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TAS Announces Retirement of Publisher Jim Hannon

Austin, TX, September 22, 2021 –Nextscreen, LLC, publishers of The Absolute Sound magazine, today announced that Jim Hannon, publisher, will retire on October 1, 2021. “Jim has been a valued member of the executive team for many years and has played a critical role in the success of The Absolute Sound. With Jim’s leadership, we have launched many innovative initiatives, including expanding the number of issues published, building our web and social media presence, and publishing The Absolute Sound’s Illustrated History of High-End Audio, volumes 1 and 2” said Tom Martin, CEO of Nextscreen.

Hannon joined The Absolute Sound in 2004, moving into the publisher’s role in 2008. In addition to his publishing duties, Jim has written many reviews for the magazine, reflective of his love of music and audio. He is an accomplished classical pianist and singer, and his experience with live music informed his evaluation of audio products, a role that will continue after his retirement from the publisher role.

Hannon said, “I would like to thank Tom Martin for giving me this extraordinary opportunity at The Absolute Sound (TAS). Working with the first-class editorial team at TAS, especially Robert Harley and Jonathan Valin, as well as many of the industry’s leading manufacturers, distributors, and dealers has been a highlight of my professional career. I appreciate their support and, in many cases, their friendships. Additionally, I would also like to thank the marketing and sales, circulation, and design teams, as well as our production partners, for their superlative efforts on behalf of TAS. I shall miss working with them.”

Martin added that “Jim, like many of us, has experienced the challenges of aging, and we understand that there comes a time when attending to one’s family is of paramount importance. Still, we will miss having Jim as publisher. We’re happy to have had a publisher who has become a good friend to our staff and to many key members of the audio community. Please join us in congratulating Jim on a great career in the industry.”

Willie Nelson: That’s Life

This tribute to Willie’s friend and mutual admirer, Frank Sinatra, comes from a man who’s no stranger to jazz and the Great American Songbook. Willie’s approach is understated; a few soaring moments in “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” make me wish for more, but I’ll take understatement over maudlin. In “You Make Me Feel So Young,” a little grit in the clarity of his voice makes the sentiment believable; there’s some outstanding trumpet work, too. Willie really sells “That’s Life,” his ups and downs coming through clear as a bell. “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” walks a fine line between affection and regret. In 2018’s My Way, his interpretation of the title track was simply unbeatable, summing up the record perfectly. Shilkret & Austin’s “Lonesome Road” is the finale here, and while the Red-Headed Stranger is more foreboding than Ol’ Blue Eyes, neither comes close to Rafe Hollister on the Andy Griffith Show or Bob Dylan’s appropriation on “Sugar Baby” (Love and Theft). Still, That’s Life is a solid RBI. There’s little twang, and the concise arrangements are for a mostly acoustic combo complemented occasionally by brass or a bouquet of strings.

Fender x Mobile Fidelity Electronics Release Fender’s First High-Performance Turntable

The following is a press release issued by Fender and MoFi.

HOLLYWOOD, Calif. (September 21, 2021) — Fender Musical Instruments Corporation (FMIC), the world’s largest guitar manufacturer, and foremost audio technology company, Mobile Fidelity Electronics (MoFi), announced today a partnership to develop, produce, and release Fender’s first-ever turntable, the Fender® x MoFi PrecisionDeck. Limited to a run of only 1,000 units, and priced at $3,495.00 USD, the high-end turntable is available for purchase today at Fender.com and MoFi.com, or see a list of authorized MoFi retailers at mofielectronics.com.

The Fender x MoFi PrecisionDeck, is a high-performance turntable in every way, with gorgeous looks that resonate with decades of music history. With a shape designed by Principal Master Builder Yuriy Shishkov of the Fender Custom Shop (FCS), the PrecisionDeck utilizes the same wood, swamp ash, as the famed Fender Precision Bass® guitar. The blanks of swamp ash are sourced, milled, and finished in the iconic three-color sunburst by Fender USA. The components are designed and built by MoFi, and the deck is assembled, featuring technology from the award-winning UltraDeck, with testing and setup by MoFi at the company’s factory in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The turntable table is virtually ready to play straight out of the box with its pre-mounted MoFi MasterTracker pickup. Each limited-edition unit is individually numbered, badged, and certain to become a collector’s item. “Having the opportunity to work with MoFi to bring this turntable to life has been a pleasure. The turntable finish comes in our legendary and iconic 3-color Sunburst and of course, uses the same ash wood used to make the Fender Precision Bass® guitar,” noted Yuriy Shishkov, Fender Custom Shop Principal Master Builder.

The journey of the PrecisionDeck has been an authentic collaboration between two respected brands within the industry. MoFi is renowned for remastering some of the greatest records of all time, and collaborating on a turntable with the Fender brand, whose instruments are widely featured on those albums, was a natural fit. MoFi Electronics President, John Schaffer said, “Working with the entire Fender team has been a great pleasure and we could not be more excited or proud of the result. From the beginning, creating this turntable has been a joy. The ideas on how to leverage both companies’ strengths and create something authentic and special just flowed. With the very first prototype we knew we were really on to something, as folks would stop by to admire what we were creating.”

Along the journey, MoFi learned of a story that convinced them that the PrecisionDeck was fated to be. In the early 1940s, Leo Fender was operating Fender® Radio Service in Fullerton, Calif. His primary business was repairing home audio equipment—radios, TVs, and hi-fi sets. In 1945, Fender, with fellow inventors Doc Kauffman and Clifton Abbott, designed and patented a turntable of his own. Fender ultimately sold the turntable rights in 1945 for $5,000 in advance royalties and used the proceeds as seed money to fund the K&F Manufacturing Corporation with Kauffman. K&F manufactured lap steel guitars, amplifiers, and the record player for a short time before Kauffman sold his share in the company to Fender. Undaunted by Kauffman’s departure, Leo Fender established Fender Electric Instruments in 1946. Now, 75 years later, Fender’s name is once again gracing a technologically advanced turntable.

The Fender® x MoFi  PrecisionDeck is available now for purchase within the U.S. at MoFi.com and Fender.com, and as well as select wholesale partners globally (for a list of authorized MoFi retailers, visit mofielectronics.com). For more information visit www.fender.com.

2021 Golden Ear Awards | Matt Clott

Timbernation Racks

Price varies

Chris from Timbernation is a down-to-earth guy, who knows how to build a solid product customized to your exact needs at a fair and reasonable price. He utilizes thick shelves of solid maple to reduce resonance and incorporates brass spikes when the customer requests them to create a functional, great-sounding, and beautiful piece of audio furniture. There is no state-of-the-art, constrained-layer-damping tech or suspended isolation implemented—just good ol’ high-quality carpentry and hand-built quality. I had Chris make me a custom-designed two-tone equipment rack (from tiger maple), and he knocked it out of the park (around $4k retail for my build). I chose Timbernation for its sonic performance, value, quality, and Chris’s willingness to customize. To augment the sonic performance of my rack, I utilize Symposium Ultra shelves and double-stack Rollerblocks. So, my first Golden Ear this year goes to Timbernation. Chris also built an LP rack I designed to perfectly match the audio rack ($750). No, it does not provide the levels of isolation of Critical Mass Systems, HRS, or a full-on Symposium rack. But I wasn’t willing (at that time) to invest the massive amount to acquire what I needed from those exceptional companies.

Magnepan LRS Loudspeaker

$650

These speakers have been reviewed and raved about ad nauseam. So, I’m going to make you more nauseam! My office system consists of a simple Hegel all-in-one integrated and a pair of Magnepan LRS speakers, along with an old sub I’ve had since college (and my kids are now in college). For $650, the LRS simply gets me to the music, and that’s just crazy! With a massive stage, articulate and well-defined presentation, and the speed of a McLaren, the LRSes get out of the way and leave behind just what I want to hear. Add my rave to the pile. 

 

Pilium Electronics Alexander PreamplifierPilium Electronics Alexander Preamplifier and Achilles Power Amplifier 

$50,000/$50,000

I was exposed to Pilium Electronics when I visited Rhapsody Audio in NYC and reported on it in the blog section of our website. I have been back several times to Rhapsody since then to hear various and sundry other components (Bob is always a terrific host), and the Pilium always impressed—like really impressed. Eventually, I requested a home audition and was even more impressed. The Pilium Achilles (300Wpc stereo amp) and matching Alexander two-chassis preamp have since become my ultra-references. Unlimited power combined with the finesse of a neurosurgeon, the dexterity of a magician, the accuracy of a NASA astrophysicist, and the majesty of the entire Himalayan mountain range about sums it up. No-brainer Golden Ear Award!

Montreux Jazz Festival Opens the Floodgates

Montreux Jazz Festival’s founder, Claude Nobs, began the festival in 1966, and almost immediately started recording and archiving all the festival’s performances. Over the years the Montreux Festival’s musical collection has expanded into a rich library of performances that document the artistic evolution of many musical greats. Finally, through an arrangement with BMG, these historic moments will become far more widely available. The first releases from what will be an extensive series of albums are by Etta James and Nina Simone. The albums will be available in a multitude of formats, including a double LP, a 2-CD set, and streaming (with MQA on Tidal, FLAC on Qobuz). The next three artists in the featured in the series will be Marianne Faithfull, Muddy Waters, and John McLaughlin, and the plan is to put out ten titles in 2022. In most cases listeners will have the options of choosing between a 2-LP set and a single CD.

Executive producer Fraser Kennedy enlisted mastering engineer Tony Cousins to handle the project. According to Cousins, “The audio quality of some of these recordings was extremely variable. The different formats of the original recordings included ¼”, ½”, DAT, U-matic, and 1″ Betacam. Some used multi-track for mixing later, some came from a feed to the mixing desk, and others were taken from Swiss radio broadcasts. The analogue audio was mostly transferred to the archive at 96k.” While I was writing this review, the CDs and LPs have not yet been released, so I was sent 16/44.1 WAV files to audition. Judging by the hooded character to the crowd clapping on the earliest tracks, I suspect a couple of selections were taken from an original cassette recording, but even the tracks with the least fidelity are more than listenable, while the best-sounding cuts are near-reference quality.

Etta James: The Montreux Years

There are two versions of this release. The LP contains 13 cuts on two LPs while the CD and streaming versions have 21 tunes on two CDs. Since I hadn’t received the LPs, I listened to the CD/streaming release version. The first of the two CDs has selections from 1977, 1978, 1989, 1990, and 1993. The newest material contained therein has three songs from a July 15, 1993, show. The second CD of the two-CD set contains all nine tunes from a show that took place on July 11, 1975. While the later material displays more showmanship, the earlier material demonstrates how strong and flexible Etta James’ voice was during her “prime.” Also, the later songs have more solos and longer solos, with Ms. James sharing the limelight with her most excellent band.

Two songs sequenced next to each other on the first CD, “Tell Mama” from 1977 and “Running and Hiding Blues” from 1990, show how Etta James’ band sound changed over the years. In 1977 the band featured a horn section and more of a traditional R&B sound. By 1990 her band was more rock and roll, driven by guitars and a harmonica soloist rather than horns. Regardless of whether the performance is from the late 70s or early aughts, one thing remains the same—James’ energy and ability to connect with the audience. 

Nina Simone: The Montreux Years

Like the Etta James release, the Nina Simone album is available in two versions. The LP version contains 16 tracks. The earliest is from 1968 while the latest are from 1990. The 2-CD digital version has 29 tracks. The first CD has 15 tracks that duplicate the LP, while the second CD has the complete concert in Kursaal from June 16, 1968. On the LP and first CD you can hear how Simone’s performances changed over the years. The earliest selections have far more singing and shorter spoken word sections than later performances. The 1990 selections are more like spoken words to music than songs.

After listening to the first CD, which displays the wide arc of Ms. Simone’s different performances, the second CD (and the streaming versions available via Tidal and Qobuz) delivers one complete set from the time when Ms. Simone was more into music than activism, which I suspect some percentage of her audience may prefer to her later shows. Although the distortion on the organ and other instruments is quite noticeable, Ms. Simone’s vocals are clear and up front and from her first notes her unmistakable timbre is abundantly present.

I will admit that I spent far more time listening to the second CD than the first. I thoroughly enjoyed hearing this set’s much tighter orchestrations and Ms. Simone’s voice when she was in her prime, which gives those of us who never had the opportunity to hear her live during this time a chance to experience the measure of her true greatness. 

NAD Launches New C 399 Hybrid Digital DAC Amplifier

The following is a press release issued by NAD Electronics.

PICKERING, ONTARIO, CANADA SEPTEMBER 21, 2021– NAD Electronics, the highly regarded manufacturer of high-performance audio/video components, takes value and performance to a whole new level. The C 399 Hybrid Digital DAC Amplifier is the clearest expression yet of NAD’s commitment to sonic excellence and lasting value. Employing NAD’s HybridDigital™ nCore™ amplification, which until now has been available only on Masters Series amplifiers, the C 399 is the new flagship integrated amplifier in NAD’s Classic Series. The C 399’s digital section is built around a 32-bit/384kHz ESS Sabre DAC, the same chip used in NAD’s acclaimed M10 and M33 Masters Series amplifiers. The suggested retail price of the C 399 is $1999 USD with retail availability in time for the holiday season.

The C 399 also the first amplifier to incorporate the latest generation of NAD’s Modular Design Construction (MDC) technology: MDC2. MDC2 lets users add optional modules that provide functions such as BluOS Hi-Res multi-room music streaming, Dirac Live room correction and more.

“As with every NAD amplifier, the C 399 gets the basics right: a precise volume control with accurate channel balance, low-noise circuits, and correct input and output impedances. The C 399 with its HybridDigital nCore output stage and high-resolution ESS Sabre DAC can reproduce all your digital and analogue sources to a level of excitement and refinement that is unprecedented in its class”, says Cas Oostvogel, NAD Electronics’ Product Manager. “Ever since the launch of the legendary 3020 integrated amplifier in 1978, the NAD brand has been synonymous with value and performance. The C 399 takes that reputation to a whole new level. Thanks to NAD’s innovative new MDC2 architecture, the C 399 can serve as the hub of a world-class music system today, and for many years to come.”

Pure Power

Trickled down from NAD’s Masters Series, the C 399’s HybridDigital nCore amplifier is highly efficient and remarkably powerful. It can deliver 180 Watts per channel continuous power, and 250 Watts per channel instantaneous power, allowing the C 399 to produce musical transients effortlessly. The HybridDigital nCore design is renowned for its wide bandwidth, flat frequency response, clean clipping behavior with instant recovery, high current capability, and stability into demanding low-impedance speaker loads. Noise and distortion are vanishingly low under all operating conditions. The minute levels of harmonic distortion are dominated by sonically benign second and third harmonics. These refinements enable the C 399 to produce neutral, distortion-free sound even at very high listening levels, with thrilling dynamics, exquisite detail, and superb portrayal of space.

Also trickled down from the Masters Series is the ESS Sabre ES9028 high-resolution DAC, a design noted for its wide dynamic range, ultra-low noise and distortion, and near-zero levels of clock jitter. This premium DAC enables the C 399 to reproduce all of one’s digital sources with amazing musicality, a precise soundstage, and stunning clarity.

Future Perfect

In 2006, NAD introduced Modular Design Construction (MDC), an innovative architecture for adding new functions to existing components. Many NAD products have rear-panel slots for MDC modules that perform UHD (4K) support, HDMI switching, BluOS multi-room music streaming, Dolby Atmos surround processing, and other functions.

The C 399 is the first product to feature NAD’s new MDC2 architecture. By enabling two-way communications between the module and component, MDC2 allows for adding desirable features.

Equipped with Wi-Fi and Ethernet, the optional MDC2 BluOS-D module lets listeners play music from their favorite streaming services through the C 399, using the acclaimed BluOS Controller app for Android, iOS, macOS, and Windows. Like all BluOS Enabled products, the MDC2 BluOS-D has integrated support for dozens of streaming services; and supports Apple AirPlay 2, Spotify Connect, and Tidal Connect. Two-way communications also enable the MDC2 BluOS-D to stream music from local sources connected to the C 399 to BluOS Enabled components in other rooms.

The Dirac Live function lets you measure your room’s acoustics using a supplied microphone and intuitive app, and then upload correction curves to the MDC2 BluOS-D. By compensating for acoustic anomalies in your listening environment, Dirac Live dramatically improves bass clarity, imaging, and timbral accuracy. Thanks to its two-way architecture, the MDC2 BluOS-D performs Dirac Live room correction for all sources connected to your C 399.

Well Connected

The C 399 has two optical and two coaxial digital inputs, plus an HDMI-eARC port for playing audio from a connected TV, while controlling amplifier output with the TV’s remote control. Analogue fans are well served with two pairs of RCA line-level inputs, plus a MM phono stage with ultra-precise RIAA equalization, extremely low noise, and high overload margins. The phono preamp also features an innovative circuit that suppresses the infrasonic noise present on all LPs, without compromising bass response. The line inputs have low-noise buffer amplifiers to prevent sonic degradation.

In addition to two sets of speaker outputs, the C 399 has preamp output jacks and dual subwoofer outputs. Two-way aptX HD Bluetooth allows 24-bit streaming from mobile devices, and high-quality output to Bluetooth headphones. Also built-in is a dedicated headphone amplifier with low output impedance and high output voltage capability, enabling the C 399 to drive demanding high-impedance studio monitor headphones.

Key Features of the NAD C 399 HybridDigital DAC Amplifier

  • Hybrid Digital nCore Amplifier
  • Continuous Power: 180 Watts per channel into 8/4 ohms
  • Instantaneous Power: 250 Watts per channel
  • Vanishingly low harmonic and intermodulation distortion
  • Dual MDC2 Slots for expanded functionality
  • Optional MDC2 BluOS-D module adds BluOS multi-room streaming and Dirac Live room correction
  • Jitter-free 32-bit/384kHz ESS Sabre DAC
  • Ultra-low-noise MM phono stage with infrasonic filtering circuitry
  • Two optical, two coaxial digital inputs
  • HDMI-eARC input
  • Two pairs of line-level analogue inputs with low-noise buffer amplifiers
  • Speaker A/Speaker B outputs
  • Two-way aptX HD Bluetooth
  • Dual subwoofer outputs
  • Dedicated headphone amplifier
  • IR remote
  • 12V Trigger in/out
  • IR in/out
  • RS-232 Serial port for control integration with home automation systems
  • Seamless integration with Control4, Crestron, RTI, URC, Lutron, iPort, Elan, PUSH and KNX smart home control systems

Gold Note DS-10 Plus Streaming DAC/Preamplifier

Sometimes a component has all but one of the features you require, such as a DAC/preamplifier that can take virtually any currently available digital input, but lacks a way to include an analog source. The Gold Note DS-10 is a perfect example, ideal for a digital-only audiophile, but not quite right for anyone who can’t surrender his analog playback devices. For these folks, Gold Note has another version of the DS-10, called the DS-10 Plus. The Plus has an analog input that keeps the source all-analog from input to output. The DS-10 Plus can be used as a single-box DAC/pre, or you can add the Gold Note’s PSU-10 EVO power supply for a potential upgrade. We will look at the DS-10 Plus both with and without the PSU-10 EVO power supply.

Although this is my first published review of a Gold Note product, this is not the first Gold Note digital device I’ve used. Quite a few years back, Gold Note introduced a DAC at CES that I looked at reviewing. It worked perfectly until one day Apple updated its OS and bricked all the USB receiver chips from a particular OEM manufacturer. The Gold Note DAC was using that chip. It took over six months (I returned the DAC after four) for the problem to be rectified, and I decided to wait for a later generation of Gold Note DACs to review. Although it took a number of years to get around to it, that time has finally arrived.

Tech Tour

The $3695 DS-10 Plus is almost identical to the DS-10 except for two things—the DS-10 Plus adds one analog stereo input while removing one of the two Bluetooth antennae from the back panel to make room for the new mini-stereo input. Digital inputs include an Ethernet port, USB-A, AES/EBU, RCA coaxial, USB-B, Bluetooth 5.0, and two TosLink inputs. For outputs, the DS-10 Plus offers one pair of balanced XLR and one pair of RCA single-ended on the back, and a single-ended ¼” headphone jack on the front panel. The DS10 Plus uses an AKM AK4493 DAC chip, which supports up to 768/32 PCM and DSD512. Specifications indicate it has a 125dB SNR and 120dB dynamic range, which places it among the best in basic specifications for a current-generation DAC. While these specs don’t guarantee good, great, or any particular flavor of sonics, they do indicate that the basic digital device is solidly engineered.

GoldNote DS-10 Plus Rear Panel

The Gold Note 10 Series components are almost eight inches wide, which makes it easy (and tempting) to situate two units side by side. But you don’t want to put the PSU-10 EVO power supply right next to the DS-10 Plus. Instead, I advise “best practices,” utilizing the nice long cable connecting the two units to locate the power supply (as well as any signal-carrying cables) as far away as possible. The Gold Note PSU-10 EVO evolved from the PSU-10 power supply created for the PH-10 phono- stage. While the power supply inside the DS-10 Plus utilizes a SMPS switching mode, the PSU-10 EVO is based on a linear power supply. It has a four-transformer layout that merges dual choke, inductive, and cascade designs.

Ergonomics and Setup

I employed the DS-10 Plus in three different setups. First, I connected it to a pair of April Music S1 monoblock amplifiers driving a pair of Elac F-61 Adante floorstanding loudspeakers and a pair of JL Audio d110 subwoofers. In this system I used the Ethernet connection as my primary source, while the analog input was connected to a Sony HAP-Z1ES digital player. After listening to the DS-10 Plus in this system for about a month, I moved it into my nearfield, computer-based office system, where I used its USB inputs as the principal source connected to a Benchmark ABH-2 power amplifier driving a pair of Audience 1+1 loudspeakers and a Velodyne DD-10+ subwoofer. After another month the DS-10 Plus was put into my main system, replacing the Mytek Manhattan and PS Audio DSD Jr. DAC/preamps, where it was connected to a Pass X-150.8 amplifier driving a pair of Spatial X-2 loudspeakers and a pair of JL Audio f112 subwoofers. All three systems used Audience AU24 speaker cables, Kimber KACG ½-meter single-ended analog cables, and Wireworld Series 8 balanced cables. All three systems also employ AC power conditioning.  

Because I installed the DS-10 Plus in three different systems, I had three opportunities to see if there were any operational or set-up quirks that impacted installation. In each case installation went without a hitch. Gold Note has an app available for both iOS and Android that is necessary for the initial setup. This app allows you to do the basic DS-10 Plus configuration, including the ability to input your Wi-Fi passwords and streaming-account information. The Gold Note control app also proved to be a solid music-playback app that supports both Tidal and Qobuz, as well as your home-music libraries on NAS; however, if you already use Roon, as I do, you will find, as I did, that Roon offers a far superior ergonomic experience. Since the DS-10 Plus is completely Roon-compliant and a recognized and certified Roon endpoint, that’s the way I operated the DS-10 Plus most of the time.

T+A Announces The New Series 200

The following is a press release issued by T+A elektroakustik.

September 17, 2021 – Germany’s leading High-End specialist, T+A elektroakustik, presents a new, compact High-End series of equipment. The Series 200 picks up the external design features of the HA 200 reference-standard headphone pre-amplifier, and the whole series consists of the MP 200 multi-source player, the DAC 200 D/A converter / pre-amplifier, and the A 200 output stage.

“Our first headphone pre-amplifier – the HA 200 – is an exclusive and uncompromising device whose D/A converter has inherited the genes of our reference DAC, the SDV 3100 HV, so its great success in the marketplace wasn´t a surprise for us. This triumph confirmed our view that the time was right to develop a new series of highly specialised devices based on the HA 200,” as Oliver John – T+A International Sales Director – explains on the occasion of the introduction of the new Series 200.

In reality, the new Series 200 reaches far back into the past, as its external design leans heavily on the legendary M-system dating from the year 1993. However, the Herford designers replaced the characteristic chrome of the 1990’s with timeless aluminium in a matte black or silver finish.

The front panel of the DAC 200 echoes specific details of the HA 200, thereby integrating it into the series. Lothar Wiemann, Director of Development, considered it a logical step to build a range around the HA 200. “From the outset the devices of the Series 200 were intended to be specialist products, allowing a mix-and-match eco-system to develop.”

The new MP 200 assumes the role of the classic multi-source player, while the DAC 200 was conceived as a dedicated digital / analogue converter and pre-amplifier. The A 200 output stage forms the final link in the chain.

The advantage of this group of units lies in their strength as individual High-End reference devices, and as a team when used in combination. “We have designed all the units in such a way that they fulfill superbly their task as separate devices, but become even better when combined within a system,” as Lothar Wiemann explains. In this way the Series 200 devices function both as individual complements to existing systems and together as a combined system.

In technical terms the Herford company is exploiting its Modular High-End Architecture (MHA), which is an in-house development. In the case of the DAC 200 this includes the capability to convert DSD 1024 and PCM 768 files as well as including amplifier sections utilising Class A and HV technology. The result is that the DAC 200 is the perfect choice for customers using active loudspeakers as well as audiophile converter enthusiasts. The MP 200 provides access to services such as Tidal, Deezer, Qobuz and Roon (currently undergoing certification) as well as convenient system control using the T+A MusicNavigator app. For loudspeaker customers the system is completed with the A 200 and its output of 250 Watt per channel, whereas headphone users can either connect the HA 200 reference headphone Amplifier, or use the DAC 200’s 4.4mm Pentaconn output.

All the Series 200 devices can be ordered immediately, and will be delivered to authorised specialist dealers starting in October 2021.

Dr. Lonnie Smith: Breathe

For the perfect combination of sheer soul and swing with the dualism of grease and mysticism, you can’t beat Dr. Lonnie Smith, who debuted as a leader Blue Note in 1968, eventually returning to the label nearly half a century later with 2016’s Evolution. A bona fide burner, incomparable soloist, ethereal vocalist, and genuine man of mystery, the 78-year-old B-3 master is still playing with the energy and drive of a man half his age. But did we really need to hear him backing the godfather of punk, Iggy Pop, on Timmy Thomas’ 1973 hippie anthem “Why Can’t We Live Together” and Donovan’s 1966 hit “Sunshine Superman”? Feels a bit kitschy. Elsewhere, Smith wails in signature stratospheric fashion on the shuffling “Too Damn Hot” and on an off-kilter funk version of Monk’s “Epistrophy.” He gets knee-deep in the molasses-slow funk of “Track 9,” which turns into a romping feature for his four-piece horn section, then plumbs the depths of darkness on his funereal dirge “World Weeps” and goes to church on the uplifting “Pilgrimage,” featuring a star turn from regal mezzo-soprano vocalist Alicia Olatuja. That’s where this doctor really operates. 

The Format Ambassador

As someone who’s always been a champion of sonic excellence and high-resolution audio, I was very flattered to be asked to be the brand ambassador for High End Munich back in 2019. Obviously, a lot of the people who usually go to these trade shows are the people who make the equipment, press the products, and press the records. Since most of them are not the actual people who make the music, I was very happy to go there and talk to industry people and other audio enthusiasts about my perspective on hi-res audio from a musician’s point of view. 

More recently, I’ve become a big fan of Dolby Atmos, and I kitted my new studio out for 7.1.4 listening and mixing. No question, it’s the next logical step in terms of a completely immersive audio experience. Being able to distribute sounds not only in the horizontal plane but also now in the vertical plane is an incredible opportunity for a mixing engineer. It’s a gift for anything with sound-design elements involved—my own albums included—and being able to put those elements above the listener is so much fun and very engaging. 

I would say half of my invitations for remixing now are for Atmos rather than 5.1, so it’s definitely something that’s catching on inside the industry. Remains to be seen if it will catch on domestically, but when you have a band like The Beatles embracing Atmos, that’s a massive boost for the format. It means a lot of people are going to go and invest in Atmos setups just so they can hear the greatest pop group of all time in the ultimate way. And then they’ll start looking around for other Atmos catalog entries to see what else is out there to experience in the same way. 

That said, a lot of musicians—Neil Young and the late Tom Petty being the exceptions—are not really all that plugged into the world of high-resolution audio. They don’t understand the market. I know this because I’ve done a lot of hi-res remixes for many artists who, when they first come to me, don’t really understand what 5.1 is. They don’t understand the difference between 48, 96, or 192; they don’t understand any of that stuff. Imagine having to explain to artists you’ve admired your whole life what 5.1 is, and even what Atmos is. I’m happy to be the one doing it, though.

Just in case you’re wondering, I do love vinyl too—but I have to say, not at the expense of CD. I’m still a big fan of the CD, and I hate all this anti-CD talk that amounts to something like, “Vinyl is the only format I listen to.” I’m very much of the opinion that certain music, such as classical music or anything where silence or space are the key elements, is great on vinyl—but not all of it is. If there isn’t a Blu-ray available with a hi-res audio mix on it, I’d honestly rather have the CD than the vinyl. I can’t stand to listen to something where the silence is all surface noise or inner-groove distortion—but, of course, I love the tactile tangibility of vinyl. Being able to hold an album in your hands is such a beautiful thing.

I’m still very much committed to putting out my own releases on as many formats as possible, and I’ve even done a cassette for my new album, The Future Bites. It looks pretty cute, I must say. People seem to love the idea of the cassette, which I suspect is mainly nostalgia. I have a certain nostalgia for cassettes too, having grown up in the 80s. But are the people buying cassettes actually listening to them? Who knows—but I’m not going to skip the opportunity to get the potential added sales for my own album from a collectible format. 

HRS VXR Stand, Vortex and Helix Footers, and DPII Damping Plate

Mike Latvis, the chief engineer of Harmonic Resolution Systems, based in Buffalo, New York, doesn’t like to talk about isolating audio products. He loves it. Over a year ago, at an evening demo at an audio store called JS Audio in Washington, DC, I saw him field one question after another as a group of audiophiles huddled around him listening with rapt attention. It sounded like he was delivering a scholarly disquisition as he held forth on various theories of isolating audio gear. Suffice it to say that Latvis, who before starting HRS in 1999 worked on hundreds of vibration-isolation and mechanical noise-reduction projects for companies such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Sikorsky Aircraft, and Airbus, knows his craft. So, when I needed a custom reference stand for my new TechDAS Air Force Zero turntable, I figured he was the guy to build it. 

After months of research, Latvis modified his reference VXR stand, which can be ordered in various finishes, to accommodate the formidably sized Zero. He came up with an ingenious design that has four pods that extend slightly beyond the frame of the stand on which to seat the legs of the Zero. When he whipped out a diagram of his proposed model, the complexity of the internal bolting system almost took my breath away. So did the aesthetics. The upside of his design was that he managed to minimize the bulk of the frame itself, while successfully supporting the massive turntable. 

HRS has the ability to completely ground or isolate its VXR stand. Does it sound better grounded or isolated? The customer can listen to a turntable both ways at a dealership and decide which approach he prefers. In my case, the four air bladders on the Zero dictated that it was best not to attempt to isolate the top four pods. Instead, they are directly grounded to the floor, with the turntable providing its own isolation. Given the jet-black backgrounds produced by the TechDAS Zero, the stand seems to be working quite efficaciously in tandem with it.

But this isn’t where matters rest. The VXR stand also has two isolation bases that are loaded into it (in my case, to house a phonostage and preamplifier), each optimized for the weight range of the products they’re supporting. My distinct impression upon placing the phonostage and preamp on the stand was that the isolation bases were providing several musical benefits. There was a plusher, silkier feel to the music. I also discerned smoother highs and more controlled bass.

Overall, the VXR stand and isolation bases significantly improved the performance of my stereo system. I could have let matters rest here. But Latvis was eager for me to try several other isolation devices that he developed to complement his stand. One is called Vortex. It’s a stainless-steel puck with a dark rubber coupler that you place underneath the chassis of a piece of equipment to help isolate it from the stand itself. According to Latvis, “When you do isolation, you have to deal with chassis noise. You cannot hear what the isolation base is doing unless the chassis noise is being rapidly dissipated out of the unit.” He adds that “you can’t count on adding stiffness to a chassis that’s already stiff. We don’t think a traditional footer is ideal. We want something that works rapidly. I played around with a lot of different configurations, and any time we used a metal-to-metal interface, we would get rapid transfer, but we would also add an edge to the sound—a ringing effect.”

So, Latvis didn’t want to create a direct-transfer path. Instead, his goal was not just to transfer energy away from the chassis but to dissipate it and to prevent its return to the chassis. The result was the new HRS Vortex footer system for stiff-chassis noise reduction. To provide this rapid dissipation, he adds a custom-made HRS Damping Plate in the form of a black-anodized, machined, aircraft-aluminum-billet top joined to a proprietary soft-polymer base. The effect of creating this sandwich is something you not only instantly hear, but also feel. The chassis of the Ypsilon preamplifier is stiff, but does resonate a bit if you knuckle-rap it. With the sandwich beneath it, a dull thud replaced the resonance. When I placed the dampers by themselves on top of a pump box, any residual hum was banished. From that standpoint alone, the dampers proved extremely effective.

Hana Umami Red Phono Cartridge

Designed by Excel Sound Corporation’s Masao Okada-san, the Hana Umami Red phono cartridge has a gorgeous-looking, glossy-red, Urushi-lacquer finish with a front inlay of ebony wood. Beneath all that beauty is a machined A7075 duralumin-alloy chassis in what is called an “Auricle body design.” The groove-tracing end of the Umami Red consists of a nude, natural-diamond, microline stylus attached to a solid-boron cantilever. The moving coil is high-purity copper with a 6 ohms impedance and a 0.4mV output. The armature is a square plate of pure iron-based permalloy with a samarium-cobalt magnet. To further refine the cartridge, the front yoke, rear yoke, pole piece, and 24-karat gold-plated terminal pins are all subjected to a “cold annealing” process with cryogenic treatment.

The Umami Red arrived packaged in a glossy black cardboard outer box with the Hana logo on five sides and a serial number on the underside. Inside was a small cardboard container housing three sets of mounting screws (4mm, 5mm, and 6mm) to use with headshells of different thickness. The proper mounting screw can be selected based on the thickness of the headshell combined with the 3mm mounting-depth of the Umami Red’s threaded holes. Accompanying the mounting screws were a wood-handled stylus brush, a mounting-screw hex key, and a one-page spec sheet/manual. 

For this evaluation, I set up three individual tonearms (SME V, Graham Phantom III, and Basis Vector IV) on the Basis Debut Vacuum. The phonostages used were the Musical Surroundings Phonomena II+ with external Linear Charging Power Supply, and a custom-designed and modified unit called The Raptor. (The remaining components in the chain are listed in the Associated Equipment sidebar.) 

For initial setup, I used the Debut armboard with the mounted SME V. I chose this ’arm first because it doesn’t allow offset angle or azimuth adjustment. As a result, the Umami Red was mounted in the SME without those parameters fully optimized. After some time on the SME V, I switched the armboards to either the Graham Phantom III or the Basis Vector IV. One item worth mentioning is that the Graham Phantom III has a headshell thickness of around 5mm. The longest supplied Umami Red mounting screws (6mm) would not fit through the Phantom III armwand and securely attach the cartridge. However, the Graham ’arm comes with the necessary (8mm) screws in its accessory kit. The Basis Vector IV worked with Umami Red’s 6mm mounting screws. 

In all cases the Umami Red (tracking at 1.97 grams) met the specifications for channel balance and crosstalk. Stylus rake angle (SRA) was near where I prefer it, with the tonearms level; a final adjustment of ’arm height—a couple of millimeters higher—placed the SRA where the Umami Red sounded best to my ears. Cartridge loading was highly dependent on the phonostage used. I settled on loadings of 59 ohms and above. In my case, the final value was based on the phonostage’s ability to manage ultrasonic peaks far outside the audible range, which can wreak havoc on audio signals and, in some cases, overload the electronics in the phono stage. I preferred the Phonomena II+ at 96 ohms, where it seemed to preserve the high frequencies while allowing the sound to retain solidity. The custom Raptor phonostage allowed for much wider loading choices. 

The Umami Red has an exceptionally balanced sound. Its tonality is a bit closer to neutral than that of the slightly warmer-sounding Hana SL. The Umami Red has significantly better macro-dynamics, harmonic complexity, and warmth than the Hana ML, while, at the same time, keeping the higher frequencies smoother and more extended. I should note the SME V did not allow the Umami Red to sound as visceral and authoritative as the cartridge did on the Phantom III or Vector IV.