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Polk Audio Introduces Latest Line of Premium Loudspeakers: The Reserve Series

The following is a press release issued by Polk Audio.

CARLSBAD, Calif | March 23, 2021 — Polk Audio today announced the launch of the Reserve Series, a high-performance, versatile loudspeaker line designed to deliver serious performance for music, movies and gaming. Reserve Series executes on Polk’s mission to create premium-quality speakers at accessible prices through the application of extensive research and development in advanced materials and acoustics. IMAX® Enhanced and Hi-Res Audio Certified and compatible with both Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, the Reserve Series includes nine models available in matte black, matte white and walnut woodgrain finish. The Polk Reserve Series is now available on www.polkaudio.com/reserve and at select specialty audio/video dealers and custom integrators worldwide.

“The Reserve Series use the same custom-made transducers originally developed for Polk’s award-winning Legend Series loudspeakers,” said Frank Sterns, president of Polk Audio. “Featuring the proprietary Pinnacle Tweeter, Turbine Cone midrange and Polk’s latest bass-management and resonance control technologies—PowerPort® and X-Port—the Reserve Series delivers against Polk Audio’s signature quality sound at an approachable price,” Sterns added.

The Reserve Series is well suited for an array of applications, including immersive multi-channel home theater systems and classic stereo listening. The series consists of nine models, including three floorstanding models, three center channels, two bookshelf speakers and a wall-and speaker-mountable height module, all designed to give listeners flexibility in terms of configuration by incorporating matching transducers and consistent voicing. The center channel speakers are available in three sizes. The R300 center channel is designed to fit in most AV cabinets, while the R350 is only 5.5-inches tall, and is wall mountable so it can be used as left, right or center channel. For the first time, Polk is introducing a height module (R900), which can be placed on the floorstanding speakers or wall mounted. The height module features a toggle switch, which tunes the speaker for the application, whether that be on-speaker or wall mounted.

“You’d be wrong to think the Reserve Series is just ‘Legend-lite’ though,” said Scott Orth, director of audio and acoustical systems at Polk Audio. “While Reserve does use the same transducers as Legend, it also features multiple new developments of its own, including a new patent-pending X-Port filter and advanced cabinet construction to minimize undesirable resonances. In return, you get a classic Polk Audio loudspeaker that is amazingly balanced, offers an expansive sound stage, detailed imaging, smooth mid-range and deep effortless bass.”

Seeking to retain as much of the Polk Legend flagship performance as possible within a moderately priced package, Polk Audio engineers created rigid, internally braced cabinets while leveraging driver and port technologies from the Legend Series speakers to achieve breathtaking levels of balance and realism. With a focus on every aspect of performance from music playback and home theater systems, Polk used—and created—multiple advanced technologies for the Reserve Series:

Pinnacle Ring Radiator Tweeters: Decades of tweeter innovation, design and prototyping led to the development of the new 1-inch, high-definition Pinnacle ring radiator tweeter. Developed by Polk Audio, The Pinnacle tweeter features a finely tuned waveguide, which dramatically improves the dispersion of high frequency energy, ensuring a broad sweet spot, while the critically damped rear-chamber helps defeat unwanted resonances. This delivers ultra-clear, crisp highs without unwanted coloration or distortion. A Hi-Res certified driver, the Pinnacle Tweeter is designed for today’s two-channel music listening as well as multi-channel 3D audio found in music, movies, sports, and video games soundtracks.

Turbine Cone Midrange: The Turbine Cone cleverly combines Polk’s proprietary foam core driver design with molded Turbine geometry, which dramatically increases stiffness and damping without adding mass. This results in a smooth, detailed midrange across the entire bandwidth of the driver—the frequency range to which human ears are most sensitive.

X-Port Technology: The Reserve Series marks the debut of Polk Audio’s patent-pending X-Port technology, which uses a set of closed-pipe absorbers precisely tuned to eliminate unwanted cabinet and port resonances. X-Port is most beneficial to the lower mid-range, ensuring balanced, clean mid-bass for amazing detail and dynamics. X-Port is found on all vented models in the Reserve Series.

Power Port 2.0 Design: Power Port 2.0, found in the R600 and R700 floorstanding models, is a Polk-patented loudspeaker port application that enables bass frequencies to extend more deeply and at higher output levels than traditional ported speakers. The Power Port 2.0 combines the new X-Port and Enhanced Power Port design into a unique loudspeaker application. The port tube base was redesigned in aluminum and sits closer to the floor than previous Power Port designs for added performance characteristics and aesthetics.

Advanced Cabinet Construction: The R700 tower speaker model features advanced point-to-point bracing with new Cabinet Resonance Control technology (CRC) that eliminates panel resonances for enhanced detail and clarity.
Reserve Series Pricing and Availability

The Polk Audio Reserve Series was designed and engineered in the USA under strict standards for quality and includes a 5-year warranty standard. All Reserve Series products are currently available for purchase at PolkAudio.com. For more information on this or Polk’s other high-performance audio products, visit us online or email us at [email protected].

R100 Bookshelf – $599/pair
R200 Bookshelf – $699/pair
R300 Center Channel – $399
R350 Center Channel (slim) – $549
R400 Center Channel – $599
R500 Tower – $599 each
R600 Tower – $799 each
R700 Tower – $999 each
R900 Height Module – $599/pair

The Three Sides of Sufjan Stevens

There are at least three Sufjans. There’s Folk Sufjan, epitomized by early albums like Seven Swans and, more recently, 2015’s haunting Carrie and Lowell. Folk Sufjan is characterized by all-acoustic instrumentation, personal lyrics, and straightforward, melody-focused arrangements. 

Then there’s Classical Sufjan. In this guise, Sufjan Stevens is a master of interlacing classical techniques (theme and variation, counterpoint, polyphony) with rock elements to create complex, remarkably satisfying music that’s built to go the long haul. Classical Sufjan employs instruments ranging from solo piano, as in 2019’s The Decalogue, to staples of both acoustic and electric rock melded with orchestra, brass, and chorus. The ultimate Classical Sufjan release is his masterpiece from 2005, Illinois.  

That leaves us with Techno Sufjan, who has a penchant for highly-electronic musical settings and pervasive vocal processing. Generally speaking, I’m not a huge fan of Techno Sufjan. I find his synthetic arrangements at odds with the intimacy and honesty of Stevens’ vocals. Further, he often slathers the electronica so thickly it obscures the melodic line, which is heresy. Finally, Techno Sufjan has trouble with moderation. Unlike, say, Radiohead or Kraftwerk, he hasn’t learned that less is usually more. At its worst, the result can be cacophonous, bombastic, and grating. To be sure, Techno Sufjan has his moments, such as the gorgeous standout “I Walk” from 2010’s The Age of Adz. But these flashes of brilliance always seem to come tethered to tiresome filler.  

Which brings us to Ascension. The album, available in LP, CD, and download format from vancamp.com and streaming from Qobuz, is unquestionably a Techno Sufjan release, but the story is more complicated than that. Yes, the instrumentation is completely artificial; in this case, it’s a stack of 80s-era drum machines and Prophet synths. And, yes, the arrangements sometimes verge on—and occasionally veer into—self-indulgence. There’s not an unprocessed vocal to be found. Meanwhile, the sonics are typical for a Techno Sufjan release, which is to say muddled. A good system will at least reveal the layers in these very deep mixes.   

Yet despite all that, Ascension has greatness. 

Start with the lyrics, which are unlike anything this or any Sufjan has sung before. In the past, no matter what the song’s particular subject matter, Stevens always imbued his words with two unwavering elements: spiritual devotion (sometimes explicit but more often as subtext) and personal optimism. Here, both of those qualities are called into question. This lends Ascension’s lyrics both freshness and a newfound profundity. 

In the matter of faith, Stevens has clearly undergone a crisis. He confesses that he no longer believes, though he desperately wants to. He despairs of the time and energy he put into his faith, confident it would deliver redemption. Now, he’s not only uncertain that God will come through, he’s not sure who will. On the title track he sings in a strained falsetto: “But now/It strikes me far too late again/That I was asking far too much/Of everyone around me.” Contributing to his philosophical straits, Stevens finds himself dismayed at what he sees happening to the earth, to America, and to humanity itself.

To be sure, these subjects do not lend themselves to an upbeat album, and Ascension isn’t one. Nor is it a downer, however. Stevens never abandons his warmth or sense of humor. He’s questioning his surroundings and himself in ways most of us can relate to. And many of the lyrics describe the comfort he seeks, which renders them comforting in and of themselves.  

On the musical front, Ascension is replete with the uncannily-memorable and beautiful melodies that Stevens fans live for. At first I couldn’t hear some of these gems, so deeply buried in the mire are they. After about the third playing, though, each delicate line emerges. And unlike The Age of Adz, Ascension has no filler—in spite of its 80-minute length.   

Would I prefer that these thoughts and music had been appropriated and delivered by Folk or Classical Sufjan? Without question. Either one, I believe, would have provided this material with a more sympathetic setting. Nonetheless, now that I’ve unlocked Ascension’s multitude of enchantments, I can’t imagine being without them. This is Techno Sufjan’s best album by far. So good, in fact, I expect it’ll make the other Sufjans proud. 

Sonny Rollins: Rollins in Holland

Rollins in Holland documents three previously-unreleased Sonny Rollins performances from May 1967. Resonance Records has exhibited an attention to detail that’s second to none with this 2-CD or 3-LP set that includes a 24-page booklet with photos, extensive liner notes, and interviews. The vinyl was mastered by Bernie Grundman and pressed at RTI.

Historically the recordings help fill an important gap, as Rollins didn’t release any albums between 1966 and 1972—but he kept playing music. In the spring of 1967, he toured Holland, where he performed with two musicians from that country, bassist Ruud Jacobs and drummer Han Bennink. Some of those performances are captured here, and they mark—at least as far as recordings are concerned—the end of an era. When Rollins recorded again in 1972, he started adding instruments like electric piano, electric bass, percussion, and fusion-style electric guitar. So Rollins in Holland can be seen as a new capstone to the slate of recordings by the saxophone colossus in the all-acoustic trio format during the 50s and 60s. 

That begins to tell you why Rollins in Holland deserves your attention, but there’s more—much more, in fact. This trio never rehearsed. This isn’t to suggest that the musicians freely improvised, as they were performing compositions that were standard repertoire for Rollins, and surely Jacobs and Bennink would have been familiar with songs like “Four,” “Love Walked In,” “Three Little Words,” and “Sonneymoon for Two.” Nonetheless, asking the trio to perform without rehearsing was a tall order. When soloists sit in with rhythm sections, as is common in some jazz clubs, the musicians sometimes exercise restraint until they become familiar with each other’s playing, and the pianist helps hold things together. But there was no pianist in this group, and this is Sonny Rollins we’re talking about, an artist who wasn’t known for playing it safe.

As it turns out, the same could be said of the musicians who joined him on the tour. When, in the liner notes to Rollins in Holland, Rollins says that the trio adopted a “take no prisoners” approach on the bandstand, he’s not engaging in hyperbole. With his big tenor sound and endless flow of ideas, Rollins plays in the exuberant and life-affirming manner that made him such a titan on the tenor. A force of nature himself, drummer Han Bennink pushes hard underneath, constantly driving the trio to new heights. With his big, fat, woody tone on the bass, bassist Jacobs stays in the pocket and provides a bulwark of support, offering a necessary counterbalance to a train that’s so high-powered it seems like it could fly off the rails at any moment.

I wish I could say the recordings are all of audiophile quality, but that’s not the case. There’s some good news, though. The first side of the album has clean sound with plenty of separation between the instruments, and when I listen to the unaccompanied tenor sax introduction to the opening track, “Blue Room,” I’m stunned by its presence and the beauty of Rollins’ playing. Sonically the May 5th concert performances are a notch above the May 3rd performance, but the May 3rd recordings are where the band really goes all out, with three performances over 19 minutes in length. Sonny Rollins fans will have their minds blown once again.

Magnepan MG1.7i Loudspeaker

Like many long-term music/audio enthusiasts, I have seen (and heard) a long succession of conventional speakers (drivers-in-a-box). Unfortunately, that description (“conventional”) aptly summarizes the sonic caliber of many. Simply put, live music does not sound like drivers in a box.

Of course there have been some truly inventive exceptions along the way. These include the original Quad electrostatic, the KLH Nine, and a scant few others. 

In more recent times, there have been some outstanding (and musical) achievements in the ubiquitous drivers-on-baffles-in-boxes. These would certainly include offerings from Wilson Audio and (more recently) from Magico. Both of these companies have exercised almost super-human design efforts to banish spurious sounds from speaker enclosures and the drivers themselves. The goal, as always, has been to let the music flow through the speaker unaltered. Much easier said than done.

The first time I encountered a Magneplanar Tympani I did not know what to make of it. No cones, no box, what the heck was this thing? It looked more like a hinged, multi-panel room-divider than a speaker. When I first got the Tympani 1 speaker, many visitors to my home wandered around the listening room wondering where the speakers were. Given the customary appearance of box speakers, they were truly surprised!

The Magneplanar Tympani was designed by Jim Winey, a music-loving engineer for 3M in the Minneapolis area. Winey fashioned highly unusual drive elements for the speakers (planar-magnetic strips, radiating sound equally from both the front and the back of the speakers—dipolar). There were no enclosures to speak of, and no conventional “drivers,” either.

These hinged three-panel behemoths were distributed by Audio Research (the undisputed king of high-end electronics back in the 1970s). Not surprisingly, Magneplanars were frequently paired with ARC electronics, in high-end audio shops and audiophile listening rooms alike.

One thing that has been consistent to this day about Magneplanar/Magnepan products is their ongoing evolution and improvement over time. For example, the Tympani 1D was a big improvement on many levels over the original Tympani 1, although they looked identical.

One weekend long ago, I conducted initial listening tests of the Tympani 1D and the legendary Dahlquist DQ-10. Much to my surprise, the bottom end of the Maggies was the best I had ever heard. It was quick and clean and had exemplary pitch definition, which was not the case with many of the woofers in monster dynamic systems. It was uncannily lifelike with percussion, especially lower-pitched drums like tom-toms.

On the other hand, as good as they were, I noticed some minor flaws and colorations in the midrange of the Magneplanars. The vital midband was slightly hooded and hollow sounding, especially with certain instruments (e.g., when listening to a two-track mastertape of a local bluegrass band, the Dahlquist conveyed a more realistic tone from fiddles and male vocals than the Magneplanar did). The Magneplanars also sounded a bit veiled, with a discernible fine-grain structure superimposed on the midrange (and to a lesser degree) on the top end. Of course, they obliterated the DQ-10 in bass performance, which was not that speaker’s forte. Still, a very instructive comparison for speakers of the time.

My next Magneplanar experience came from the fertile mind of the late, great HP. By this time, I had moved up to the Infinity QRS as my reference speaker system. That ambitious, creative design had some small drawbacks, though, and one big one. The big one was the attempted (but unsuccessful) blending between fast low-mass midrange (EMIM) and high-frequency (EMIT) drivers and the massive 15-inch woofer. The QRS woofer did everything you’d expect in terms of extremely low-frequency reproduction and visceral impact. However, the vaunted pitch definition of the Tympani put it to shame. The woofer was sluggish, thick, and distractingly discontinuous with the rest of the QRS system.

HP reached the same conclusion and came up with a truly creative idea. Why not use the Magneplanar panels for bass reproduction, and replace the earth-shaking Infinity woofer with the Tympani 1D? We both had the impressive Carl Marchisotto-designed Dahlquist DQ-LP1 electronic crossover, which made the merger of dissimilar speakers work very well. This change single-handedly removed our significant reservations about the rough sutures between the big bad woofer and the nimble upper ranges of the speaker. I remember tying a long piece of twine to the Magneplanars and living in fear that the whole contraption would come crashing down on the floor. Luckily it did not.

Perhaps even more stunning than the greatly improved sense of coherence and continuity was the incredibly lifelike soundstage the system produced (uncannily like real music being played in real space). The unerring placement and spacing of performers in the venue were truly remarkable.

The Present 

The balance of this review will now focus on the Magnepan MG1.7i speaker. However, a number of the themes outlined previously are very applicable to the 1.7i and touch directly on the speaker’s remarkably lifelike sound (and “lifelike” is perhaps the most noteworthy attribute that can be bestowed on an audio component).

The 1.7i sounded “good” when first unpacked and connected to my audio system. However, as I came to realize, it is far better than “good.” Attaining the qualities that make it exceptional requires some work and effort. To wit:

The speaker requires significant break-in time before certain sonic constraints gradually melt away, leaving a far better transducer. Prior to break-in, the 1.7i displays limited dynamic range, detail, and bass impact. Initially it can sound overly polite and a bit lifeless.

Finding proper positioning and placement for the 1.7i is also somewhat of a challenge. Again, it can sound good without tedious placement experimentation, but some of the speaker’s magic will not be evident. The instructions in Magnepan’s owner’s manual are very helpful and down-to-earth (similar to the company itself, in my experience). First, obtain an instructive recording of quality bass material of varying frequencies. Play it, while slightly moving the speakers on the long axis of your room. Ideally, the varying bass frequencies should be uniform in amplitude (e.g., minimum room resonances, peaks, and valleys). Although these speakers will not generate shuddering subsonic notes (such as a pipe organ can deliver), they are capable of quick, clean bottom-end reproduction with excellent pitch definition.

Magnepan’s manual indicates that the tweeters can be placed on the inside or outside of the speaker panels. The speakers are mirror-imaged pairs. My conclusion was to use the inside edge for the tweeters, if you want the absolute best imaging and spatial presentation they are capable of. Placing the tweeters on the outside edge of the speakers does offer a larger listening position (sweet spot). However, you lose some imaging specificity, lifelike (there’s that word again) dimensionality, and verisimilitude of image space. Also, the speakers must be slightly canted to allow the lower-mass tweeter to be slightly farther away from the listener than the bass/midrange elements for proper coherence.

Unless your room is very large (i.e., the speakers are far away from the rear wall), you will need some kind of sonic damping material on the walls behind the speakers to reduce the ratio of reflected-to-direct sound. This is one of the unavoidable drawbacks of dipole speakers. Placing these speakers too close to the back wall mars the lateral imaging precision. The same thing holds true for undamped, reflective rear walls. Worst case, this overly reflective combination renders the sound somewhat splattered and diffuse in terms of the placement specificity the speakers are capable of.

To make things more challenging, like most stellar speakers, the Magnepans are very revealing of the flaws in associated equipment and source material. I made several changes during my testing sessions, and easily detected the “personality” of the upstream gear and source. When properly set up, the Magnepan 1.7i can sound very good with a wide range of components and recorded music. Until you have tried them with truly commensurate components and music, though, you won’t fully experience what the speaker is capable of.

Last but not least, these speakers present a challenge for amplifiers to drive (4 ohms impedance at best). Although I was able to get enough volume out of various amplifiers, even ordinarily unstressed amplifiers got much warmer than normal after a lengthy listening session with the 1.7i. These are not the speakers for puny (if sonically glorious) single-ended triode (SET) amplifiers. Like all Magnepan/Magneplanar designs I have worked with over the years, a high-current amplifier (with impeccable sound, of course) is best.

The Magnepan 1.7i is a full-range three-way system (bass/midrange, tweeter, super-tweeter) employing quasi-ribbon technology throughout. As is easily visible when examining the speaker panels, the bulk of the driver area is for the lower midrange/bass frequencies (especially the bass). The larger Magnepans do have better low-end extension (as witnessed on the large Tympani series speakers, as well as the larger current Magnepan 3.7i, 20.7, and 30.7 models). 

I have had extensive experience with the predecessors of the 1.7i (the 1.6 and 1.7). Here is a relevant quote about the older models from Magnepan’s website: “The 1.7 is a departure from Magnepan’s 41-year history of using planar-magnetic drivers for the bass or lower midrange. The use of quasi-ribbon technology down into the lower midrange and bass will provide a new level of coherence.”

This is absolutely true and, I suspect, the absence of quasi-ribbon drivers (which simply didn’t exist back then) was the cause of some of the sonic anomalies in the lower midrange of the Tympani models noted above. Once broken in and placed properly, the 1.7i is noticeably purer, less colored, and more continuous/coherent than any other moderate-size Magnepan model I have heard (including its immediate predecessors, the 1.6 and 1.7). The relatively small size of the 1.7i (for a Magnepan design) helps it to excel in a wider range of room sizes than its larger brethren.

Especially for a speaker of modest cost, the 1.7i does remarkably well in accurately reproducing a wide range of musical instruments and human voices. To a large degree, related instruments (e.g., reeds, woodwinds, brass) not only sound like their larger instrument group, but uncannily like the specific instruments they are, even in musical passages featuring multiple instruments playing at the same time. The 1.7i puts most speakers to shame in this regard.

The same thing applies to vocals. For example, the 1977 Crosby, Still and Nash album (CSN) starts with the arresting Crosby track “Shadow Captain.” As with most of their work, there are three voices singing throughout, normally in three-part harmony. There is a brief passage near the end, however, that all three sing in unison (the same notes). Even then, with the 1.7i, each individual’s distinctive voice is clearly evident. Most speakers blur this section into a single whole, rather than reveal the individual vocals underlying the composite sound.

In short, the 1.7i speakers have exceptional definition and detail resolution. This ranges from subtle background instruments (such as the harp and glockenspiel) being distinctively audible during orchestral passages, but discernible in a very natural way (not like the kind of artificial “detail” that some speakers amusically offer).

An example of the musically accurate fine detail that the 1.7i conveys can be heard on the SACD version of Alison Krauss + Union Station Live on Rounder Records [11661-0515-6]. This live concert was performed and recorded in the beautiful and acoustically excellent 1927 Louisville Palace theatre. Especially with the SACD layer, natural detail and definition abound. This is audible from the individual bluegrass instruments (ranging from rapid-fire three-finger Scruggs banjo picking to the distinctive metallic tone of Jerry Douglas’ dobro to the plectrum-struck twin strings of the mandolin to Alison Krauss’ fiddle to the upright bass and various percussion instruments). The entire set is laudably three-dimensional and natural. The available detail goes all the way down to the sound of the audience applause, which is very much like what you hear at a concert in a small, acoustically distinguished venue like this. The separation of various segments of the audience applauding at different speeds and varying distances from the microphones is preserved by the Magnepans (almost, but not quite, the sound of one hand clapping). This fine sense of detail is also quite audible on the reverberant decay of a full orchestra when it completes a piece of music. Again, very natural, like an actual live concert. 

In addition to natural fidelity and retention of musical detail, the 1.7i also does a remarkable job of coherently and credibly conveying the soundstage and space of live music (again, most audible on well-engineered recordings). The sound and distinctive acoustic characteristics of the venue are very well preserved. The stage is amply three-dimensional. The front-to-back placement and separation of instruments and voices can be eerily lifelike. Instruments and voices have distinct placement in the musical gestalt (again, like the real thing).

The sonorous tones of various brass instruments are also wonderfully conveyed with a true sense of musical fidelity. The distinctive pitch ranges and sounds of coronet, trumpet, French horn, trombone, and tuba are all rendered realistically. To really hear a live-music-like brass instrument, try the trombone solo in the later section of “Poor Boy,” Track 9 on the Sheffield /XLO Test and Burn-In CD of all things. Both timbre and space are beautifully captured by the 1.7i speakers.

Conclusion

The Magnepan 1.71 is an exceptional loudspeaker, especially for its modest cost. It is a true high-end product that will be especially appreciated by those who know and treasure the beauty of live music. The use of the same improved drive elements throughout the frequency expanse works very well. The 1.7i also retains the spatial quality of live music. As Magnepan states, the company has produced a highly phase-coherent speaker without resorting to a complex crossover network (and it shows).

In summary, this is a device that does not get in the way of the music. Rather it retains most of the musical information passing through it. It is clear, detailed, and enjoyably realistic. The 1.7i affords a true high-end listening experience for far less cost than sonically competitive speakers. It is a gem and a real bargain. 

Specs & Pricing

Type: Three-way, dipole loudspeaker with quasi-ribbon drivers
Frequency response: 40Hz–24kHz ±3dB
Sensitivity: 86dB/500Hz/2.83V
Impedance: 4 ohms
Dimensions: 19″ x 65″ x 2″
Weight: 95 lbs. per pair (shipping)
Price: $2400 per pair

MAGNEPAN INC.
1645 Ninth Street
White Bear Lake, MN 55110
(800) 474-1646
magnepan.com

Cindy Blackman Santana Came to Play

Saying Cindy Blackman Santana has drumming chops for days is like saying the sun rises in the east. She’s long since proven her mettle behind the kit for the likes of Lenny Kravitz, Ron Carter, and Joss Stone—not to mention the otherworldly musical mindmeld that materializes whenever she plays with Carlos Santana, her husband for over a decade. But on her new album, Give the Drummer Some (Copperline Music Group), Santana opted to up the creative ante by singing lead vocals on nearly half of its 17 tracks. The idea to step up to the mic multiple times actually sprang forth from the warm reception she received for her unexpected debut lead vocal on “I Remember,” a key track from Power of Peace, the underrated 2017 collaborative album between the Isley Brothers and Santana.

The breadth of her star “I Remember” vocal turn soon enough caught the attention of Narada Michael Walden, an ace drummer in his own right who also sports a proven studio track record for having produced many soaring lead vocal showcases from Whitney Houston and Aretha Franklin. All told, Walden wound up producing seven tracks on Give the Drummer Some, and Santana couldn’t be more pleased. “He’s got such an amazing ear, and an awesome melodic sense,” she reports. “Narada can see and hear something in place before it’s even there. He definitely helped with my vocal inflections and the various other things a vocalist needs to do that I wouldn’t ordinarily know how to do.”

Additionally, Give the Drummer Some rolls out the red carpet for spotlighting stunning guitar moments from John McLaughlin (furiously fulfilling the titular directive of “We Came to Play”), Kirk Hammett and Vernon Reid (trading many a fiery lick on “Evolution Revolution”), and the aforementioned Carlos Santana (serving up masterstroke improv riffage lessons on “Twilight Mask”). Meanwhile, Santana’s own kit skills shine steadfast and true on deep-rooted cuts like the jazz-inflected “Miles Away,” the fusion-infused “Velocity,” and the percussive powerhouse “Mother Earth.” The drummer also ensures her lead vocals on the heartfelt and quite timely cover of John Lennon’s “Imagine” and her joyful scatting on “Everybody’s Dancin’” carry equal weight. 

Santana has long made an ongoing practice of zeroing in on the melodies of instrumental passages performed by Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and John Coltrane, and then singing them to herself. “It’s something that comes natural to me,” she admits. “I love hearing all the different intervallic combinations and the way these artists hear melodies on top of the songs they’re playing. I want to see what notes they chose over this chord, why they work, and why they sound so beautiful. Why is that note creating this tension? Why is this note creating the release? Why does that space sound incredible here with the note that’s been played prior to or after it?”

One need only cue up the sensual workout of “I Need a Drummer” to see just how Santana’s Prince-like falsetto meshes perfectly with her inherently explosive nature behind the kit. “I like it when drums are prominent in the music, because that’s the pulse,” she explains. “And on this album, I wanted the drums to be mixed a certain way. We had to work on making sure all the harmonics that were supposed to be there came through, and that they were clear. There were some tracks where the vocals had to be a little more prominent, so we found the balances that worked for each song. But I really do like the drums to be up in the mix. I mean, this is a drummer’s record!” Santana concludes with a hearty laugh.

Santana realizes the overall scope of Give the Drummer Some cuts a wide musical swath, but also feels it reflects the many distinct aspects of her own personality. “Every day we wake up, we show different facets of ourselves,” she allows. “There are a lot of directions on this record, but it’s a real and true offering of all the musical fields and genres I love.” Her ultimate reasoning for doing it that way was quite simple: “I have to be honest with what I’m doing—and it’s all about the honesty for me, you know? This is how I get to offer up my heart.” Given all the musical doors opened and walked through on this album, it’s clear that the next time Cindy Blackman Santana decides to explore her solo path, she’s fully prepared to give the drummer some more. 

Focal Presents Clear Mg, New Luxury Headphones for The Home

The following is a press release issued by Focal.

March 16, 2021Focal, the French brand renowned worldwide for its audio expertise, unveils a new reference: Clear Mg. In addition to their sophisticated finishes, the sound reproduction of these open-back headphones is even sharper than that of their Clear predecessor. The luxury of Focal products lies in their performance and the experience they offer, as well as in every detail that enhances the object to make it more than a set of headphones.

INNOVATIVE HEADPHONES MADE IN FRANCE

After four years of research and development, the engineers at Focal have designed a Magnesium dome for the Clear Mg speaker drivers. This new alloy, combined with an ‘M’-shaped dome, contributes to even more lightness, rigidity and damping, the three success factors for a speaker driver. The sound reproduction is fine, precise and impactful, for a strikingly realist sound. Combined with an amplifier/DAC, Clear Mg headphones display impressive performance. Thanks to an impedance of 55 Ohms, they can also be used without compromise with a portable audio player. The St. Étienne brand first positioned itself on the global market of Hi-Fi headphones in 2016. This unique savoir-faire, combined with French manufacturing mastered in its own workshops, has led Focal to be recognized by the French state as a Living Heritage Company (Entreprise du Patrimoine Vivant).

 

SOPHISTICATED DESIGN AND MATERIALS: AN ELEGANT OBJECT

In developing its products, Focal places design and materials at the forefront in its mission to create the ultimate sound and listening comfort. The solid aluminum yoke has been developed to perfectly mold to the face, the headband covered in genuine leather and microfiber offers a constant curve, no matter which way the head turns, and the perforated microfiber earpads result in enhanced opening and comfort. The outside of the earpads boasts a sophisticated honeycomb pattern: an elegance contributed to by the brand-new Chestnut and Mixed-Metals finish which blend classic and modern looks. For a perfect package, the carrying case has been woven in colors to match the headphones.

PRICING AND AVAILABILITY

The Focal Clear Mg will be $1,490, and available in the US in March 2021. For more information on Focal products visit here, https://www.focal.com/us/headphones/for-home/clear-mg.

Grado Timbre Series, Opus3

The Opus3 cartridge is the entry-level offering in Grado’s new Timbre Series. Timbre, which replaces Statement and Reference models in one fell swoop, represents a broad reshuffling of Grado cartridges in an effort to close the gap between its entry-level and mid-range lines—in Grado’s words, to create “an even tighter ecosystem of cartridges.” Since the Opus3 debuted, the Timbre family has expanded and now includes the Platinum3 at $400 and the Master3 at $1000.

With a list price of $275, Opus3 incorporates techniques and engineering from Grado’s higher-end models and, in a first for Grado, features a maple wood housing in a newly formulated shape. The decision to use maple was a direct outgrowth of Grado’s experience working with this wood in its Heritage and Statement Series headphones. Maple is known to be a fine tone wood for musical instruments, and Grado says that “through a variation of thermal aging processes, the [maple] housing gains the ability to better dampen and control resonant frequencies.”

The Opus3 is a moving-iron design—a close cousin to the moving magnet. It sports newly developed coil-winding techniques and a new two-step shielding process—innovations that make for a cleaner signal path and reduced mechanical noise. The Opus3 uses an aluminum cantilever, hand-tipped with a diamond stylus. It comes in both high- and low-output versions, 4mV and 1mV respectively, and also in a mono iteration. John Grado says “the high-output cartridges have 6000 turns of wire on the bobbins while the low outputs have 380 turns. The length of wire in the high outputs is 125 feet compared to 7 feet in the low outputs. Because we have fewer turns on the low outputs, we can use a much larger size wire, close to 16 times the diameter. So, the signal has a shorter distance to travel (7 feet from 125 feet), and the signal can flow more easily due to the larger wire. We feel this adds some speed to the signal and gives tighter detail at the extremities of the frequency range.” For this evaluation I opted for the low-output version. Recommended tracking force is between 1.6 and 1.9 grams. 

Don’t be put off by the wide, boxy dimensions of the Opus3’s maple housing. Though it seems to dwarf the entire cartridge assembly, the Opus3 still only weighs in at 8 grams, consistent with the weight of the Sumiko Palo Santos Celebration at 8.3 grams and the Clearaudio Charisma V2 at 9 grams, both of which I had on hand.

In performance, dropping the Opus3 in the groove was a little like going home again to a pre-digital age. I could hear its sonic kinship, its comfort-food continuity, with past Grado cartridges (and headphones) that have come my way over the years. The Opus3 produced a level of midrange tonal realism and unvarnished musicality that should assure long-standing Grado enthusiasts that they haven’t been left out in the cold. In fact, “cold” was the last thing that came to mind during this evaluation. In its warmer overall signature and rich midrange, this was classic Grado. There were still notes of dark chocolate in its voicing, a complex, bittersweetness that favors highly resonant wooden instruments like cello and acoustic bass and winds like clarinet, oboe, and bassoon. 

Clearly, Grado has stayed on message with the Opus3. But this cartridge isn’t living in the past, either. In my view Opus3 represents a “next-gen” Grado, imparting greater transient attack, low-level detail, speed, and extension at the frequency extremes. Solo piano was a prime beneficiary, exhibiting rich weighty overtones and excellent note-to-note articulation on Debussy’s Claire Du Lune [Catena]. The cartridge was very well balanced tonally, with the midrange carrying the load, as it should. But no particular octave sounded lifted or subdued. The Opus3’s character remained neutral, without leaning in a passively recessive or overly forward direction. Observed trackability was also excellent. The cartridge glided through the most challenging grooves like a slot car, with little suggestion of dynamic compression or transient distortion. 

The primary strengths of the Opus3 were its timbral “rightness” and verdant naturalism. For example, during Ricki Lee Jones’ cover of “I Won’t Grow Up” on Pop Pop—a simple track with guitar, bass, and male vocal backup—there’s was a near-holographic presence that defined images-in-space with unsettling realism. The acoustic bassline was particularly compelling in its complex mix of pitch, resonance, and decay. Turning to Diana Krall’s superb Live In Paris album [Verve/ORG], the Opus3 seized the goose-bump electricity of the moment in a way no sub-$300 cartridge has a right to. Krall’s cover of the classic “Fly Me to the Moon” was enthralling in the way it captured the weight and clarity of the piano’s heavy chords and single note lines. Image separation between musicians left plenty of elbow room for me to take in the atmosphere and ambience of the Parisian venue. During “A Case of You,” individual images were nicely outlined but not laser-etched. In particular, the Opus3 didn’t portray vocals with the fragility of cut-crystal, as some upward-tilting moving coils do. Other listeners may differ, but for me this interpretation was more convincing and musically involving. I’m suspicious of hearing what I perceive as minute details given marquee status, when they should emerge more appropriately as a part of a homogenous, organic whole, rather than separated out from the rest of the music. 

For the most part, the Opus3 rarely struck a wrong note. However, over extended listening and measured against my own pricier references, a couple of very minor quibbles emerged. With the Grado there could, at times, be a hint of treble dryness and peakiness. The soundstage could have been a smidge more immersive and dimensional. Dynamic energy seemed tamped down ever so slightly, and the leading edges of percussion, a brushed snare or rimshot for examples, didn’t leap from the grooves with the same transient alacrity and sparkling enthusiasm that they have with the Clearaudio Charisma. These cues just seemed a bit more relaxed, which, I’ll admit, would be considered a reasonable trade-off in many circles. 

During the course of this review I lost track of the number of times I mumbled, “Are you kidding me? $275?” But there it is. When the Opus3 settles in the groove and a rush of music pours forth, there’s an overriding sense that everything is right with the analog world. From a company known for exceptional performance and value, the Grado Opus3 resets the bar. Pure and simple, a celebration of LP playback. 

Specs & Pricing

Body: Maple wood
Cantilever: Aluminum with elliptical diamond stylus
Output: High, [email protected]/sec (45); low, [email protected]/sec (45)
Input load: 10k–47k ohms
Weight: 8 grams
Tracking Force: 1.6–1.9 grams
Price: $275


GRADO LABS
4614 7th Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11220
(718) 435-5340
gradolabs.com

The Rolling Stones: Goats Head Soup

Keith Richards called 1974’s Goats Head Soup a “marking time” album and fellow guitarist Mick Taylor deemed it “a bit directionless.” Fair enough, considering the band had produced a string of four classic studio albums between 1968 and 1972. But Goats Head Soup does have its charms—and it’s never sounded better. The album has been remastered by producer Giles Martin and reissued on various half-speed–mastered 180-gram vinyl editions, as well as a two-disc set with outtakes (including the Jimmy Page/Stones jam “Scarlet”) and a three-disc, plus Blu-ray, super deluxe box that includes the three previously unreleased tracks and the much-coveted 1973 concert film Brussels Affair (in Dolby Atmos, 24/96 hi-res stereo, and 24/96 DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1). The real strength of Goats Head Soup isn’t rockers like “Silver Train” or “Star Star” but the five ballads—the country-inflected “Coming Down Again,” the hit single “Angie,” “Hide Your Love,” “Winter,” and the trancelike “Can’t You Hear the Music.” Despite the rock reveries, there’s a wistful tone to this album that captures the Stones at a turning point. Not the band’s best, but not its worst—those would show up periodically during the next four decades. 

First-Ever Automotive Reference System From Mcintosh Featured in 2022 Grand Wagoneer

Binghamton, NY | March 11, 2021 – McIntosh Laboratory is world-famous for its unparalleled luxury home audio systems. Today, McIntosh is proud to announce two extraordinary McIntosh Entertainment Systems—the MX1375 Reference Entertainment System and the MX950 Entertainment System are going to hit the road in the upcoming 2022 Wagoneer and Grand Wagoneer.  Both vehicles will be available in mid-2021.

The McIntosh MX1375 Reference Entertainment System (RES) has been meticulously designed and engineered to meet exacting standards and bring reference quality sound to the road. Its Adaptive 3D Surround Processing capabilities delivers an immersive acoustic experience that produces sonic imaging and spatial detail that doesn’t just sound sensational but transports you to the performance.

The McIntosh MX950 Entertainment System is also a true “MAC” using many patented McIntosh technologies from the brand’s home audio systems. The system delivers crisp, high quality sonic reproduction with low distortion and fast response to create a truly amazing audio experience worthy of the McIntosh nameplate.

McIntosh’s signature audio performance will be available in various Wagoneer and Grand Wagoneer trims through a choice of two custom systems:

The McIntosh MX1375 Reference Entertainment System will be available exclusively in the Grand Wagoneer. The MX1375 employs 23 specifically tuned speakers, including one of the highest performing 12-inch subwoofers in the industry, and is powered by a 24-channel 1375-watt amplifier. Exclusive to the MX1375 is unique Adaptive 3D Surround Processing capabilities for an immersive listening experience.

The McIntosh MX950 Entertainment System will be available in Grand Wagoneer Series I and Series II and Wagoneer Series IIImodels. The MX950 features 19 custom-tuned speakers, including a 10-inch subwoofer, and a 17-channel amplifier producing up to 950 watts of pure power.

Two American icons — Wagoneer and McIntosh — spent a significant amount of time developing a sound system for the Grand Wagoneer Concept that debuted last Fall. Throughout that journey, McIntosh saw Wagoneer’s strong commitment to creating a premium SUV that would spare no expense on its sound system. When the 2022 Grand Wagoneer goes on sale in the second half of 2021, it will become the first vehicle in history with the world-famous Reference system from one of the leaders in audiophile caliber luxury audio. The MX1375 Reference Entertainment System was created out of a dream and brought to reality with equal parts imagination and expert engineering.

To ensure the McIntosh luxury home audio experience was carried into the Grand Wagoneer, McIntosh’s acoustics experts worked on a prototype of the vehicle cabin and had a free rein to create the best possible audio system design that envelops all passengers in a live music experience. Engineers from both companies spent countless hours studying the vehicle’s interior to fine tune the MX1375 Reference Entertainment System. The resulting system is truly groundbreaking and will awaken your senses with a true McIntosh sound you can take with you.

“When we were developing the MX1375 Reference Entertainment System, we set up a McIntosh Reference room next to the Wagoneer team’s facility to ensure the best parts of the home system experience made it into the Grand Wagoneer,” said Charlie Randall, President of McIntosh Laboratory, Inc. “It was fascinating to hear the progression as the vehicle started to take on qualities of the Reference Room itself. I can’t wait for customers to hear and feel it for themselves.”

The systems’ design is the perfect match for the artisanal interior of the Grand Wagoneer.  To reinforce the iconic McIntosh style, the beloved blue meters dance on the vehicle’s infotainment display. Grand Wagoneer owners will soon experience what it’s like having a McIntosh sound system with them on-the-go. It just might make your car the best place to go for a great night in.

ZMF Vérité Closed Headphones

Most headphones are made by big audio firms in large factories where thousands of units are cranked out. ZMF is different. All ZMF headphones are hand-assembled in small batches in the USA. The ZM in ZMF stands for Zachery Mehrbach, who is the owner and principal designer of all ZMF headphones. Currently, ZMF offers ten different models priced from $1099 to $2599. I will be looking at ZMF’s top-of-the-line closed-capsule model—the Vérité Closed—which goes for $2499.

The Vérité Closed utilizes a PEN (polyethylene naphthalate) dynamic driver with a 20% beryllium-vapor-deposited coating and an ultra-light magnesium chassis. According to Mehrbach, “for audio PEN is a more stable plastic for diaphragms than the other alternatives, like PET, that are commonly used. We used it as the base for the Be layer that sits on top because it adds some elasticity compared to a solid metal diaphragm…it [also] allowed us to use a thicker rubber surround for lower distortion.” Instead of being parallel with a listener’s ears, the driver itself is angled slightly. Although the Vérités are a closed design, there is a small vent that alleviates excess pressurization within the enclosure. Even with the vent the Vérité Closed offer 25dB attenuation of outside noise. The enclosure itself is made of good old-fashioned hardwood, which ZMF refers to on its site as “MonkeyPod (Albizia saman) or current LTD wood,” and which looks to my semi-trained eye much like a cross between mahogany and koa. When tapped all you hear is a well-damped “thunk.” 

As you would expect, the Vérité Closed has removable cabling, and when you purchase it you have the option, in addition to the supplied ZMF standard cable, of four, different, added-cost cabling choices, with prices ranging from $150 to $500. The Vérité Closed arrives in a substantial wood case with two sets of earpads, a “standard” ZMF OFC cable, and a lifetime driver warranty. You have your choice of black aluminum, brass, copper, rose gold, or polished steel rods when you place your order on ZMF’s website.

Although the Vérité Closed aren’t exactly light, with that solid hunk of wood on each side, the mass is spread so well between the floating headband (which, if desired, is available in vegan instead of leather) and the thick earpads that I did not find their weight burdensome even during extended listening sessions. Side-pressure from the earpads is sufficient to ensure a nice tight seal, even around the earpieces of my glasses, without ear-boxing. Although the pressure does increase as the headband widens, even for those with larger heads the side-pressure shouldn’t be oppressive. You have the option of two earpads that have slightly different frequency responses. According to ZMF, the Universe pads are “smooth with punch, air, and fast transients,” while the Auteur pads have better “space, linearity, decay, and speed.” I used the balanced version of the standard ZMF cable for all my listening. 

With both the Focal Arche and Sony TA-ZH1ES DAC/pre/headphone amplifiers the Vérité Closed sounded superb. If you look through the FAQs on ZMF’s website, you will find frequency-response graphs that compare the Vérité Closed to the open version. The primary differences in frequency response are in the 200Hz to 600Hz region, where the Closed has a few dB less output, and below 60Hz where the Closed have about 1dB higher output. Up to 3kHz the two are similar but above 8k the two frequency curves become quite different. Given the level of variability in (and the accuracy of) headphone test results in the upper frequencies, and the differences in individual ear canals, I would not take these measurements as gospel.

In day-to-day listening, I was continually impressed by how natural, relaxed, and un-hyped-up the Vérité Closed can sound. Even on synthesizer-heavy tracks with few, if any acoustic sounds, such as the Billie Ellish track “Bad Guy,” the overall impression is one of ease combined with exceptional clarity. On music that is all-acoustic, such as many of my own live concert recordings, I never had any sense of “working hard” to hear deep into low-level details—they were just there.

Obviously, the Vérité Closed was designed to compete with the best, and to my ears it succeeds. While I have heard many premium headphones, I have not heard them all. But if you require a premium headphone that has some attenuation of outside noise that you can wear for hours at a time, and that has a relaxed and exceedingly natural harmonic balance while still having excellent low bass, the ZMF Vérité Closed should be on your short list. 

Specs & Pricing

Frequency response: 10Hz–25kHz
Impedance: 300 ohms
Sensitivity: 99dB/mW
Weight (est.): 455g (MonkeyPod)
Price: $2499
zmfheadphones.com

David W. Fletcher, 1940-2021

Tribute by Robert S. Becker, co-founder, SOTA Industries and Pacific Microsonics, inventor of HDCD.

Two qualities inform David W. Fletcher’s brilliant, four-decade analog career: mastery of the entire LP turntable “ecosystem” and exceptional top-down and bottom-up skill-sets that resolved disruptions, in his words, from an “unknown and hostile environment.” His time as U.C. Berkeley graduate student in particle physics confirmed his foundation in theoretical science and precision testing. His bottom up, hands-on talents began in his father’s electronics repair business, expanded when running his own Berkeley shop, and shone forth when directing Sumiko, the preeminent U.S. analog importer/producer of tone arms and cartridges. Besides SOTA, my focus, David’s iconic tone arm (“The Arm”) – plus affordable, topnotch Premier tone arms and Talisman/Alchemist cartridges – confirm his analog design preeminence.

As challenges grew, so did his expertise across mechanics, materials, construction and manufacturing. In my two decades, I met a handful of audio wizards. None surpassed David in range, nor superior analytic ability to identify on what musical performance most depended. He mastered sources (analog, CD, tape), tube/solid state amplification and loudspeaker dynamics. Finally, David advanced the High-Definition Compact Disc (HDCD) encoding process, a major systemic digital advance.

Further, David was an invaluable business partner. Beyond science and technology, his business and marketing acumen, plus the “emotional intelligence” to understand people, enhanced our planning and strategizing. No one played business chess better, especially against presumptuous foes. Iconoclastic, even curmudgeonly, David had strong opinions, dark wit, and didn’t suffer fools lightly. In critical moments, he knew when to barge ahead – and when to back off. He declined drink and drugs, no longer smoked, and favored train travel over flying (“I know what can go wrong, no thanks”).

Without David, I would not have co-founded SOTA, the happy consequence of his 1979 quip, “what the world needs is a great American turntable.” The SOTA design breakthrough happened because this polymath/designer/innovator understood, then resolved the full array of interfaces when a stylus reads a minuscule, resonant, record groove on a spinning platter in a real room. Our holistic ‘table design set industry thresholds that challenged all others.

David put SOTA on the global map

While improving Sumiko’s bland, fact-filled brochures, I got the first of countless after-dinner calls. Under my belt was a PhD (in English!) plus a two-year high end stint, a year in retail sales and a year as factory rep for Dahlquist. To his credit, David bypassed this sparse resume, offering an equal partnership in a major undertaking. That pivotal night we talked and talked, more about Frank Capra movies than tone arms or cartridges. Wonder to behold – here was no nerdy technologist but a sophisticated, worldly mensch with a mission. Friendship cemented, we envisioned how to make the first, classy American turntable since the AR decades earlier. The prominent, Scottish Linn Sondek ruled the roost, yet inadvertently had opened the floodgates by showing that turntables mattered more than audiophiles realized.

David was primed with testable proposals, and SOTA was born in 1980. Despite different personalities, we clicked and fed each other’s strengths. In twelve SOTA years, I can’t recall one serious disagreement. He taught me the physics that powered the “turntable Newton would have built.” I marveled at the straight-forward, understandable way this inventor, who revered Edison, conquered hard variables others neglected. As a given, David refused to accept any trade-offs between design elegance, environmental challenges, and worry-free set-up and reliability.

Other ingenious solutions would appear, but none matched our performance, functionality or price point. “Making a great table isn’t hard,” David admitted, “when price is irrelevant.” So we tagged the first $995 Sapphire as a “grand table for less than a grand” – more than the Linn but we thought we had more to sell.

No magic, no secrets

The SOTA Sapphire isolated the ever-sensitive stylus motion by using great mass, in platter and sub-assembly, a jeweled sapphire bearing (thus the name), and vinyl-like record mat that sucked up unwanted resonance. Dynamic stability demanded a heavyweight (12 lb.) platter stabilized by a 22 lb. sub-assembly, with four corners set at 2.5 lb. (thus facilitating tone arm set-up). “Just level the platter” and turn it on. Four suspended springs, with weight at the bottom of the pendulum, delivered fortress-like isolation. One could pound the SOTA cabinet while playing – and we gleefully did.

Thus did the first, fully designed, musically neutral turntable system overcome set-up, placement and continuity issues. Best of all, for the entire marketing department (me), the sales format followed function: simply judge any turntable by the totality of design. I told prospects: “if your high school physics doesn’t prove why ours sounds and works better, don’t buy it.” David’s design defined the sales pitch: sonic shootouts aside, we sold our turntable by educating folks how understanding basic Newtonian mechanics drives our solutions (and by extension the purchase decision).

Vacuum hold-down logically followed, less to offset badly warped records than maximize contact between the lively LP and dead platter. After twelve years, David and I had succeeded in our own terms, the market was shifting, and I was ready to move on. We sold SOTA to Jack Shafton, shipped everything to Illinois; then, to our great delight, Kirk (now deceased) and Donna Bodinet eventually took over, with David as consultant.

With a Sapphire VI now entering its fifth decade, our design assumptions have passed the test of time: SOTA Sound Inventions (Wisconsin) has steadily improved quality, speed control and performance, plus fit and finish. Donna and Christen Griego do us proud by honoring SOTA’s original paradigm shift, sustaining one of a very few historic turntable designs.

Also by 1992, David and I, along with CEO Michael Ritter, had founded Pacific Microsonics. Michael presented the matchless HDCD opportunity – plus two bona fide wizards, Pflash Pflaumer and Keith Johnson on board. The task: make digital sound as musical as the best analog. Always a product development project, Pacific Microsonics was destined to merge with a global marketing powerhouse.

What! David did digital, too?

What I then learned was that my partner, this analog master, was adept at digital, too – invaluable when key investment and technology decisions arose. Pacific Microsonics amassed sufficient Silicon Valley venture capital ($12,000,000); by 2000 we had resolved complex technical challenges but, alas, got trapped by post-2000, tech market woes (greatly shrinking buyers). In the end, Microsoft purchased the company (then failed to follow through).

David’s death last month at 81 came as an unhappy surprise. That aside, I have no regrets and swarms of exhilarating memories, especially when SOTA purposely ignited the 1980’s Turntable Wars (with TAS playing its part). SOTA’s first decade achieved international, state of the art stature, succeeding in Asia, Australia, New Zealand and Europe. We enjoyed robust interactions with industry leaders and friendly competition with Linn, Oracle and VPI. True to our opening vision, David and I (plus associates Rod Herman and Allen Perkins) proved how a nervy start-up could redefine the thresholds of turntable design.

Death makes one assess where we are and how we got here. “Tell me to what you pay attention,” Ortega y Gasset wrote, “and I will tell you who you are.” I measure my orbital life shifts towards mindfulness by the great mentors, close friends and obstacles overcome that altered to what I pay attention. David Fletcher was an inspirational partner who enriched my awareness of friendship, technology, and science, plus introduced me to the fascinating personalities who still drive the unique home audio industry. Of the masterminds met on the way, David was in scope and accomplishment the inventor genius I knew best. Peace and fare thee well. If there’s another plane of existence, I will have no trouble recognizing your singular spirit.

 

The Arm: David Fletcher’s Masterpiece

by Paul Seydor

When I went from university professor to film editor almost four decades ago, I needed a way to finance the transition. An audiophile and music lover of extensive experience, I opened a by-appointment audio shop. Three of my best and best-selling products were designed by David Fletcher: the Sota turntable, the Talisman moving-coil pickups, and the MDC-800 tonearm, also known as The Arm, the latter two marketed through Fletcher’s own company Sumiko, the turntable through Sota, a company he co-founded with Robert Becker. As the three of us shared enthusiasms, notably food and movies, relationships that began in business ended in friendship. While the Sota turntable, with its standard-setting isolation characteristics and eventual vacuum hold-down, is a conceptual masterpiece, the original was designed to a price point and had teething products that took a while to iron out. The product he designed with no constraints save one as to cost or manufacturing was the MDC-800 tonearm, which he christened “The Arm.” When Harry Pearson took umbrage at what he considered the arrogance of the moniker, Fletcher laughed, saying, “I was stuck for a name and asked some friends. One of them said, ‘Why don’t you just call it ‘The Arm’?”

After its introduction in the early eighties, The Arm for several years laid serious claim to being the best fixed-bearing tonearm in the world and for moving-coil pickups arguably the best period. It was priced accordingly: $1200 at a time when no tonearm cost that much (about $3200 in today’s dollars). The price was certainly justified as regards design and precision engineering. But like many brilliant designers, once Fletcher solved conceptual problems, he could be impatient when it came to realization. He knew this about himself and always credited his machinist as being the full co-author of The Arm. I cannot remember nor have I been able to find the man’s full name, but his first name was Duncan. No other arm at the time, save perhaps the Swiss-made Breuer (which Fletcher imported for a while and which greatly influenced The Arm), could boast comparable precision in geometry, machining, bearings, and rigidity or a more full-proof setup, the jig used to drill the armboard serving double duty for mounting the pickup.

Favoring moving-coils, Fletcher was obsessed with structural rigidity for resonance control and dissipation. Dissatisfied with the methods—everything from glue, set screws, and bayonet headshells—then in use for securing arm tubes to headshells and bearing housings, he wanted an arm that consisted in a single, diecast piece fore to aft. Lacking the financial resources to make the requisite mold and other tooling, he came up with an idea so ingenious it’s amazing no one thought of it before. He had Duncan make the diameter of the tube slightly larger than it would fit into the receiving holes in the headshell and bearing housing—at room temperature. Come assembly time, the tube was frozen, then placed into a precise jig where it was fitted to the headshell and bearing housing. Once it was heated back to room temperature, you had the closest approximation to a one-piece arm short of diecasting.

Even today The Arm would rank in the upper echelon for moving-coil pickups. Why did Fletcher discontinue it? Among several reasons, the main one, I believe, was the appearance of the SME Series V tonearm, which he said, “embodies all my principles for the proper way to design an arm,” including a single-piece diecast arm. He became the US importer. Although The Arm, being a few hundred dollars less expensive, remained a viable product, I suspect there was something in Fletcher’s temperament that made him withdraw it in the face of a product he judged decisively superior. Another reason might have been The Arm’s perforated headshell, which he told me was a concession to the number of lower-mass moving magnet pickups still popular at the time. Why not just replace it with a solid headshell? “I don’t like to do that modification game” was his answer: “I design the product as best I can and then put it out there. Comes the time when enough changes are warranted, I’ll bring out a new model.”

Both explanations illustrate Fletcher’s integrity as designer and businessman. Meanwhile, his legacy is indisputable, most notably upon what I regard as the finest American arms and tables ever made and among the finest in the world: the Basis products designed by the late A. J. Conti. AJ greatly admired Fletcher’s designs, was the first to admit their influence upon his own, and once told me that one of the highest compliments he ever received came when he showed his unipivot, with its secondary bearing, to Fletcher, who said, “Congratulations, you have solved the problems that drove me crazy about both ball bearing and unipivot arms.” Fletcher never suffered fools gladly and made short work of pretentiousness, but he was always generous before genuinely high achievement in others, including competitors. Now that both he and AJ are gone, when I have questions about pickups, arms, and tables, I do not know whom to call upon for answers of comparable directness, expertise, and hard science, not to mention conversations always lively, invigorating, and thought provoking.

Bowers & Wilkins 705 Signature Loudspeaker

I will say this for B&W’s 705 Signature: This loudspeaker sure knows how to make an entrance. This $3999 two-way compact which bears the British firm’s famously eye-catching top-mounted tweeter cuts a striking figure with its crisp seamless lines, mirror-like veneers, six-sided finish, and gleaming appointments. This bass-reflex monitor just looks like money, fresh from London’s Regent Street. At least part of that impression is owed to the fact that the 705 Signature (and its floorstanding cousin, the 702 Signature) have a lot in common with B&W’s bespoke flagship 800 Series. This cross-platform sharing actually originated in the more modestly priced 700 Series, which debuted in 2017. But the Signature edition takes it a step further in refinement. Most prominent is the pricier solid-body assembly of the “tweeter-on-top,” and the distinctive gleam of its Continuum cone driver. Plus various upgrades and refinements to the crossover and heatsinking, including specially treated bypass capacitors sourced from Mundorf. 

The newly devised 25mm carbon dome tweeter is composed of two sections, a thirty-micron aluminum dome front section stiffened by a PVD (physical vapor deposition) coating of carbon. Paraphrasing B&W, “the second section is a 300-micron carbon ring that matches the form of the main dome, then is bonded to the inner face of the structure.” The outcome is stiffness and resistance to distortion without undue mass, and a first breakup point of 47kHz. B&W also substituted aluminum instead of zinc for the bullet-shaped housing of the Signature tweeter. The milled aluminum (over 1kg) makes for a stiffer and less resonant structure than zinc, and benefits from the same decoupling mechanism and acoustically transparent grille design of the 800 Series Diamond. A side benefit is that it also allows the use of the mass of the tweeter body as a heatsink for the dome.

In the 6.5″ Continuum cone mid/bass, B&W enthusiasts will identify another component that originally was exclusive to the 800 Series Diamond. Continuum is a woven composite design, which B&W states avoids the abrupt transition from pure pistonic movement to breakup-mode behavior. Ultimately, every driver will break up, but when distortion can be as highly controlled as it is in the Continuum transducer, there’s greater potential for a more open, transparent, and detailed midrange.

I could say more than a few words about the fit and finish of the 705 Signature, but let me sum it up in one word—sumptuous. My flawless review sample was crafted in Datuk Gloss ebony-colored veneer and bore a striking, exotic, tiger-stripe grain pattern. The wood originates from a sustainably sourced supply, in this case from specialist Italian wood company Alpi. Bowers & Wilkins adds to Alpi’s painstaking workmanship by applying nine coats of finish, including primer, base coat, and lacquer.

705 Signature front

As for the sonics of the 705, my first impressions held true throughout the evaluation; from the start the speaker was high-spirited and balanced. Like a thoroughbred at the Derby, the 705 seemed to burst from the gate, surging with pent-up energy. Its dynamism was evident at pretty much every level across the frequency spectrum. It delivered well-rounded midrange tonality, shaded slightly to the warmer, romantic side of neutral—a sonic signature that seems built into the genetic code of B&W loudspeakers (and into many British monitors, for that matter). Its midbass to lower midrange was well controlled and defined—exceptionally so in light of its modest 13-inch height. The rear port—in B&W’s characteristic, turbulence-reducing dimpled design—was mostly inaudible, though there was, at moments, an excess weightiness in the upper bass that hinted at some port augmentation. 

The overall voice of the 705 Signature was forthright rather than tonally recessive. It was punchy and aggressive when it needed to be and soothing where appropriate. It was a compact that summoned buckets full of colorful timbral details and contrasts, and possessed a full-blooded physicality that sustained and supported musical images. Soundstage information was straightforward, imparting good dimensional information, though this was not its strongest suit. (Any number of competitive two-way compacts will challenge it in that regard.)

A prime example of the 705 Signature’s all-around skillset was Alison Krauss’ country-tinged cover of Lennon-McCartney’s “I Will.” The track, with its guitar and banjo images snapping from the studio mix, exhibited an electric immediacy. In that vein, the closing drum fill during “When You Say Nothing At All” was heroic in its weight and scale. Parenthetically, the scale of this particular cue is curiously out of proportion with the rest of the song, suggesting that someone in the control room was having a little too much fun dialing up the percussion in the final mix. 

The vivacious character of the 705 Sig’s sonics is no accident, in my view. To a large degree it reflects elements of the professional-recording “studio monitor” culture in which B&W is still quite prominent. Thus, there is no wimp factor. The 705 Sig heads in the other direction, muscling in on the recording to bring to light every last detail: an errant baton striking the podium, a gasp from an audience member, the shift of a pianist on the bench, the rustle of pages of a score being turned on a musician’s music stand. And like a true monitor, the 705 Sig isn’t shy about being driven hard. When propelled by top-quality amplification with sufficient headroom, it is capable of a level of sheer unconstrained output that caused me to bail out before it did. 

Bass quality was outstanding, especially for a loudspeaker of this humble size. During Sheryl Crow’s “I Shall Believe,” bassist Dan Schwartz’s cavernous and enveloping artistry was reproduced with impressive pitch and extension. The Police’s “Tea In The Sahara” was also reproduced with the impressive rhythmic interplay of kickdrum and electric bass fully intact. The bass drum sounded grounded in reality, not just a random set of rhythmic pulses. No, the 705 Sig couldn’t uncover the deepest notes on this track, but where it played it was honest and open. Compared with a much larger floorstander or a subwoofer-augmented system, of course, the deepest bass and dynamics were throttled down, but the “essentials” were there and the brain tended to fill in the gaps. I rarely felt short-shrifted by the 705.

Solo piano reproduction, a potential deal-breaker for this reviewer, was some of the best I’ve heard from a compact. As I listened to Constentino Catena’s reading of Debussy’s Clair de Lune, the dynamic touch he teased out of the concert grand conveyed all kinds of keyboard character, mood swings, and temperament, from the gentlest pianissimos to the heavier fortes. The 705 even captured a semblance of soundboard action, air, and weight. It also hung onto the sustain pedal to the end of the track. 

This gentle piano track was also illustrative of the 705 Signature’s resolving power, a trait that cropped up time and again during my evaluation. The speaker had an ability to bring to life the smallest cues, clinging to a decaying note, a waft of ambience. It had a level of resolution that rewarded the astute listener, and caused me to listen ever deeper into the most delicate moments. Ricki Lee Jones’ cover of the Billie Holiday classic “I’ll Be Seeing You” is a terrific track to enjoy this specific brand of transparency. The sonics of this LP ring true. The quirky Jones vocal and classical guitar accompaniment sang with a full array of transient delicacies and intricate voicings, immersing me in the atmosphere of the mix

Most significant to my own listening biases, the B&W proved to be a very good and flexible voice speaker. The 705 Signature reveled in reproducing the signature details that define a singer’s instrument. On a track like CS&N’s “Southern Cross,” for example, the 705 caught the leading edge of Stills’ vocal and nailed his characteristic gravelly throatiness down pat. Then there was the 705’s sensitivity in capturing the breathy vibrato of Jennifer Warnes’ “Song for Bernadette,” or the husky alto of Lauren Daigle’s “Rescue” from the 45rpm Bernie Grundman LP remaster of her 2018 hit Look Up Child. My one minor reservation was a hint of presence dip with these female vocalists that softened and rounded the leading edges of their voices. On the one hand, the effect was coddling to the ear, but on the other, it also subtracted slightly from attack and emotion.

The Bowers & Wilkins 705 Signature is the product of a mature and experienced company that understands the musical imperatives of overall balance and listenability. A compact loudspeaker that can shrug off the bonds of its modest proportions and become something much grander is a rarity, but the B&W most assuredly does these things. In sum, the 705 Signature is what I’d describe as a true musical sophisticate—a natty dresser and a formidable addition to any listening room. Sign me up!

Specs & Pricing

Type: Stand-mount, two-way, vented box
Drivers: 1″ dome tweeter; 6.5″ mid/bass
Frequency response: 58Hz–28kHz
Sensitivity: 88dB
Nominal impedance: 8 ohms (3.7 ohms minimum)
Dimensions: 13.4″ x 7.8″ x 11.9″
Weight: 20.5 lbs.
Price: $3999

BOWERS & WILKINS
54 Concord Street
North Reading, MA 01864
(978) 664-2870
bowerswilkins.com