incredibly powerful, and so clear and defined in pitch and articulation that it is easy to tell the McCartney was a heckuva player. Same for Ringo’s drum licks—some of which, like the bass, almost literally knock you on your ass with their slam—same with George’s garden of guitars. And the voices! It was like having John Lennon and Paul McCartney in my room with me. It goes without saying that there wasn’t a single cut that didn’t hold surprises in store—things I’d never heard and I’ve heard this album countless times.
Given the importance Sgt. Pepper has had in my life, the whole thing was so amazing it left me agog. I have never heard rock and roll reproduced more powerfully and realistically in my home or at a show in my entire life. And, guess what, it was just the start. Because thanks to Greg and Bruce I also got to hear a mastertape of the anti-Beatles, The Doors, performing “Crawlin’ King Snake” and that creepy “Hyacinth House” from L.A. Woman. When black bluesmen, like John Lee Hooker, sing “Crawlin’ King Snake” or “Back Door Man” the humor comes from the disparity between the “innocent” text and the sexual subtext. When The Doors’ Jim Morrison sings them, there is no subtext—and no humor. There was a reason why they called this guy "The Lizard King."
There is so much more that I would like to say about what amounts to the most incredible stereo experience I’ve had since first hearing those Maggie I-Us with Audio Research electronics. But I’ve got to save something for the magazine, where I will do a review and a title by title discography of some of the great new reel-to-reel releases I mentioned.
For those of you interested, the UHA-HQ Phase 11 tape deck comes in two versions: one with a full-blown, Herculean-effort playback setup but with stock recording heads and EQ for $17k; and another with a full-blown Herculean effort on both the playback and the recording side for $21k. Compared to what a great turntable would cost you, this is a bargain. And compared to a couple of years ago, the number and quality of newly available 15ips, two-track, reel-to-reel titles may justify the purchase. It certainly has rocked my world.