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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.

Fiona Boyes: Blues in My Heart – 20th Anniversary Edition

In 2000, Australian singer, songwriter, and blues guitarist Fiona Boyes recorded Blues in My Heart, a collection of acoustic fingerpicked ragtime blues, including ten originals and a half-dozen covers by Rev. Gary Davis, J.B. Lenoir, and Leadbelly, among others. Boyes has since garnered a boxful of awards and shared the stage with such legends as Bob Margolin, Hubert Sumlin, and Pinetop Perkins, to name a few. Now, Grammy-nominated engineer Joseph Carra has remastered her auspicious debut. Boyes lends a loose, sassy flair to these songs—check out the defiant attitude she bestows upon Kid Bailey’s “Rowdy Blues.” Boyes’ vocals and picking are the driving force here, and her big Matan dreadnaught is close-miked to accentuate the foot stomps, hammer-ons, pull-offs, and string bends. And she is supported by occasional bandmates Kaz Dalla Rosa (harmonica), Paula Dowse (drums and percussion), and Gina Woods (piano). I found the sparse percussion distracting, especially the tambourine and snare on the cover of Rod Hodges’ “Angel.” But Boyes’ technique is so solid and her playing so darned bluesy that the distraction is a minor complaint, and this dynamic remaster, available on CD, bristles with detail to produce an intimate, energetic experience.

Parasound JC 1+ Monoblock Power Amplifier

In Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, the flibbertigibbet Lady Henry observes, “I like Wagner’s music better than anybody’s. It is so loud that one can talk the whole time without other people hearing what one says. That is a great advantage, don’t you think so, Mr. Gray?” Dorian doesn’t miss a beat. “I am afraid I don’t think so, Lady Henry,” he replies. “I never talk during music—at least, during good music. If one hears bad music, it is one’s duty to drown it in conversation.”

By this humorous standard, when listening to the new 450-watt Parasound JC 1+ monoblock amplifier, my guess is that you’re not liable to engage in much small talk because it makes most music sound so good. “JC” are the initials of legendary audio engineer John Curl, who has given his original JC 1 design a complete overhaul. [John Curl was inducted into The Absolute Sound’s High-End Audio Hall of Fame in 2018, Issue 289. —RH] As it happens, I used a pair of the original JC 1 Class AB monoblocks for several years to power Magnepan 1.6 loudspeakers, which prospered from the clean current that those amps provided. Any Magnepan lover knows that these big panels suck up watts like almost nothing else in the way of loudspeakers on the planet, but also that the sonic rewards can be great. In this case, they were.

Naturally, I was curious to hear what Parasound and Curl had accomplished after almost two decades. On paper, the revisions to the JC 1 appear to be extensive. It boasts a new power transformer with 20% higher capacity than its predecessor, as well as Nichicon power-supply filter capacitors that have been increased in capacity from 132,000uF to 198,000uF. Both measures typically translate into an increased stability that provides a wealth of sonic benefits, including better imaging and dynamics. The amplifier also employs Bybee Music Rails to help eliminate the input-stage noise that can have a deleterious effect on tonal purity. The amplifier has a two-position toggle switch that allows you to choose between 23dB or 29dB of gain, depending on the sensitivity of your loudspeaker. With the Wilson Audio WAMM Master Chronosonic loudspeaker, I relied upon the 29dB setting. The amp also sports two nifty pairs of CHK Infinium speaker terminals that grasp the loudspeaker cable lugs very firmly, indeed. As long as you insert the lugs straight up into the terminals, the CHKs are a breeze to use; deviate, however, by even a millimeter, and the lugs simply won’t glide in. At 83 pounds (the original was 63), these amps are no lightweights, but they’re not too difficult to maneuver into place by yourself.

As with most big powerhouse amps, it’s always tempting right away to declare, like the Thing in the Fantastic Four, “It’s clobberin’ time!” Whether running the Parasounds on the subwoofers or the front speakers of my system, I consistently found that they can, as you would expect, deliver quite a wallop. Initially, I ran the Parasounds on my subwoofers to break them in and to test their mettle on the deepest bass passages. Quite frankly, I was taken aback by what they brought to the table in the bass realm. They seemed not simply to plunge down more deeply into the nether regions, but also to more fully energize the notes themselves. This was apparent on both CDs and LPs. On a Decca pressing of the Solti recordings of the Wagner operas—recently bestowed upon me by Ali Saad, a classical aficionado and avid audiophile in Los Angeles—the forging of Siegfried’s sword came through with a remarkable clang, resounding to the back of the room. Jeepers, creepers! It was though the Parasounds were delivering the current into the loudspeaker unmediated by cables or anything else. I consistently found that the Parasounds not only increased the dynamics of my overall system, but also the perceived sense of hall space. It’s been said, time and again, that subwoofers play a pivotal role in defining the soundstage dimensions of a recording, but it’s always a pleasure to hear the phenomenon vividly demo’d, as it was with the JC 1+. 

As tempting as it might have been to retain the Parasounds on the subs, duty called. It was time for the Full Monty. I ventured to the recesses of my listening room, eyed the Parasounds for a moment, then hoisted them into the air, one at a time, mind you, to install them on my main loudspeakers. The results were quite revealing. 

The first thing I noticed was that same sense of enveloping space I’d heard with the subwoofers. On a BBC Music CD that I recently received, a whoosh of ambient hall and audience sound came through even before the music began, followed by Frederick Delius’ pleasant trifle “On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring,” a tone poem he composed in 1912. It features an onomatopoetic cuckoo call that is sounded first by the woodwinds, then the strings. With all that surplus power on hand—the first 25 watts in Class A—the Parasounds vividly conveyed the sweeping and shimmering sound of the orchestra, turning it into an engrossing experience. In part, the Parasounds possess such an enveloping character because of their ability to plumb the depths with satisfying richness and grip. 

To give their ability to stand up to a real high-powered orchestral performance a go, I played an old EMI, Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic on Sibelius’ tone poem Finlandia. This one has it all—melodrama, pathos, and grandeur. Right from the outset, the Parasounds delivered the staccato trumpet fanfare with precision and alacrity. No less impressive were the timpani whacks, which were never drowned out by the orchestra, but clearly audible in all their majestic force. There was none of the smearing or congealing or discombobulation of the various sections of the orchestra that you might expect with a lesser amplifier, without the power to keep everything from spiraling out of control. On the contrary, the JC 1+ kept the proceedings firmly in hand right up through the very grand finale, as the orchestra crescendos triumphantly while the tympani delivers a sustained roll—a kind of emphatic period to the overture. Once again, the clear delineation of the tympani even as the orchestra was playing full bore was most impressive.

Another blockbuster was a CD on the Sony label called Oriental Trumpet Concertos that features the Hungarian trumpeter Gabor Boldoczki playing Alexander Arutiunian’s Trumpet Concerto in A-flat major. The Parasounds effectively captured the velvety sound emanating from the bore of Boldoczki’s trumpet, as well as the more nasal quality when he deployed a straight mute for the wonderfully plangent and meditative middle movement. On the cadenza that wraps up matters with a triumphant finish, the trumpet almost sounds as forceful as a machine-gun, as Boldoczki double-tongues the sixteenth notes. The transient dynamism of the amps was consistently apparent on trumpet recordings—it was as though the music were snapping to attention, like a soldier crisply saluting a flag.

As noted, the spaciousness and power of the sound has a lot to do with the bass control of these amplifiers. On a very fine recording by Stephen Hough of the final piano pieces of Brahms [Hyperion], the rumbling of the piano in the subterranean regions was quite palpable. On both the Fantasias and Intermezzos, both the delicacy and lingering quality of Hough’s touch were discernible as his left hand traveled down the keyboard. I’ve rarely heard such fidelity and accuracy in the bass as I did with the Parasounds. The PS Audio M1200, an amplifier based around a tubed input and switching output stage, may have gone even deeper, but I don’t think it boasted the same grip, or, to put it another way, the same variety of timbres. 

I heard something similar in terms of bass fidelity on an oldie but goodie, the Concord label album called “Don’t Forget the Blues,” which sounded unforgettable. On the song “Rocks In My Bed,” Ray Brown’s bass was tautly defined, moaning and groaning as he accompanied the superb trombonist Al Grey, a master of the wah-wah mute, if there ever was one. If the sound of Brown’s bass line were a rubber band and any tauter, it would have snapped in two. 

How did the Parasounds perform on more delicate fare? You’ll get few quibbles from me, friends. There were moments when I was simply startled by the finesse that they offered. On Louis Bellson’s album Thunderbird, for example, I was smitten by the rendition of the Neal Hefti standard “Softly With Feeling.” The Parasounds were able to provide the hushed backing of the winds with total control, endowing the song with a sense of realism that it would otherwise have lacked. This was one of those times when this LP on the Impulse! label really sounded opened up rather than claustrophobic. I mean talk about pristine. Suffice it to say, that the Parasounds conveyed, or appeared to convey, just about every last little nuance the cartridge excavated from the black grooves.

But even on the delicate passages, the sound was never wispy. Take the magnificent album Festival of Trumpets [Nonesuch]. It was mastered in 1974 by Bob Ludwig and features the New York Trumpet Ensemble, directed by Gerard Schwarz. I was riveted, among other things, by a lovely Sonatina by the baroque composer Johann Christoph Pezel, who himself  played trumpet and violin. The gossamer-like trumpet playing of Schwarz and Louis Ranger sounded very enticing, but it was the accompaniment of the bassoon and harpsichord that really caught my ear. It’s easy for them to get lost in the mix. But here it was easy to hear the pleasingly sonorous sound of the bassoon as it puffed along, as well as the soft and deliberate plucks of the harpsichord. If I had to pick a nit, it would be in the treble. It’s not that the sound ever became hard or dirty—the Parasound always has a rich, warm, inviting sound on top—rather, the amp could sometimes be less slightly transparent and pellucid on top than some of its far-pricier brethren.

The JC 1+ shows just how far amplifiers have come in the past several decades. Always a stalwart, it has been vastly improved in its latest incarnation. Both consummately reliable and stellar in performance in my listening room, it offers a beautifully refined, flowing, and organic presentation of music. It is clearly voiced on the sumptuous and warm side, which is to say it has the breath of musical life. I could listen to it for hours and hours, and did. 

No doubt you can spend a lot more money on amplifiers ranging from $50,000 and up, and I’d be the last to dissuade anyone from chasing audio rainbows as vigorously as they please. The gains will be there in tonality, dynamics, and filigree of detail, particularly in the treble. But the JC 1+ monoblocks come so darned close to the best, in so many categories, that for more than a few listeners it may seem an otiose pursuit to look elsewhere. Parasound and John Curl deserve a rousing round of applause for producing a real-world-priced amplifier that delivers otherworldly sound.

Specs & Pricing

Type: Monoblock solid-state power amplifier
Power output: 450 watts @ 8 ohms; 850 watts @ 4 ohms; 1300 watts @ 2 ohms
Class A power output: 25W, bias switch set to high; 10W, bias switch set to low
Frequency response: 2Hz–120kHz, +0/-2dB; 20Hz–20kHz, +0/-0.25dB
Total harmonic distortion (THD): <0.15 % at full power; <0.02 % at typical listening levels
IM distortion: <0.03 %
Damping factor: >1200 at 20Hz
Input impedance: Unbalanced, 50k ohm; balanced, 100k ohm (50k ohm per leg)
S/N ratio, inputs shorted: >122dB, IHF A-weighted, bias set to Low; >120dB, IHF A-weighted, bias set to High; >113dB, unweighted, bias set to Low; >111dB, unweighted, bias set to High
Dimensions: 17½” x 7¾” x 20″
Net weight: 83 lbs.
Price: $8495 each

PARASOUND PRODUCTS, INC.
2250 McKinnon Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94124
parasound.com

ELAC Announces the Uni-Fi Reference Line of Home Speakers

The following is a press release issued by ELAC.

Orange, CA | June 7th, 2021 – ELAC, a leading global provider of high-performance speakers and electronics, today announced the Uni-Fi Reference line of home speakers. This new line builds upon the success of the Uni-Fi 2.0 series and incorporates a variety of performance and cosmetic improvements.

“This new line removes the price limitations of the Uni-Fi 2.0 series along with the technical barriers associated with that price point. The Uni-Fi Reference series offers significant performance improvements such as cast chassis for both the concentric and bass drivers, newly developed bass and concentric drivers, enhanced bracing, improved crossover design, along with luxury cosmetics” said James Krodel, senior vice president sales, ELAC.

Some of the notable new features of the Uni-Fi Refence line-up include.

Newly Developed 4” Concentric Driver with Cast Chassis: A wide-surround tweeter enhances its low and high frequency extension allowing for improved blending with the midrange. An entirely new midrange driver with large diameter voice coil, vented rear spider and new neodymium magnet allows for better excursion and control of midrange frequencies. A new cast chassis was designed to minimize reflections back to the cone resulting in better clarity.

Newly developed 5.25” and 6.5” Aluminum Woofers with Cast Chassis: Drastically improving low-end reproduction, this newly developed bass driver features a single piece compound curvature aluminum cone with a large rear vented magnet delivering improved linearity and better low frequency response of any previous Uni-Fi bookshelf speaker.

Sophisticated 3-way Crossover: An entirely new design improves response linearity, improves driver integration, and delivers a true 6-ohm nominal impedance for compatibility with virtually all AV receivers.

Full Perimeter Bracing: Reducing the speaker cabinets influence on audio quality the Uni-Fi Reference line implements full perimeter bracing significantly reducing cabinet vibration and cabinet coloration.

Front Firing Ports – Placing the vents on the front of the bookshelf and center speakers allows for greater freedom of placement, even in restricted places like a cabinet or up close to a wall.

All three new models will be available in late-June at ELAC retailers nationwide.

 

Q&A with Jack Sharkey of KEF

What ignited your interest in high-end audio? Did it come from the music side or the electronics side? 

I come from a musical family, so that was the spark, but as I got more involved in music, I became more and more fascinated with sound and eventually the physics of sound. Sound has always been a means to enjoy the art of music, but I do admit that it’s the noise music makes that really interests me.

What do you consider to be your first high-end system?

After college I saved for a little JVC receiver and a turntable from JC Penney, but the crowning jewel was my pair of Acoustic Research AR-18 bookshelves. I went to the shop down the street once a week for three months to listen to them. It was a great start to the journey. There was something very satisfying about putting together the best system I could afford at the time, and I’ve never forgotten the feeling I had the first time I listened to my humble little system.

What kind of education did you receive?

I started school doing audio engineering, and finished my schooling on the 10-year night-school plan in electronics engineering and computer-hardware design.

What differentiates high-end audio from other forms of audio?

The experience. You have to be looking for the emotion and passion only music can provide in order to really “get” high-end audio, whether you approach it from a passion for the art or the science. Music is not a passive experience—you have to be engaged with it even if you’re simply sitting in your living room—so the greater the detail in the performance or the playback, the greater the passion and emotion in your heart and soul.

KEF is placing increasing emphasis on wireless/active loudspeakers. Is this where the industry is going?

Because streaming is the future of music and because the available technology makes super-high-performing active systems affordable, there is a definite trend in that direction. But systems made of separates are always going to have a place in the market.

What interesting fact, philosophy, or aspect about KEF might surprise audiophiles?

The level of engineering we do to make our speakers. We attack our design process from the physics level, with a ground-up approach for every product line. It’s the principle the company was founded on, and we’re privileged to still be able to work that way today.

Looking in your crystal ball, where do you see the high end in the next 10 years?

I think we’re entering a new audio renaissance, so I believe more people will come to appreciate high end. The first 15 years of this century were kind of a low point in music appreciation because we were all so fascinated with convenience over quality, but I think we’re beginning to see that was all just a fad. Whether its food, wine, or music, people crave the best possible sensory experience they can get their hands on, and technology has made it possible for music lovers and audiophiles to get amazing audio reproduction that is also convenient beyond anything we thought possible even ten years ago.

What challenges are the high-end industry facing?

Technology is changing at such a rapid rate that it’s hard to know what will be expected of a product in even three or four years’ time. Couple this with the fact that the digital infrastructure on the consumer and provider’s ends are stressed to saturation, and you’ve got challenges that were unheard of until recently. Right now, bandwidth is the biggest tech hurdle, and re-introducing consumers to music that sounds great is the biggest market challenge.

Outside of audio, what do you do for fun?

I ride motorcycles (I’m currently on an Indian), and I’m trying my hand at gentleman farming, but I never really find myself very far from music or audio in some fashion. That’s what’s fun about riding (or cutting hay)—I go without a radio or sound system and just connect with the machine and the surroundings. It’s very liberating and relaxing.

What inspires you about your work?

Sound. Followed by music. I’m extremely privileged to work in an industry and for a company that shares my same passion. It makes it very easy to get up and go to work in the morning. I started fooling around with speakers when I was 14, and after a few career detours here and there it’s amazing to be right back where my passion has always been. 

DALI Rubicon 6 C Wireless Integrated System

I decided to depart from my usual modus operandi, which is to systematically listen to recordings chosen to test a given sonic parameter—bass dynamics, midrange purity, treble extension, soundstage reproduction, image specificity, and so on. Instead, I determined to ramble from genre to genre to see if there was some sort of music that would trip up the Rubicon 6 Cs in a potentially disqualifying way. Spoiler alert: There wasn’t. Here are some highlights from that exercise.

•Symphonic music and opera. With well-recorded classical “power music,” the Rubicon 6 Cs manifested surprisingly good dynamic headroom for what isn’t a large loudspeaker. The finale of Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 (Tilson Thomas/San Francisco) may have been less apocalyptic than with my reference Magico M2s, but the two infamous “hammer” strokes that punctuate the movement’s dramatic trajectory were plenty potent. On this recording and with other large-scale orchestral material, the soundstage was expansive and continuous, with good layered-depth and image localization. The last half-hour of Wagner’s Lohengrin (Janowski) features a rousing extended orchestral interlude, a celebratory chorus, and solo turns by most of the opera’s principals, notably “In ferner Land,” memorably sung by Klaus Florian Vogt in the title role. Through the DALIs, the build in theatrical excitement was palpable, as the spatial and distanced effects created by PentaTone’s engineers registered tellingly.

•Pop and rock. Power pop classics from the 1980s, such as “She’s a Beauty” by The Tubes or Madonna’s “Cherish,” were played by the Rubicon 6 C’s with all the buoyant energy and good spirits that explain their anthemic stature. Well-engineered bass and kick drum locked in with satisfying impact. Music that was a bit edgier, songs like “Dancing in the Dark” (Springsteen) or “Heavy Fuel” (Dire Straits), and—just to name a few from bands whose principals aren’t AARP members just yet—”Hot Thoughts” (Spoon) and “Basket Case” (Green Day) came through with their drive and dynamic life intact. 

•Chamber music and small group jazz. With both genres, the DALIs were a window into the sort of musical groupthink achieved with the most successful small group collaborations. This was the case with well-recorded jazz that’s a bit on the “lite” side (“Three Cowboy Songs” from Dave Grusin’s Discovered Again), as well as with all those records-for-the-ages recorded by a NJ optometrist in his mother’s living room (e.g., “Locomotion” from John Coltrane’s Blue Train). When the Emerson String Quartet decided to cover all eight parts of Schubert’s Octet for Strings, they went to a lot of trouble to assure that the final product didn’t sound like obvious overdubbing. The four players frequently changed seats and used different instruments for the “second pass.” The revealing nature of the Rubicon 6 Cs made all the production summersaults worth the effort.

•Vocals and choral music. Favorite singers—Linda Ronstadt (“When You Wish Upon A Star”), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Schubert’s “Die Heimweh”), Cécile McLorin Salvant (“Growlin’ Dan”), Aaron Neville (“Tell It Like It Is”)—sounded utterly like themselves, communicating a song’s meaning as if the electromechanical interface had disappeared. Good choral recordings of both early repertoire (Stile Antico singing “Never weather-beaten sail”) and contemporary music (Kile Smith’s Grammy-nominated The Arc in the Sky from The Crossing Choir) demonstrated both the beauty of individual voices and the revelatory blend and balances achieved by the best ensembles.

•Plucked instruments. There’s no better demo recording for this kind of musical material than Tone Poems, a collection of 17 duets from Tony Rice and David Grisman, who play a different guitar and mandolin on each selection. The initial attack of a note is convincingly attached to the subsequent body of the tone and subtle differences in the size and sonority of the vintage instruments are beautifully delineated. The Stockholm Guitar Quartet’s arrangement of the opening Allegro from J. S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, on the Opus 3 label, is similarly successful, thanks to the speed of the Rubicon’s hybrid tweeter and its smooth transition to the speaker’s upper midrange/bass driver.

The Curious Treatment

Russ Curry had an epiphany the first time he heard Kraftwerk’s landmark 1974 electronic-pop album Autobahn. “When I was 12 or 13 years old, I lived in the Midwest and like everyone else I listened to Boston or Kansas or stuff like that. It was boring,” says Curry, speaking on his cell phone while driving near his home in Iowa City. “The music and the culture seemed boring—I’ve since learned that it’s not what’s on the outside, it’s what’s on the inside that counts. Still, hearing Autobahn rung my bell in a big way. It led me to understand not only that maybe there was a different way to listen to music, but also that I could live my life differently.

“That music spoke very clearly to me.” 

In 1988, after graduating from the University of Iowa, Curry founded Curious Music, a small-town Midwest label dedicated to electronic music. He started releasing works, in both solo and in collaborative configurations, by such legendary artists as the Swiss-born German electronic musician and composer Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius, both of Cluster; the West German record producer and musician Conny Plank (who helped to define the krautrock genre); and British ambient-music composer Roger Eno, the younger brother of producer and musician Brian Eno. 

“I was being exposed to all of this incredible music that I thought nobody knew about,” he says. “I felt like I had encountered this secret world with this secret musical language. I wanted to bring it to the world.”

But by 2001, before the advent of the internet and social media, Curry found it difficult to build an adequate audience and the label fell dormant. The 2017 death of David Bowie reignited his interest. “That gave me pause for thought,” he says of the reboot. “His death reminded me how short life is. I felt the work of Curious Music was unfinished. I found I still had the flame, the passion, to do this type of work.”

In the past four years, Curious has released or re-issued works by Roedelius, Brian Eno, former Windham Hill artist Tim Story, ex-Dream Academy member Kate St. John and Harold Budd, including the vinyl edition of Budd’s intriguing 1996 minimalist masterwork Luxa. Recent releases include Invisible Hand, Heavy Color’s soundtrack to an environmental-justice film documentary produced by Mark Ruffalo (reviewed in Issue 314); and Green Cone, by composer and visual artist Amanda Berlind, which is accompanied by a comic book. Upcoming projects include a solo album from Icelandic film composer Bjarni Biering plus Moebius Strips, a museum installation of work by the late Dieter Moebius of Cluster.

Last year, Curry also published the English translation of The Book: The Autobiography of Hans-Joachim Roedelius, a limited-edition hardbound work from the now 86-year-old music pioneer with a foreword by Brian Eno. The book marks a decades-long relationship between Curry and Roedelius that started with a fan letter. At 16, Curry wrote Roedelius to share his admiration for the visionary musician. Two months later, Roedelius replied with a hand-written letter accompanied by a dried flower. “I could not believe it,” Curry says. “It was like getting something from Mars. It had a huge effect on me. To get a friendly hand-written letter—and a flower—from this amazing talent, who to me was as important as the Beatles or Chuck Berry, just blew my mind. 

“It stuck with me.”

His passion infuses the high-quality product released by Curious Music—Curry calls it the Curious Treatment. “I want my releases to be an experience,” he says. “It’s an artful product, not just a record release—there’s a spiritual experience for those that want that. We’re presenting music that has a deep emotional and spiritual aspect to it.”

Curry even puts “a little Easter egg” in each release, though he declines to elaborate. “That’s the reason I call the label Curious Music,” he says. “I want the music to create a curiosity within the listener, as happened to me when I was 12 years old. It lit a fire in my brain and in my heart. I want to make sure that all those things are there and that for whatever level the listener wants to engage in, it’s there for them.”

Pro-Ject Debut Carbon EVO Turntable

Let’s dive into listening with one of the most exciting releases of 2020: The Cowboy Bebop soundtrack. Anyone in high school during the early 2000s likely saw that show on Adult Swim, and it remains one of the best animated television series ever made—and perhaps one of the best shows, period. The soundtrack, a beautiful blend of soulful jazz and electronica, sounded absolutely great on the EVO. The iconic title track “Tank!” is an upbeat swinging tune, and the deck did a great job of keeping pace. The congas danced and slammed, the horns screamed, and that incredible sax at the very end had the perfect blend of purposefully shrill then buttery smooth. Instant nostalgia-dopamine hit every time I listened, made even better by the very nice pacing from the EVO. Next up was “Space Lion,” a lilting ballad with plenty of reverb and an expansive synth. The saxophone was centered and gentle, with precise tone, and the shimmering synths rolled in in enormous waves. The singing voices toward the end filled in the soundfield, and though I didn’t understand what they were singing, it didn’t matter. The presentation was just right on the EVO, and brought back the show—and the shock that a cartoon could make you feel anything at all—as any good soundtrack should.

For me, right now, listening notes wouldn’t be complete without a jazz recording, and I figure nothing’s better than Art Blakey for testing out a rig’s boogie. Roots & Herbs, recently released in the Blue Note Tone Poet series, features six Wayne Shorter-penned tunes, with the title track acting as a great standout and testing ground. Cymbals were sharp, and Blakey’s spontaneous cries from the drum chair resonated in the background as he encouraged the soloists. Blakey’s drumming, in particular, was crisp and large, with Jymie Merritt’s bass providing a solid, grooving foundation. Lee Morgan’s solo was a great screaming trumpet blast, set squarely in the left channel and echoing outward. I was impressed by the EVO’s ability to sound natural and dead-center on the beat. Blakey’s solo was driving and powerful, typical of the maestro, and the EVO did an admirable job of keeping up, never slipping when the full band came back in.

Next, I turned to something with a little more funk. J&K: Stonebone is a gnarly release on the CTI label, featuring J. J. Johnson and Kai Winding. This particular version is a recent Record Store Day release, and it sounds fantastic. “Mojo” starts with some eerie electric piano, followed by trombone, and finally drops into a nice, deep jam. I was nodding along with that first tempo shift, and the funk factor was powerful through the EVO. The deck did a great job of keeping that tight, steady beat in tune. Bass could feel a touch bloated and a little soft, though it’s hard to say what was to blame for that—the cartridge or the ’table itself. Still, the sound was never unpleasant, and I actually like a bit of low-end bloom—to give bass lines a little more heft. Midrange, particularly the trombones, sounded tight, and sparkled a bit as the brasses hit those higher notes. As the track built, with more instruments coming in, the EVO never lost a step, and the soundstage had solid depth to it.

I ended my listening with an interesting release called 2nd Wave by Roland Hayes on the Black Jazz label, recently reissued by Real Gone Records. It’s a quartet session with two keyboards, which is a fascinating sound. The keys shimmer in spots, and get dark and dirty in others. Overall, it’s a really great record. However, keeping the two keyboards separate can sometimes be a challenge, but the EVO never felt like it struggled to keep up. Even on the upbeat title track “Second Wave,” the shimmering runs and lush chords blended, interplayed, and danced around some really tight drumming. From what I could tell, one set of keys was in the left channel, the other set in the right, with drums and bass dead center. I could almost see them up on a stage like that—two dueling players. It’s one of the oddest quartet sessions I’ve ever heard, and truly great.

By the time I finished with this review, the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon EVO had disappeared into my system. It sounded terrific, and for a while there I was totally content with a turntable that costs a fifth of my main deck. That’s almost astonishing, but not quite, not really, since I know Pro-Ject makes great-sounding gear at reasonable prices. The EVO is no exception, and I can easily recommend it to anyone looking for an entry-level turntable that’ll perform for years to come. It’s the sort of turntable that a first-time audiophile could build a system around, and not need to upgrade for a long while. To my ears, this is the one to beat.

Specs & Pricing

Type: Belt-driven turntable
Speed: 33/45rpm electronic speed control, 78rpm-compatible
Wow and flutter: 33rpm, ±0.19%; 45rpm, ±0.17%
Signal-to-noise: 68dB
Tonearm: 8.6″, carbon-fiber, one-piece tonearm
Effective tonearm length: 218.5mm
Effective arm mass: 6.0g
Overhang: 18.5mm
Dimensions: 16.3″ x 4.4″ x 12.6″
Weight: 13.2 lbs.
Price: $499

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sumikoaudio.net
project-audio.com

Patricia Barber: Café Blue

A lot of ink has been spilled pondering Patricia Barber’s offbeat, moody, and meandering pop/jazz classic Café Blue. Fueled with supersonic DNA, this 1994 audiophile chestnut has often been reissued. Pinning down the definitive vinyl edition can be daunting, but Impex Records has met the challenge. Sourcing Premonition Records’ 2011 remix, Impex employed the costly 1Step process, which bypasses the father/mother stages. With Kevin Gray handling the 1Step mastering chores, Barber’s interpretations spring from the grooves with discrete imaging, electric immediacy, and immersive ambience. A showcase for Barber’s crack trio of players, Barber’s distinctive voicings play unselfishly within the groove of the band. Tracks like “What a Shame” and Too Rich for My Blood” shine with finely wrought transients, shudder with deep-water bass extension, expressive percussion, and full bloom piano harmonics. Cymbals flare outward into the widest expanses of the soundstage. The sheer lack of veiling or groove noise testifies to the use of Neotech’s vinyl formulation, VR900 Supreme. Pressed at RTI, the 45rpm double LP is exquisitely slipcase-packaged and annotated. You’ve never heard Café Blue like this before.