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Philosophical Notes: More Is Less?

Many know this; few practice it. Mies van der Rohe famously said “Less Is More”. Another way of putting this is “More Is Less”. But in recent years psychologists have noted that there is a human bias to additive, rather than subtractive, thinking. To solve a problem we add actions, steps, features, words, policies, people. We rarely subtract. Yet this additive approach often fails.

Apparently this is becoming an issue in Hollywood. Ever wonder why dialog can be hard to understand? It would appear that it isn’t your hearing or your audio system.

 

Bach: Harpsichord Concertos II. Francesco Corti; Il Pomo d’Oro

Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos were my introduction to classical music; searching for more such cheerful delights, I next bought a tape of his first two harpsichord concertos. My pre-teen self was grieved by the stern D Minor Concerto, but the E Major made up for it. Bach in all his moods soon won over my emotions, and I’ve had a soft spot for these wonderful pieces ever since. Corti has now recorded all the solo concertos; this contains 3, 5, 6, and the concerto for harpsichord, flute, and violin. Il Pomo d’Oro sounds bigger than their ten people, helping Mr. Corti weave a rich sonic tapestry. As is standard these days, the strings live in a land of no vibrato; their intonation is spot-on, though. Tempos tend to be big-city fast, but the musicians do let us breathe now and then, like in the opening of the Sixth. There’s rubato and little hesitations in unexpected places; I’m not entirely convinced by all of them, but they do make me pay attention to the proceedings. The bigger complaint is the lack of piano or even mezzo-piano moments. Vivacity should not preclude subtlety. Still, their buoyant joy in music-making is undeniable. 

The Power of Vinyl

“Anytime I meet another female record collector on the Internet or in person, I immediately want to be their friend!” says Erin O’Dell, a record collector, blogger, and factory worker from Red Lion, Pennsylvania. “I feel like we’re often overshadowed by the male perspective and designated as the ‘that’s nice, dear’ of couples in memes and forums. We love to spin and crate dig, too. We exist. We are valid. We want all the vinyl!”

In a male-dominated music industry, O’Dell is part of an active and passionate community of women on Instagram sharing their love of vinyl and helping to promote gender equity. This loose-knit, global sorority of record collectors and music-industry professionals meet up daily on a vast network of like-minded souls, both men and women, to celebrate their favorite artists and albums. Some are earnest collectors who simply post a treasured album cover accompanied by a mini-blog, while others stage lavish tributes to artists and their works, donning makeup and costumes to replicate album art. One Italian Instagram account even curates professional-quality pinups replete with vintage portable record players and scantily-clad models that look like they stepped off the pages of a 1962 Esquire spread.

But the playful pinups belie a deeper sense of empowerment that these enthusiasts are finding through vinyl. “Music can lift and light a fire inside of you that you didn’t know could even burn,” says O’Dell, who writes the monthly Vinyl Femmes & RPMs column. Music-marketing exec Sunny Muehleman Blashe of Milwaukie, Wisconsin (aka @puttherecordon) feels similarly inspired. “I love being part of the vinyl community [on Instagram],” she says. “Everyone is so nice and supportive. I’ve made so many friends who have shared new ways to store my records, and learned about vinyl cleaning products and even new music. I love seeing what albums or artists make other people happy and adding that to my collection. I also love sharing my collection with others who are like me. It gives us time to discuss why we love the music and how it makes us feel.”

Instagram also is helping women find jobs, thanks to organizations like Women In Vinyl, an advocacy group that shares inspirational stories and creates role models for girls and women. The group’s board members include founder and self-confessed Black Sabbath fanatic Jenn D’Eugenio, sales manager at Furnace Record Pressing in Alexandria, Virginia; Jett Galindo, a mastering engineer at The Bakery studio in Los Angeles; Amanda McCabe, a member of the Universal Music Group’s Strategy and Tactics Team in Seattle; and Robyn Raymond, a lacquer cutter and owner of Red Spade Records in Ontario, Canada. “Women in Vinyl, by sharing stories of women working in the field and now with the podcast, is making the industry more accessible,” says D’Eugenio, who founded the organization in 2018 and hosts the group’s new WIV podcast. “It’s about educating the community, and hopefully inspiring people to take a chance and find a way to do something they love. It’s not exclusive to women, but it’s brought to you by women and features women who are leaders in the field—you can’t move an industry forward without innovation and you can’t innovate in a vacuum. Innovation comes from diversity and that comes from inclusion. The more diverse and inclusive the industry is the better it can become.”

One of those women is Mary House, a single mom, stage-3 breast cancer survivor, and owner of Curious Collections Vinyl Records & More in Bryan/College Station, Texas, who found a new life through vinyl. In 2016, she was in the middle of a divorce when her father suddenly died in a car accident. “You see, my dad was a collector, so my brother and I went to West Virginia and cleaned out his seven storage units, two of which were climate controlled and filled with vinyl,” she recalled on the Women In Vinyl website. “I loaded up a 26-foot moving truck, drove that bad boy from West Virginia to Texas, and unloaded its contents into the space that was my first location. Since then, we’ve moved into a 2600-square-foot space and expanded our inventory to include turntables, new vinyl, and posters, right alongside the large, previously owned vinyl selection. I started my own collection when I opened my store. I love finding fun colored versions of albums I love.”

The significance of using record collecting as a gateway to personal empowerment is echoed by Markie Schlake of Cincinnati, Ohio                   (aka @VinylGal), a “full-time mom” and part-time social-media manager who encourages her Instagram followers to welcome newbies. “Collecting vinyl can seem very exclusive. Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity tells you that,” she says. “But if our world has taught us anything, it’s that inclusivity is key. Include others who are new to collecting; don’t exclude them because they haven’t been collecting since childhood or use a cheaper player than you. We all start somewhere, after all. Include those from all walks of life, all occupations and stations. Music was meant to bring people together, and collecting should, too.” 

Dealer Event in the Albuquerque/Santa Fe Area at Ideon Audio

The following is a press release issued by Ideon Audio.

On Saturday December 11th from 12-6 PM, Ideon Audio will host a dealer event with their dealer, Lucky Dog HiFi in Santa Fe. Ideon Audio’s owner George Ligerakis and Ideon Audio’s North American distributor, Michael Vamos , owner of Audio Skies, will be on hand to demonstrate Ideon’s complete range of products from their entry level DAC’s and re-clockers to their astounding reference Absolute Suite – The Epsilon DAC, Absolute Stream & Absolute Time.

George and Michael will explain and demonstrate the unique and innovate designs Ideon Audio uses and play a great selection of music for all the guests.

The event is open to all music lovers. There will be three formal demonstrations. There will also be opportunity to ask questions and talk with all the presenters.

Please contact Lucky Dog HiFi for more information and to RSVP:  mailto:truewill@luckydoghifi.com

Event Location:
Lucky Dog HiFi
2047 Galisteo St.
Santa Fe, NM 87501
505-675-4736

MBL 126

Most significantly, MBL has created an artful partnership between the bass drivers and the port. They work together imperceptibly, with little to no impression of port overhang or artificial emphasis. Lacking these colorations, bass timbre remains pristine, achieving a lower noise floor that makes bass performance from the 126 doubly surprising. And, dynamically, I found there was little need to coddle the 126. Light up a favorite Nirvana hit, reload Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, cannons and all, and the MBL 126 will rarely run low on ammunition. And when they do, there is no protest—just a quick, clean bass roll-off. Further, these modest five-inchers matched up doggedly with the midrange and tweeter, mirroring their speed, pace, and precision. 

Direct radiator or omnidirectional? Is one more “right” than another? The answer, as in most audio discussions, is a personal one and kind of depends, at least partially, on the type of music you gravitate to. The MBL 126 thrives on acoustic space, dimension, and the complexities of classical music. Does it accurately reproduce the venue, or is its dimensional soundstage partly an artifact of 360 degree dispersion? Every speaker-type intersects with the room to varying degrees, stamping the room with its own signature, and vice versa. If the directness of a studio monitor is more your thing, MBLs may not be the first choice. If a balance of spatiality and imaging more closely captures your concert-going imagination, then 126 might just be the ticket.

Taking off my reviewer hat for just a moment, 126 is also a party speaker without peer. During a small gathering at my home, an impromptu dance party broke out, at least in part courtesy of the 126 (yes, alcoholic beverages were consumed). The best that I can explain for this happenstance is that the omni-radiation pattern produces such a wide soundfield and in-room power response that subconsciously people are relieved of having to vie for a seat in the sweetspot. Cue the right music and anyone with a heartbeat just wants to start moving. Friends were sitting well off-axis, or cross-legged on the floor, or dancing to the side. Perhaps most trippy of all were the guests that stepped between the 126s, bending at the waist and dropping their heads level with the pair to get the “headphone” effect of the omnis in their ears. That, I didn’t see coming.

At just shy of twelve grand, plus those gorgeous stands, the 126 represents a considerable outlay, even amongst the high-flyers of the high end. Admittedly, I’ve sometimes struggled to justify the price versus the performance of more than a few components. However, that is not the case with the MBL 126. They exceeded my sonic and musical expectations by a wide margin. 

Let me conclude with an observation—it has to do with the way audiophiles and reviewers alike tend to downplay the achievements in the compact loudspeaker segment, reserving our highest praise for the latest statement or flagship product, creations suited only to the large audio canvas. Though MBL’s 126 is designed for the parlor rather than the palace, it’s as good as anything this esteemed company has ever made. In spite of its humble size, it is truly a statement loudspeaker of the first order. If you consider yourself a thoughtful audiophile and are preparing to take the plunge into this price range, don’t even consider making a move until you’ve auditioned the MBL 126. It is must listening. Hats off to Jürgen Reis and the MBL team. 

Specs & Pricing

System: Three-way omnidirectional loudspeaker, ported enclosure
Drivers: One radial tweeter, one radial midrange, two 5″ aluminum woofers
Impendance: 4 ohms
Sensitivity: 82dB
Acoustic center: 42.1″
Dimensions: 9.9″ x 13.7″ (47.7″ with speaker stand) x 13.7″
Weight: 30 lbs.; 52.9 lbs. w/stand
Price: $11,800 ($1190, stands)

MBL NORTH AMERICA, INC.
217 North Seacrest Blvd. #276
Boynton Beach, FL 33425
(561) 735-9300
mbl-northamerica.com

Audio Technology Switzerland Celebrates 70th Anniversary with Limited Edition Turntable

The following is a press release issued by Audio Technology Switzerland.

Romanel, Switzerland | Wednesday 24th November 2021 – The Swiss company announces it is celebrating its 70th anniversary in style with a limited edition turntable. The Reference Anniversary turntable is the product of a years long, major research and development project that has been kept under wraps until this past summer.

In 1951, our founder Stefan Kudelski invented the first portable recorder, simply called the Nagra I. Nagra comes from a Polish word that means “it is recording”. The Nagra I was followed by an impressive trail of game-changing products that revolutionized the face of sound recording. Its impact has been tremendous in the field of art, science, ethnology. It changed the way we capture sound and brought a soundtrack to the world, making recordings where before nothing was ever captured.

Nagra recorders have been used to record sound all around the world and even beyond, with NASA in the Apollo space program. This long tradition of excellence has been perpetuated for generations. And since 1998, Nagra has been synonymous with sound reproduction at home for demanding music and Hi- Fi lovers.

To celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Nagra I, the company designed a very special product that sets new standards in black disk reproduction.

The Nagra I and Nagra II made use of a Thorens spring winding mechanism to rotate the reels and the capstan. Electronics were used for signal recording and playback in this ground-breaking portable  recorder. So Nagra early recorders share a common root with turntables. During the golden age of analog, the idea to make a Nagra turntable was often discussed. Stefan Kudelski even filed a patent in 1972 for a special tonearm tracking system.

While often contemplated, it was not until four years ago that the design and engineering of a turntable befitting the name Nagra began. Working as a team, Nagra’s staff of extremely talented designers and engineers relentlessly pursued perfection in the fields of applied physics, mechanical and electronic engineering, as well as material science. Four years later, after hundreds upon hundreds of scientific team hours, accompanied by exhaustive listening tests, the result is a turntable which extends the current edge of the arts. It is a first step in a return to our legacy of analog mechanical reproduction and will be followed by more projects to be announced in 2022.

The Reference Anniversary turntable is an analog product governed by immutable laws of physics and mechanics, very much like Nagra legendary reel to reel recorders. As such, it is not subject to the rapidly progressing and ever-changing developments of the digital domain. This means that the Anniversary turntable will remain technologically relevant for generations. For many it will be a last turntable purchase and a product which is proudly passed down from generation to generation, just like many Nagra III recorders from the 50’s, which are still in active use today, the Nagra Reference Anniversary turntable is a product for life.

Offered as a very limited edition of 70 units, each of which includes “in home” set up and dial-in by Nagra factory specialists, invitation to visit Nagra factory for a VIP tour and exclusive accessories.

The main features of the Nagra Reference Anniversary turntable are:

 

  • Massive and precise dual motor drive system
  • Belt transmission inspired by the legendary Nagra IV series of reel to reel
  • Exclusive aerospace material platter
  • Non-resonant chassis
  • Floating mechanical and hydraulic suspension
  • Watchmaker style caliber with special finishes
  • “Skeleton” watch style transparent methacrylate top surface revealing the drive system’s workings and watchmaker finishes
  • Pure copper record weight
  • Dual concentric carbon fiber tonearm
  • Uni-pivot tonearm with unique geometrical bearing shape
  • Unique no-contact magnetic anti-skating
  • Camera lens-like “on the fly” adjustable VTA
  • Custom silver monocrystal tonearm wiring
  • External and internal super-cap modules
  • Full chassis power supply as found in the HD range
  • Personalized engraved name plate including number within the 70 unit number sequence

 

The Reference Anniversary turntable was designed as a system. This means that the turntable and its tonearm were designed to work from the “ground up” as a unified playback system. Careful consideration was given to the development of a tonearm with performance capabilities commensurate with the turntable itself.

 

Dimensions: W x D = 661 mm x 451 mm (26 inches x 17.7 inches) Weight = ~80 kg (~176 lbs.)

Degritter Ultrasonic LP Cleaner

I’ve been an enthusiastic user of the KLAudio KD-CLN-LP200 ultrasonic record cleaner for many years. Running an LP through the KLAudio resulted in lower surface noise, fewer ticks, a blacker background, and improved resolution of low-level detail. Alas, KLAudio has exited the ultrasonic LP cleaner business; however, there’s a worthy—and less expensive—replacement called the Degritter.

About the size of a breadbox, the Degritter’s curved front panel gives it an art deco vibe. Even the front-panel logo is set in a script reminiscent of a 1950s Chevy Bel Air nameplate. Two front-panel knobs control operation, with a round display keeping you apprised of the machine’s settings and the status of the cleaning cycle. You start by filling the removable water tank with 1.6L (0.35 gallon) of distilled water. The company supplies a bottle of concentrated cleaning fluid that the manual says is optional rather than required (to be properly removed, some impurities require a detergent). The water should be replaced once a week or after every 30 records, and the water filter must be cleaned after every 50 LPs. Just drop an LP through the slot in the top panel, select the wash and dry cycle times, and the Degritter does the rest. Although you can adjust the wash and dry times independently, it’s easiest to select one of three pre-programmed settings for light, medium, and heavy cleaning. You can even select the drying fan speed; the slower speed takes longer, but is mercifully quiet compared with the KLaudio. (That cleaner sounds like a 747 taking off. I can’t be within 20 feet of the KLaudio when it is cleaning and drying a record.)

The water tank is removable, which makes emptying and refilling it easier than carrying the entire machine to a sink (a la KLaudio and Audio Desk). I also liked that the water is constantly filtered to keep the dirt that has been removed from a record from contaminating the next LP. The open-cell foam filter can easily be removed and cleaned. There’s quite a bit of software in the machine; in addition to offering control over every conceivable cleaning parameter, the Degritter monitors the water temperature, water level, sensor malfunction, and other operating conditions. The software can be updated via an SD card. 

A lot of thought went into this design. The 300W ultrasonic amplifier drives four transducers, two on each LP side. The ultrasonic frequency is nominally 120kHz, with a frequency-sweep feature that presumably improves the cleaning function. The comprehensive owner’s manual is a model of clarity and presentation.

In practice, the Degritter delivers all the incontrovertible benefits of ultrasonic cleaning. I pulled out a copy of Joni Mitchell’s classic Court and Spark that I bought more than 40 years ago (and have since replaced with a remastered version), and listened to it before and after cleaning. I also compared the sound before and after cleaning with another record I’ve had for decades, Bill Evans’ You Must Believe in Spring. I also tried a couple of recent used acquisitions, Linda Ronstadt’s For Sentimental Reasons (a spectacular recording, by the way), and Dexter Gordon’s The Monmartre Collection, Volume Two (that was sent to me in a Montmarte Collection Volume One jacket). This record, not available in any digital format, captures Gordon in his prime (1967) with a terrific band. With all these LPs, a cycle through the Degritter didn’t just reduce surface noise, as you’d expect; it also presented a startlingly blacker background that made the music seem to exist independently of the physical medium. The effect is a more believable presentation and a heightened sense of contemporaneous music-making. I really heard this on the Dexter Gordon record; the feeling of hearing a four-piece group play in a jazz club was more pronounced after cleaning. Ultrasonic cleaning also seems to make it easier to hear individual instruments, as though each exists as its own entity rather than being fused into a single fabric.

The Degritter was easy to use, has many sophisticated features, appears well built, and delivered on all the promises of ultrasonic LP cleaning. It’s also priced about a thousand dollars below the competition, making it a solid recommendation.

The Musical Stories of James McMurtry

Recorded in L.A. at Jackson Browne’s studio, The Horses and the Hounds rocks with abundant electric guitar courtesy of Charlie Sexton and David Grissom. Standout veteran drummer, Kenny Aronoff, who also played on McMurtry’s debut record, Too Long in the Wasteland, drives the rhythm here. On the leadoff single, “Canola Fields,” a middle-aged couple reminisce about love lost and found. “Cashing in on a 30-year crush,” McMurtry sings, “You can’t be young and do that.” McMurtry’s flinty vocals blend the bittersweet past with the hope of what’s to come.  

With its gnarled guitar crunch, “Operation Never Mind” echoes one of his recurring motifs, our country’s faux-patriotism, and the ways we exploit that at the expense of soldiers’ sacrifice. “I try to illuminate what’s going on,” McMurtry explained. “I try to remind people that we do still have soldiers in harm’s way, and we’re not asking why. The first Gulf War had more post-action suicide deaths than combat deaths. Because war is business.”  

Though McMurtry’s songs are not autobiographical, his usual first-person point of view imbues them with intimacy and authenticity. Songs like “Jackie” and the title track depict the struggles of two truckers, one female and one male, whose lives on the endless road embody both rugged hardship and independence. McMurtry says about his songwriting process, “It’s like fiction—I hear a couple lines and a melody in my head, and I try to envision the character who might have said that. If I can find a character, I can find a story and work backwards that way. I get the words and music together, and keep building on that melody.”

 On the churning rocker, “If It Don’t Bleed,” McMurtry takes aim at the politicization of religion with cynical, cold-eyed defiance. “Save your prayers for yourself/I don’t care if you don’t look like me/I can share my bread and wine,” he sings in the chorus. Religious hypocrisy cuts to the grain of McMurtry’s slow-burn anger. “I’ve never been religious,” he explained. “My father was an atheist. But most people seem religious, and it gets more and more bothersome as religious language invades common, spoken English. Down here most of the store clerks tell you to have a blessed day. It’s like a secret handshake. You have to respond with the right inflection or they’ll know you’re not one of them. Politicians have always tried to out-Christian one another. It was a big deal having a black President, but it would be a bigger deal having an atheist president.” 

The Horses and the Hounds expands the range of McMurtry’s song palette and sharpens his truthteller instincts. This contrary troubadour balances rural concerns with urban ones while covering both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. With his gritty edge fully intact, James McMurtry continues to etch steely blue-collar portrayals with insightful understanding and dignity.

Capital Audio Fest | Jacob Heilbrunn

Still bathing in the sound, I traipsed over to listen to the system assembled by Jeff Fox of Command Performance AV in Fairfax, VA. My goodness, Jeff went to town with a $16,900 Gryphon Diablo 300 integrated amplifier and $21,995 Dosh Audio V3.0 Evo phonostage, not to mention $20,000 QLN Prestige 5 loudspeakers and a $12,995 J. Sikora Initial MAX turntable. The lucidity and punch of the system was impressive, some of which can be attributed to the mighty Gryphon. The eponymous Sikora ’table, which hails from Warsaw, punches above its weight in pretty much every parameter. It would be hard to think of a turntable that displays better machining and overall fit ’n’ finish than the Sikora. Another local demo came from Déjà Vu Audio, which specializes in horn systems. I was much taken with its demo—the drums sounded effortless and dynamic, delivering the kind of crunch that horn systems deliver so well. Standouts in this room were the Audio Note TT-3 turntable and Audio Note AN-E SPe HE loudspeaker. My sense was that you could listen to these speakers for a lot of hours.

Speaking of punch, Harry Weisfeld of VPI was going nuts with his $75,000 BL Project Everest DD67000 horn-loaded speakers and DS Audio’s $15,000 Grand Master cartridge, which he ran into the $12,500 EMM Labs DS-EQ1 Optical Equalizer. Cables were the superlatively speedy Nordost Odin 2 (though cognoscenti will already have heard that Nordost has—gulp—devised a new reference above Odin). Good golly! On the drummer Ed Graham’s album Hot Stix, the sound pressure levels were off the charts (incidentally, the late David Wilson of Wilson Audio also loved to play this as a demo to create some shock and awe). Less potent but more beguiling was “Come Together” by the Beatles. Unlike Harry, I’m not sure I could live with the Everest speakers, but coupling the $20,000 VPI 40th Anniversary HW-40 with them definitely captured everyone’s attention. I’m sure the DS Audio Grandmaster, which I use in my own system, wasn’t hurting, either. I would be most curious to hear the Meitner optical equalizer pitted against the proprietary DS power supply and equalizer in my own rig. Its designer Ed Meitner knows his stuff. Big time.

After two days of ambling around the show, I did come up with some rooms that tugged at the heartstrings. One was Doug White’s Tidal system. Yes, there was a slight trace of sibilance in the treble on a few cuts. But I tend not to be too censorious about these matters. We’re talking about show conditions. The amazing thing is that these systems sound as good as they do. And White’s $69,900 Tidal Contriva made a darned good impression on me—smooth, luxurious, opulent. It was, to borrow from Shakespeare, “like softest music to attending ears!” The speakers also displayed excellent soundstaging on symphonic material, including Shostakovich. To lower the noise floor, White deployed the Computer Audio Design ground control. His front-end consisted of a $40,000 Tidal preamplifier and $33,000 Tidal Intra amplifiers. Then, for sheer horsepower there was Ken Stevens of Convergent Audio Technology, who demoed his $50,000 JL7SE amplifiers mated to the $41,800 Magico S5 Mk. II loudspeakers. He likes it big and vivid and omnipotent. The mids and highs sounded ravishing, but there was some bass boom, which I ascribed to room nodes.

Overall, I’m hesitant to single out any one room as having the very “best” sound. Here we enter treacherous territory. What struck me most was the overall improvement that has taken place in systems both large and small. But what the heck, at the risk of drawing what the lawyers like to call invidious distinctions, I’ll go for it. For small-scale systems, the most gobsmacking was the $8999 Joseph Audio Pulsar2 Graphene speakers that captured my attention. The amount of sound that these diminutive loudspeakers put out was truly staggering. When it comes to the big boys, I’ll have to give the nod to United Home Audio and High End by Oz. For sheer scale and lucidity, it was hard to beat their spacious setup. Let’s see if anyone else can top it next year, after what was an auspicious return for the Capital Audio Fest.

Julian Lage: Squint

For his Blue Note debut as a leader, guitarist Julian Lage reflected on what the storied label meant to him while he was growing up. “All these records that I love so much also have such great songs,” he wrote. “I felt like this was an opportunity to present new music born out of the Blue Note tradition as I’ve interpreted it.” Assembling his current trio-mates, bassist Jorge Roeder and drummer Dave Kin, Lage penned nine out of the album’s eleven pieces, setting the mood with the introspective opening solo, “Etude,” which reflects Lage’s desire to create something beautiful and positive for our pandemic-stressed times. His comfort with jazz standards as well as blues and the current rock scene—he’s married to the singer-songwriter Margaret Glaspy, and has worked informally with Jeff Tweedy—is evident in the rollicking “Boo’s Blues,” the rapid-fire string-bending title track, and the quiet intensity of “Day & Age.” Sonics are wonderfully balanced, upfront, and crystalline in clarity while capturing excellent instrumental tones and textures; dynamically energetic, the recording also conveys the intimacy of a trio setting, all with terrific detail and a sort of natural ease. A superb and highly recommended Blue Note debut.

Capital Audio Fest 2021 | Andrew Quint

In his introduction, Alan provided some rough metrics regarding the number of attendees and exhibitors at the show, as well as how much “business” was happening. I recorded one parameter that, for me, quantified the degree to which audio shows, and audiophiles, are back. It’s a standardized unit of measurement, long utilized in high-end circles, known as the TTFBIAS. For those of you who may not be technically oriented, that’s Time To First Brothers In Arms Song. At CAF 2021, the result was an extraordinary 5 hours and 45 minutes—I didn’t hear a Dire Straits cut until close to 4 PM on Friday afternoon. An hour or so is more typical. I guess all of us are a little rusty; I’m sure showgoers and demonstrators alike will be back to form by AXPONA.

I heard a lot of thoughtfully designed, musically fulfilling products, many of them new.

What’s the conventional wisdom regarding the percentage of your audio budget that should be spent on the loudspeakers? 50%? 30%? How about 10%? One of the most engaging systems at CAF 2021 was the joint effort of Infigo Audio and Alta Audio in Room 321. The former provided world-class electronics in its Method 3 monoblock amplifiers ($50,000/pair), Method 4 DAC ($35,000), and Fluvius streamer ($17,500), with connections via Infigo’s Sparkle Series cables throughout. These no-compromise electronics drove a pair of Alta Alec loudspeakers ($10,000), an unassuming two-way with a 5¾” ribbon tweeter active out to 47kHz and an 8¾” mid/woof in a transmission-line configuration that produces bass into the low 30s. Familiar tracks from Cantate Domino and the Fairfield Four were well served by this top-drawer system.

Philadelphia-area dealer Doug White of The Voice That Is brought a system that was perfectly scaled to the moderate-sized conference room it inhabited. TIDAL Audio Contriva loudspeakers ($72,000) were driven effectively by TIDAL’s new Intra stereo amplifier ($30,000), run in its dual-stereo mode to deliver 330 very high quality watts into 8 ohms, or 670 watts into four. Upstream of the Intra was TIDAL’s Prisma preamp ($40,000) and Ideon Audio’s new assault-on-the-art Absolute Epsilon DAC ($44,000), used with Ideon’s Absolute Time reclocker ($8900) and Absolute Stream streamer ($19,900). I own the Episilon’s predecessor, and the progress the Greek converter has made towards an ideal of analog ease and naturalness isn’t subtle. A new generation of Siltech cables completed White’s masterpiece.

Valerio Cora, capo of Acora Acoustics, proudly had no new products to show off at CAF 2021—he had the same three speakers, fabricated from Black African granite, that he had when I saw him last at the Florida show in early 2020—but let it be known that he’s developing a larger speaker that won’t put consumers off. (“I don’t want it to weight 600 pounds.”) In 2022, Acora will be releasing equipment racks plus speaker and amplifier stands, all made from granite. Acora’s SRC-2 loudspeakers ($37,000) were powered by a pair of Audio Research 750E amplifiers ($75,000.) The analog front end included a Transrotor Massimo $16800) with a Transrotor SME tonearm ($4300) and a Dynavector DRT XV-1t cartridge ($9450), played through an Audio Research Ref PH10 phonostage ($33,000). Digital was courtesy of an Esoteric Grandioso K1X CD player/DAC ($37,000) and an Aurender N30SA server/streamer. Imaging with a string quartet recording was rock-solid (sorry), and the system was unfazed by Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band, played back from a 45rpm LP.

Overture Ultimate Home Electronics sought to give consumers a sense of the range of the products it carries, with close to 30 brands in evidence. Most were on silent display, but the two operational listening rooms focused on two manufacturers. The new edition of the classic Bowers & Wilkins 801, the D4 ($35000) was making its presence known. I know from experience that this speaker can be a bear to drive with authority; Overture had just the amplifiers to make them sing, a pair of McIntosh MC901s ($35,000) that have solid-state and tube sections for each channel, allowing for an optimized bi-amp setup without the need for an external crossover. Orchestral music was commanding and jazz acoustic bass had satisfying body and definition. Two affordable components from Rogue Audio were making their first appearances at CAF 2021, the Stereo 100 Dark amplifier ($4695) and the Ares Magnum II phonostage ($2995.)

“Nothing succeeds like excess,” wrote Oscar Wilde. Partnering with the Marietta, Georgia, dealership The Audio Company, Damon von Schweikert and Leif Swanson brought a no-holds-barred mega-system that featured the world debut of VAC Master 300 stereo/mono power amplifiers (price TBA)—four of them—driving Von Schweikert’s seven-foot tall Ultra 11 loudspeakers ($325,000) complemented with two Shockwave 12 subwoofers. A VAC Statement preamp and phonostage provided control. An Esoteric digital “stack” (total cost $123,000) and an Aurender W20SE ($25,000) handled the digits; the analog front end was a Kronos Pro turntable ($51,000) fitted with an Airtight Opus 1 cartridge ($16,000). Cabling was MasterBuilt throughout. Von Schweikert/VAC systems always impress with their ability to reproduce scale and even though the sound didn’t gel quite as magically as it has on other occasions, this iteration was as monumental as ever.

Spatial Audio introduced two new open-baffle loudspeakers, the X4 Passive ($7000/pr.) and the M4 Sapphire ($4250/pr.). The M4 is a smaller version of Spatial’s popular M3 with a Type M100 Uniwave device (a crossoverless dome midrange/treble driver) positioned above a pair of 12″ dipole woofers. The X4 is a full-range dipole with an AMT tweeter and, again, twin 12″ woofers. In turn, both were effectively powered by a Linear Tube Audio 240+ integrated amplifier ($7650), getting signal from a Holo Audio May KTE DAC; it was all connected up with Anticable interconnects, speaker cables, and power cords.

Time spent in a Salk Sound room rarely disappoints. Jim and Mary Salk were playing a two-and-a-half way floorstander, priced at $6000, that’s so new that it doesn’t actually have an official model designation. (Salk was leaning towards BePure 2—because the speaker has a beryllium tweeter and utilizes two 6″ woofers sourced from Purifi in Denmark.) Amplification was provided by a McGary Audio SA2 ($7985), a Class AB Ultralinear output-stage stereo tube amplifier that puts out an honest 40Wpc into an 8-ohm load, when KT88 tubes are used. The DAC was an Exogal Comet ($2500). As always, the caliber of the woodworking and finish was second to none. Natalie Merchant’s rendition of “The Peppery Man” with a gospel quartet was completely absorbing.

The Syracuse, NY dealer Tenacious Sound—love that name!—was playing Canton Reference 7K speakers ($6995). The associated electronics were to have been from the German manufacturer AVM Audio but an “emergency substitution” was needed and the Audio Hungary Qualiton X200 integrated ($8000) stepped into the breach. All went well with the unfamiliar (to me) Hungarian component pinch-hitting. A closely mic’d piano recording had plenty of headroom, and Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances (for once not the ubiquitous Minnesota recording on Reference but, instead, a recent DG release from Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra) manifested excellent dynamics, timbral accuracy, and detail.

I spent a very enjoyable stretch in the room sponsored by Audio Intellect, a largely on-line retailer run by industry veteran Dave Lalin. Right up against the wall, where they belonged, was a pair of Larsen 9 loudspeakers ($14,995). They performed well, but of greater interest to me was the 432 Evo line of music servers. This Belgian manufacturer makes three models, the first two of which are fully upgradable—The High End ($5500), The Aeon ($7500), and The Master ($16,000). I heard the High End and Aeon playing classical selections that were quite convincing in their timbral representation of solo instruments. Also holding forth in Room 307 was Bruce Schuettinger, the designer and builder of MosArt furniture. Schuettinger utilizes a material known as Black Diamond that’s made from resin-infused paper. In addition to its strength and durability, Black Diamond’s mechanical properties are ideal for audio applications. The custom-built amp stands and equipment rack in the room were also quite attractive.

Volti Audio makes high-sensitivity horn speakers and brought two models to CAF, the Razz ($5900 to $6900, depending on finish) and the New Rival ($11,500 to $15,000) that is, indeed, a new product. Designer Greg Roberts now has the boards for the cabinets cut with a CNC machine instead of doing it himself by hand. I got to hear the latter, which sports a 100dB-sensitivity specification; these loudspeakers are clearly aimed at audiophiles partial to low-powered amplifiers. Volti cohabited Room 316 with Border Patrol, presenting both their 20Wpc push/pull P21EXD power amplifier ($13,375 and up, depending on the 300B output tubes selected) and the 8Wpc SE300B SET ($13,150 and up.) Border Patrol’s DAC S/SE-I are also sold in a range of versions ($1075 to $1950.)

Wells Audio, of Campbell California, has offered its electronics only by direct-to-consumer sales since the beginning of 2021. The company builds products at a number of different “levels,” with the base model always upgradable. New at CAF were the Cipher tube DACs, priced at $5000 for the base model and $13,000 for the Level II version. In a system employing an Innuos ZENith Mk3 server ($4699 to $7949, depending on the amount of SSD storage) plus Wells’s Innamorata II Level II dual mono amplifier ($15000) and a Commander Level III tube linestage ($18,000), a pair of Andrew Jones-vintage TAD Evolution One loudspeakers delivered realistic and involving sound with an old RCA Heifetz recording.

Nola had two new products to introduce, the CHAMP 3 ($9500), a five-driver, three-and-a-half-way open-baffle design, and the Metro Grand Gold Series 3 ($60,000) that CEO Carl Marchisotto referred to as “the best we can do at this size”—that is, a 95 lb. floorstander that’s 45 inches tall and appropriates only about a square foot of floor space. The latter was demonstrated with a VAC Sigma 170i integrated amplifier, a long-in-the-tooth Audio Research Reference CD 8, and Nordost cabling and, in a room that was probably too large to show off Marchisotto’s design to its best advantage, the speaker held its own with music characterized by challenging dynamics and bass content.

Philharmonic Audio is a DC-area company but definitely not one of the “tinkerers” that Alan referred to above. The brand doesn’t have a dealer network but has a worldwide constituency for its speakers. The new BMR Tower ($3700) is a transmission-line design employing a Revelator woofer to produce a reported in-room response down to 25Hz. In a system including a Topping DAC and preamp and a Hypex SMPS1200A400   power amplifier, the speakers fared extremely well on both large-scale orchestral and chamber music. On the basis of sonics alone, the speakers are a bargain; add in the exquisite carpentry and finish and they become an incredible bargain.

Aaron and Jessica Sherrick brought enough gear from Now Listen Here, their dealership in Harrisburg, PA, to keep three rooms hopping. I heard two.  Fyne Audio’s F1-10 loudspeakers ($31,995) fronted a system that also featured Chord electronics—the Ultima 5 amplifier ($13,195), Chord Ultima Pre 2 preamplifier ($17,995), DAVE DAC ($12,595), and the Symphonic phonostage ($4495)—a VPI Prime Signature 21 turntable ($8250), and Transparent Ultra Gen V cables. John Campbell’s “Down in the Hole” was devastating. In a good way.

In the next room over, the main attraction was the latest version of Joseph Audio’s standmount, the Pulsar 2 graphene ($8999), a speaker that produces room-filling sound that belies its modest dimensions. The supporting cast included a Bel Canto e1X integrated, a VPI Prime 21 turntable ($5000), Transparent Super cables, and a Transparent PowerWave power conditioner ($1995).

Daedalus Audio had loudspeakers playing in a couple of rooms, but I was especially taken with the Muse Studio floorstanders ($11,850), described by the manufacturer as a “near/midfield” speaker. They shone in a system that included Linear Tube Audio electronics—the LTA Micro ZOTL Level 2 preamp ($5750), LTA Ultralinear plus power amplifier ($6800), Lampizator digital components—the Super Komputer music server ($8000) and Baltic 3 DAC ($6450—and WyWires for cabling. Two show attendees walked in, announced “Too loud!” and immediately left. They were wrong. Rather, the sound was tactile and satisfyingly full, demanding to be listened to with one’s full attention.

 

 

Andrew Quint’s Best Of Show

Best Sound of CAF 2021
The Voice that Is: Ideon/TIDAL/Siltech

Best New Product
Salk Audio BePure 2 loudspeaker

Best Value
“Actually Fairly Inexpensive” division: Philharmonic Audio BMR Tower loudspeaker ($3700/pair). “It’s All Relative” division: Alta Audio Alec loudspeaker ($10,000/pair)

Best Seminar
“Presenting the Theremin, with Arthur Harrison of Harrison Instruments, Inc.”
The guy builds and sells theremins—think of the films Spellbound and The Day the Earth Stood Still. The technical explanations he provided and the stories he told were   extremely informative, and Sullivan played the theremin he assembled while speaking quite capably. He needed to be kept on point by the audience (a total of five people) but it was well worth it.

 

Best Demo
Acora Acoustics
The Canadian singer Anne Bisson sang live and unamplified accompanied by the audio system described above. The demonstration showed how far high-fidelity audio reproduction has come—and how far there is to go.

 

McIntosh Announces New C12000 Preamplifier

The following is a press release issued by McIntosh.

Binghamton, NY | November 18, 2021 – McIntosh is proud to announce the C12000 Preamplifier, a unique two-chassis design that isolates the audio section from the control and power sections, resulting in the purest sound reproduction possible.

The C12000 is comprised of the C12000 Controller Module and the C12000 Preamplifier Module which work together seamlessly when connected. All power control, data ports, and external control connections are located within the C12000 Controller, where dual isolated power supplies drive the left and right channels, while a dual microprocessor gives robustness to the control system. The C12000 Preamplifier Module houses the audio connections and circuitry – inside, the left and right channels are electrically and mechanically isolated to allow true dual mono operation, resulting in the ultimate stereo separation and sonic purity. The controller and preamplifier units are connected via high performance umbilical cables that are specifically designed to prevent outside noise from leaking into the audio signal.

C12000 PREAMPLIFIER FEATURES INCLUDE:

  • (12) analog inputs including (6) balanced, (4) unbalanced, and (2) phono inputs
  • Offers both vacuum tube and solid-state output for maximum flexibility of listening options
  • Programmable phono inputs with adjustable capacitance and resistance loading for greater compatibility with a variety of turntables
  • Phono stage utilizes (4) 12AX7A vacuum tubes, with (2) tubes per channel in a fully balanced configuration that incorporates RIAA equalization
  • Increased user adjustment options reflecting a new level of user customization in McIntosh preamp design
  • Includes high output, high drive headphone jack with user selectable Headphone Crossfeed Director (HXD®)

The C12000 can be paired with a variety of amplifiers, speakers, room correction devices, CD players, turntables, tuners, and other source components to complete a home audio system. It can seamlessly be integrated within existing multi-channel home theater system via the Home Theater Pass Through feature. The C12000 employs fully balanced circuitry to match the level of performance achieved in any of McIntosh’s Quad Balanced amplifiers.

The C12000 is a visual statement in addition to its audio prowess, complete with McIntosh’s classic features including black glass front panels, iconic blue meters, and custom machined-brushed aluminum handles. Both units feature a chassis made of stainless steel, polished to a mirror finish, plus hairline brushed black titanium stainless steel, offering an enhanced degree of richness and refinement.

Pricing and Availability
Orders for the C12000 can now be placed with Authorized McIntosh Dealers with shipping expected to begin in December 2021 to the United States and Canada, and to the rest of the world shortly thereafter. Suggested retail price (VAT, shipping and any customs duties related to current standards of individual countries are excluded): $8,000 per module, totaling $16,000 for the complete preamplifier.