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Hildegard von Bingen: Ordo Virtutum

Any list of “important female composers” begins with Hildegard of Bingen. But the more one experiences music by the 12th Century abbess, the more one realizes that any gender-based qualification is entirely superfluous. Ordo Virtutum, which translates as “The Play of Virtues,” is Hildegard’s most substantial composition and has the distinction of being the only music drama dating from the Middle Ages to have survived with the identity of its creator known. Hildegard wrote it for the 20 nuns of her religious order, who each sang the part of a virtuous trait—favorites like “Mercy,” “Hope,” and “Charity” as well as second-stringers like “World-rejection,” “Discipline,” and “Heavenly Love.” Ordo Virtutum tells the story of Anima, the Soul, who’s kidnapped by Satan (a spoken role for a man, performed with unctuous malignity by James K. Bass). She is ultimately returned to her sisters, who subdue the demon and assure Anima’s redemption. A dozen women of the Floridian chorus Seraphic Fire, led by Patrick Dupré Quigley, fully realize the compelling dramatic trajectory of Ordo Virtutum. The recording, from the acoustically admired Sauder Concert Hall at Goshen College, is atmospherically reverberant yet still presents timbral detail of the largely unison chant with gratifying clarity. 

Bowers & Wilkins Re-imagines the Zeppelin for the Streaming Age

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

October 2021 – First introduced in 2007 as the ultimate iPod dock, the Zeppelin is reborn in 2021 better- sounding, better-looking and smarter than ever.

The new Zeppelin has been re-imagined for the streaming age. It’s now both smarter and more flexible, while its high-resolution sound is more detailed and dynamic than ever.

Distinctive, innovative design

For over 15 years, each new generation of Zeppelin has been the only truly beautiful and unique design in its class – and, like every Bowers & Wilkins design, its shape is defined by acoustics. The new and completely redesigned Zeppelin is available in two finishes, one dark (midnight grey) and one light (pearl grey) and now includes switchable, dimmable ambient lighting to create a ‘halo’ lighting effect on to its metal pedestal stand.

Engineered for performance

The new Zeppelin is a complete stereo system in one component, featuring dedicated left and right speaker assemblies around a central, large subwoofer, all powered by 240W of amplification. Those premium components are mounted in an ultra-rigid, FEA-optimised enclosure that is carefully sculpted to ensure the best possible acoustic performance, with minimal material around the edges of each drive unit for outstanding sound dispersion. The result is room-filling stereo sound no single-box rival can match.

The new Zeppelin’s two Decoupled Double-Dome tweeters – originally featured in the award-winning 600 Anniversary Series – are mounted at the far edges of the enclosure and are fully isolated from vibrations running through the cabinet generated by other, larger drive units. This ensures a wide, spacious and highly accurate sound.

The tweeters are paired with 90mm midrange drivers using Bowers & Wilkins proprietary Fixed Suspension Transducer (FSTTM) technology – found in all the company’s premium floor-standing speakers, including the reference 800 Series Diamond, the monitor speaker of choice for Abbey Road Studios.

Finally, a new 150mm subwoofer is on hand to add deep, detailed and refined bass to the open, high-resolution sound of the combined system. Mounted centrally at the heart of the Zeppelin’s structure, its design is carefully optimised to avoid unwanted ‘rocking’ of the cabinet as it operates, resulting in a cleaner-sounding and more agile bass delivery.

Every generation of Zeppelin has been the best-sounding system of its era. The new Zeppelin, by combining proven drive unit technology with its new high-resolution streaming platform, is simply the best yet. The overall result is an exceptional musical performance whether from a wirelessly connected   source or via a streaming service.

The Music You Love, Instantly

 If you want to stream music from your mobile device, tablet or computer, the new Zeppelin includes   both AirPlay 2 and aptX Adaptive Bluetooth, making it suitable for both iOS and Android users. Spotify fans can enjoy the convenience of Spotify Connect, ensuring both high-quality sound and convenient, easy operation. And best of all, the new Zeppelin can also be controlled via the Bowers & Wilkins Music App, which gives instant access to a host of streaming services including Deezer, Last.fm, Qobuz, Soundcloud, TIDAL and TuneIn. More services are being added regularly.

Connected, Smart, Intuitive

The new Zeppelin offers Alexa built-in: no need for any external components. Simply ask for the song you want to hear, and your Zeppelin will oblige. If you prefer, your Zeppelin can be operated by physical buttons on the top rear of its elegant enclosure.

Finally, the new Zeppelin has been engineered to last. Its powerful digital ‘brain’ can be upgraded over time, with multi-room capability planned for introduction in early 2022. That will make the Zeppelin compatible with both other new Zeppelins in a multiroom environment or, if you prefer, a multiroom system based on Bowers & Wilkins own Formation range of high-resolution wireless speakers.

The Beauty of Sound

So, the Zeppelin is reborn, better than ever in every regard. With the new Zeppelin, you no longer have to choose between a fully featured wireless speaker with the streaming services you need and a sleek, sophisticated design with the room-filling sound you want. Now, you can have both.

The Zeppelin is available from October 13, 2021 in Midnight Grey or Pearl Grey from $799.00 USD.

2021 Golden Ear Awards | Robert Harley

Absolare Hybrid Stereo Power Amplifier, Signature Edition

$52,000

Absolare made a name for itself with the spectacular Passion preamplifier and Passion 845 power amplifiers. Both products are all-tube ultra-minimalist designs executed with the world’s finest parts. The Passion SET amplifiers brought the glories of single-ended triode to an amp that could drive real-world loudspeakers. (See my review in Issue 234). Astonishingly, Absolare has managed to capture much of the magic of those two reference-class products in the Hybrid Stereo power amplifier. As its name suggests, the Hybrid combines tubes in the front end with a 275Wpc (4 ohms) solid-state output stage. Yet there’s no hint of transistors in the Hybrid’s sound; it has astonishing liquidity of timbre, is utterly grain-free, and projects that elusive sense of midrange presence that is the hallmark of the best SETs. The Hybrid creates a directness of musical expression—of hearing nothing between you and the music—that is unique among solid-state amplifiers, in my experience. The gorgeous leather-clad casework adds to the appeal. 

Wilson Audio Chronosonic XVX Loudspeaker

$329,000

Although I’ve heaped plenty of praise on Wilson’s Chronosonic XVX (including our 2020 Overall Product of the Year Award), I’m going to add to the accolades with this Golden Ear Award. Even after 18 months of near-daily listening, the XVX continues to astound with its preternatural immediacy and sense of presence, a thrilling combination of bass weight, speed, and definition, and a treble that is highly resolving without calling attention to itself. Although the XVX abounds in sonic virtues, I’ve come to realize that what sets it apart, and what makes it so musically compelling, is that the speaker’s tremendous resolution is rendered not as sonic detail but rather as greater timbral realism and beauty. The sonic subtlety belies the massive amount of real musical information conveyed. Transient fidelity, from the hardest-hit snare drum to the finest micro-attack of a triangle, is thrillingly realistic. As I wrote in my review, the XVX “is the most realistic sounding, the most musically expressive, and the most intellectually and emotionally engaging loudspeaker I’ve heard. The XVX isn’t just a milestone for Wilson Audio; I believe that it is a landmark achievement in loudspeaker design.” Extended listening has only reinforced that view.

NAD C298 Power Amplifier

$1995

NAD’s C298 is built around a new Class D output stage called “Eigentakt” (“self-clocking”) that represents a significant technical advance in switching amplification. The Eigentakt design effort was led by Bruno Putzeys, one of the brightest thinkers in switching-amplifier design. The C298 is rated at 185Wpc into 8 ohms and 340Wpc into 4, with a dynamic power rating of 260W into 8 ohms, 490W into 4 ohms, and 570W into 2 ohms. The amplifier is packed with features, including balanced and single-ended inputs, variable gain, line outputs for daisy-chaining multiple amplifiers, a bridging function for monaural operation, and an auto-on feature when signal is detected. It is also remote-controllable. The C298 sounds like a powerhouse, with effortless dynamics, a tight and solid bottom end, and a general sense of ease during complex passages. Even when driving the Wilson Chronosonic XVX, the C298 went very low in the bass, had a nice sense of midbass heft and weight, and outstanding dynamic punch. Throughout the listening, I noticed that the C298 had an unusually satisfying ability to convey music’s rhythmic flow and forward propulsion. The midrange has a nice presence, with a bit of forwardness from the upper mids to the lower treble imparting a lively quality. The C298’s soundstaging was outstanding—big, open, spacious, and detailed, with precise image placement. The C298 was also remarkably adept at clearly revealing subtle instrumental lines. It was easy to hear low-level instruments in the mix, or at the back of the hall. The C298 is a lot of amplifier for the money. 

Listening to Music Together

A funny thing happened after I requested a review copy of Craft Recording’s new one-step vinyl edition of Yusef Lateef’s Eastern Sounds, a long-player that was originally released in 1961 on Moodsville, a subsidiary of Prestige. Eastern Sounds is Craft’s second one-step platter, the first being John Coltrane’s Lush Life. I emailed the Eastern Sounds request late one morning, and an hour later I discovered, on one of the record-collecting sites I follow on Facebook, that the reissue had sold out before I’d even made the request.

The music section will, on a rare occasion, discuss a release that’s already out of print. For example, Wayne Garcia’s review of Craft Recording’s first one-step (John Coltrane’s Lush Life) for Issue 314. Even though that LP sold out before it was even released, we assumed a discussion of the album was still in order, partially to make more readers aware that the new series existed, but also to say something about the quality of the product. That review was arranged well before Coltrane went on sale, however, and because I waited so long to request a copy of Eastern Sounds, and never heard back from Craft, I assumed I wouldn’t hear that limited edition of an early Yusef Lateef record.

Much to my surprise, the one-step showed up on my doorstep a week or so after I asked for it, and I have been listening to Eastern Sounds in various formats and on different stereos ever since. I can think of worse ways to spend one’s time. The music is riveting—but it’s riveting in a silent way, the intensity beneath the surface becoming more apparent with each audition. There are those musicians—Miles Davis, Chet Baker, and Bill Evans, to name a few—who, while working in the sparest and quietest settings, can level you with a few well-chosen notes. Acquaint yourself with Eastern Sounds, and you’ll know the same is true for Yusef Lateef, whether he’s playing tenor saxophone, flute, oboe, or yun (which is described as a “Chinese globular flute” in the liner notes). His oboe sends a chill up my spine on “Love Theme from Spartacus,” and his flute is equally absorbing on “Love Theme from The Robe.” For tenor saxophone ballads, you can’t beat “Don’t Blame Me” and “Purple Flower.” And I can’t imagine a more sensitive pianist on this quartet date than Barry Harris, who mind-melds with Lateef while comping and dishes up some exquisitely crafted and highly melodic solos of his own. Bassist Ernie Farrow and drummer Lex Humphries also receive high marks for their sensitivity—and for offering a bulwark of support when the occasion calls for a more muscular approach, as on “Ching Miau.”

While listening to Eastern Sounds, I thought about the liner notes of Kind of Blue, where Bill Evans compares the aesthetic on that iconic LP to Japanese visual artists who “must paint on a thin stretched parchment with a special brush and black water paint in such a way that an unnatural or interrupted stroke will destroy the line or break through the parchment.” A similar aesthetic is at work on Eastern Sounds, where the members of the quartet use light brushstrokes, instead of smearing paint all over the canvas. Even on the most extroverted performance, “Chiang Miau,” on which Lateef plays some fiery tenor sax, the note count remains modest (and Harris lays out completely).

Because of its inner focus, Eastern Sounds would have made excellent quarantine fare, as the pandemic seemed to call for highly introspective music, but I now associate the record with the current and very nebulous in-between period, when, on a limited basis, people started leaving their domiciles and interacting with fellow humans in non-Zoom, real-life settings. Standing face to face, in other words—even if, at times, both faces are wearing masks. 

Recently the Executive Editor of TAS, Jonathan Valin, called to tell me that Greg Beron from United Home Audio would be visiting from out of town and playing some of Greg’s amazing R2R tapes dubbed from the original masters. They were going to listen to the tapes on Jonathan’s stereo, which includes the UHA SuperDeck, which JV reviews in this issue. Jonathan asked if I’d like to join them. I’m no fool—I happily accepted the invitation.

Jonathan and I have spent many hours listening to music, but we hadn’t even seen each other since COVID threw a curveball into everything. We quickly made up for lost time. For two nights Jonathan, Greg, and I hung out together and listened to tapes that Greg had somehow managed to acquire over the years. In a way that listening experience wasn’t all that different from those evenings in high school when my friends and I would spend the whole evening playing records, although I have to say the gear’s a lot better now. A week later I was over at Jonathan’s again, but this time we listened to vinyl on what I’ll call “Stereo #2,” his downstairs system. (That system, by the way, was no slouch, either.)

Joe Strummer: Assembly

Joe Strummer’s solo catalog is in good hands, having recently been acquired by Dark Horse Records, a label founded by former Beatle George Harrison and revived by his son Dhani. The company’s first release of the legendary ex-front man for the Clash, Assembly was expertly remastered by Paul Hicks, a three-time Grammy winner and a member of Dhani Harrison’s band thenewno2. The compilation is a thoughtful assembly of highlights of Strummer’s work with his backing band the Mescaleros. One of Strummer’s best songs, the upbeat “Coma Girl,” opens the record, followed by a reflective and Strummer-style socially engaged “Johnny Appleseed.” Then comes a dynamite live version of “I Fought the Law,” which the Clash famously covered. Other nods to the Clash repertoire are included (a live version of “Rudie Can’t Fail” and an acoustic “Junco Partner”). However, most of the record showcases Strummer’s utopian, purposeful, complex solo work, which draws from a variety of styles (rockabilly, reggae, soul, hip-hop, ska) and was unfortunately cut short by his sudden death of a heart condition in 2002. True to form, the imagery on the front and back cover of Assembly does an excellent job of complementing such memorable music. 

Audiovector R1 Arreté Loudspeaker

What is it with audiophiles, even casual ones, and bass? Sure, good low-frequency reproduction is necessary to satisfy some key “reality triggers” that many critical listeners hold dear—the weight of a symphony orchestra, the concussive slam of well-recorded electric bass plus kick drum, the thundering 32-foot stops of a massive pipe organ. But several factors limit what’s possible with most consumer loudspeakers in most domestic environments when it comes to the recreation of deep bass, including the speakers’ size, cost, and—most of all—the laws of physics. So, it’s something of a mystery why the effective rendering of high-frequency musical content doesn’t seem to count nearly as much as “good bass.” Perhaps it’s due to the belief that audio frequencies past 20kHz (and a lot lower than that for older listeners) are “beyond the range of human hearing.” The fact is that top-octave treble content is of importance not just to dogs and bats. The Danish loudspeaker manufacturer Audiovector, in business for more than four decades, builds all its own drivers in Denmark, including a range of advanced high-frequency devices that have increasingly impressed me with each new exposure to the company’s products.

Audiovector’s R Series loudspeakers include the $69,995 R8 Arreté and, for just shy of a cool quarter-million, the no-holds-barred R11. In a less-rarified realm, audiophiles can choose among the R1, R3, and R6, each available in Signature, Avantgarde, and Arreté versions, the main differences being the high-frequency driver utilized and the inclusion of Audiovector’s Freedom Grounding Concept (FGC) technology in the Arreté models. I reviewed the 2.5-way R3 Arreté ($9999/pr.) in TAS 305 and, eight issues later, Matt Clott considered the R6 Arreté ($35,000/pr.) The baby of this loudspeaker family is the stand-mountable R1 Arreté, priced at $6250 in a standard finish. 

The R1 Arreté is a two-way monitor, 14.6″ tall with a 7.7″ x 11.4″ footprint. The speaker has a gently tapering teardrop shape from front to back and measures just 4 inches in width behind. Magnetically attached grilles are provided, but they remained in their packaging for the Arretés time with me. To the rear is a pair of substantial 3-way binding posts and a third identical-appearing terminal that accepts the Freedom grounding cable. The binding posts are mounted on a carbon-fiber plate to eliminate electrical interaction with the crossover residing nearby. Above them are two ports, one venting the midrange/woofer compartment and the other communicating with the treble driver, as detailed below. The enclosures are fabricated with HDF derived from bits of oak and maple, two exceptionally hard kinds of wood. Standard finishes include Italian Walnut, African Rosewood, and Black Ash veneers, as well as a painted White Silk option. For a $600 upcharge, Audiovector will have the HDF painted by a Danish Porsche paint shop, a seven-coat process that results in these gloss finishes having the same thickness as a veneer. The review samples were a sumptuous British Racing Green that turned quite a few heads.

Audiovector makes a dedicated stand for R1s in gunmetal grey, a three-pillar steel structure with a top plate that matches the contour of the loudspeaker’s bottom surface. The two front-facing pillars are sealed and cannot be filled with sand or shot, although the rear one has openings at the top and bottom to permit the routing of the speaker and FGC cables. The stands, which will increase your outlay by $979 for the pair, are supplied with spikes that are—as is usually the case with European products—inadequate in length to fully pierce a typical North American carpet and pad, but are easily replaced with longer ones. Also supplied are eight compressible plastic discs to keep the R1s from sliding off their stands and, presumably, couple the speaker acoustically to the supporting structure. I immediately lost them but found the perfect substitute in the furniture department at my local hardware store.

The 6.5″ midrange/woofer is common to most of the loudspeakers in the R Series. Its cone has a sandwich structure with a cross-woven carbon membrane between outer layers of artificial wood fiber. All Audiovector loudspeakers with the “Arreté” designation have a discreet grounding circuit that conducts mechanical energy away from the baskets of the mid/woof drive units, delivering it to that third binding post on the rear of the speaker. The Freedom Grounding cable that connects to each R1 Arreté joins its companion from the other channel to arrive at a hefty Shunko connector that plugs into the wall, the outlet serving as a reliable ground. The R1 Arreté has the necessary grounding circuitry built in, but to use it, one must purchase the cable at a cost of $850. I’d had plenty of experience with the R3 Arreté and knew that FGC subjectively improved the dynamic life of all stripes of music; I did all my listening with the grounding cables connected. Audiovector encourages its dealers to A/B the R1 and R3 Arretés to potential customers, with and without the FGC circuit functioning. Nineteen out of 20 listeners, the company reports, will end up spending the $850.

A dome tweeter handles the highs in the Signature version of the R1, while two different Heil Air-Motion Transformer (AMT) drivers serve this function for the Avantgarde and Arreté models. Ole Klifoth, Audiovector’s founder, who still oversees R&D for the company, wrote to me about his enthusiasm for the “Heil tweeter,” noting that the membrane area of an AMT is eight times that of a dome, even as the weight of the former is just 70% of the latter. Klifoth remarked that he found it “easy to differentiate between a high-quality dome tweeter and an AMT because we hear the overtones, the harmonics of the fundamental tones, much more clearly through the AMT. For example, a double bass sounds more detailed and real through an AMT, as does a piccolo. The fact that the upper limit of an AMT exceeds 50kHz means that the phase change, which is a result of the rapid roll-off at the upper-limit frequency, is well away from our hearing range. Not so with a typical dome tweeter, which rolls off at 25kHz (no matter what is claimed). In that case, the phase distortion associated with the roll-off plays an important role way down into the hearing range.”

2021 Golden Ear Awards | Robert E. Greene

AudioKinesis Swarm Subwoofer System

$3200

Bass in concert venues behaves differently than bass in rooms of domestic size: the density of the modal frequencies in the lower part of the music range in a large hall compared to its spareness in smaller rooms makes modal irregularities all but totally insignificant in concert halls but troublesome in home listening. This difference cannot be completely eliminated, but it can be minimized by the use of multiple subwoofers, with their multiple positions serving to make modal behavior less audible. This idea is embodied in practical, elegant, and modestly priced form in the AudioKinesis  Swarm system of four subwoofers, designed by Duke LeJeune. This system outperforms any single or dual subwoofer system, creating a startling sense of being in the recording venue. 

Stirling Broadcast LS3/6 Loudspeaker

$5995

This redesign of the original by Derek Hughes stands as the latest embodiment, thus far, of the design principles of the Spendor BC1 (taken up later by the BBC as its LS3/6), which was the progenitor of the Spendor SP1 and SP1/2. This family of speakers has intrinsic  neutrality and an unusual  ability to interact with the room around them correctly  to produce a result  superior, in musical  terms, to the vast majority of speakers—even much more pretentious and expensive ones. The cabinet moves resonances away from the area of maximum hearing sensitivity; the use of one mid/bass driver to cover a large range makes phase linear where phase linearity counts; and the overall balance comes out right in actual rooms. Add AudioKinesis Swarm subwoofers, and the result is a system that sounds more like actual music than almost anything else at any price.  (Another version of the original BC1, also designed by Derek Hughes, has recently been released by Graham Audio; a review is forthcoming.)

Townshend Trough

$3000 

Decades ago, Townshend Audio introduced a vinyl playback system (the Rock Reference, Issue 70), which, with design input  from Jack Dinsdale and John Bugge at Cranfield Institute of Technology, included a way to damp the tonearm at the cartridge end via a trough of damping fluid that swung out over the record being played. This was one of those ideas that was so clearly good that one wonders how other people missed it. One wonders even more how, with the idea revealed, they kept on missing it. This is just the right way to do it for vinyl playback. The trough can be used with ’arms in general on other turntables—in effect, anywhere. Combine the trough with a Morch DP8 (with its uniquely correct moment of inertia behavior) and/or with one of the remarkable Pear Audio turntables or, say, with the Nakamichi TX1000 to solve the off-center problem, and one is well on one’s way to realizing at last the true possibilities of vinyl playback. Why the trough has not become universal is, indeed, an ongoing mystery, because this thing works.

Fidata HFAS1-XS20U Music Server

Arguably one of the most significant paradigm shifts for playing digitally encoded music in the last five years has been the introduction and development of digital “music servers.” While the term “music server” is fairly broad and potentially means different things to different people—or perhaps, more specifically, different things to companies like Roon, Aurender, Auralic, Lumin, etc. that have specialized in developing products that are optimized to serve up digital music files in their purest form—there’s a panoply of solutions now available. This market in high-end audio has seen so much innovation and product development that we now have “servers” that are simple headless computers (such as Intel NUCs, Mac Minis, or Roon Nuclei), network-only bridges and streamers, and fully integrated products, e.g. streamers/DACs. There are so many choices and configurations that it sometimes seems as if you need to consult a new class of high-end audio professional, the “network audio specialist,” to determine which solution best meets your needs. 

My first forays in this area date back about eleven years or so, when I blithely hooked my 2006 MacBook (the black plastic one) to an HRS (remember those guys?) USB DAC. I thought it sounded pretty good—not quite as good as my Oppo BD83SE universal disc player, and certainly not as good as an LP, but it was an easy and convenient way to listen to music when I wasn’t listening “critically.” It got better as the new USB DACs got better, and more so in 2012, when I dropped iTunes for Audirvana. Who’d have thought that software could influence how a ripped digital file sounded? But, it clearly did. That setup served me well for another four years, but I was in for a major re-evaluation when I bought a Sonore microRendu network bridge and implemented Roon as my software of choice (sorry, Audirvana). It took me a while to figure out why my digital “front-end” was suddenly sounding significantly better than ever. I finally realized the reason was my Mac Mini music server was now forty feet away, and came to the conclusion that, for a number of reasons I’ve described previously (“How to Optimize Digital Streaming with Optical Fiber,” TAS May, 2020), it’s not a good idea to connect a high-bandwidth general-purpose computer directly to a DAC in a high-end audio system with a standard USB cable. 

The Japanese high-end audio market has come to the same conclusion, and rather than using a computer with fast GPUs and multi-core CPUs spewing out all sorts of wide-bandwidth noise, it has adopted the simpler and, concomitantly, much less noisy approach of using a NAS (Network Attached Storage) device. It turns out that this is an effective way to go, because a NAS is a simple, purpose-built computer whose raison d’être is simply to store and serve digital files. These devices have a “just right” level of computing power, as all they need to do is run a user interface and file-management code. Roon, for example, has taken advantage of this and implemented Roon Core distributions that run on consumer-level QNAP, Asustor, and Synology NAS platforms. 

I-O Data Devices, a high-end Japanese data storage and management solutions company, has gone a step further, and developed a NAS designed specifically for use in high-end audio systems, the Fidata HFAS1-XS20U, reviewed here. In this sense, the Fidata is a new class of NAS, specifically, a network audio server. 

Design and Construction

About the size and shape of a small pizza box, the Fidata XS20U is housed in a thick billet-aluminum case, enclosing a 3.2mm steel chassis that mounts the internal components. Mechanically, those components are completely isolated from the exterior chassis. The bottom of the chassis is solid copper to function as an RFI shield, and the top cover is 4mm thick to provide additional mechanical stiffness and resistance to vibration. Four aluminum feet with polymer pads support the XS20U, and provide additional damping and mechanical grounding. Moreover, the HFAS1 can be configured to use three feet instead of four, if this provides a more stable platform. The entire structure of the case, internal chassis, and footers is designed to provide a high degree of mechanical damping from extraneous sources of vibration. As we learned in Digital Music 101, vibration is a major noise component, particularly for digital-domain devices, and can adversely impact the optimal performance of processors, clocks, and crystal oscillators. The HFAS1 pulls out all the stops to mitigate the impact of vibration on performance. 

The HFAS1’s front panel has two functions. An LED shows the unit is at work, and an on/off switch supplies the power. The LED can be configured using the I-O Data app to display red, blue, or white. It can also be switched off while the unit is powered, if so desired. The rear panel has ports for power, networking, and USB-device connections. 

Did the Grammys Get it Right?

Two of the top Grammy Awards for albums released in 2020 went to Taylor Swift, for Album of the Year, and the Strokes, for Best Rock Album. Did the Grammys get it right? Let’s take a listen. 

Taylor Swift: folklore

It says here in (insert pretty much any music-oriented scroll) that folklore is Taylor Swift’s best album. I can’t personally vouch for that since I’m not enough of a fan to have listened beyond her hit singles. But what I can say is that folklore in no way resembles those pop ditties.

Through some combination of maturation and pandemic-induced retrospection, Swift has become a thoughtful songwriter and a hype-averse performer. Indeed, the songs on folklore are completely stripped of Swift’s usual lavish production, leaving little more than vocals and mostly-acoustic instrumental support. Nor is a single one of the generous hour-plus, 16-song set (17 on the deluxe edition) an upbeat dance number. Instead, we get melancholy ballads in which Swift focuses on the material’s emotional—as opposed to rhythmic—content.  

Three hallmarks of maturity are an awareness of time going by, an awareness of others, and an awareness of self. Swift displays all three traits throughout this album. Most tracks are written from the vantage point of a third person or an invented character—a stark contrast to Swift’s normally-autobiographical lyrics. “The Last Great American Dynasty,” for example, pokes fun at American socialite Rebekah Harkness. In the sole self-referential song, the sweet “Invisible Strings,” Swift is newly-attuned to life’s turmoil and ironies:

Cold was the steel of my axe to grind

For the boys who broke my heart

Now I send their babies presents

Gold was the color of the leaves

When I showed you around Centennial Park

Hell was the journey but it brought me heaven

Not every track is a gem. But more than enough of them hit home to make the album recommendable—even to non-Taylor Swift fans. Furthermore, the sound quality is often astonishing. I would particularly steer you to the MQA version on Tidal, where those acoustic arrangements take on a vivid presence and Swift’s unprocessed voice is natural and airy. 

The Grammy’s awarded folklore Album of the Year and, all things considered, it probably was. Not because it was 2020’s best album necessarily, but because it heralds a new chapter for a major artist. Swift was already our most accomplished writer of Top 20 pop. Now she’s found a new way to express herself, and it turns out she has a lot to say.   

The Strokes: The New Abnormal

It doesn’t take long to figure out what the Strokes are up to, compositionally, with their latest album The New Abnormal. Every track states right up front the two or four chords that form that song’s backbone. Those chords are then repeated over and over, while a spectacularly unspectacular vocalist overlays a forgettable melody. Verses and choruses are barely differentiated; memorable hooks are scarce. 

That’s not to say it’s impossible to build a great song that toggles back and forth between two chords. But to pull it off, those chords had better be intriguing, the arrangement imaginative, the melody appealing and the performance fiery. (For a master class on this subject, give a listen to the live version of U2’s “Bad” on Wide Awake in America.) All these skills are beyond the scope of the Strokes. 

Furthermore, the band is a bunch of freeloaders. For example, take a listen to “Bad Decisions.” Now compare it to the English Beat’s 1982 hit, “I Melt with You.” Anything sound familiar? The Strokes version is a note-for-note rip-off, minus the singable melody.

So how is it that the Strokes are currently such a popular Indie group, and The New Normal goes multi-platinum and wins the Grammy for 2020’s Best Rock Album? I’ll tell you why. The Strokes are excellent musicians individually, and they display the tightness and cohesion that can only come from 20 years of playing together. Further, the band has forged a highly-becoming sound, like a garage band that went on a musical diet. These attributes make the Strokes an undeniably compelling listen. For many, it’s enough. However, once you get past the tight musicianship and sparkling arrangements, there’s just no there there. The lyrics, like the music, are pointless and vacuous. The sound, like the playing, is unassailable. Ultimately, though, neither can disguise the charade. Grammy got it wrong.

Schubert: Winterreise

A single spotlight reveals a book held by delicate hands, a supertitle reads, “He sent me his journal in the post.” Thus began the Joyce DiDonato/Yannick Nézet-Séguin recital of Schubert’s Winterreise in Carnegie Hall, December 2018 (viewable on YouTube), of which this CD is the audio record. Other women (famously, Lotte Lehman, Christa Ludwig, Brigitte Fassbaender) have essayed Winterreise, written for tenor, though often sung by baritones, but it was DiDonato’s brilliant inspiration to bring the rejecting woman front and center. The device—one lover’s words refracted through the other reading them—portends distance, but the result is powerfully intimate and heart-rending. Two examples: “Der Lindenbaum” recalls happier times while subtly introducing the prospect of death by suicide; with DiDonato the irony is shattering. Before she sang the concluding song, “Der Leiermann,” DiDonato put the journal aside, suggesting the woman identifies herself as closely with the hurdy-gurdy player as the narrator himself does, the lovers now united by their common identification with the figure of death. The effect is devastating. With DiDonato in her vocal and interpretive prime, Nézet-Séguin her full though discreet partner, and excellent live sound, this is unmissable by all who love this music. 

NAD Launches New C 700 BluOS Streaming Amplifier

The following is a press release issued by NAD Electronics.

PICKERING, ONTARIO, CANADA | September 30, 2021– NAD Electronics, the highly regarded manufacturer of high-performance audio/video components, continues its expansion in the “just add speakers” category with the introduction of the C 700 BluOS Streaming Amplifier. The C 700 suggested retail price is $1499 USD and will ship globally in late October.

Housed in a compact and modern design, the C 700 was designed with a listener in mind who seeks an uncompromised listening experience with a focus on value. Inside the solid aluminium housing is a powerful HybridDigital UcD amplifier and BluOS Enabled network streamer. Using the intuitive BluOS app, the ability to cue music from a digital library, or stream from internet radio and online services like Spotify, Amazon Music HD, Tidal, and Qobuz could not be easier. The C 700 delivers an experience similar to the award-winning Masters Series M10 BluOS Music Streaming Amplifier.

Compact and Modern Design

Thanks to its elegant, minimalist design and premium materials, the C 700 will engage the most demanding of listeners — audibly as well as visually. The C 700 is housed in a solid aluminium case, with a smooth glass front panel and 5” high-definition color display that shows album artwork, track status, and system settings. Via the C 700’s color display, adjusting amplifier settings is quick and convenient with the added benefit of having the ability to learn commands from any pre-existing remote control.

“The C 700 creates exceptional value for those seeking a modern and easy-to-use standalone music system”, comments Cas Oostvogel, NAD’s Product Manager. “Ever since NAD introduced the legendary 3020 integrated amplifier in 1978, the NAD brand has been renowned for value, performance, and innovation. With the C 700 BluOS Streaming Amplifier, NAD has completely updated that tradition for the streaming era.”

Powerful HybridDigital UcD Amplification

The highly efficient UcD amplifier design is renowned for ultra-low noise and distortion through the entire frequency range, regardless of the loudspeaker load. Employing NAD’s proven HybridDigital UcD amplifier technology, the C 700 can deliver 2×80 watts of continuous power and 2×120 watts of instantaneous power, for effortless music reproduction.

Just Add Speakers

The C 700 has everything needed to play music, by just adding speakers. The BluOS app creates an intuitive way to select music from dozens of different streaming services, internet radio, or to play music stored on an external drive connected to the C 700’s USB port.

In addition to the audiophile grade speaker outputs, the C 700 has a subwoofer output jack where it’s required. Convenient low and high-pass crossover settings in the BluOS app provide a seamless blend between the subwoofer and main speakers.

The C 700 has two pairs of RCA analogue inputs, as well as coaxial and optical digital inputs, for connecting disc players, game consoles, media adapters, and other components. There’s also an HDMI eARC port for connecting a HDTV with HDMI ARC support. This allows the C 700’s volume setting to be adjusted from the TV’s remote. Two-way aptX HD Bluetooth provides a convenient way to listen to music through wireless headphones, and stream audio from any smart device.

Key Features of the NAD C 700 BluOS Streaming Amplifier

  • HybridDigital UcD Amplifier
  • Continuous Power: 80 Watts per channel into 8/4 ohms
  • Instantaneous Power: 120 Watts per channel
  • 5” high-definition colour information display shows album art, track progress, and system settings
  • Solid aluminum body and glass front panel
  • Works with intuitive BluOS Controller app forAndroid, iOS, macOS, and Windows
  • BluOS multi-room streaming to 63 zones
  • High-resolution audio to 24-bit/192Hz
  • MQA decoding and rendering
  • Lossless and high-resolution streaming from Amazon Music HD, Deezer, Idagio, Qobuz, and Tidal
  • Support for Apple AirPlay 2, Spotify Connect, and Tidal Connect
  • Voice control via Amazon Alexa, Apple Siri, and Google Assistant
  • Optical and coaxial digital inputs
  • HDMI eARC port
  • Two-way aptX HD Bluetooth
  • 12V Trigger output

Industrial Strength Bluegrass

Even at its commercial inception in the 1920s, country music was already nostalgic, promising sounds and themes familiar from decades before while simultaneously modifying or drifting from the tradition it claimed (see Wayne Daniel’s Pickin’ on Peachtree: A History of Country Music in Atlanta, Georgia). When families from Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky moved north for factory jobs, a young branch of country music—bluegrass, as it would eventually be called—likewise reminded them of the homes and kin they had left behind. A “little log cabin on a hill” might have looked prettier behind the veil of nostalgia than it did in real life, but it was still home for the briarhoppers. 

That’s what Ohioans called the folks from Appalachia who came looking for jobs in the first several decades of the last century. J.D. Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy explained a lot about the Appalachian workers’ culture that I never understood, and about social discrimination from Ohio natives. The term was shortened to “briars,” and I heard it a lot while growing up near Dayton, Ohio, in the late 70s and early 80s. By then it was used more with affection than derision, at least in my experience, as southern transplants had long ago claimed the label for their own. (Even if it still rubbed a few people the wrong way, I never heard it said with the hateful overtones that other denigrating terms carried.) 

Bluegrass was a source of identity and comfort to these strangers in a strange land, but its style was transformed from a rural to an urban one, just as the people were. In southwestern Ohio, bluegrass became louder and faster, gaining an emphasis on instrumental precision that mirrored the machinery of factories and the noise of busy streets. “Folk music with overdrive,” Alan Lomax called it. The lyrics and vocal phrasing looked to the quiet mountains and farms, and the driving, steely banjo countered them with the sounds of a new reality. 

Industrial Strength Bluegrass collects 11 essays from scholars and performers, starting with a chapter on the migrations that changed country music like the ones that changed blues. Bobby Osborne of the Osborne Brothers remembers his performing journey that started in tents and pubs and took him to places like New York University and the Grand Ole Opry. The book doesn’t fail to describe the driving force that radio was, either. Bobby’s interview is conducted by Joe Mullins, a fine bandleader and radio stalwart in Ohio’s Miami Valley and the son of Paul “Moon” Mullins, an influential announcer on WPFB in Middletown, Ohio. There are other larger-than-life characters, from sketchy or frighteningly enthusiastic record label owners to Lily Isaacs, a German-born Jewish folk singer from The Bronx who became the matriarch of The Isaacs Family, a powerhouse group in bluegrass and Southern gospel. 

The companion CD kicks off with Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers’ cover of Dwight Yoakam’s “Readin’, Writin’, Route 23,” which ties together the threads of hopefulness, homesickness, and disappointment that the migrants felt daily. Rhonda Vincent and Caleb Daugherty issue a sobering and sentimental call for one more trip back to Kentucky in “Family Reunion.” Going back home on the weekend was a hillbilly ritual for decades. U.S. Route 23, Route 25, and later Interstate 75 carried thousands of transplanted families back to the farms and “hollers.” My dad called Cincinnati on Friday nights “The Kentucky 500.” Larry Cordle contributes a Tom T. Hall song commissioned by Armco (now AK Steel), “The Rolling Mills of Middletown”; I keep marveling at the wordplay in the title while I’m chilled by the tragic ending. The end of the album finds a laborer more than ready to head back to Harlan, Kentucky, the day after he retires. 

Other songs are classics of Ohio bluegrass, originally recorded by people like Ralph Stanley and the Stanley Brothers, Jim and Jesse, Brown’s Ferry Four, and Flatt & Scruggs; stars like Vince Gill, Lee Ann Womack, and the Oak Ridge Boys join equally talented musicians with local ties. “Barefoot Nellie” is a standout with its whirling twin fiddles, and “Mountain Strings” is a tribute to the unique mandolin work of Frank Wakefield. Both book and album are excellent guides to Ohio’s influence on both world-famous and little-known musicians in bluegrass, folk, and country; they also remind us of the humanity of an oft-scorned group of people. The book also recommends several dozen original recordings, and I compiled a playlist at https://open.qobuz.com/playlist/6391211 with many of them.