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Frank Sinatra: Sing and Dance with Frank Sinatra

Released in 1950 as a 10-inch EP, Sing and Dance with Frank Sinatra marked another turning point in a career that began with dance orchestras before turning to crooning ballads, only to—with this augmented 12-inch LP release—blossom into the swinging, finger-snapping, soon-to-be rat-packing Sinatra etched in memory. Side One gathers the original eight tunes—“Lover,” “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” “My Blue Heaven,” “You Do Something To Me,” “When You’re Smiling,” etc.—while the flip side features bonus and alternate takes as well as some fun studio interplay. Before booze, smoke, and age roughed up his voice, here is Sinatra at his youthful finest. And my do he and his band deliver the goods. The sound lacks both frequency and dynamic extremes—as one would expect given the vintage here—but it hardly matters when the heart of the action, Sinatra’s voice, is presented with such immediacy and refreshing purity. Being recorded in mono, which as we know does not present stereo-like imaging, Sinatra stands front and center, with the orchestra clearly arrayed behind him with a suggestion of depth. Impex’s stellar reissue (the cover alone is worth the admission price) is a must-have for Sinatra lovers.

Rega P6 Turntable, RB330 Tonearm, Neo PSU, and Ania Moving-Coil Cartridge

Naturally enough the plinth incorporates the “double-brace” technology found for some time on Rega’s top-tier models—a metallic, oval-shaped, Swiss-cheese-like sandwich that neatly buttresses the top and bottom of the base between the ’arm mount and motor hub, greatly enhancing rigidity. 

Also significant is the new sub-platter, which is fabricated from a single piece of machined aluminum on which the glass platter sits. This is a serious step up from the injection-molded plastic sub-platters found on earlier generation Rega models. 

Rega’s been using its flywheel platter for some years now, in both glass and ceramic versions. The P6’s is glass and comprises two conjoined sections fabricated from “float” glass—a technique wherein molten glass is floated over molten tin in order to create the flattest possible surface and uniformity of thickness. To form the flywheel platter Rega joins two separate pieces of float glass, bonding the secondary “ring” platter to the underside of the main platter, thus adding mass to the outer circumference to increase the platter’s natural flywheel effect, improving speed accuracy and stability.

In addition, each of Rega’s newest model 24-volt motors is hand-tuned and matched to its own Neo outboard power supply and drive pulley. When I speed-tested the P6 via a strobe disc, I found the speed to be essentially on-point right out of the box. 

Known for being very low friction in both the horizontal and vertical planes, Rega ’arms are employed by other turntable makers, who have wisely decided that they can’t better these fundamentally excellent designs for the money. The RB330 tonearm found on the P6 was designed using computer technology, resulting, says Rega, in a redistribution of mass that minimizes possible points of resonance throughout the armtube. Like all Rega ’arms, much hands-on labor goes into their construction. 

Whatever cartridge you choose to mount on the RB330, these improvements to ’table and ’arm are significant both on paper and in practice. Now let’s discuss the sound with the Ania moving-coil of this all-Rega package.

PS Audio Releases Sunlight Firmware Upgrade PerfectWave DirectStream DAC and DirectStream Jr.

The following is a press release issued by PS Audio.

Boulder, Colorado, May 4, 2021 PS Audio has released its Sunlight firmware upgrade for its PerfectWave DirectStream DAC and DirectStream Jr. The new OS enables the DirectStream DAC to deliver an extraordinary new level of musical realism and improved performance including quad-rate DSD capability, and significantly enhances the audio quality of the DirectStream Jr.

“The sonic improvements provided by the Sunlight are not subtle – it’s like getting an entirely new DAC,” said Paul McGowan, PS Audio CEO. “Sunlight is the result of testing more than 20 iterations of code and months of programming, listening and fine-tuning by our digital engineering guru Ted Smith, senior hardware engineer Darren Myers and others on the development team. It’s the ultimate expression of PS Audio’s ‘mountaintop’ series of upgrades.”

The Sunlight upgrade is made possible because the PS Audio PerfectWave DirectStream DAC is one of the few DACs on the market that is fully programmable, by means of its FPGA (Field-Programmable Gate Array) core processing engine. This flexible architecture allows every parameter that controls the DirectStream DAC to be configured and tweaked.

With the Sunlight OS, the DirectStream DAC will now accept quad-rate DSD via its I2S input. By precisely controlling the clock timing of the signals in the various stages of the circuit, noise and jitter are significantly reduced. The sonic results of the Sunlight upgrade are a greater sense of resolution and space, a more natural tonal balance with improved top-end extension, better micro and macro dynamics, and a much more involving and engaging musical presentation overall.

Sunlight OS for the PS Audio PerfectWave DirectStream DAC can be downloaded free of charge by clicking on this link. Sunlight OS for the DirectStream Jr. can be downloaded at this link. In addition, Sunlight can be purchased pre-loaded onto an SD card (for the DirectStream DAC or USB stick (for the DirectStream Jr.) for $29 by clicking here.

McIntosh C53 Preamplifier and MCT500 SACD/CD Transport

Most of the movies I’ve edited are comedies or dramas that are likewise essentially character driven. But Hollywood Homicide, written and directed by Ron Shelton, ends with an extended and spectacular car chase played for comedy as well as for thrills and spills (and also some gunplay), that goes from Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills along Sunset and Hollywood Boulevards, climaxing in an extended fight between Harrison Ford and Isiah Washington on the rooftop of a Los Angeles landmark surrounded by police and traffic helicopters. Ford told us it was his favorite action sequence of any he had done (a large statement when you look back over the arc of his career). I couldn’t resist watching this scene all the way through because the number of sound elements we had to contend with was numerous, to say the least. The sequence was shot completely in the actual locations, wholly without any rear-projection or other sorts of processing for the stunts, and thanks to first-class location sound recording, we actually managed to salvage so much of the production dialogue that very little looping (i.e., post-production replacement of lines) was required. I can testify that the sound I heard over my system with the C53 is the sound we mixed over those ten days at Sony Studios, with dialogue, music, and effects combined and balanced exactly as the mixers laid it down. (By the way, a tip: Both picture and sound streamed in high definition from Amazon Prime are incalculably superior to what you’ll see and hear on the DVD.)

  So that I don’t come out sounding like a complete spoilsport when it comes to my earlier broadside against superhero movies, my 14-year-old daughter has become quite the fan of Marvel Comics and the movies made from them. During the pandemic she watched them all, and I will confess to having a good time joining her for some of these, notably Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which is filled with more action and CGI than any ten movies can handle. The sound work is genuinely sensational, which is exactly the way it sounded with the soundtrack routed through my two-channel setup: everything clear, clean, well separated and registered, with dynamic range wider than can be comfortably accommodated in a domestic setting—during some of the battle scenes the detonations were such as to make me happy our house is anchored to its foundation. And, yes, I confess, very dramatic, very exciting, very entertaining, and no, never once did we miss back channels.

Music and Blu-ray Audio

The new C53’s DA2 module also reaps all the considerable rewards when it comes to music listening as its predecessor, and then some. On all the standard digital sources, including Red Book and the higher resolutions of PCM, plus native DSD of 64, 128, and 256, it performs as well as the DA1, which is to say superlatively. If, owing to the later generation of ESS DAC chip, the DA2 has even a smidgeon of superiority over the former, I’d suggest it might tilt a tad closer to the absolute neutrality of my reference Benchmark DAC3 (still the most neutral digital component with which I have had long experience). The DA2 also allows for native DSD 512, for the few releases in that format. Otherwise, as between the DA1 and DA2, believe me when I say that we are parsing almost ridiculously fine distinctions here, the sorts that are obliterated by differences in source materials and such that I could never leave the room for a moment, return, and consistently identify which component was playing. As for MQA, the DA2, like its predecessor, lacks that capability, McIntosh remaining unpersuaded by the putative benefits of the format and skeptical it will gain widespread adoption. But should this change, the upgradability of the DA2 offers some hope for fans of McIntosh who are also fans of MQA.

One area in which the DA2’s audio HDMI input makes for truly superior audio reproduction is Blu-ray audio discs. I was astounded at how splendid several of these sounded played either through the DA2’s HDMI input or one of its Coax inputs. For a few months now I’ve had in heavy rotation the Price/Vickers/Solti Aida from the early sixties, remastered and reissued by Decca in a set that includes a Blu-ray audio disc in addition to CDs. I can’t think of another occasion where I’ve heard Solti conduct with greater intensity, conviction, and sheer animal passion as he did here, while the sound is thrilling, quite literally stupendous in the spectacular “Triumphal Scene” with Egyptian trumpets flanking the stage, a band on stage, an augmented chorus, and full Verdian orchestra. With a panoramic soundstage of David Lean width and depth and transparency, clarity, and dynamic range galore, this is one of most immersive audio-only recordings I’ve ever heard, and all, again, without side or back channels in sight or earshot. (The Universal Group, which now owns the Decca catalogue, has released a number of classic recordings in these remastered CD/Blu-ray sets, which come with hardback book, full librettos, and excellent background notes and essays. I’ve purchased some of these, including the near incomparable Solti Ring cycle, and I’ve not been disappointed yet. Interested readers are referred to my colleague Art Lingten’s excellent survey of several of these two years ago: https://www.theabsolutesound.com/articles/universal-musics-blu-ray-audio-operas/). 

In October of 2019 the Los Angeles Philharmonic, my hometown orchestra, played a concert called LA Phil 100, a celebration of its 100th birthday to the day, October 24, of its first concert in 1919. Its three living present or former music directors—Gustavo Dudamel, Esa Pekka Salonen, and Zubin Mehta—all participated, conducting various works each is associated with. The finale was a newly commissioned piece by the Icelandic composer Daniel Bjarnason. Part three of a trilogy inspired by space travel and moon landings, it’s called From Space I Saw Earth, Bjarnason’s intent to suggest the sense of rapture felt by astronauts as they looked down on the earth from the outer space or the moon. It’s written for three orchestras positioned in a triangle, the main and largest one in front, two smaller ones behind it left to right, and requires three conductors. The orchestras play the same piece of music that runs, in the words of the composer, “on parallel timelines that are constantly diverting, coming together and diverting again.” Waves of slow moving, mostly string-dominated textures suggest something like tectonic plates moving against each other, combining in great harmonious chords, the whole thing tailor-made for home viewing via superb high-definition Blu-ray video and audio. This was the last thing I played before finishing the review, a fitting justification, if one be needed, for the new digital module in the C53.

Audience Introduces its Studio ONE and Studio TWO Cables and Power Cords

San Marcos, CA, May 4, 2021 – Audience today announced the introduction of its Studio ONE and Studio TWO Series interconnects and speaker cables, designed to offer exceptional high-end sound quality. The Studio ONE and Studio Two are available as RCA and XLR (balanced) interconnects, and speaker cable. In addition, the Studio ONE lineup includes phono and headphone cables and a new power cord.

The Studio ONE Series replaces the previous Au24SE cable line and offers upgraded performance at no increase in price, through the use of high-purity OFC (oxygen-free copper) wire and an improved XLPE (cross-linked polyethylene) dielectric material. In addition, Studio ONE cables receive Audience’s proprietary EHVP Extreme High-Voltage Process, which applies high voltages in specific combinations in order to align the crystalline structure of the various metals used in the cables and facilitate more efficient signal transfer – and better sound.

StudioTWO_RCA

Audience’s Studio TWO cables are the successor to the previously-available Conductor SE lineup. They utilize the same core wire as the Studio ONE without the EHVP treatment, and feature different connectors. Like the Studio ONE, these cables deliver significantly better performance than the models they replace, with improved dynamics, coherence and realism and without an increase in price.

John McDonald, president of Audience noted, “Thanks to advances in our manufacturing processes and ability to obtain better materials, our new Studio ONE and Studio TWO products offer even better value to discerning audiophiles. They deliver the exceptional quality of sound that Audience has become acclaimed for, offering a rich, detailed and natural presentation with wide dynamics, spaciousness and an accurate tonal balance. They deliver superb transient response and a wealth of musical information without ever sounding ‘hard’ or ‘etched,’ and are ideal for a wide range of high-end audio components and systems.”

Like all Audience products, Studio ONE and Studio TWO interconnects, speaker cables and power cords are made in the USA from premium materials, to the highest standards of manufacturing quality. Audience Studio ONE cables are available now at suggested retail prices starting at $1,199 for a meter pair of RCA interconnects. Studio TWO cables are also available now with suggested retail prices starting at $699 for a meter pair of RCA interconnects. Please consult an authorized Audience dealer for pricing on additional lengths and configurations.

Sonus faber Lumina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Specs & Pricing

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

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

Young Beethoven: Janaki String Trio

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

SteinMusic Pi Carbon Signature Record Mat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeff Tweedy’s Love is the King

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AudioQuest Introduces the JitterBug FMJ

The following is a press release issued by AudioQuest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elac Uni-Fi 2.0 UB5.2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Specs & Pricing

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


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

Associated Equipment

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

Perfecting American Utopia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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