Thursday, January 27, 2011
While the mainstream media continues to shovel yet another truckload of doom-and-gloom, sky-is-falling, Rome-is-burning stories perpetuated by the cartel of major record labels (which in fact haven't been record labels, but rather cash cows to be reliably milked daily by the parent companies); other people who are passionate about music and musicians are seizing the opportunity provided by the implosion of the industry's big guns.
Wilco is the latest band to strike out on its own with a bespoke label. Based in Easthampton, Mass., dBpm Records will be distributed by the equally sovereign Anti- Records group (yes, the same folks that give us Tom Waits, Neko Case and Grinderman, among others).
It's this kind of foresight that puts music back into the ears of not just the consumers, but the fans, while downsized and bombed out monolithic record companies continue to wring their hands with fright.
Of the 50 or so energetic and omnivorous people I met when I first joined the industry in the late 1980s, perhaps a handful of them are still there, either victims of downsizing or tired of beating their collective heads against the beancounters' walls. These are people who knew music inside and out and made it not only their livelihoods, but their lives from dawn til, well, dawn. Some of gone back into independent music and are finding the journey and lack of red tape much more gratifying while other still love music, but hate the business.
Personally, I think it's a great time to be involved in the record industry. More music is available and accessible than ever before thanks to places like like Last.fm, and much of it continuing to evolve into higher and higher quality formats, along with the "resurgence" of vinyl.
Wilco has put their own money into the till with the highly successful Solid Sound Festival at MassMOCA, which will return this summer.
So while the equally monolithic and endangered New York Times continues to pander to the record industry (yes, those same insightful people that brought us the sue-your-consumers RIAA) and its ridiculous PR claims about downloading threatening the viability of over-leveraged hedge fund wagers like EMI Records, the music itself flows on like a river, finding new and organic outlets that are better and stronger than before.
Maybe it's time for me to pick up the fiddle again, eh?
Friday, January 21, 2011
Nat King Cole - Where Did Everyone Go? $34 Analogue Productions
In what some consider his last great album prior to his tragic passing, Nat "King" Cole approached the dramatic dark side of love in the spirit of Sinatra's saloon songs to timeless, haunting effect with the album Where Did Everyone Go? The distinctive orchestrations of Gordon Jenkins for strings accompany the intimately expressive and supremely musical voice of the incomparable Nat "King" Cole in such classic songs as "Someone To Tell It To," "I Keep Going Back To Joe's," "Spring Is Here," "The End Of A Love Affair" and other reflections of one who had and now has not. Nat "King" Cole and arranger Gordon Jenkins followed their hit albums Love Is The Thing and The Very Thought Of You with this striking shift toward the dramatic. The result again stands among its era's finest, most stylistically defining recordings of popular music and still retains its grand sense of tragedy and beauty. Using the original first generation 3-track session tapes from Capitol's vaults and custom headstacks, console and monitoring chain installed at AcousTech specially for these releases, mastering engineers Kevin Gray and Steve Hoffman along with DSD specialist Gus Skinas bring you an entirely incomparable SACD experience. For this deluxe hybrid SACD, the album is featured in stereo on the standard resolution CD layer and high resolution stereo DSD layer, while the DSD multi-channel layer features high resolution 3-channel sound. Two bonus tracks recorded for the album, "A Farewell to Arms" and "Happy New Year," are included for their first release in original production quality. In addition a 3,200-word essay by Chris Hall about the album is included. No expense was spared to make this the ultimate digital version of this album and a historic reissue. Originally released in 1963. *(5 available)
Nat King Cole - After Midnight $34 Analogue Productions
In this felicitous blending of Nat "King" Cole's supreme talents as jazz pianist and vocalist with small combos featuring fellow jazz alumni, classic pop and jazz met in a wildly successful brew. A combination of new and familiar songs are featured, including fresh recordings of classic hits like "Route 66." Musicians include Harry "Sweets" Edison, Juan Tizol, Lee Young, Stuff Smith and Willie Smith augmenting his famous Trio. In addition to the full original album, five additional tracks and one alternate take from the original sessions are included in this release. Mellow, classy, focused and vibrant, After Midnight was a hit and an instant classic upon its release in 1956 and remains a gem to treasure today. Mastered from the original first-generation full-track monaural session tapes by Steve Hoffman, Kevin Gray and Gus Skinas to high resolution DSD and standard CD, the exemplary recording is presented in appropriately exquisite sound quality. Recorded in 1956. *(5 available)
Freddie Hubbard - The Body & The Soul $30 Analogue Productions Impulse! Series.
The second of trumpeter Freddie Hubbard's two Impulse albums features the 25-year old in three separate settings. He is heard along with a tenor-saxophonist backed by strings ("Skylark," "I Got It Bad" and "Chocolate Shake" are all given beautiful treatments), with a 16-piece band and in a septet with Eric Dolphy and Wayne Shorter. This well-rounded and highly recommended showcase shows why Freddie Hubbard was considered the top trumpeter to emerge during the early '60s. Mastered by Kevin Gray (1 left!)
Hank Mobley - No Room For Squares $30 Analogue Productions Impulse! Series.
One of Mobley's best, this album features two 1963 all-star quintets: one with Lee Morgan and Andrew Hill, the other with Donald Byrd and Herbie Hancock. Philly Joe Jones is the driving force throughout. Mastered by Kevin Gray and Steve Hoffman. *(1 available)
Thursday, January 13, 2011
Over the top? That's Vegas in a nutshell.
The main entry hall of the Venetian Hotel, host for the high-end audio portion of the CES festivities. Not shown in this pic were all of the porn "starlets" buzzing (pun intended) around all weekend for the AVN show (it was far too early to see their bleary eyes at 9:00 AM.)
Yes, that's also a wholehearted recommendation to douse one's self with hand-sanitizer while attending CES.
Cambridge Audio showed a new iPOD/iPAD dock that extracts using Apple's pure digital stream to bypass internal DACs to the DAC of your choice at the ridiculously low price of $299. As digital audio increases in popularity, economics of scale will rule the marketplace, with bargains like this becoming more common. Anticipated release date for the US/North America is March, with a matching DAC to follow later in the year.
Whew. The warm glow of Cary Audio's CAD 211 Founder's Series twin monoblocks drew me in like a bug to a zapper.
Like a moth to a flame.
Like a bird to a...wire?
All jokes aside, seriously some of the best sound I've ever heard come out of tube power. An interesting design with a pair of 300Bs as power tubes and a pair of giant 845s in the output stage, providing the best of SET, Class A, Class B and Class A/B designs pushing to 150 watts in class B, 110 watts per channel in Class A/B, and 70 watts per channel in Class A in a zero-feedback configuration. Also worth noting, the special edition Jaguar Anthracite finish on the chassis. Fantastic imaging and soundstaging, dynamics to die for, stellar bass punch...and all in all, a gorgeous package. If my notes are correct, not as expensive as one might think. I believe they said $20,000/pair, with the entire system I heard at right around $65,000.
Why it's our favorite Fosgate Signature products, with a new friend. On top right we have the tried and true Fosgate Signature Phono Stage, a tube rollers' delight. On the bottom, the Fozgometer, and the new item is a forthcoming Fosgate Signature Headphone amp slated for debut in just a few months - the anticipated price point is right around $1000...
The more conventional side of the Clearaudio turntable line. Fantastic build quality, superb sonics. Also got a chance to audition a new Benz Micro cart that is at a perfect $600 price point.
The Clearaudio Statement turntable. Sorry it is a bit blurry, but all of the chrome reflections threw off my focus shooting in low-light settings. A serious piece of audio kit, wouldn't want to have to carry it up the stairs, but if you could afford this, you can probably afford someone to carry it for you.
TWO FEET of snow is what I was fortunate to return to; somewhere under that pile is my Mini Cooper S. It's a good thing the antenna was still visible, like a periscope.
In Vegas people were running around in Ugg boots, parkas, hats and scarves when it was in the 50s...this how the rest of us live.
Saturday, January 8, 2011
The best-sounding room on the 30th floor was the marvelous Estelon speakers. A proprietary marble composite material is paired with some exquisite workmanship to produce magical sounds that both harnesses power and allows for fine detail. Loud, soft, a very well-balanced and natural tone that allows the music to stand first and foremost. Because it is all about the music, not the price, which in this case was around $44,000. Very impressive, especially when paired with the Burmester power amps and equally at home doing the Beatles and Nat King Cole.
Ayon Audio's sound jumped out at me from the hallway - beautiful tube monoblocks powering $90,000 Legacy speakers. Austrian-made tube magic that looks as good as it sounds, which is superb by any standard, with fantastic soundstaging and natural dynamics.
DeVore Fidelity shows off their newest creation, a retro-natural sounding floorstander with a gorgeous furniture quality multi-ply zebrawood facing. And extra points for being one of the few rooms to be spinning a steady diet of vinyl.
Calin Gabriel of Shunyata Research explains the finer points of power purification. Shunyata is one of the few cable companies to back up their claims with research and testing. Attention to detail and matching of wire sizes are but a few ingredients.
Our good friends at the SoundOrg paired the impressive Rega DAC ($995) with Dali speakers. Add an Ipad, an Airport and you have magic. How impressive was the Rega DAC? I texted in my order for one from the room (no room service) and it will arrive when I return to Connecticut.
But only if it stops snowing and they stop serving me free margueritas.
KEF's Q900 sounded stunning. Eight inch woofers? Check. One inch tweeter? Check. A breakthrough at $1595/pair? Checkmate. The best sub-$2000 speaker I've ever heard and performance-wise surprisingly (and maybe a bit scarily) close to the $5000 XQ40s that I live with and love every day. Really a breakthrough at the pricepoint and proof that the "high-end" of audio performance does not necessarily refer to price.
NAIM Audio had some of the most innovative products on display. With a eye towards fine packaging, superb sound, and input and output flexibility and foresight in the design. Part server, part DAC, part amp, the NAIM line makes sense in many, many ways. Plus Jenny from NAIM is exceedingly cool, races motorcycles at Miller Motorsports Park, and is a knowledgeable and passionate IndyCar fan.
Actually while I'm thinking about it, I've definitely noticed a changing of the guard. Gone are the pompous and stuffy shirts of the old guard audiophiles that look down their nose at music and in their place are younger, energetic and passionate music people that allow the enthusiasm to infuse their products.
The SoundOrg pairs the impressive Rega DAC ($995) with Dali speakers. Add an Ipad, an Airport and you have magic. How impressive was the Rega DAC? I ordered one from the room (no room service) and it will arrive when I get back home. If it stops snowing and they stop serving me free margueritas.
The KEF room - the ungodly power of the Q900 series. Eight inch woofers? Check. One inch tweeter? Check. Ridiculous performance at $1595 per pair. Checkmate. The best sub-$2000 floorstanders I've ever heard and perilously close in performance to the $5000 XQ40s.
Friday, January 7, 2011
Okay - this is how it all happened.
Woke up Tuesday morning to hear the unmistakable sound of Nikita (my dog) heaving and getting ready to urp, urr, throw up, as dogs do from time-to-time. Right next to my pillow. Thanks, Nikita. Two heaves wasn't enough warning for the ENTIRE BREAKFAST to land there.
I had been considering going to Vegas to the CES and T.H.E. Show for about a month, with usual concerns about time, travel time, cost, etc. After the cleanup, I went to @PuretoneAudio headquarters and checked the weather forecast - hmmm, northwest Connecticut, snow Friday and Saturday. Okay, another sign.
Checked the available travel packages, and finally some flights popped up that didn't involve spending 18 hours each way in airports...the audio gods were conspiring. They were clearly saying, "yes, son, by all means come to Vegas and hear new gear!"
So as I am wont to do, I booked the trip for Thursday...audio gear, Las Vegas, getting out of Dodge for a few days (I've been carefully compiling Western references and cliches to use). Fly across the country on two days notice, meet with my fine reps from Rega (Steve and Adam), Cayin Audio USA (Steve), KEF (Steph and Brian), and Musical Surroundings (Steve) as well as some (*apparently every other person in the audio industry is named Steve).
Hang out with my good buddy and gear guru Jeff Dorgay from ToneAudio magazine.
Eat, drink, be merry. Maybe even put a few dollars down against the Jets.
So Thursday morning I set out for Bradley Airport to begin a hellish journey courtesy of American Airlines.
Three words of advice - don't fly American. Ever. Even if they become the last airline in the country through cross-mergification.
It's been a few years since I was a regular weekly traveler but I can't even begin to tell you how lousy this airline has become. I always thought Southwest and US Air were the undisputed kings of the cattle car journey, but they have been surpassed. CT to Dallas part of the trip was smooth on a completely jam-packed plane. Not another ounce of luggage could possibly have been stowed.
Problem #1 - seats the size of a child carseat. I'm 6'3 and 200 lbs. My shoulders are about eight inches wider than the seats. Yogic contortions follow. Keep the elbows tucked. Keep the shoulders tucked. Don't mind the fact that my head is eight inches over the headrest. Don't mind the fact that my seat is pitched forward at a 15 degree angle, it's good for the abs.
Arrive in Dallas-Fort Worth, DFW, the airport made famous in song by Stevie Ray Vaughan. Stretch. Pray that circulation resumes in all appendages. Take the tram halfway across Texas to the other American terminal to find that I could have easily made an earlier flight to Las Vegas. Asked at the desk, received a look like I had just asked for the clerk's personal ATM PIN numbers; "no, sir, every seat is booked on this flight"...okay thanks, American.
Sit back to wait another two hours for the next flight. Shop at the Dallas Cowboys team store, conveniently across from my gate. Alas, no red-headed Jesus icons or garden statues available. Yet.
Return to gate desk. Ask if there is any possible way I can bribe someone to get out of the dreaded E (middle of three) row seat that was staring at me from my boarding pass. Of course not "no, sir, every seat is booked on this flight"...okay thanks again, American. We now know the first phrase taught in American Airlines' customer service training sessions.
Finally board the plane at 6:00 PM central time. I had a cinnamon pretzel at the airport, which was my first food since 11:45 AM at BDL. Will there be any snacks or food served, since we are flying right at dinner time?
But I can buy half a chicken sandwich on a kaiser roll for $10.00, credit or debit card only. Or a stack of Lay's chips for $5.00.
Uhhh. No thanks again, American.
THEN the captain makes an announcement "our primary ______ (airflight control?) system is down, we will be flying on backup. Our protocol is for the co-pilot to go back into the cabin and check the function prior to takeoff."
A collective groan erupted from the sardines packed into the aluminum tube at the mere thought of being unpacked and repacked.
At American, apparently they have only the best, the oldest and most archaic planes in the sky. THEN the co-pilot walks back down the aisle WITH A FLASHLIGHT and shines it out of the porthole window on the wings on each side.
Not exactly confidence inspiring. AT ALL.
Finally we take off into the night sky. It got dark in about 10 minutes in Dallas. The Flatlanders song "Dallas" pops into my head. And yes, the plane we are flying was probably the equivalent of a DC-9.
Hell, I have no doubt American would still be flying Lockheed Super Constellations if the FAA would let em.
West-Texas-Waltzing over the panhandle in the night sky. Not many lights down there. Or is is thar?
(to be continued...)