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First Watt F8 Stereo Power Amplifier

By my count the F8 represents the sixteenth First Watt power amp authored by the undeniably prolific Nelson Pass. Each unit has been a unique creation said to be “best” in some particular way, though they all happen to look similar because they use the same basic chassis and power transformer. The F8 represents a variation on the popular J2. Its origins go back to 2015, when Nelson had the notion to create a design similar to the J2, based on the SemiSouth Silicon-Carbide R100 power JFET, but using an alternative front-end gain stage. The prototype, says Nelson, was a clear improvement, but because of the J2’s popularity the decision was made to wait. After some additional work over the past six years, that alternative design was finally released as the F8. It is a stereo single-ended Class A amplifier with only two gain-stage devices per channel, a single Toshiba 2SJ74 JFET input, and the SiC R100 power JFET output. Both of these transistors are no longer in production, but available in limited quantities from the First Watt new-old-stock “vault.”      

Circuit-wise, the F8 is quite similar to the J2 amplifier with a virtually identical output stage. However, only one front-end transistor is used instead of six, and it is operated as a current-feedback amplifier as opposed to the J2’s voltage-feedback design. One consequence is reduced gain (only 15dB), but according to Nelson, a simpler front end is more consistent with the single-ended approach to amplifier design and pays off in a purer second-harmonic character, less distortion with lower negative feedback, greater bandwidth, and a higher damping factor. Specifically, comparing the published specs for the J2 and F8, it’s clear that the F8’s damping factor and high-frequency response are twice as good, and that its THD is 0.02% versus the J2’s 0.03%. Unlike the J2, the F8 does not have a balanced input. It also incorporates AC output-coupling in the form of two large electrolytics (10,000µF each) in parallel, bypassed by one polypropylene cap, to eliminate any DC at the output. The resultant bass roll-off frequency is 1Hz. 

Power output is similar, as well. Keep in mind that this is a low-power amplifier, 25Wpc into an 8-ohm load and half that into a 4-ohm load. As such it needs to be carefully matched with a compatible speaker. An 8-ohm speaker with a minimum sensitivity of 90dB would be ideal. The Fleetwood DeVille that I grew quite fond of this past year (and reviewed in Issue 309) was used for all the listening tests. It certainly meets the requirements and offers a sensitivity of 94dB, to boot. The F8’s power dissipation is 170 watts to produce an output of 25Wpc, which means quite a bit of waste heat. Be sure to allow plenty of ventilation around the chassis. Even so, it runs fairly hot to the touch after about an hour of being powered up.

first watt f8 rear

So what does it sound like? Well, it turned out to be the sonic equivalent of Reyka, an Icelandic vodka that has been said to taste dangerously close to fresh water. The F8 started off much like a tabula rasa, a clean slate, distinguished by the absence of inherent sonic colorations. It didn’t sound bright or warm, but consistently took on the flavor of whatever front end I threw at it. That’s not to say that it didn’t have its own sonic imprint. To my way of thinking, what it did right was a logical consequence of a confluence of three factors: simple single-ended circuit topology, wide bandwidth, and an excellent damping factor. 

The resultant airy treble, tonal purity, and superb transient speed were instantly endearing. So was its startling soundstage transparency. It shouldn’t come as a surprise when I tell you that my favorite matching preamp was of the vacuum-tube variety. The F8 allowed tube virtues such as a deep and layered soundstage to shine through, while maintaining an authoritative midbass. Tympani strikes were staggering; drum kits were persuasively resolved with satisfying kick-drum crunch; and brush work was delicate. It was like having your cake and eating it, too. The upper bass and lower midrange weren’t shabby, either. On my favorite performance of the Dvorˇák Cello Concerto in B Minor, with Jacqueline du Pré and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniel Barenboim [EMI CDC-7476142], the loving collaboration of soloist and orchestra shone with emotional intensity and uncommon clarity. 

When it came to macrodynamics, 99% of the time I didn’t feel that I was missing anything. On a rare occasion, on highly dynamic material, there was a hint of compression. But most of the time the F8 didn’t sound at all like a low-power amp. It managed to project plenty of authority through the power range of the orchestra. Coupled with its robust boogie factor, it was able to extract the music’s dramatic content with total conviction.

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 Imperative

High end audio faces an imperative: to expand its market before traditional customers age out, young prospects opt for ultimate convenience over superior sonics, and well-heeled, middle-aged professionals succumb to the more discreet aesthetics and intuitive usability of CI. (For those unfamiliar with that last acronym, it stands for “Custom Installation.” CI is a massive field in which the bulk of high-end manufacturers play no role.)

Every producer in our industry is aware of the imperative to expand the customer base. Most are addressing it in the form of new products aimed at attracting new customers. Thus, we see even uber-high-end purveyors like Goldmund offering headphone amps and compact integrateds. Yet while moving into new product categories is clearly a necessary step, is it sufficient?

In particular, is the traditional audio dealer—dimly-lit, dark-hued, bursting with intimidating gear stacked on industrial-looking racks—where Millennials and affluent families really want to go to drop a sizable portion of their discretionary funds? Perhaps not. The younger crowd is accustomed to Best Buy, where they can find Sonos, or Bose shop. And, as already noted, those middle-aged couples building their dream home are highly susceptible to the comfy environs that CI dealers offer. Maybe, then, in addition to a broader product range, high-end expansion also requires a rethink of the traditional dealer.

That’s certainly the premise behind recent moves by the VerVent Audio Group, owner of English electronics manufacturer Naim and French speaker builder Focal. VerVent is working with its worldwide dealer network to create new, dedicated places to showcase and sell Naim and Focal products. The new spaces are called “Focal powered by Naim” stores, and, though they may be located within or adjacent to existing dealers, they are very different from those traditional outlets.

To create a store, VerVent shares the cost and workload with a partner dealer. Specifically, VerVent dictates elements (color scheme, graphics, etc) that define the store’s “look and feel.” The company also generates an initial store layout, optimized for the available space, and proposes an initial equipment configuration. Both are subject to the dealer’s revision and approval. Finally, VerVent provides financial assistance for both constructing the store and populating it with demo gear. The end result is owned, staffed and operated by the dealer. Once the new store is up and running, the relationship between the manufacturer and the dealer reverts to normal.

The benefits of this approach are easy to glean. Because the look of these stores is centrally controlled, Naim and Focal maintain a consistent, recognizable visual presence worldwide. At the same time, the stores cement in the customer’s mind the close relationship between Naim and Focal. Finally, unlike other schemes being tried by some high-end manufacturers, such as direct or online sales, the VerVent approach ensures that it is never in competition with its dealers. Most significantly, this model gives both VerVent and participating dealers an opportunity to create an entirely new environment attuned to the tastes of a broader audience.

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

The next time that audiophile catalog lands in your mailbox—you know, the one that’s been coming every month or so ever since you bought a gallon of record cleaning fluid sometime during the second Clinton administration—take a close look at the photos used to show off the equipment to its best advantage. A Spartan turntable sits on a tastefully distressed wood-plank table with three potted cacti looking on admiringly. A top-quality surround-sound system is displayed in a living room on a well-maintained oak floor with glimpses of an expensive-looking Persian rug and a contemporary Italian glass coffee table in the frame. A sleek equipment rack holding thousands of dollars worth of gear sits beneath an abstract watercolor. The presentation is intended to communicate that owning good audio gear demonstrates an appreciation for the finer things in life. But do the hypothetical inhabitants of these refined spaces only look and not listen? I ask because there’s not a cable in sight.

The idea of a wireless audio system has a lot of appeal, and not just because of aesthetic considerations. There’s the chance for a designer to optimally match amplification to a loudspeaker’s drivers and enclosure. There’s all the assets and angst spared by not having to deal with interconnects and speaker cables. Although most active loudspeakers are smaller models intended for desktop or studio use, the product class has been burgeoning lately, and there have been some recent high-profile successes with full-range models aimed at the audiophile market. Bruno Putzeys’ Kii Three, the Gayle Sanders’ Eikon, and several others have joined offerings from trailblazer Meridian Audio. In the loudspeaker game since 1983, Denmark’s Dali—that’s Danish Audiophile Loudspeaker Industries—has decided to commit resources to this approach, as well.

Dali introduced two powered loudspeakers in 2017, the Callisto 2 and Callisto 6. The bookshelf Rubicon 2 C and the Rubicon 6 C floorstander considered here are the first instances of DALI taking an existing product (the Rubicon 6, at $5499 per pair, debuted in 2014) and building in the wireless technology of the Callistos. The Rubicon 6 C, with the DALI Sound Hub that serves as a streaming preamplifier connecting wirelessly to the loudspeakers, retails for a smidge under $8800.

The DALI Rubicon 6 C loudspeakers are handsome, if conventional-appearing rectangular boxes measuring 7.9″ (W) x 39.1″ (H) x 15.0″ (D). Each speaker weighs in at 45.8 pounds. The 6 C is a 2½-way bass-reflex system, with both its hybrid tweeter and two 6.5″ mid/bass drivers built by DALI in Denmark using European-manufactured parts. The high-frequency unit combines a 1″ soft dome, featuring a copper-clad aluminum voice coil, and a wide-dispersion magnetostatic ribbon. The complete tweeter assembly functions from about 2500Hz to beyond 30kHz. The mid/woofer has a wood-fiber diaphragm that’s both light and rigid, possessing an uneven surface that assures more ideal pistonic movement of the membrane. Perhaps the driver’s most significant design element is the Soft Magnetic Compound (SMC) used to replace a key iron part of the magnet structure. As explained to me by DALI CEO Lars Worre, SMC is “a pulverized material consisting of very small iron particles, which are individually coated so that when you press them together into a form, none of the particles will—electrically—be in contact. Consequentially, there will be no electrical conductivity: SMC is around ten thousand times less electrically conductive than iron but has the same excellent abilities to conduct magnetism.” DALI manufactures its mid/bass driver’s pole piece entirely from SMC, enclosing it in a slitted copper cap. A measurable consequence of this design is the virtual elimination of hysteresis, a phenomenon resulting from the asymmetry of the magnetization/demagnetization process that introduces distortion-causing resistance to the voice coil. Despite that, by necessity the SMC pole piece is located close to the magnet gap. Worre said, “We don’t lose energy to the surrounding iron materials, and the result is a dramatic reduction in distortion, particularly with odd-order harmonics.”

The Rubicon’s enclosure is fabricated from MDF, with the drivers attached directly to a one-inch-thick front baffle. Strategic internal bracing is used to reduce standing waves and resonances. There are three available finishes, all priced the same—black and white gloss lacquer and walnut veneer. The mid/bass drivers are situated in two equal-sized internal compartments, each with its own rear-firing port tuned to 36.5Hz. The 6 C employs two identical, 250W, self-oscillating, “Eigentakt” Class D amplifiers; one powers the tweeter unit and the other the two mid/bass drivers. The crossover is a hybrid of active DSP filtering and passive analog topology with hand-off frequencies of 800Hz (bottom to top midrange/bass driver), 2.6kHz (top mid/bass to dome tweeter) and 14kHz (dome to ribbon.) The system’s DAC lives in the loudspeaker, a Burr-Brown 1796 chipset. This is a PCM-only device, so those devoted to native DSD may be disappointed. Lars Worre wasn’t exactly sympathetic. “From a radio transmission point of view, we could have quite easily decided to transfer a DSD stream with oversampling corresponding to the commonly used 2.8MHz version,” he told me. “But it would have called for another platform for D-to-A conversion in the speaker. We decided to stay with the rather good-sounding 24-bit/96kHz basic format, as the use of true DSD sources is so commercially marginalized that we believe it will never, in reality, be an issue for actual customers.”

On the rear of each Rubicon 6 C, where you’d expect to find the binding posts, are an AC connector for the supplied power cord, a rocker-type power switch, a USB service port, and an RCA input to allow the loudspeaker to get line-level input from an external preamp or processor instead of DALI’s wireless Sound Hub. Above these connections is a small screen that illuminates to guide the wireless pairing process, and above that is the critical Link/Connect button. Each 6 C is provided with two metal bars that fit neatly into recesses on the speaker’s bottom to create a stabilizing outrigger structure. Four supplied spikes can be threaded into the bars; rubber bumpers are an alternative. A single grille attaches with plastic pins to cover all the drivers. Like most loudspeaker grilles, it’s not completely transparent sonically, and should be removed for critical listening—though the same party who OK’d the speakers’ admission to a shared living space because of the absence of cables may balk at the prospect of exposed drivers. So, it goes.

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

Turntables are inconvenient. That’s the nature of the beasts. They have to be large enough to accommodate and spin a 12″ vinyl disc, along with all the accoutrements. They range from hulking, massive monstrosities that take an entire village to move, down to minimalist cutouts that are barely more than a rotating platter and a tonearm floating on a pedestal. What’s exciting about the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon EVO ($499) is the potential for down-the-rabbit-hole tweaks married to almost absurd simplicity. 

That simplicity is a beautiful illusion. The Carbon EVO is Pro-Ject’s upgrade to its popular entry-level deck, and it adds some very interesting features: an improved motor suspension, height-adjustable damped-metal feet, dampening material in the interior of the platter, and speed-swapping at the flip of a switch. Plus, Pro-Ject now bundles the EVO with the Sumiko Rainier cartridge, which is a solid performer. All this augments what was an already attractive, high-quality package, which includes Pro-Ject’s 8.6″ carbon-fiber tonearm with easy-to-use RCA outputs. The Carbon EVO doesn’t come with the built-in phono preamp that many manufacturers shove in there at this price point, but I definitely didn’t mind its absence.

The EVO feels premium. That was the first thing that came to mind. The sleek, glossy finish, the gorgeous tonearm, the solid weight…all made the Carbon EVO seem like a step beyond a standard entry-level deck. I love that it comes in more than one color, and while my review unit was a staid white, I wouldn’t mind checking out the satin-blue, or green, or yellow models. Aesthetics are important, maybe not as important as sound, but we do have to live with these things, after all, and I hate staring at ugly stuff. 

But what impressed me the most was the easy setup, something that seems more and more necessary for an entry-level deck. Turntables are tweaky, and yes, very inconvenient, but the best entry models distill that set-up process into something manageable, something that won’t frustrate and completely annoy a first-time future audiophile. It’s an interesting dance of packaging and instructions, but Pro-Ject got it right. The EVO took me under ten minutes to set up, and everything felt dialed-in and ready to go almost immediately. Since I’ve installed more than a few of these entry-level ’tables at this point, I didn’t have to refer back to the manual over and over again; nonetheless, Pro-Ject did a fantastic job of making the steps as simple and straight-forward as possible. Kudos to the designers on that one. I particularly loved the adjustable feet, which made leveling the deck as easy as placing a bubble on the platter. I stuck to using only what Pro-Ject provided for the initial install, then double-checked everything using my own gear, and have to admit that it was really close to perfect from the start. I’d say a total novice could do this without any problems in a half hour or less, provided he was careful.

I’m particularly fussy, though, which shouldn’t be a surprise. So, in the spirit of that fuss, here are two small quibbles. First, Pro-Ject included a felt platter mat. I know, groans and eyerolls, lots of folks like felt, but I find it particularly abhorrent. I’ve just never liked felt, and this was no exception. Very minor thing, and easily remedied. Second, the power cord is strangely short. It barely reached my power receptacle, which was maybe four feet away. Again, this can be remedied with an aftermarket cord, but be aware of this, and reach out to your dealer or Pro-Ject to ensure that whatever cord you choose works fine. 

Those gripes out of the way, in almost every other department the EVO really ticked my boxes and then some. The addition of electronic speed-switching, in particular, is a huge bonus, saving folks from having to lift off the platter and touch the belt every time they want to change from 33 to 45rpm. And, let’s be honest, I can’t imagine many people are actually using a belt-switching tool, so they’re grabbing the belt with their dirty, greasy fingers, and getting the whole drive mechanism filthy. With the EVO, you can eat as much fried food as you want and still jump between your favorite formats. 

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.