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When Fusion Guitarists Went Acoustic

In the first half of the 1970s jazz fusion became a hot commodity, with musicians who previously enjoyed modest success suddenly becoming concert draws and selling records in far greater numbers than they did previously. Pivotal building blocks included two Miles Davis albums, In A Silent Way (1969) and Bitches Brew (1970); afterwards, sidemen from those projects, including Joe Zawinul, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and John McLaughlin became some of the top names associated with fusion.  McLaughlin wasn’t the only jazz-rock guitarist to enjoy commercial success, as Larry Coryell, Al Di Meola, and Steve Khan also achieved prominence. And let’s not ignore the contributions that Carlos Santana and Jeff Beck—two musicians who wandered over from the rock world—made to jazz fusion. 

That part of musical history has been well documented, but another trend has largely gone ignored. For all the talk about jazz-rock, the 70s was also an amazing decade when it came to acoustic jazz guitar—in fact, I’m not sure that another decade topped it. Here some of the credit goes to musicians whose focus was always acoustic. As a member of Oregon and as a solo artist, six- and twelve-string acoustic guitarist Ralph Towner came into his own during the 70s. Upon its release in 1977, Egberto Gismonti’s Danca das Cabeças announced in no uncertain terms that a major talent had arrived. Towner and Gismonti both recorded for ECM, a label that would remain friendly to acoustic guitarists.

Also, during that decade some electric guitarists decided to turn the volume way down and pull out their acoustics. Three jazz fusion artists—John McLaughlin, Larry Coryell, and Steve Khan—recorded scaled-down all-acoustic projects that became career highlights for all three musicians. These albums warrant a fresh listen—and cry out for high-quality vinyl reissues.

 Exhibit A was recorded and released before fusion became all the rage. John McLaughlin’s My Goal’s Beyond (1971) appeared a few months prior to the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s first album, but while The Inner Mounting Flame can singe your hair, you could listen to My Goal’s Beyond while sitting lotus style and meditating. On the first half of the album, McLaughlin leads an octet through performances of original compositions evoking both John Coltrane and music from India. On the flip side, where McLaughlin is the sole musician and overdubs some guitar parts, he reaffirms his jazz roots. An inspired performance of a Charles Mingus composition, “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” opens the album on a high note. On the Kind of Blue ballad “Blue and in Green” and Chick Corea’s “Waltz for Bill Evans,” McLaughlin plays with startling sensitivity. McLaughlin’s most ecstatic performance occurs on his original composition “Follow Your Heart,” where you can imagine him coming up off his chair as he launches into his solo. “Volume does not equal intensity,” McLaughlin stated after forming the all-acoustic Shakti in the late 70s, and he’d already proven that with My Goal’s Beyond.

larry coryell european impressions

As a solo artist and as the leader of the Eleventh House, Larry Coryell was one of the first names associated with the fusion movement. During the height of jazz-rock’s popularity, however, he switched gears. Acoustic projects included duets with Phillip Catherine and Steve Khan, and Coryell was the original member of the all-acoustic trio that went on to record the highly successful Friday Night in San Francisco. In 1978 Coryell released European Impressions, a half-live/half studio LP of solo acoustic performances. A brilliant Horace Silver medley reaffirmed Coryell’s jazz roots. His talent for arranging also surfaces on “Rodrigo Reflections,” where, after riffing on some themes from Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez,” he throws in some quotes from “Dueling Banjos.” Coryell toured extensively as a solo artist during the late 70s, and European Impressions gives us a taste of what those performances were like, including the open-ended improvisation that developed as the song continued.

steve khan evidence

Steve Khan’s Evidence (1980) is devoted to interpretations of jazz compositions on acoustic guitar. The ballad-oriented first side includes gorgeous interpretations of Wayne Shorter’s “Infant Eyes,” Joe Zawinul’s “In a Silent Way,” and Horace Silver’s “Peace,” and throughout the side Khan sustains a warm, intimate vibe while paying tribute to jazz masters. The flip side is devoted to compositions by Thelonious Monk, and the performances are alternately playful (“Think of One,” especially) and just plain pretty. An overlooked gem, Evidence is recommended to anyone who loves ballads or has a soft spot for acoustic guitar.

Although none of these artists are obscure, the albums discussed here are either out of print or are hard to find. All of the records are well-recorded, capturing the warm sound of an acoustic guitar with clarity and a strong sense of intimacy. They all deserve the high-quality vinyl reissue treatment. If anyone’s interested, I’ll be happy to write the liner notes. 

WBT Nominated For The German Innovation Award 2021

The following is a press release issued by WBT-Industrie.

June 2021 – WBT-Industrie has been nominated for the German Innovation Award 2021 in the medium-sized companies category for its development of the process “3D gold-plating of connectors using PVD plasma” (PVD = Physical Vapour Deposition), internal brand name: WBT-PlasmaProtect™.

With this plant technology it has, for the first time, been possible to develop a significantly more environmentally-friendly process to use instead of the electroplating process used previously. The effectiveness was increased from 20 to 80% by a new 3D process, the energy requirements were reduced by around 26% and resource consumption was reduced by about 35%.

At the same time, the contact quality was improved by a thin but extremely pure (high vacuum) and still elastic layer of gold (Hertzian stress).

The German Innovation Award is one of the prestigious awards for new developments “made in Germany”, and is allocated jointly by Accenture, EnBW and the magazine Wirtschaftswoche. Awards are given to companies that change technology and markets with their innovative strength.

Sonus faber Maxima Amator Loudspeaker

I auditioned the Maxima Amators with digital sources, an Oppo BDP-103 for discs and either a Baetis Reference music computer or MusiCHI SRV-1 server to provide standard-resolution and HD audio files. Data streams went to my Ideon Audio Absolute DAC, USB output from the MusiCHI via Ideon’s Master Time USB re-clocker. The DAC fed a Classé Delta PRE connected to either Pass XA 60.8 or David Berning Quadrature Z monoblocks to drive the loudspeakers. Analog cabling was Transparent Gen 5 Ultra; digital wires included Shunyata Research Anaconda (AES/EBU), Revelation Audio (USB), Ideon Audio (USB), and Apogee Wyde Eye (coaxial.) In my 15′ x 15′ room—the ceiling height ranges from 10′ to 12’—bass response was measurably smoothest with the speakers placed 19″ from the front wall, eight feet apart center-to-center, and nine feet from the primary listening position.

With intimately recorded small-ensemble music, the Sonus faber Maxima Amators are second to none in their capacity to provide an intensely involving listening experience. I pulled out a compact disc on the Cedille label I’d not heard in a while, 20th Century French Wind Trios, eight pieces by composers such as Poulenc, Milhaud, and Ibert, expertly performed by three members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. This music can seem slight when performed or recorded indifferently. The Maxima’s highly characteristic reproduction of the tart sound of the oboe, the clarinet’s much mellower sonority, and the bassoon’s resonant bombination helps to underscore that an inspired blending and contrasting of these disparate instrumental timbres is common to all the music on the program. Likewise, listening to the affably off-kilter pieces on Brad Mehldau’s Highway Rider, captured in a warm, close, and (intentionally, one assumes) airless sound, the sense of joyous collaboration that’s behind all good chamber music, and small-group jazz comes through loud and clear. The loudspeakers keep the recording and playback processes essentially invisible. 

So long as the primary goal isn’t to rattle the china, symphonic music can yield similar results. My two favorite works for cello and orchestra are Dvorˇák’s B minor Concerto and Richard Strauss’ Don Quixote. Both receive moving performances from Mischa Maisky, accompanied by Zubin Mehta and the Berlin Philharmonic, on a DG concert recording released in 2003. The tone of Maisky’s Montagnana cello is beautifully characterized, and the defining aspects of the two composers’ very different approaches to orchestration are lucidly presented. The Maximas are fast, too. An early recording from pianist Lang Lang on the Telarc label includes a performance of Balakirev’s finger-busting Islamey, played with fearless abandon by the then-18-year-old virtuoso. There’s no smearing of the passagework, despite the velocity of Lang Lang’s playing, and, again, no sense of the music moving from driver to driver as the soloist shifts from one end of the keyboard to the other.

How do these transducers, so capable when it comes to musical nuance, detail, texture, and color do with larger-scale material more dependent on loudness, impact, and low-frequency power? That depends on several factors, including your room and amplification—the virtues of the Maxima Amator described to this point were equally evident with tubed and solid-state amps—and, most critically, your listening habits. If you put a high value on center-of-the earth bass and dynamics that can pin your ears back, the Maximas may not be “enough” with some music. There will be a temptation to keep raising the playback level until a line is crossed, and the sound begins to harden. Similarly, you can add a subwoofer—I experimented with my Magico S-Sub—but this, too, must be done with a gentle touch lest you end up with the kind of disembodied bass you hear from the jukebox at the corner bar. If you can settle for 80% of your idealized expectations when it comes to loud and low, you’ll be richly rewarded. If not…well, you may need to look elsewhere.

For $15,000, there are a lot of highly accomplished alternatives; one is Sonus faber’s Olympica Nova III, positively reviewed in Issue 309. Priced at $1500 less than the Maxima Amator, it’s a more versatile speaker—a three-way, four-driver model that also happens to be pretty easy on the eyes. Paolo Tezzon is cognizant of the tension created between two of his brand’s product offerings. “The Maxima’s customer is different than the Nova’s,” he told me. “Maxima was clearly not created to compete with Nova, but to address the needs of the kind of customer who is an ‘aficionado’ of two-way designs and is well-aware that his quest for purity and coherence entails renouncing a little bit of extension in the low frequencies and in dynamic impact.” If that describes your outlook, don’t hesitate to give the Maxima Amators an extended listen. Owning these Italian beauties is not something you’re ever likely to regret.

Specs & Pricing

Type: Two-way ported loudspeaker
Driver complement: One 1.1″ soft dome tweeter, one 6.5″ fiber mid/woofer
Frequency response: 35Hz–35kHz
Sensitivity: 88dB
Nominal impedance: 4 ohms
Recommended amplifier power: 25–125W
Dimensions: 11.8″ x 44.1″ x 13.8″
Weight: 83.7 lbs.
Price: $15,000

SONUS FABER S.P.A.
Via A. Meucci, 10
36057 Arcugnano (VI)
Italy
[email protected]

SUMIKO (North American distributor)
6655 Wedgewood Road N
Suite 115
Maple Grove, MN 55311-28
sumikoaudio.net

Introducing Solstice Special Edition: A New Dawn for Music

The following is a press release issued by Naim Audio.

Salisbury, England | June 21, 2021 – Vinyl-lovers can now finally enjoy the full Naim Audio experience with the launch of Solstice, the first turntable in the British brand’s almost 50-year history. It comes partnered with a next-generation version of the iconic Naim Aro tonearm, an Equinox MC cartridge, Solstice Series Phono Stage, Power Supply and bespoke accessories set. Naim will create just 500 units of this Solstice Special Edition package.

“Solstice Special Edition offers an exceptional all-round experience,” said Paul Neville, Naim Audio Research & Development Director. “If you love the organic, authenticity of vinyl, now you can enjoy it with the musical purity and passion only a Naim system can deliver.”

The Naim Solstice Special Edition package in full:

  • Naim Solstice Turntable NVS TT – combining core Naim design philosophies, such as multiple levels of mechanical decoupling, with a celebration of beautiful materials. Features a magnetic bearing supporting a high-mass, highly polished aluminum platter, with a unique, self-calibrating motor drive system, meticulously delivering the Naim sound.
  • Naim Aro Tonearm – retaining the original’s design principles and excellence but boosting performance further still by using improved materials – including tungsten and carbon-fiber – and adding an all-new, no-compromise bias, arm height and azimuth adjustments.
  • Naim Equinox MC Cartridge – featuring a microline stylus shape – closer to the original cutting lathe head to enable the retrieval of accurate high-frequency information – and a boron cantilever, a stiff-but-light design that faithfully transfers the stylus movements to the moving coils.
  • Naim Solstice Series Phono Stage NVC TT – the first Naim phono stage to use DR technology, first used on the flagship Statement amplifier. Sophisticated, ultra-low-noise Class A design with dedicated MC and MM head-amplifiers.
  • Naim Solstice Series Power Supply NPX TT – powers both the turntable and the phono stage. For the ultimate performance, these two different power supplies are completely isolated, with no risk of interference. Also uses Naim DR technology.
  • Solstice Accessories Set – including Digital Stylus Gauge; Bubble Level; Hex Drivers (x3); Vinyl Adjustment Tool; Dust Protector and Cleaning Cloth
  • Naim Records True Stereo album – a curated collection of superb-quality True Stereo recordings, newly remastered for vinyl by original engineer, Ken Christiansen.
  • Solstice Special Edition Book – including insight into heritage, technology and design
  • Suggested selling price £16,000 / €17,000 / $20,000 USD / $26,000 CAD

 

Design and manufacturing

The Solstice Special Edition combines contemporary, living-friendly design with a classic Naim look. It offers incredible sound quality without the complications associated with performance turntables. Simple to set up and use, it’s all about hearing your vinyl collection as you never have before.

There are exquisite design touches throughout, such as the turntable plinth painstakingly crafted from 47 separate layers of wood, and the cartridge sitting in a solid aluminum housing machined from a single billet.

The Solstice Series NVC TT phono stage and NPX TT power supply are hand-crafted in Salisbury, while the NVS TT turntable, Aro arm and Equinox cartridge are exactingly manufactured to Naim’s unique design by Clearaudio. Like Naim, Clearaudio has 40+ years of premium audio expertise, including numerous patents for its acclaimed turntable designs. Naim has worked closely on the Solstice Special Edition project with the German specialist for more than two years, continually listening and refining to deliver the unmistakable sound of Naim from a turntable, for the very first time. All elements have then been precision-engineered by Clearaudio for consistently excellent performance.

Available from late July, the Naim Audio Solstice Special Edition is available to pre-order now from select retailers worldwide, with a suggested selling price of £16,000 / €17,000 / $20,000 USD / $26,000 CAD.

Focal Naim America Announces “Mixed on Focal”

The following is a press release issued by Focal Naim America.

Montreal, Canada | June 2021Focal Naim America, a leading North American importer, and distributor of premium consumer and professional electronics brands, announces “Mixed on Focal” a new program to highlight the true sound of music as the artist, mix engineer, producer, and record label meant the songs to be heard. The first “Mixed on Focal” playlist is available today for Qobuz, TIDAL, Apple Music, and Amazon Music HD with new playlists to be released regularly. Support for Spotify HIFI is planned when it is released.

Songs and albums mixed on Focal speakers are featured on the high-resolution audio playlists and are available to Focal HI-FI and Pro Audio dealers, as well as the Press Corps and current and prospective customers. Whether it be in a HI-FI or Pro Audio dealer demonstration, or their home or recording studio using Focal speakers, the music will perfectly translate as the songs are all mixed on Focal.

“Mixed on Focal playlists are a perfect way to show off the incredible sound of Focal speakers,” said Romain Vet, VP of Marketing & Communications, Focal Naim America. “The pro audio community works tirelessly to record and mix the best sounding music possible, and listeners dream about hearing the best representation of that music — now we offer them a way to hear the music as it was mixed and meant to be heard – by listening on Focal speakers with ‘Mixed on Focal’ high-resolution streaming playlists.”

Mix engineers featured on the first “Mixed on Focal” playlist include Mike Pepe (Focal Trio6 Be / Twin6 Be), Ryan West (Focal Solo6 Be), Eric Stenman (Focal Trio6 Be), Rob Tavalglione(Focal Trio11 Be), Luca Pretolesi (Focal Trio11 Be), Jimmy Bralower (Focal Twin6 Be), Ian Boxill (Focal Solo6 Be), and Will Yip (Focal Trio6 Be). A selection of recording artists they mixed and are included in the playlist are Sydney Sprague, Wilder, Taking Back Sunday, Sundressed, AWOLNATION, Diplo, Jason Derulo feat. David Guetta & Nicki Minaj, Lenny White, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson & Merle Haggard, KAMAUU, Rebecca Angel, Ryan Shaw, Mark Rivera, Chad Everett Butler, Aron Stornaiuolo, Nothing, Tigers jaw, and Movements, with many more artists, albums, and songs to be announced and available on “Mixed on Focal” streaming playlists in the future.

“Mixed on Focal” High-Resolution Audio Playlists:

Find out more about the “Mixed on Focal” engineers and get the latest HD Audio playlists: https://www.focalnaimamerica.com/artistsexperiences.

Visit Focal Naim America: https://www.focalnaimamerica.com.

Paul Ben-Haim

Paul Ben-Haim is one of those composers whose recordings I’ll snatch up any time I find them. He was born Paul Frankenburger in Munich in 1897; he studied composition with a student of Bruckner’s and was the conducting assistant to Hans Knappertsbusch and Bruno Walter. After emigrating to Palestine in 1933, he—with other immigrant colleagues—founded a “Mediterranean school” of composition based on romanticism, neoclassicism, and the modal melodies, melismas, and irregular meters of Jewish and Middle Eastern folk music. His new nationalist style was pleasantly arid and shared similarities with European pastoral writing. Ben-Haim was a craftsman rather than a genius; not everything he wrote was divinely inspired, but it’s always a breath of fresh Mediterranean air, and what follows are my highest recommendations. 

I’ve previously covered the String Quartet and Quintet (Carmel Quartet, Toccata Classics, Issue 248) and the Second Symphony and Concerto Grosso (Issue 279, about which anon). The quartet is one of Ben-Haim’s most extroverted pieces, warm and friendly in some places, slashing and obstinate in others. Though his new style hadn’t fully matured, the winds of Palestine were clearly carrying the heart of this culturally German composer eastward. For Chandos, the ARC Ensemble turned in a fine performance of the Clarinet Quintet (1941, revised 1965); it may be the most skillfully integrated of the chamber pieces. The instruments are often audaciously independent of each other, and the most dissonant moments still dance. Flute and Strings from Israel, on the Music in Israel label, contains the vivacious Serenade for Flute and String Trio (1952) along with pieces from other Israeli composers. 

Pianist Gila Goldstein’s two discs for Centaur cover all of Ben-Haim’s major keyboard pieces; she brings more spunk and humor to the music than I thought possible. Particularly recommended is the first volume with the wonderful Sonatina from 1946. The ornamentations in the first movement loop around from the Middle East and meet up with Scarlatti somehow. The rhapsodic slow movement is like a once-in-a-lifetime sunset with a procession of chanting worshippers moving into earshot and vanishing just as quickly, leaving a transformed scene behind them. 

CPO has released Ben-Haim’s two symphonies with the NDR Philharmonic and Israel Yinon in fine performances and sound. The First Symphony (1939-1940) reflects the events of World War II while remaining non-programmatic. Some parts almost equal the national angst of Shostakovich’s war-time symphonies. The slow middle movement leads to a triumphant peak (which Shostakovich would never have portrayed, given his experiences under Moscow’s own knout), then to a blissful coda. Foreboding increases in the finale’s tarantella; the dance reaches a standstill, however, before being subsumed into a celebratory hora. 

The Second Symphony, completed in October 1945, can barely contain Ben-Haim’s joyful optimism in the first two movements. The Andante begins with an exclamation from the strings and soon turns into an elegy for the victims of the Holocaust (including Ben-Haim’s sister). A sharp outburst marks the beginning of the closing Allegro Deciso, and drama reigns as the hora ultimately conquers the more serious, aggressive themes. 

Violinist Itamar Zorman and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales recorded Evocation, a BIS SACD on my Top Ten Best-Sounding Albums of 2019 (Issue 309). The title work looks back at the turmoil Ben-Haim had left behind in Europe. It is austere yet sympathetic, its marching rhythms contrasting with more overtly emotional passages. Zorman shines in the tuneful, radiant, and brainy Violin Concerto of 1960. For sacred music, try the Kabbalat Shabbat on Sacred Services from Israel on Naxos, a semi-liturgical cantata filled with jubilant devotion. 

Also fascinating is Sweet Psalmist of Israel for harp, harpsichord, and orchestra, commissioned by Leonard Bernstein. It is available in Sony’s “Royal Edition” series of Bernstein reissues. The three movements depict David calming the distraught King Saul, meditating as he speaks his final words, and living on in the “Song of Degrees” sung by generations of pilgrims and priests. The acoustics are dry, but they end up giving the winds and brass an eerie antiquity, evoking the flutes, trumpets, and shofars of the Hebrews’ heritage. Once again, Ben-Haim proved to be a master at combining ancient traditions with contemporary techniques, creating something timeless in the process. 

Orchard Audio Introduces Starkrimson Stereo Ultra

The following is a press release issued by Starkrimson.

June 15, 2021 | Succasunna, New Jersey –  Following the enormous success of the Starkrimson® Mono amplifier, Orchard Audio is introducing the Starkrimson Stereo Ultra amplifier, with the same proprietary dual-feedback modulator and next-generation gallium nitride (GaN) transistors. Unlike its predicesor the Ultra amplifier delivers up to 500WRMS (1000WPEAK) of power and 20A of current while maintaining extremely low noise and distortion.

This latest design, which has already been previewed, tested and highly praised by those who were able to have access to it, fully explores the benefits of the latest GaN transistors, providing less harshness, cleaner highs, and better overall transparency and detail with irrelevant noise levels. The pulse-width modulation is performed completely in the analog domain before being amplified by the GaN power stages. Starkrimson amplifiers use Leo Ayzenshtat’s proprietary DC-coupled, fully balanced dual feedback modulator, which allows the amplifier to be completely balanced from input to output, through the use of bridged GaN power stages.

This design provides the Starkrimson Stereo Ultra amplifiers with a huge reserve of power for extended transients, and the power expands linearly with the load – 125 watts into 16 ohms; 250 watts into 8 ohms; and 500 watts into 4 ohms – for powerful, unrestrained music. The amplifier is packaged in an aluminum and steel chassis with high-end gold-plated binding posts and connectors, with a front panel option of either matte black or brushed aluminum (silver).

Features:

  • Fully balanced from input to output (w/differential input)
  • Differential and single-ended audio inputs
  • Extremely low noise and distortion
  • 2-ohm capable
  • 20A of output current

 

Specifications:

  • Signal-to-Noise Ratio (SNR): 120dB (A-weighted, 22kHz BW)
  • Frequency response: DC – 80kHz+
  • Gain (balanced input): 19.05dB
  • Gain (single-ended input): 25.05dB
  • Power output into 16/8/4Ω: 125/250/500WRMS

 

Orchard Audio is still offering preorder prices ($1,999.95 USD) on its website until the end of June 2021. Starkrimson Stereo Ultra amplifiers will start shipping in August and are available with differential (XLR) and single-ended (RCA) inputs or both ($150 option). All DIY enthusiasts can also order the Starkrimson Ultra Mono Amp Module and kits separately, in order to build their own systems.

Building a Compact Reference System | Part 1: Requirements

The Listening Space

Even the most spacious condos, apartments, and townhouses don’t typically have enough rooms for one of them to be devoted to listening. Where, then, will the system go? The most obvious candidate is the family room. Or, in the case of a townhouse with a basement, the rec room. The next question, then, is what are the characteristics of such rooms, and what constraints do those factors impose on the system?  

Consider, first, the layout and furnishings typical of family and rec rooms. Most often, there’s a sofa or sectional facing a wall. On that “media wall,” there is commonly a TV (make mine a nice big OLED, if you please) mounted over either a media console or a fireplace. In the latter scenario, an adjacent wall likely hosts the media console or built-in shelving. 

That media console or built-in shelf system is not only the most conspicuous and convenient place to put system components, it may also be your only option if, as mine did, your Significant Other bans these bulky, blocky, industrial-looking objects from the home’s social hub. For that’s exactly what a family or rec room is: a shared space used by every household member to watch TV, entertain guests, wrestle with Rex, and relax with a book. Consequently, whatever is housing the system must harmoniously integrate into the room’s décor and functions, as well as the aesthetic sensibilities of its various users. 

Not only do downsized abodes offer fewer rooms, but those rooms also tend to have more modest dimensions. For this reason, the distance between the media wall and the sofa is rarely expansive. Further, since one clearly must have a place to set one’s drink, a chunk of that space will be taken up by a coffee table in front of the sofa. All of these room elements have significant ramifications for the audio system.  

Source Material 

By now it should be clear that our compact reference system will be living in a universe completely different from what we’re used to. The overall space available for sources, electronics, and speakers is both limited and fixed. Unfortunately, it gets worse, because that space must also support our music libraries. 

Most of us are accustomed to homes that can store an arbitrarily large library of source material, in any variety of formats. Our collections have expanded accordingly, unbounded by spatial limitations. Indeed, for most of us, our media libraries, not our systems, are the most voracious space consumers. In my suburban house, the dedicated listening room had three long walls full of floor-to-ceiling LP, CD, and SACD-laden bookcases. 

First Watt F8 Stereo Power Amplifier

After a few days, it dawned on me that I was missing out on my customary dose of textural liquidity. I was curious to find out what would happen if I closed the frequency-response window by trading some of the F8’s bandwidth for a potentially heftier dose of midrange liquidity. Thus, I decided to introduce the First Watt SIT-3 into the evaluation. Its frequency response is already down 3dB at 50kHz, while the F8 is extended to 200kHz. That’s because the SIT-3 uses zero global feedback and also incorporates an autoformer input stage, which makes it behave much more like a classic single-ended triode amp than the F8. 

A confrontation with the SIT-3 was inevitable. I’ve been vocal about the fact that the SIT-3 has consistently blurred the line between solid-state and tube amplification by facilitating an attractively organic midrange. And while no one would mistake it for a tube amp, its presentation is somewhat liquid, warm, and grain-free—welcome traits that enhance long-term listenability. In fact, I had previously embraced the SIT-3 as my favorite First Watt stereo amp, so I had a vested interest in the outcome of this mano a mano shootout.

So how did the F8 fare? As expected, when it came to the midrange, the F8 wasn’t as rich or liquid sounding. But as compensation it offered more detail, more open treble, crisper bass, and an increased sense of clarity. I should add that both amps take a while to get going, and sound their best when the chassis gets pretty hot to the touch. While the SIT-3 captured a slice of tube amplification gestalt, the F8 managed to sound more neutral and ultimately more accurate. 

Its full capabilities were on display on Mark Levinson’s The Legend of La Fenice restoration project, in which tapes of select performances, originally recorded by the house system at the Venice opera house, were rescued from archived storage and caringly remastered. The sound quality on this CD set is variable, partly due to the fixed nature of the microphones, but most of the performances are just delightful. And the F8 revealed all of it—the good and the bad—in an incisive way I had not previously experienced. I should add that the better the recording, the better the F8 sounded. When fed DSD128 discs it bloomed with sumptuous textures and brilliant tonal colors. 

Ladies and gentlemen, please raise your seats to their full upright position and take note: The F8 has joined the SIT-3 on the winner’s podium. These two amps offer differing but equally valid perspectives on sound reproduction. As far as current production goes, they are the two brightest stars within the First Watt family. The F8 is a reference tool in the finest sense of the words, exceptionally revealing of what comes before it in the playback chain. Its directness of expression enhances the illusion of being there, and is a function of its phenomenal clarity and transparency. These attributes should give it wide audiophile appeal. I’m so glad that Nelson Pass took the time to finalize the F8—I think we can all agree that it is a worthy successor to the J2.

Specs & Pricing

Output power (8 ohms): 25 watts @ 1% THD, 1kHz
Output power (4 ohms): 13 watts @ 1% THD, 1kHz
Frequency response:  -0.5dB (10Hz–200kHz)
Total harmonic distortion: 0.02% @ 1 watt, 8 ohms
Gain: 15dB
Input sensitivity (max output): 2.7V
Input impedance: 100k ohms
Damping factor: 38 relative to 8 ohms
Noise: <100µV unweighted, 20Hz–20kHz
Power consumption: 170 watts
Weight: 24 lbs.
Dimensions: 17″ x 5.5″ x 15″
Price: $4000

FIRST WATT
firstwatt.com

Associated Equipment
Loudspeaker: Fleetwood Sound Company DeVille
Phono front end: Revox B795 turntable; TPAD 1000 phono stage; Sound Tradition MC-10 step-up transformer
Digital front end: Denafrips terminator & ANK 2.1 Signature DACs, Audirvana 3.5 software, Alldaq ADQ-USB 3.0 isolator, audiolab 6000CDT transport, ifi SPDIF iPurifier2
Preamplifiers: PrimaLuna EVO 400, Supratek Chardonnay, Blue Circle Audio BC21.1, Manley Labs Jumbo Shrimp, Experience Music AVC, Ed Schilling’s The Truth
Cables: Mogami and Kimber KCAG interconnects; Analysis Plus Oval 12, FMS Blue, & Take Five Audio Cryo treated Mogami 3103 speaker cable
Accessories: Sound Application CF-X & TT-7 power line conditioners

Moon Announces Upgraded and Updated 280D Streaming DAC

The following is a press release issued by Moon Audio.

MOON’s 280D streaming DAC has been upgraded and updated to increase its already formidable connectivity options. At the heart of the 280D is the industry leading MiND2 streaming module, now featuring Spotify Connect and AirPlay 2, plus Tidal Masters, Deezer Hi-Fi, HIGHRESAUDIO* and Qobuz Sublime+ music services.

The MOON 280D is designed to deliver an outstanding high-resolution streaming experience from these integrated music services and its extraordinary digital engine decodes native DSD up to DSD256, as well as PCM up to 32-bit/384kHz, including DXD. The fully balanced analogue stage features an exceptional third order filter for lifelike transparency. It is MQA certified, Roon Ready and has Bluetooth aptX connectivity.

The integrated MiND2 module (MOON intelligent Network Device) provides a superlative way of organising, streaming, and listening to music and allows playback of all the most important music file formats.

The 280D can be operated by remote control or MOON’s intuitive app, the MOON MiND Controller, which is available in iOS & Android versions. This beautifully designed app is simple to use and allows music files to be played from digital services, computers and NAS drives. It is regularly updated by MOON to provide extra features to the existing list.

A couple of the most popular recent additions to the app are: Tidal’s My Mix, which creates the perfect playlist for a listener by using an algorithm to comb the Tidal library based on their most recent listening patterns and saved music collection. And Spotify Connect, which is opening the door to the world of MOON sound quality for the 350 million Spotify users by linking to the Spotify app.

Extended system control is available via SimLink when connected to other MOON products. As well as seamless connectivity and intuitive operation, the 280D delivers the renowned natural and detailed MOON sound.

 

FEATURES:

 

  • Fully asynchronous
  • Supports native DSD64, DSD128 and DSD256 (USB only).
  • Supports PCM up to 384kHz (32-bit on USB only).
  • Seven digital inputs: AES/EBU x 1, S/PDIF x 2, TosLink x 2, USB x 1 and Qualcomm aptX audio for Bluetooth x 1 – for usewith virtually any digital
  • An eighth digital input is through the MiND 2 streaming module (via WiFi or Ethernet).
  • Front panel LED indicators to show active input and input signal PCM sampling and DSD
  • Analogue stage: fully balanced differential circuit for increased dynamic range and headroom and higher resolution, aswell as improved signal-to-noise
  • AirPlay 2
  • Roon
  • Tidal Masters, Deezer Hi-Fi, HIGHRESAUDIO and Qobuz Sublime+ music
  • MQA
  • Spotify Connect
  • Multi-room synchronised

 

Available in a black or signature MOON two-tone finish, the 280D is designed and manufactured in Canada and comes with a 10-year warranty.

RRP: £2,950

*HIGHRESAUDIO although available in the UK, is not available in all countries.

Absent Without Leave

We Ignore the Diminishing Value of Interactional Music Performance at Our Peril

With the democratization of music performance, we are all music inventors now. Anybody with a laptop and the ability to whistle a tune may invent the next musical genre without ever finding her way to a rehearsal room. For centuries, however, the music eco-system has entertained the notion of the dedicated performer. This individual plays one or more instruments (including the voice), with the benefit of some training or none. Before the digital world arrived, you were Liszt or Liberace, Satriani or Santana, Hendrix or Holiday, Marley or Madonna, violinist, bassist, or saxophonist, or you aspired to being one of those, or assisted one of them in your role as a skilled support instrumentalist. Now that facsimiles of all these people are in our laptops, are we still making fresh ones? Are they an endangered species? Do we have enough already? Why do we need more?  In brief, why do we need instrumental performers?

Danger Up Ahead

Performance skills seem to be little valued at the point of origin of a track or song (notwithstanding that those skills may acquire more value at the point of its public reproduction), being apparently easily emulated through music technology. Instrumental popular music performance, as evidenced by the laying on of hands to wood, gut, skin, and silicone in real-time collaboration with others, appears to be at something of a digital-age split in the road. One signpost points to ossification and redundancy, the other to re-evaluation and creative utility.

To master a musical instrument to a level that affords minimal creative options is seen as literally unaffordable because it takes too long. A cyclical reduction of skills (fewer are needed so fewer are provided so fewer are needed) condemns the limited performer to the constant repetition of the handful of gestures necessary to invoke the three chords and a backbeat paradigm. Most drummers, for example, are obliged to perform much the same thing most of the time. This is both a wasted resource and an unnecessary reduction to which they have acceded because they both underestimate and are unwilling to assert their cultural importance as catalysts for musical action. 

Drummers are well placed to resuscitate, to breathe life, to bring life to collective performance, but they remain too ready to abandon training, instinct and intuition at a moment’s notice, to accommodate another’s worldview. They tinker away in the engine room of the music to little effect—an abandonment of their traditional area of influence that borders upon a dereliction of duty. Such dereliction cedes power to others (client/producer/programmer) and eliminates the participatory discrepancies that make a performance unique. It halts the interactional scrabbling for the song-specific component that transforms the mechanical into the magical, the uncreative into the creative. To follow that road for a few more years will rightly consign the drummer to oblivion and do a calamitous disservice to popular music. Current practice, thus reduced, is susceptible to imitation by computer. Future value lies in the production of artefacts the computer cannot produce. What can the performer do that the computer cannot? 

It’s About Interaction, Stupid

Reversal is possible, however, given awareness of the situation. Research among expert drummers suggests that the answer lies in their specialist knowledge of rhythmic matters combined with sophisticated collaborative interactional skills that brings life to the music, preserving it from the dead hand of the oscilloscope. To communicate effectively, music needs interaction, be it intra-human, or human-computer. Music that includes interactive performance seems to be more affective than that generated from a technological alternative. Thinking around rhythm and drums has almost completely ossified in “mainstream” drumming, notwithstanding the fact that a thin top slice of expert players embody and exemplify the full range of creative expression possible across all genres.

High-level interactive abilities render performance outcomes effectively irreplaceable and irreducible, less prone to reproduction. I do this because you did that, or are continuing to do this. I may have misinterpreted your intention, but now we’ve both got something that previously did not exist in our imaginations or fact. I never much liked the first thing anyway. I think it’s good; you think it’s hopeless. How to resolve the problem? Let’s agree to disagree, put it on one side and start afresh with the lyric. Why are you stammering about m-m-m-My Generation? Great idea! Why a bass solo break? Because the man has an amazing sound with the Rickenbacker round wire strings. We could use that. From the employer’s point of view she never thought of doing it that way.

Alive to the Situation

Music education can help here. If creativity such as this is to be part of learning, a greater appreciation of what it means and feels like to collaborate creatively should be inculcated within popular music education: too heavily geared to the acquisition of technical ability as a creative tool, too little geared to the socio-cultural framework within which music creativity is typically enacted and distributed. A re-balancing would stimulate a reconsideration of the core purpose and value of performance such as continues to be found at the highest levels in popular music, but whose benefits are not being communicated further down the food-chain.

As digital-age music inventors move further from pre-digital notions of performance, there seems to be an uncomfortable and unspoken feeling that things were somehow “better” in the “old days,” that the analog 8-track Who and the Kinks rocked harder than their over-dubbed and down-loaded contemporary counterparts, and maybe there really was something about this business of playing music together with others that we dispensed with at our peril. Music students might be better introduced to the subtleties of human musical co-operation, that transformation of knowledge that takes place in the rehearsal room that gives life to the artefact at hand. In my mind, that’s what music performance is about.

The Call to Arms

Much of the above has focussed on drumming and the drummer, but is applicable to any instrumental performer. We need these people, and we need them to stand up and be counted. We need them to dive deep into their instruments to mine glistening new sounds and mint fresh possibilities for them. We need them to make a performance both unique and greater than the sum of its parts. We need them like the oyster needs her grit, the irritant that gives access to the previously unimaginable. I doubt Liszt could have imagined Hendrix, nor Mozart Stockhausen. The steps connecting each to the other were rough-hewn in part from the intervening decades of instrumental performance. We need performers to do what the computer cannot. Currently, computers aren’t great at interactional skills, but even that window may shut soon. Notwithstanding all the computer power at our fingertips, it’s hard to imagine four machines producing the Who’s My Generation or Miles’ Bitches Brew. Above all, we need instrumental performers to interact with each other, the producer, the listener, and the world.

Some say a society gets the music it pays for; others that it gets the music that it deserves. I think it gets the music it can imagine. The music inventor needs collaboration with instrumentalists. That way he may be confronted with ways of doing things he’s never imagined before. 

Without such interaction, the music outcome is a lesser thing, bereft of its staff of life. Society ignores the value of interactional music performance at its peril. Video gaming is now replacing music as the most important aspect of youth culture: we musicians have practically invited it to do so. Music can use all the help it can get. Bold, breath-taking, imaginative, and skillful instrumental performance can offer a lot. Come on players, your country needs you. Let’s get to it. 

Bill Bruford, Ph.D., has an international profile as a bandleader, composer and drummer across multiple popular music ensembles over four decades. Retiring from public performance in 2009, he acquired his doctorate from the University of Surrey, UK, in 2016. He has written on the topic of music performance and creativity, and lectured extensively at European and North American institutions. billbruford.com.

The Focal powered by Naim Store: The Future of High-End Dealerships?

The new store is also much brighter than Houston Audio, and it’s furnished in a luxurious yet contemporary style that beckons patrons to sit and relax a spell. Music, though central to each room, is also in a way incidental; you could easily envision these being multi-purpose spaces. That’s the point; after all, that’s how it will be at home.

Houston Audio—and now Focal powered by Naim Houston—owner Jeff Pate told me that he wouldn’t have gone for the partnership if he hadn’t felt the design would have broad appeal. Nor would he have done it, he said, if CI elements and a “headphone bar” for Millennials hadn’t been part of the concept. But VerVent had provided for everything Jeff wanted.

The two most impressive rooms were, in a way, extreme opposites of each other. A home theater room had a huge screen in front, a nice sofa—and absolutely nothing else visible. Yet there were a bevy of Naim electronics behind the scenes, and Focal speakers populating nearly every wall.

At the other end of the spectrum was the “Grande Utopia Room,” featuring, you guessed it, a pair of Focal’s towering flagship speaker. No way to hide those bad boys! Nor would this room’s target customers want to. They were driven by Naim’s equally-dramatic, three-tower Statement electronics, which were in turn sourced by a two-chassis Naim streamer. The whole shebang cost over half a million bucks, yet sonically the system never came off as showy. Rather, its sound was relaxed and natural. Know what I did? I sat and listened for a spell.

 

The Introduction

No one was expecting to see any new products at this event, but Naim surprised everyone. Making its U.S. debut was a new product that, fittingly, encapsulates the focus of these stores—and by extension the entire company. The new model is the Naim Uniti Atom Headphone Edition. Naim’s regular Uniti Atom is a well-established, compact integrated amp/streamer that sells for $3290. For the same price, the Headphone Edition chucks that unit’s 40Wpc stereo power-amp module in favor of a beefed up, mostly Class A headphone amp module and a similarly upgraded preamp section.

With a built-in streamer and DAC, a variety of digital inputs and even an analog input, as well as multiple headphone ports and both balanced and single-ended line outputs, the new Naim can serve as either an unusually-versatile headphone amp or a source/DAC/linestage driving your choice of power amp and speakers. The choice between the regular Uniti Atom and the Headphone Edition is simply a matter of the user’s listening priorities.