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Sonus faber Lumina

I associate Sonus faber with luxurious floorstanders in windswept shapes with finely grained and glossy wood finishes. Even the lowercase “f” in faber somehow makes them sound fancier. So when I was told that Sf had a new “entry-level” bookshelf for review, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The Lumina ($899) took me off guard and flipped a lot of my preconceived notions about what a bookshelf speaker in this price range sounds, looks, and feels like. In many ways, this review is about expectations: how marketing sets them, how product categories reinforce them, and how some products occasionally redefine them.

 The Lumina is a vented-box, two-way bookshelf speaker that measures a miniscule 5.8″ x 11″ x 8.4″ and weighs less than 10 pounds. I don’t normally lead with a product’s measurements, but these things are really small—borderline desktop size. They’re much slimmer than the Wharfedale bookshelves I compared them with, and are the smallest non-desktop speakers I’ve had in my listening space to date. It is only natural for people to wonder whether a set of speakers so tiny can play loud enough to fill a large room and dig down deep enough to create a sense of appreciable bass. While I don’t want to spoil the review, I’ll go ahead and spoil it anyway: Yes and yes, they most certainly do.

The tweeter is Sonux faber’s 29mm Damped Apex Dome featured in the Sonetto series, and the mid/woofer is a 120mm custom-designed driver with a diaphragm made from a blend of cellulose pulp and other natural fibers. The speaker’s nominal impedance is 4 ohms, and its sensitivity is 84dB, which means the Lumina is going to be a bit harder to drive. From my own experience, I would stick with Sf’s suggested power guideline of 30–100Wpc, though I’d aim for the upper end of that range.

 My review pair came in a wenge wood finish, but the Luminas are also available in piano black and walnut. The wenge versions include sleek silver accents around the tweeters and mid/woofers, which lend the Luminas an exquisite sense of gravitas that is strange considering their size. Best of all, the main body is wrapped in a soft, dark leather that feels great to touch and looks fantastic. Overall, I’d say these speakers are high among the most visually appealing pieces of gear I’ve ever had in my listening room. I would have gladly placed them in my living room if I didn’t have a toddler who would immediately destroy them.

 Of course, speakers are only as good as they sound, and physical attributes don’t always reveal a product’s inner worth. I know you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, even though everyone’s always judging based on covers, but in this instance, I’d say the form factor of the Lumina does suggest something about the way it’s going to sound, just not in the way you might expect.

 First up on my turntable was a new record from Nat Birchall, a UK multi-instrumentalist and jazz musician. His spiritual, Sun Ra-inspired Mysticism of Sound felt a lot like a pandemic album: self-produced with Birchall playing every instrument. Which is actually a great thing, because Mysticism of Sound reveals a wide and arcing breadth of music. While Birchall’s playing is melodic and multifarious, I couldn’t help but notice the low end first and foremost. Bookshelf speakers don’t typically create powerful bass, and while that was certainly true to some extent in this case, I was still absolutely astounded by the big sounds coming from the Luminas. Considering their tiny dimensions, they shouldn’t have given me a very palpable sense of the low end, and yet never once did I feel the need to turn them up to compensate for their size.

The track “Inner Pathway” is a meandering musical journey with a simple cymbal tap keeping precise time, while Birchall’s sax plays atop a mix of bass and synth. Sax mids were liquid smooth, and the nice sax tone shined through. The synth and bass combination made for a big, deep sonic landscape, and I was impressed with the Luminas’ ability to reproduce a clear and crisp midrange, while still digging deep for the rhythmic bass. It was a comforting and intriguing sound, not at all what I expected from these tiny boxes.

I switched over to the Speaker’s Corner reissue of the 1956 album The Jazz Messengers. Art Blakey plays the only way he knows how: big, bold, and in control. The Luminas kept his fast-paced snare rolls on “Infra-Rae” in tight focus, while his call-and-response solo toward the end of the track was booming and had just enough depth for the kicks to resonate. There’s nothing like a Blakey fill smashing me in the teeth; I always ask for more when he’s through. I want and need a pair of speakers to recreate Blakey’s impact in an almost painful way, and while I can’t say I was left with a gaping chest wound from the Luminas’ low end, I was very impressed by the overall sound. For me, that tactile response, where the bass isn’t just heard but also felt, is the hallmark of perfect bottom octaves. The Luminas simply can’t push enough air to make a kick drum feel like a kick drum. But they certainly do sound like a kick drum, which is a feat in itself.

The live album East/West by Ill Considered features meandering and repetitive, looping, free-jazz freak-outs. The energy of this live show remained solidly grounded through the Luminas, and the mingling of the dual saxophones with Emre Ramazanoglu’s drums and Leon Brichard’s bass created a blanket of twisting sounds. The saxophones were front and center, and the Luminas, once again, built a nice, deep soundstage while reproducing just enough ambient crowd noise to make the space feel like it was alive. Finesse and speed are particularly important when it comes to a live album like East/West, and the Luminas remained on beat and engaging. Drums had enough heft and cymbals had enough sparkle, and the distorted bass rumbled just right below it all. During my listen to these sparkling LPs, I was never tempted to swap in my bigger main speakers for more powerful impact, which I think says a lot for the Luminas.

Speaking of sheer size and scope, I recently received VMP’s reissue of one of my all-time Top Five albums, Spiritualized’s Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space. It’s an emotional, maximalist slog through a breakup, and a great way to test speakers. It’s the sort of album where more is never enough, and the end result is an enormous, gorgeous sonic landscape. The third track “I Think I’m In Love” starts out with spacey synth over a simple intermittent bass line. Through less than ideal speakers, it can sound a little hollow and the soundstage doesn’t feel deep enough. But the Lumina did it justice, especially as the song progressed and more and more instruments, noises, and voices were added to the mix. 

Finally, I turned to my latest obsession: The Tone Poets series from Blue Note Records. Herbie Hancock’s My Point of View was his second release as a leader and features a fantastic septet. Anthony Williams’s drumming was tight and on point. His cymbals shimmered with just enough sparkle, and his frequent, interesting flourishes and fills sound tight and solid. Tone Poet records are some of the best sounding in my collection and a great test of any system. The Luminas had superior soundstage separation and depth, with Hancock’s piano dead center and the drums shoved off in the right channel. The opening track on Side B, “King Cobra,” begins with a trumpet solo from Donald Byrd, which sounded smooth and tight, never venturing into the harsh and grating, despite getting fairly loud. 

I’ll admit to having some preconceived ideas about how smallish bookshelf speakers were going to sound. Just because of their size, I assumed they wouldn’t have deep bass heft, and they probably wouldn’t have the tightest sense of rhythm and dynamics. However, the Luminas proved me very, very wrong. No, they aren’t going to give you heart palpitations with their sub-bass rumbles. (Again, physics is a thing.) But the Luminas certainly changed my mind about how small bookshelf speakers are supposed to sound—or can sound. As far as I’m concerned, these are the new sub-$1k bookshelf speakers to beat. Just keep in mind those power amp requirements. Highly recommended to anyone looking for fantastic sound and beautiful style in a surprisingly compact package. 

Specs & Pricing

Driver complement: 29mm Damped Apex Dome tweeter, 120mm paper-cone mid/woofer
Frequency response: 65Hz–24kHz
Impedance: 4 ohms
Sensitivity: 84dB SPL (2.83V/1m)
Crossover: 2kHz
Loading: Bass-reflex
Finish: Wenge, black, walnut
Dimensions: 5.8″ x 11″ x 8.4″
Weight: 9.7 lbs. each
Price: $899/pr.

SONUS FABER S.P.A.
36057 Arcugnano (VI)
Italy
[email protected]

Young Beethoven: Janaki String Trio

A bit of housekeeping: this performance of Beethoven’s Trio, Op. 9, No. 3, came out on the Janaki Trio’s 2006 Debut CD along with pieces by Penderecki, Barabba, and Lefkowitz; Debut is also available in hi-res (24/88.2) at HDtracks and Qobuz. Yarlung released the Penderecki and Barabba on a 45rpm platter a few years ago, and that landed a spot on our Super LP List; this Beethoven belongs there too. The impressively natural miking picks up the instruments’ resonance and overtones but misses most extraneous noises. The LP has more warmth and hall richness than the hi-res, putting you right in the first row rather than at a remove. Beethoven was known for setting some of his most dramatic works in C minor: this trio joins the Pathétique Sonata, the Coriolan Overture, the Fifth Symphony, and the final piano sonata in that world. Three instruments rather than a full string quartet, however, means turbulent emotions are balanced by transparent textures in a delectable tension. Also, the piece stands at the crossroads of the Classical and Romantic eras, its thunder countered by wit and laughter. The Janaki Trio conveys all this in a vivid, pulsating performance.

SteinMusic Pi Carbon Signature Record Mat

I can’t tell you how many different record mats I’ve tried over the last four or five decades. They’ve come and gone with the regularity of seasons. Some have been sticky; some have been stiff; some have been thin; some have been fat; some have been as springy as balls of dough; and some have been as hard as unripened plums. All of them have claimed to provide an improved (i.e., lower noise and jitter) interface between LP and platter. And all of them have made a sonic difference—not enough of a difference, however, to earn an enduring place in my system (or my memory). As the old saw has it, different isn’t necessarily better; more often than not, it’s just different. 

Holger Stein’s Pi Carbon Signature record mat is an exception. Not only is it different; it is also better—at least it is if you’re looking for a closer semblance of the absolute sound. If you’re looking for spotlit detail, then it won’t be for you. (And neither will anything else from SteinMusic.)

However, before I get to Pi Carbon Signature sonics, let me tell you what it is: It is a $650 sheet of paper is what it is. (I’m going to start a new paragraph now to give you time to pick up a pen and begin writing that angry letter.) 

Of course, it’s not “ordinary” paper. If it were, you could pull a page from TAS (or if you wanted something more prosciutto-like, a page from Stereophile), punch a spindle-sized hole in it, and slap it on your turntable. No, this paper is hand-made in Japan from the same trees (usually mulberry and fig) that tapa cloth is made from. After being dried on wood, the tapa paper is sent to SteinMusic in Mülheim, Germany, where it is impregnated with SteinMusic Maestro Lacquer—“a varnish made out of the most precious natural resins in a unique composition, optimized for perfect resonance control.”

Though it consists of varnished paper and some sort of carbon additive, the Pi Carbon Signature is not as thin and light as you might imagine. It’s got some substance to it, though not enough substance (unless it’s fastened down to the platter via the little tabs of tape on its rear side) to keep it from occasionally sticking to the backs of your records. Which means that, now and then, you may have to peel the Pi from the LP and resituate it on your record player before playing Side B. This is, admittedly, a pain. But, with the Pi Carbon Signature, it is part of the price of doing business. The other part—the good part—is the effect this mat has on the presentation.

Since I started using the SteinMusic Pi, I’ve been searching for a way to explain how this sheet of paper changes sonics. Perhaps it would be best to do this is by analogy. 

Think of the sound of a recording on which musicians were taped in sound booths via individual mics; then think of the sound of a recording on which the musicians were taped ensemble in an actual hall, studio, or club via a Blumlein pair or a trio of omnis. The instruments in the separately miked sound-booth setup may seem more individuated and distinct, but the sense of organicism—of ensemble music-making in a large, shared acoustic space, (highlighted in the Blumlein or spaced-omni setups)—will be greatly reduced or nonexistant. 

It is this realistic and sonically attractive “organicism” that the Pi Carbon Signature adds to each and every LP, no matter how it was recorded. This more organic presentation is something the Pi shares with almost all SteinMusic tweaks, including its H2Plus Boxes, Stones, Stars, and Suns room treatments. The inexplicability of this more organic effect is something else the Pi shares with Holger Stein’s doo-dads. 

How a piece of varnished Japanese paper can consistently improve the sound of a vinyl record riding atop it is beyond me. All I can tell you is that it does—that the very thing that makes many LPs sound like LPs, like mosaics made of individually recorded bits and pieces, is replaced by something that makes those bits and pieces seem more like interrelated parts of a sonic whole.

This organic effect is not without a downside. As I said earlier, if you’re listening for highlighted details (and, to a certain extent, a vast soundstage), the more “continuous,” more compact, less analytical sound of the Pi Carbon Signature may not be your sheet of Japanese paper. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for a closer approximation of the real thing—looking for analog playback that is very much more like tape playback—then $650 doesn’t seem too much to spend. 

Jeff Tweedy’s Love is the King

Being stranded courtesy of the Covid-19 pandemic has a way of stripping life down to its essentials. Your social circle shrinks; your creative, cultural, and hedonistic outlets are sharply curtailed. What’s left is time to mull that which is missing—and to appreciate what remains. 

Wouldn’t that be a great subject for an album? Jeff Tweedy thought so. Best known as the frontman and creative force behind the indie band Wilco, Tweedy spent the better part of 2020 writing a set of thoughtful, elemental songs. He then culled them into an album that mimics today’s stripped-down yet somehow self-sufficient feel. The result, Love is the King, is both the perfect descriptor of inner life—the life of the heart and mind—during this pandemic, and a grace-infused antidote to our trials.

The songs that make up this remarkable collection are models of craft and wit. Though they encompass the same signature styles, chords, and progressions Tweedy’s been mining for years, each takes at least one unexpected turn that makes it unique. Further, every note, whether melodic, foundational, or a flourish, makes a critical contribution to the whole—or it wouldn’t be there. This lack of the expendable and gratuitous is both refreshing and, in these times, resonant.

 The lyrics, too, are beautifully forged. Their subject is what Tweedy sees as the central lesson of the pandemic: what you miss the most is love and connection; yet, paradoxically, those very elements are what get you through. Every track, no matter how far-flung its outward subject, comes back to this theme. Again, Tweedy offers reassuring constancy, but also keeps things fresh by conveying his theme through an ever-changing stream of metaphors.

I fear I’ve depicted an album that’s somber and humorless. Let me assure you that Love is the King is neither of these things. Some songs are indeed thoughtful, but they’re also relatable and infused with a stark honesty that’ll grab you by the throat. “Even I Cajn See” begins, “If I may have your attention please/To tell you about my wife/And what she means to me.” Then, in an ode teeming with admiration, respect, and a touch of envy, he proceeds to do just that. On the other hand, tracks like “Natural Disaster” are upbeat and playful: “I’ve never been blown by the winds of a hurricane/Never been in a flood/I’ve never been buried up to my neck in mud/But I’ve fallen in love/And that’s enough/Of a natural/Disaster for me.” 

Most of these songs are acoustic, mid-tempo folk-rockers, though Tweedy spices things up with country inflections and tasty guitar solos. Normally, Wilco members would provide these embellishments, but that obviously wasn’t possible here. So Tweedy did what so many pandemic-isolated artists have done: he played most of the instruments himself. Fortunately, he’s plenty proficient not only on his mainstay acoustic guitar, but also on bass, pedal steel, and electric lead. Indeed, among the album’s highlights are the cocky solo in “Natural Disaster,” and the poignant, acoustic duet in “Even I Can See.” 

The only elements Tweedy himself couldn’t supply were drums and harmonies. Unable to turn to his band, he enlisted some musically-adept family members. Conveniently, among his isolation “pod” are Tweedy’s sons Spencer and Sammy, who contribute drums and harmonies, respectively. The outcome is as organic as you’d expect a family-based band to be.  

Appropriately, given the subject matter and circumstances, the production is unprepossessing in the extreme. There is nothing artificial on the album. The benefit is not only a supremely relaxed listening experience, but sonics the likes of which we’ve never heard from a pandemic-era release. Most of those were recorded amateurishly, at home, and at a paltry 44.1k sampling rate. 

In contrast, Tweedy and company could walk over to The Loft, the private, professional recording studio that he and Wilco built twenty years ago. In addition to keeping the signal path clean, Tweedy chose a native resolution of 24/96. If you listen to it that way, you’ll hear stunningly pure sound. Add that to one of Tweedy’s best batches of songs, and you have the perfect soundtrack for these reflective times. Highly Recommended. 

Coming Soon: Fans of George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass are about to finally get a version that gives the masterful album its sonic due. For its 50th anniversary, the recording is being reworked from scratch under the guidance of George’s son Dhani. How good will it be? To find out, go to Qobuz and compare the teaser title track, “All Things Must Pass (2020 mix),” to any other version and you’ll be as giddy as I am about what’s coming. 

AudioQuest Introduces the JitterBug FMJ

The following is a press release issued by AudioQuest.

April, 2021 – What’s old and famous, and yet brand new?

Many tens of thousands of music lovers are already enjoying better audio enabled by the AudioQuest JitterBug USB Noise Filter—whether plugged into a car’s USB jack, or a laptop computer, or a USB “service-only” jack on an Ethernet Streamer, etc…

Now, JitterBug FMJ, with its Full Metal Jacket raises the stakes.

Whether used in series (in-line) or in parallel, JitterBug significantly reduces contamination from RF generated by a computer, car, or other device. JitterBug FMJ also thoroughly addresses environmental RF Noise taking advantage of this vulnerable interface.

The new metal case is the most obvious change, though even the seemingly innocuous hinged “rubber” piece covering JitterBug’s output is crucial to JitterBug’s improved performance. That little black “door” is RF-proof thanks to the material being substantially RF-absorbing Carbon.

Employ one JitterBug in series between any computer, smartphone, NAS, streamer, or car audio system and a USB input. For an additional sonic improvement, use a second JitterBug in another unoccupied USB port—in parallel to the first—except with JitterBug FMJ’s front door closed.

A JitterBug in series with DragonFlys Black or Red always helps those wonderful creatures fly higher and faster. However, it’s best to experiment when putting a JitterBug in front of a DragonFly Cobalt—which itself employs some of JitterBug’s filtering, and so the two filters in series can help or hurt performance depending on specific equipment and context.

Regardless of which DragonFly or any other considerations, a 2nd JitterBug in parallel is always a delightful improvement as it pulls more RF Noise off the USB power bus—which is why and how a JitterBug makes just as big an improvement even when plugged into service-only or update-only USB ports on many devices.

JitterBug uses USB-A connections on both ends. When used with a computer or other device (or car) with only USB-C connections, AudioQuest offers a super-compact high-performance C-male to A-female adaptor for $21.95, and also the DragonTail flexible C-to-A adaptor (included with DragonFly Cobalt) for $29.95.

Noise reduction and noise dissipation is us! One can’t hear our modern world’s pervasive RF Noise itself, but the compromises it causes robs us of detail and contrast, and outright buries so much subtlety. Fight back with JitterBug FMJ.

US Retail Price: $59.95. Estimated Availability: May 15

Elac Uni-Fi 2.0 UB5.2

Elac’s Uni-Fi UB5  compact monitor, which I reviewed in Issue 266, remains one of the best friends an audiophile on a budget can have. In a price range mostly reserved for traditional two-ways—like Elac’s entry-level Debut Series—the UB5 was the rare three-way design that was also equipped with a concentric tweeter/midrange. At $499/pair, the original UB5 represented remarkable value and performance that made it the small monitor to beat in its class. But, as they say, there’s always room for improvement. Thus, the Elac team, led by the indefatigable Andrew Jones, decided to push the envelope just a little more. Hence, the Uni-Fi UB5.2. 

As the price has been bumped up to $599 for a pair, you might ask–what’s a hundred-buck difference going to buy you at this or any level? Turns out, a lot. Elac didn’t just pretty up the UB5, adding a chamfer here and an accent there. Nope, the changes go significantly deeper. Physically, the UB5.2 has different dimensions. It’s a little taller, narrower, and deeper, which to my eye gives it a more contemporary silhouette. The relocated bass-reflex port now resides upfront beneath the woofer, rather than out back. It’s a move that Elac states reduces back wall interaction and creates more stable direct output. The concentric midrange/tweeter transducer has received attention, as well. Thanks to a wider surround, the inset tweeter extends treble response, and transitions more smoothly with the midrange. The 4″ aluminum-cone midrange has a modified profile, an improved neodymium magnet assembly, and a larger voice coil. Bass duties are handled by a 5.25″ aluminum-cone woofer. 

The enclosures are engineered with thick MDF outer walls, plus internal bracing for added stiffness to reduce vibrations and coloration. The Uni-Fi’s crossover now boasts greater linearity and better driver integration. Crossover points are 200Hz and 2kHz (lowered from 2.7kHz). Sensitivity is a slightly challenging 85dB, while nominal impedance is 6 ohms, up from 4 ohms. While efficiency has improved overall, don’t scrimp on amplification. The UB5.2 likes quality power. Finished in “black ash” vinyl (pricier wood veneers and deep lacquers are reserved for Elac’s upscale models), the UB5 has a nicely executed utilitarian look. 

In performance, the key strengths that lifted Uni-Fi to critical prominence remain securely in place. Namely, the UB5.2’s midrange weight, forward-leaning energy, and focused imaging continue to make for highly satisfying vocal reproduction. Its tonal character retains the immediacy, transient attack, rhythmic jump, and midbass oomph that preserve its rock ’n’ roll bona fides. 

However, Elac has taken Uni-Fi to finishing school in a big way. It has matured in virtually every area. The few rough edges I noted with the original have been largely buffed out in the UB5.2. Compared with its forebear, it has a smoother, less pushy, less edgy sound. Tonally, and for the better, it’s a hint warmer in the mids. Treble frequencies from the revised concentric are slightly more rounded with a bit more air. For example, during the Manhattan Jazz Quintet’s rendition of “Autumn Leaves,” the speakers seemed to breathe more easily, and the venue appeared to expand in volume. Tellingly, the UB5.2 eliminates the hint of glare on solo piano that I noted with the UB5. (Helpfully, I had a pair of original UB5s on hand for comparison.) Image precision and focus, always strong points with concentric transducers, continue to shine, but the UB5.2 has added a more realistic sense of ambient space to balance its inherent pinpoint focus—a small but significant difference that improves dimensionality and reduces localization of the loudspeaker.

An upswing in transparency is also obvious. Elac has removed a soft veiling, revealing greater low-level detail, microdynamics, and soundstage realism. During Harry Connick’s “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,” for example, it was as if the UB5.2 blew the dust off the recording—the sax solo was just a hint silkier and more immediate, without any sacrifice in reedy grit, bloom, and weight. 

For reference, I’ve added a few additional examples of the Uni-Fi’s evolution– during “Who Will Comfort Me,” Melody Gardot’s bluesy vocal was more settled and relaxed, but still imbued with stand-your-ground presence. The accompanying trumpet in this cut had the requisite spark and snap. Stage width improved somewhat, but in this one area I would rate the UB5.2 as average (in its segment). Jennifer Warnes’ wistful cover of Eddie Vedder’s “Just Breathe” from Another Time, Another Place was reproduced with a slightly drier timbre than what I hear through my reference system, but still substantially improved over the UB5’s presentation. A nice touch within this song was the lovely timbre of the French horn and the soft cymbal accents, which the UB5.2 sensitively reproduced. On occasion, I perceived a small drop in intensity on vocals—a slight suppression of the presence range that lightened Mary Chapin-Carpenter’s resonant contralto during “Bells Are Ringing” from MCC’s Christmas album Come Darkness, Come Light. But this was only a slight wobble from the Elac in an otherwise delightful performance.

The UB5.2 produced lower frequencies well into the 50Hz range, where they began rolling off fairly swiftly. Bass response was impressive as pitches descended, with little evidence of bumps or dips. There was formidable weight and foundation from cello and bass violin sections, and impressively full-bodied upper-bass dynamics. The UB5.2’s low frequencies were a little on the free and bloomy side, rather than the overtightened one. To my ear, this was not so much a loss of control and grip, but a looser, more sophisticated musicality. The work on the newly reconfigured cabinet has obviously paid dividends, because at least part of the UB5.2’s bass clarity is owed to the absence of vent colorations and the low windage effects of its relocated port. 

The UB5.2 does have bass limits, of course. Drums and heavy percussion don’t have the widest dynamic range nor the transient snap-and-crackle they might have. Melodic lines off a bass guitar were a little rounded and subdued. Unlike a truly full-range speaker, the UB5.2 can’t always follow and define every midbass cue or rhythm. Thus, the deepest low-end excursions were only partly suggested or approximated at times, enough to permit the listener to contentedly fill in the rest. 

The art of loudspeaker design is producing a product with a Uni-Fied and refined voice that sounds like music, not a patchwork of sonic criteria. I think Elac’s success in this regard is, in part, the reason for the sonic leap I hear in this next generation of Uni-Fi. Elac’s UB5.2 has taken the well-deserved success of its immediate predecessor, ratcheted up the sonic positives, and, where they merited attention, minimized the shortcomings. In my book, there’s nothing better than witnessing a maturation process that improves the breed—and all for an extra hundred bucks. A terrific speaker that I can recommend without reservation. 

Specs & Pricing

Type: Three-way bass-reflex
Drivers: Concentric 1″ soft-dome tweeter/4″ aluminum midrange; 5.25″ aluminum woofer
Crossover: 200Hz, 2kHz
Frequency response: 46Hz–35kHz
Nominal impedance: 6 ohms
Sensitivity: 85dB
Dimensions: 7.28″ x 13.62″ x 10.83″
Weight: 18.26 lbs.
Price: $599/pr.


ELAC AMERICA
11145 Knott Avenue, Suite E & F
Cypress, CA 90630
elac.com

Associated Equipment

Front End, Sota Cosmos Series IV turntable; SME V tonearm; Cartridges, Clearaudio Charisma, Sumiko Palo Santos; Phono Stage, Parasound JC 3+, Pass Labs XP-17; Media Player/DAC, dCS Bartok DAC; dCS Puccini (SACD); Lumin S1 Music Player; Synology NAS; MacBook Pro/Pure Music; Integrated Amplifiers, Aesthetix Mimas, MBL Corona C51; Preamplifier, Pass Labs XP-12; Loudspeakers, ATC SCM50T, SCM20SL; Cables & Power Cords, Wireworld Silver Eclipse 8 interconnect & speaker, Audience Au24SX cables and power cords, Synergistic Atmosphere Level Four; Shunyata Venom NR power cords. Audience USB, AudioQuest Carbon firewire; Wireworld Starlight Cat 8 Ethernet; Power Conditioners, Audience aR6-T4, Shunyata Hydra conditioners; Accessories, VooDoo Cable Iso-Pod

Perfecting American Utopia

The story of the fruition of David Byrne’s  American Utopia begins, ironically, with what you’d expect to be the endpoint: the album’s release in 2018. Debuting at number 3 on the Billboard 200, American Utopia owed its success to Byrne’s return, after many years of soundtrack work and musically-experimental collaborations, to the crisp song structures and askew sensibilities that characterized his years with Talking Heads. Further, Utopia boasted some truly standout tracks. Exhibit A: “Every Day is a Miracle,” which, with its irresistible singalong chorus, ranked alongside Byrne’s best. 

Lyrically, American Utopia continued Byrne’s fascination for seemingly-insignificant slices of American life. However, this time out, he traded cynicism for a notably sunnier outlook. “We’re only tourists in this life,” he sang in “Everyone’s Coming to My House.” “Only tourists but the view is nice.”    

All that said, several factors kept American Utopia from reaching its full potential. The credits listed no fewer than 27 musical contributors, an assemblage that at times proved unwieldy and plodding. Then there was Byrne’s singing, which was uncharacteristically but consistently out of tune. An equal-opportunity intonation violator, Byrne was sharp as often as he was flat. That didn’t exactly ruin the music, but it sure was annoying. And while half the album featured undeniably worthy songs, the other half was subpar. 

As it turned out, though, Byrne was just getting started. In late 2018, he took the Utopia material on a month-long international road trip. For that enterprise, Byrne slimmed the band down to 12 musicians. That change, in turn, called for more streamlined arrangements. Byrne obliged, and in doing so found the emotional heart of each song. Meanwhile, the set list culled out the weaker Utopia material and supplemented it with astutely-curated selections from Byrne’s rich Talking Heads and solo-career catalogs. As you might imagine, the tour was a smash.

Next came a year’s hiatus, during which Byrne further tweaked the set list, arrangements, and staging. Then, in his boldest move yet, he took the revamped show to Broadway. Unfortunately, Covid-19 forced an end to the sold-out run. But there was a consolation prize. Later in 2020, we learned that Spike Lee had directed—and HBO had produced—a film version of the Broadway show. In conjunction with the movie’s release, along came American Utopia on Broadway (Original Cast Recording). And that’s how we can finally hear this music in full flower.  

The album is many things: a retrospective of Byrne’s prolific career; a chronicle of a unique performance; a live recording that gets the sound just right; and a showcase for the stupendous 12-piece band that Byrne assembled with musicians from all over the world. All of them, particularly the six drummers Byrne deploys to faithfully create his trademark polyrhythms, are simply non pareil. They can sing, too, as you’ll well appreciate on the a cappella renditions of “One Fine Day” and the opening to “Road to Nowhere,” both of which are spellbinding.

One obvious question about the Broadway version of American Utopia is whether it’s redundant of Talking Heads’ celebrated Stop Making Sense soundtrack. Both are live recordings, both have accompanying films made by noteworthy directors (Jonathan Demme, in the case of Stop Making Sense), and there is even some overlapping material. However, the two albums are very different. The premise of Stop Making Sense was that a band could be mutated—shrunken or expanded—in order to perfectly fit any song. In contrast, the American Utopia show illustrates how a broad range of material can be shaped to take advantage of one stellar ensemble. Also, David Byrne has written a lot of great material since Stop Making Sense was made, and Utopia covers the highlights.     

I’ve already alluded to the album’s excellent sound. While the studio version’s sonics are quite respectable, they can’t touch the Broadway recording. It’s one of the fullest and most present-sounding live recordings I’ve heard in some time. I especially recommend the LP, with its quiet vinyl and natural tonality. But if you’re going digital, be sure to bypass the CD and opt for the excellent 24/96 downloads and streams. They offer impeccable openness and unforced detail. In any format, the original cast recording of American Utopia is a treat you don’t want to miss. Highly recommended. 

MSB Technology | Earth Day 2021. Why we care.

The following is a press release issued by MSB Technology.

Being located along California’s coastline has its advantages. But this isn’t just a beautiful place to live; our coast and its surrounding habitats are a reminder that sustainability and environmental stewardship are vital in preserving the natural world. Throughout the year, the California coast is home to countless species, ranging from diverse bird populations to migrating pods of whales to lush varieties of flora and fauna to more–much more.

It might be our home, but it’s not ours alone. That’s why in 2021, we’re taking these extra steps to protect not just the environment itself, but the creatures who inhabit it.

Packaging Update

One of the big changes we’re working on this year is our product packaging. While a lot of importance is placed on the ‘unboxing experience,’ it often has long term consequences for a short term gain. We want our focus to remain on our products; not the packaging. Even though our Select and Reference series products have been shipping in flight cases since their inception, that’s about to change. These flight cases have mixed metals, fiber, and foam that cannot be separated or recycled. They go directly to the landfill. To change this, we’ve developed an innovative way of efficiently creating endcaps that use the punched out material as its own ribs. Our custom endcap design also provides improved drop suspension to protect and reduce shock to the electronics during shipping. This also saves up to 20% shipping weight, helping reduce our carbon footprint.

This new design uses 9 times less foam by volume, and 15 times less material by weight, resulting in less than 1lb of non-recyclable content per carton.

Less Plastic

We’re constantly on the lookout for ways to reduce plastic use in our processes. We have recently employed the use of our laser etcher to cut cardboard into clever packaging and organizational containers. Not only have these improved our environmental practices, but they’ve provided even better solutions for packaging our products.

Reducing our carbon footprint

Manufacturing accounts for 24% of carbon emissions in the United States. Simply put, these processes can produce more emissions in a week than an individual does in a year. This is why we invest in new green technologies–even when they come at a higher cost. The initial cost cannot be the only metric we measure. Plus, sometimes these technologies can pay you back with power savings, improved safety, and quality of life. Here are two recent machine purchases that exemplify this mindset:

Getting Outside

Whether it be sailing, cycling, or hiking, we’re always looking for an excuse to get out of the office and spend more time outdoors. Recently, we switched from working five days a week to working four days, with ten hour days instead of eight. This new work week helps create more opportunities for our team members to travel, explore, and see family. A healthy work/life balance is essential to who we are, and exposure to the natural world reduces stress, promotes creativity, and inspires healthy living.

Thanks to you!

The work we do is only made possible by our awesome community. Thank you for sharing this vision and helping make our world a better place.

Wilco: Summerteeth (Deluxe Edition)

“The way things go/You get so low/Struggle to find your skin.” Those portentous words start the tracing of lead singer Jeff Tweedy and Wilco’s wrestlings with drugs, mental health, friendships, fatherhood, and finding a sound outside their alt-country roots. With vintage guitar prices skyrocketing, member Jay Bennett had started buying the old synths and keyboards that set the tone for Summerteeth. The arrangements, influenced by the Beatles, Beach Boys, and Van Dyke Parks, countered the anguished, surreal, or grotesque lyrics with their exuberant baroque sunshine. This remastering of the original CD only adds more dynamic range compression; hi-res files trump both versions. De rigueur discs of demos rarely entice me, but alternate takes of “Summer Teeth” and “Tried and True” are exceptions; the dozen eerie tracks with Jeff and his guitar embrace loneliness rather than fight it, similar to Springsteen’s Nebraska. The interview with Tweedy in the booklet is a must-have, but the crown goes to the two discs from a brilliant 1999 Boulder, Colorado, show. Older songs get a ragged psych touch; newer songs are guitar-heavier without the overdubbed keyboard layers, revealing one more tantalizing direction that Wilco could have gone.

Brinkmann Taurus Turntable

Writing this at the end of the summer 2020, and without spilling any political blood, let’s just collectively agree that this year has been at the very least, well, stressful. So how about something we could all use in the midst of this crazy rollercoaster? In the words of the above-quoted Joan Armatrading, how about the opportunity to really laugh? To really love. No 1967 Haight-Ashbury, Summer of Love type of thing. What we could really use is a simple, personal, mental pause where we can instinctively throw our heads back and feel something. Trust something. We need a lover, not just a friend.

In our world where down is seamlessly (shamelessly?) argued as up, this review will acknowledge our dystopia and put the listening/use impressions before any description of the product under review. If I were braver, I’d leave these opening introductory paragraphs till last and throw the conclusion up front, but all those who skip a review body to read the final few paragraphs would have their heads implode. I don’t want that on my public record, even though I’d be secretly pleased.

In Listening: Immediate Relief

Stress is really your CPU (that would be your brain) being overworked. It’s at max capacity. No buffer left. If you’ve felt that way (you’re human—you have), you know the way I feel about audio gear in general, but especially at this time in history. I don’t have the extra processing and time available to figure you out. If you’re damaged or complicated, high maintenance, or in any way a “project,” I’m quickly moving on with my life…without you (audio equipment that is). 

The Brinkmann Taurus turntable reviewed here ($14,990 plus tonearm) gets right to the musical point. There is no delayed gratification. Let’s call that immediacy. On most occasions, I found myself snapping my fingers, slapping my thigh, or doing whatever the music called for within 10 seconds of the needle hitting the groove (and frequently before I had a chance to sit down in the listening chair!). I put this characteristic of immediacy very high on my “needs to have” list, and I lead with it here because of our times, and because the Taurus checks that really big box without sacrificing the technical merits one would expect from a ’table in this category. Less stress. More music. Love at first listen. Just what we need. Just what I need!

Wormhole

Paul Bley is one of my favorite jazz pianists, and about as “free” as I get. There is something in his artistic and technical creativity that strikes me as thoughtful. Bley manages to connect with me as a listener. The Taurus (especially with the RöNt II tube power supply) brought me into Bley’s Open, to Love (1973, ECM) in a way that only great, substantial ’tables can. Really good turntables create a believable picture. They paint with engaging yet recognizable color and brushstrokes. But the very best open a wormhole into the recording’s reality. They bring you into the there rather than setting up an “observer/observed” opposition. And on this album I felt privy to every aspect of Bley’s creative thoughtfulness. Long, resonant decays played against a massive yet silent background. Beautifully delicate sounds of fingers reaching inside the instrument to directly brush strings. The weight and impact of hammers. Even the awareness of Bley’s Jarrett/Gould-like humming as a fellow participant in the experience. The Taurus had me into the silence (thanks ECM!). Believing it. Trusting it. Loving it.

Mechano-Electrical?

A turntable is a mechano-electronic device (I think I just made that up). It converts little vibrations into an electric signal. We find its opposite in the loudspeaker at the other end of the chain, an electro-mechanical device that converts the electrical signal into physical movements that excite the air and create the soundwaves we hear, hopefully as music. The thing about the Taurus is that it presents itself more like a purely electronic device in the middle of the reproduction chain that anything (usually more colorful) at either end. It reminded me more of the Esoteric E-02 phonostage, for instance, than any other piece of equipment I’ve reviewed. As with the Esoteric, I consistently had the very reassuring feeling that I was getting the most out of the groove. Balanced and brilliant. Deeply refined and quiet. Giant yet invisible.

This uncommon balance and stability here served all music, all the time. Tom Waits’ brilliant concept of a “live/studio” album Nighthawks at the Diner (1975, Asylum) was reproduced with an eye-opening sense of the audience and space. My notes regarding the BSO’s performance of Debussy’s La Mer (1958, RCA) were embarrassingly complimentary: “Complicated rhythmic lines easily, joyfully unfolded.” “All that density without feeling heavy. All the cues. All the texture. No after taste or residual damage.” “Spectacular brass!” “A complete, colorful, dimensional, living soundscape.” It’s almost as though I was enjoying myself.

2021 Editors’ Choice Awards: Digital-to-Analog Converters Under $1,000

AudioQuest DragonFly Black/Red/Cobalt

$99/$199/$299

AudioQuest’s thumb-drive-sized DragonFly series has been wildly successful—and for good reason. Inside this diminutive, plug-and-play package resides both a hi-res DAC (up to 96/24) and a surprisingly good headphone amp. Now the Black and Red models, which remain in the line, are joined by a new flagship, the Cobalt, and it’s the best DragonFly yet. Cobalt sports upgraded DAC, processor, and USB receiver chips, as well as new jitter-reduction technology. AudioQuest also revised the digital filter. While preserving what made the previous DragonFlies such winners—plug-and-play installation, analog volume control, full MQA decoding, and, most importantly, a thoroughly enjoyable listening experience—Cobalt improves upon their sonics in subtle but meaningful ways. 

ifi_zen_2

iFi Zen 

$129

The Zen DAC offers a lot of features and high sound quality at an entry-level price. When it is mated with other high-performance components, SS found the results reference or near-reference level, though the Zen does require careful system-matching and quality cables that will likely cost far more than the DAC itself. Ideal users for the Zen DAC fall into two groups: younger, newly minted audiophiles looking for good sound on a budget for nearfield listening; and older ones looking for an inexpensive way to add MQA DAC capabilities and a decent headphone amplifier to their room-based reference systems. The former will use all of the Zen DAC’s features, while a majority of the latter will set it on fixed output and use it as a basic DAC. Both win. 

modius front silver

Schiit Modius 

$199

In the bad old days, between 1980 and 2000, decent-sounding digital devices were almost universally expensive, to the point that it was generally assumed and often stated by audio experts that inexpensive digital products were garbage unless heavily modified. The Modius balanced-output DAC is one of the latest of the new-generation DACs that challenge that old assumption. It delivers great sound from PCM files and has enough digital input options for most systems, but it does not support MQA or DSD files and has no user-alterable digital filter settings. However, if you want a simple and simply great just-the-facts DAC, Modius fills the bill.

iFi xDSD

$399

Steven Stone saw two quite different “types” of audiophiles as the primary customers for the xDSD portable/desktop DAC/headphone amplifier. First, younger, more mobile-oriented audiophiles with smartphones and portable computers, who might find the xDSD to be the perfect “step-up” audio device to improve sound from all sources. And second, longtime audiophiles (the ones with the 25-year-old DACs that they still love for Red Book), who could add an xDSD to their system as an auxiliary digital device that would give them access to all the newest high-resolution files, streams, and digital codecs for a fraction of the price they paid for their “main squeeze.” Both types of audiophiles will be pleased and impressed by the xDSD’s flexibility, utility, performance level, and overall value. Steven certainly was. 

Pro-Ject Pre Box S2 Digital

$399

The Pre Box S2 Digital offers audiophiles a very high-value DAC/digital preamp at an almost ridiculously low price. Not only does it include a plethora of important features and capabilities; it also sounds good, has an elegantly designed control surface, and is expandable. As an audiophile’s needs grow, Pro-Ject micro-systems have the components to support nearly every potential input source and format available through various accessory units designed to perform specific functions. While not quite bespoke audio, the Pro-Ject Pre Box S2 is one small part of an elegant system that gives even audiophiles with limited means a way to assemble a first-class system. One of TAS’ 2018 DACs of the Year. 

Continue reading “2021 Editors’ Choice Awards: Digital-to-Analog Converters Under $1,000”

Bowers & Wilkins Reveals the PI7 and PI5 True Wireless Headphones

The following is a press release issued by Bowers & Wilkins.

Worthing, England, April 2021: Today, British audio brand Bowers & Wilkins has unveiled two new state-of-the-art True Wireless headphones – PI7 and PI5 – that bring the brand’s acclaimed ‘True Sound’ promise and acoustic excellence to the True Wireless category.

Both PI7 and PI5 models deliver the unrivalled high-resolution sound quality that audiophiles and music lovers have come to expect from Bowers & Wilkins. Now, that same signature sound quality is offered for the first time in True Wireless form, incorporating innovative and intuitive smart features designed to fit seamlessly into an on-the-go lifestyle.

Drawing on over fifty years of industry-leading audio excellence and innovation, Bowers & Wilkins reveals  another best-in-class portfolio of products that deliver your favourite music the way it is meant to be heard – as the artist intended it.

PI7 – The new industry-defining True Wireless headphones from Bowers & Wilkins.

Every element of the flagship PI7 model has been crafted to deliver the very highest level of audio performance, redefining expectation in True Wireless. PI7 features unrivalled sound quality, driven by

high-resolution 24-bit audio processing in each earbud and Dual Hybrid Drive units that work just like high- performance speakers to create a rich and immersive listening experience.

In addition, PI7 features Adaptive Noise Cancellation that automatically adapts in real-time to its surroundings to produce the best possible listening experience – so you can block out the world and focus on the music you love. It’s driven by six microphones – three in each earbud – for crystal-clear sound quality with every call, all activated though an intuitive, one-touch user interface.

Even the Smartcase is designed for an intuitive and seamless user experience. As you would expect, it can conveniently charge your device wirelessly while you are on-the-go. But, and in an industry first, PI7 raises the bar by offering a unique wireless audio retransmission feature via its Smartcase. That means you can continue to use your PI7s even when on a plane: just connect your case directly to an audio source – such as  an in-flight entertainment system – and it will retransmit sound directly to your earbuds.

PI5 – The class-leading, Bowers & Wilkins True Wireless sound that’s with you all day.

PI5 is the class-leading True Wireless headphone with all of the high quality, audio-enhancing features expected from a Bowers & Wilkins product – the perfect accompaniment to an on-the-go lifestyle.

Alongside the exceptional audio performance and call quality, the PI5 offers over 24 hours of battery life, ensuring you stay connected throughout the day. This is accompanied by advanced Active Noise Cancellation, allowing you to easily adapt to your listening environment, whether you’re working from home or on a busy street, and a fast-charging case that provides a boost of up to two hours of battery life from just a 15-minute charge.

Bold design and Smart technology.

Both models embody the Bowers & Wilkins bold design to stand out from the crowd, with accents of color to highlight the beautifully precise detailing.

Smart technology makes living with PI7 and PI5 more convenient. Both models can be configured via the Bowers & Wilkins companion App and feature a simple one-button user interface, coupled with voice assistant support via either Siri or Google Assistant. Multiple source devices can be wirelessly paired to either model allowing the user to easily and conveniently reconnect to each source as and when needed.

Developed by the same team behind the Bowers & Wilkins 800 Series Diamond loudspeakers found in Abbey  Road Studios, PI7 and PI5 both embody the same industry-leading engineering and design philosophy that has led to the creation of some of the world’s finest audio products.

Geoff Edwards, Brand President, Bowers & Wilkins, said: “We are excited to be venturing into the True Wireless category with our new headphones. It’s long been our philosophy, established by our founder John  Bowers, that we would only enter a new category if we believed that we could set a new standard for audio performance in that space. With PI7 and PI5, we truly believe we have achieved that.”

The PI7 True Wireless and PI5 True Wireless headphones are available from www.bowerswilkins.com on April 21st 2021 for $399 and $249 respectively.