Specs & Pricing


Specs & Pricing


December 2006

Cover Story

88 Primare 130 Integrated Amplifier

and CD31 Compact Disc Player

Sallie Reynolds reports.

96 Kharma Mini Exquisite Loudspeaker

Wayne Garcia on a beautiful Dutch design.

104 Exotica: Kuzma vs. Walker—

The Title Bout in Analog Playback

Jonathan Valin referees.

Equipment Reports

36 Absolute Analog:

Clearaudio Ambient Turntable System

Jim Hannon reports.

49 NAD C720BEE Receiver

Neil Gader on an heir to a classic.

52 Cambridge Audio Azur 840A Class XD Integrated Amplifier

Chris Martens.

57 Resolution Audio Opus 21 CD Player and Integrated Amplifier

Alan Taffel.

62 Jamo R 909 Loudspeaker

Robert E. Greene gets transported.

68 Rotel RB-1091 Monoblock Amplifier

Jacob Heilbrunn reports.

72 Chapter Electronics Précis Integrated Amplifier

Neil Gader on a Class D integrated.

76 Dual Connect DC-I100 Interconnect

Neil Gader on a pure gold cable.

78 Joule Electra VZN-80 MK V Emerald OTL Stereo Amplifier

Sue Kraft.

82 Eben X-3 Loudspeaker

Jim Hannon on an excellent Danish speaker.

117 HP’s Workshop

A sneak preview of Hansen’s King, HP’s Log, and equipment updates.


December 2006 The Absolute Sound


06 Letters

124 Manufacturer Comments

40 TAS Journal

Basic Repertoire: Britpop

Andy Downing

17 Guest Editorial

18 Industry News

22 Future TAS

26 Start Me Up

A Complete Rega System

Barry Willis

32 iTAS

Bardaudio Wireless Audio System

Neil Gader


152 Recording of the Issue

Joanna Newsom: Ys

128 Jazz

The scoop on the newest discs from

Tomasz Stanko, Kenny Garrett, Evan

Parker, Von Freeman, Martin, Scofield,

Medeski & Wood, and David Binney.

Plus, the Anthony Wilson Nonet on

SACD and LP.

136 Classical

Coverage of the new Hilary Hahn,

Bartók’s Mikrokosmos, Leon Fleisher’s

The Journey, Gabriela Montero’s Bach

and Beyond, Sting’s Songs from the

Labyrinth, Eleni Karaindrou’s Elegy of

the Uprooting, Mozart’s Zaide, two

Sony “Great Performance” remasters,

and a pair of Shostakovich SACDs.

148 Rock Etc.

Reviews of the latest CDs and LPs

from sunnO))) & Boris, TV on the

Radio, Bound Stems, Solomon Burke,

Lupe Fiasco, Willie Nelson, Madeleine

Peyroux, Bob Dylan, Chris Thile, The

Mars Volta, Bonnie “Prince” Billy,

Buddy Guy, Tortoise, and, a most

unusual gospel collection.

168 TAS Back Page

11 Questions for Ted Denney of

Synergistic Research, by Neil Gader.




founder; chairman,

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and associate editor

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Paul Seydor, Alan Taffel

reviewers and

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Absolute Multimedia, Inc.

chairman and ceo

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2006 Absolute Multimedia, Inc., December 2006. The Absolute Sound

(ISSN#0097-1138) is published ten times per year, $42 per year for US residents.

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December 2006 The Absolute Sound


Where’s the Cary


auditioned and purchased the Cary 306 CD/SACD player partially

based on your glowing review in the September 2006 TAS issue. [Since

you put] the 306 in the same league as the EMM Labs SACD Transport/

DAC, I fully expected the Cary 306 to be in the [Editors’ Choice] list. While

I’m very pleased with the performance of the Cary 306 in my system, I’m

curious to know why wasn’t it included.

Len White

Robert Harley replies: I wrote the review after we had compiled the

Editors’ Choice Awards. The Cary CD 306 most certainly should have

been included; it was simply an oversight that it wasn’t. The CD 306 will

appear in our next Editors’ Choice Awards.


What were you thinking I just received the October issue of TAS.

The new layout is just awful. Your recent acquisition of Hi-Fi+

should have given you some guidance on how a hi-fi publication

should be presented. I hope the intent is not to trash what is

currently the finest audiophile publication in the English language.

The layout is a lot like The Perfect Vision, which looks just like all of

the other home-theater magazines. None of which I have picked up in

two to three years.

Jim Mallon

New Design Kudos

Issue 165 is strikingly beautiful in its new design! Congratulations! It is

also appreciated that the recommended products are organized by price,

accompanied by a description of what they offer. This feels better than

organizing by degrees of performance achievement.

It is good that you are making efforts to include laudable lower-price

components, while keeping the dream alive with coverage of the very

best ones.

Carlos E Bauzá

Thoughts on the ARC 300.2

Iread and enjoyed the amplifier article in Issue 164 that Tom Martin

wrote. I would like to pass along some of my observations regarding

the Audio Research 300.2 amp. I’ve owned one for about a year and

believe that he very accurately described the amplifier’s sonic character.

Mr. Martin commented on how the amp improved after keeping it

powered on for 24-48 hours. That’s exactly what I’ve found to be true.

I keep mine on all the time. In my experience, the amp’s sonic character

changes noticeably after two to three days. As the manufacturer pointed

out in its comments, the amp draws only 50 watts. I believe that it takes at

least two days for the electronic components to warm up to their optimal

operating temperature. One additional point that I would like to pass on

to Mr. Martin is the positive affect that an after-market power cord has

on this amp. The best results I’ve achieved are with a Kimber Palladian

PK-10. The amp becomes more open, extended, and smooth. I was never a

big power cord user until my experience with this amp. Its sonic character

changes dramatically with this cord.

I saw that Mr. Martin has a pair of NuForce mono amps. Maybe you can

get him to compare some of the Class D amps: NuForce, ARC 300.2 (Class

T), Jeff Rowland, etc. in a follow-up to his article. I would love to see him

use the same technique of graphing these amps against one another, and

would like him to see if power cords affect Class D designs more than

typical Class AB like the Classé.

Ralph Sorrentino

Wayne Garcia replies: For those of you who missed it, we had a 28-page

feature on Class D amplifiers in our last issue, which included reviews of

the amplifiers on Mr. Sorrentino’s list, plus five others.

Great Stuff!

Ijust want to say that Neil Gader’s “13 Questions for EveAnna Manley”

[Issue 165] along with her responses were right on the mark! Anyone

taking the time to learn and understand how to play a musical

instrument gets my full support for her thoughts and idealist views.

EveAnna’s early years of musical training allowed her to listen to and

understand how M.F., the boys from Berwyn, Illinois, and of course the

guys from across our East Coast pond should sound through the electronic

technological wonders we have available.

There is one thing that I can wholeheartedly agree with EveAnna on.

Speaking for myself, I use and listen to all of the available audio product

types: analog, digital, solid-state. and. of course. vacuum tubes. I can

say after forty-plus years, tubes rule, if you really understand how the

playback of recorded music should sound.

Great stuff; don’t quit!

Ed Rusnak

A Good Laugh

Ihad a good laugh at the use of the term “budget” in your September

issue’s Budget Systems article. Although I think the article started

down the right path, it fell flat on its face by the time Chris Martens

got to the end of your system No. 6, the $6500+ “budget” system. Only

an audiophile magazine would use the term budget with those kinds of

dollar signs.

First off, the No. 1 system was basically a rehash of the ERA/

Cambridge components you reviewed in the previous issue—I would

agree that these components are most likely well-matched within their

price range, and one could actually refer to them as budget.

Where I think you missed the boat here was a lack of alternative systems

and equipment options. In this regard, you did mention the EPOS floorstanding

speakers as an alternative to System One and stated they were

reviewed in the current issue, but the review was mysteriously missing,

leading to a lack of credibility.

Chris started to touch on system-matching within this article, which

was actually a good thing, but then lost the plot by not giving the reader

product options within the price ranges; he also seriously missed out

on subjects such as tubes vs. solid-state, etc.

I felt like this article could have been much more comprehensive, especially

given your massive access to product. In my opinion a greatly missed

opportunity to really put some cool systems together within given price

ranges—6 Awesome Systems would suffice.

Frank Mercurio

December 2006 The Absolute Sound


Red Book is Forever

It seems that your staff is either misguided about the current digital standard or that you expect

to get blood from a stone from the new formats. First of all, Red Book CD—the “aging format”

is only about 17 years old. Look how long we had the Westrex 45-45 standard [the stereo LP

format—Ed.]. Secondly, it has been obvious for some time now that the new “high-res” formats

would fail for many reasons—one of which is no mass-market interest in higher-fidelity software.

But the biggest reason for me is that both SACD and DVD-Audio are technically handicapped.

To be brief, DSD [Direct Stream Digital, the encoding scheme used in SACD—Ed.] has only six bits

of intrinsic resolution (Red Book has 14), and its “real” production only goes up to 8kHz—the rest is

pure noise (Red Book goes up to 20kHz). How can a system this bad sound acceptable By aggressive

noise-shaping. But this works only up to a certain level. Indeed, DSD is only half a format—a very

good sounding one at that, but it’s nevertheless incomplete when compared to Red Book. DSD

masters sound exceptional, but something happens along the way where they come up short at

home. A PCM master can be improved upon—a DSD master goes the other way. The bottom line

It was best said by the editor of Hi-Fi News last year: “ SACD can and mostly does sound better at

price points up to $6k, but at the reference level, Red Book is the winner.” This is so true. Let’s not

forget that SACD was supposed to sound a lot better than Red Book six years ago. Some thought

that it did; you blew it out in 1999, as so many others back then did. The exception was good ol’

Jonathan Valin. He never thought it was better than reference Red Book—thank God for him. He

was one of the first to cry out against SACD, but there have been many more since. [I did and do

have reservations about the treble of certain SACDs and SACD players, but that doesn’t mean that I

think CD is sonically superior to SACD. I do not.—JV]

DVD-A is no better off, but its problems are very different. First, 24-bits are much more susceptible

to external influences (noise and timing variations). The difference is striking. In a 16-bit system a

power supply has to keep voltage or current levels to within 0.0015% in order to realize full resolution

without distortion. The demands for a 20-bit power supply are 16 times more stringent—0.0001%.

Moreover, the conversion involved with high-bit systems would require impossible accuracy. Robert

Harley covers this in The Complete Guide to High-End Audio (third edition). It was always true that

16 bits were enough to define the musical waveform completely.

So where does that leave us I for one am not afraid to say that Red Book is forever. Why Because

it sounds so good. And there will never be enough support for a new format to replace it. Besides, it

is improving rapidly, even after 20 years, with no end in sight. Until we hear what this “old format”

can really do, I think it’s premature to anyone ask for more. Sixteen bits aren’t enough Yes, they

are! It’s true that a 20-bit system might be a good idea, for it has been determined that humans can

hear up to 20-bit resolution. But wait—we have this 20-bit format and it’s been sitting right in front

of us for the past ten years. It’s called HDCD.

John Harnick

Robert Harley replies: I must disagree with Mr. Harnick’s technical justification for concluding

that SACD and DVD-Audio are inferior to CD. Moreover, I’ve had quite a bit of experience with

reference-quality CD, and to my ears, the best examples of SACD and DVD-A sound significantly

better than the best CD.

You can decide for yourself whether “16 bits are enough” by listening to a remarkable disc

called The Resolution Project (DVD-Audio player required). This disc contains musical pieces

encoded at a wide range of resolutions, from MP3 to 16-bit/44.1kHz to 24-bit/192kHz. There’s

absolutely no question after hearing this disc that high-resolution PCM is vastly better to CD. In

fact, CD is to MP3 what 24/192 is to CD.

Join the discussion of all

things audio with fellow

readers and the TAS editors

and writers at the

AVGuide.com forum.

The following letters

were sent directly to HP’s

Workshop. I have edited

some of them without

the usual indications of

deleted materials. Believe

me, nothing “tough”

went out. —HP

The Real Thing

and Sonic Criteria


…I found the analysis of the digital domain the

August issue of The Absolute Sound particularly

interesting. I’d like to know the criteria you

used for you selection of digital sources—e.g.,

there is no Wadia, DCS, Meitner.

Another point of interest is the choice of

music. I am particularly interested in classical

music. I will buy an “audiophile” recording if

I consider the performance to be, in musical

terms, of the highest quality. Interestingly, and

this applies to all the main high-end magazines,

sometimes audiophile recordings used in

reviews may not be what are generally regarded

as amongst the best performances of a piece in

musical terms. Often top orchestras—the likes

of Berlin, Vienna, London, Chicago—are not

represented. As an aside, might I say that your

choice of material for the digital review certainly

comprised top musical performances, at least

of the more vintage variety. Whilst there may

be some sense in using audiophile recordings

to illustrate the qualities of equipment, is there

not an argument in musical terms for using

the most critically acclaimed performances,

even if they do not always “sound” the best I

have decided to renew my subscription to The

Absolute Sound based on your Workshop and

The Cutting Edge.

Warren Gordon

I gather you are asking my criteria for excluding the

Wadia and DCS. The Meitner multichannel SACD

gear I have commented upon at some length. I

really don’t have a rule of thumb for reviewing

components. In this instance, I picked those digital

devices that I thought were either at the cutting

edge of playback or approaching that in more

modestly priced units. Much of this is intuitive on

my part. I am not trying to find “representative”

products. Nothing could interest me less.

The recordings you use depend on the kind of

review you are writing. Obviously, a record from a

major label using a world-class orchestra does not,

these days, guarantee a superior interpretation,

and all too seldom a lifelike sound. Few music-

December 2006 The Absolute Sound


magazine critics feel inclined or may be able anymore to judge recordings

by the highest sonic standards. (But, back when magazines like High Fidelity

and Hi-Fi Review were young, the sonic standards that had to be met were

tough, which of course produced trauma in the advertising departments of

said publications. So the standards slipped.)

On the other hand, in using recordings to assess equipment, the reviewer

faces a different standard—that is, one of truth to the sound of an orchestra

playing in a hall, what we here call the absolute, because it is an absolute

reference (no matter how many jackasses say it is not and that there is no such

thing). Worse, that reference is being ignored by the overwhelming majority

of today’s equipment reviewers: thus, the emphasis on “flavors” of sound,

and the reviewer’s “emotional” reaction to chocolate, vanilla, and Rocky

Road. Audiophile recordings sometimes do contain treasures, particularly

from young rising artists, but, in years past, too many of them were genuinely

slapdash affairs.

I try to find interesting and illuminating performances to use as reference (I

have to listen to them over and over again, so...).

A Jungian “Slip”


Your article seems to suggest that Yoshi Segoshi is the owner of 47

Laboratory, and “Jungi” (was the use of Jungi a misprint) merely the

designer. In actual fact, Gunji is the owner of 47 Laboratory, as well as

being the designer. Yoshi is the North American distributor only.

Martin Grennal

47 Laboratory U.K.

Perhaps I misunderstood Mr. Segoshi; perhaps I did not. The misspelling of

“Jungi” was not my error.

Old Gold versus the New


I’ve been an audio druggie since the beginning of the 60s….My question

is: In the scheme of high-end speakers, where do the older speakers fit in

with the new stuff For example, Nola, JM Labs, MBL, the Maggies, Wilson

are the current state of the art.

How would or where would the Pipedreams or Piegas fit in The reason

I ask is that there are some fantastic buys on some of the older stuff…Can

the older gear compete with the new

PS: This might be an interesting article in the future.

Gerald G. Ouellette

One of the great weaknesses in the kind of reviewing we do lies in our

collective failure to do just what you suggest and that is to keep several

sets of these oldie-goldie designs on hand as a yardstick to measure the

current “so-called” advances in equipment design. Methinks, back yonder,

the tubed electronic gear from Marantz, McIntosh and Dyna would not

have been so quickly passed over for the said-to-be sexier solid-state

designs. Mostly this is an economic affair. Audio magazines are not

overflowing with the kind of resources necessary to buy, maintain, and

store older equipment. Nor do they have an economic incentive so to do

(the ads, lest we forget, are not for last year’s models).

I can only recall what a speaker, for example, may have sounded like

without having it on hand for a detailed cross-examination, but I could

recommend the Pipedreams as the equal of several of the speakers you

list. I had to look up the Piegas, unknown to me till now, only to find

this Swiss firm has only been in the U.S. for five years, which hardly puts

their work in the oldey-fogey category. (A tease: A new version of the

Pipedreams is in the works.)

Upcoming in TAS

• Product of the Year Awards

• Wilson Benesch Torus

Infrasonic Generator

—that’s a subwoofer, folks!

• A roundtable with subwoofers designers

• Cayin A-88T integrated amp and SCD‐50T

SACD player

• MartinLogan Vista loudspeaker

• Pathos Endorphin CD player

• ProAc Studio 140 loudspeaker

• Marantz TT-15 turntable

• Definitive Pro Cinema 1000 multichannel

speaker system

• Bolzano Villetri Torre speaker and



1. Publication Title: The Absolute Sound

2. Publication No.: 0494150

3. Filing Date: 10-2-06

4. Issue Frequency: Jan, Feb, Mar, Apr/May, June/Jul, Aug, Sept, Oct, Nov, Dec

5. No. of Issues Published Annually: 10.

6. Annual Subscription Price: $36.00

7. Mailing Address of Known Office of Publication: Absolute Multimedia, 4544 S. Lamar #G300,

Austin, TX 78745.

8. Mailing Address of Headquarters or General Business Office of Publisher: Absolute Multimedia,

4544 S. Lamar #G300, Austin, TX 78745.

9. Names and Mailing Addresses of Publisher, Editor-In-Chief, and Managing Editor:

Publisher: Mark Fisher, 4544 S. Lamar #G300, Austin, TX 78745. Editor-In-Chief: Robert Harley,

9 Eagle Crest Dr., P.O. Box 1768, Tijeras, NM 87059. Managing Editor: Bob Gendron.2175 W.

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10. Owner: Absolute Multimedia, Inc., 4544 S. Lamar #G300, Austin, TX 78745. Thomas B. Martin,

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12. Tax Status: Has not changed During Preceding 12 Months.

13. Publication Title: The Absolute Sound

14. Issue Date for Circulation Data Below: Nov 06

Average No. Copies

Each Issue During

Preceding 12 Months

No. Copies of Single

Issue Published Nearest to

Filing Date

15. Extent and Nature of Circulation:

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b. Paid and/or Requested Circulation:

(1) Paid/Requested Outside-County

Mail Subscriptions: 21,217 19,399

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Percent Paid and/or Requested Circulation: 95.1% 96.4%

10 December 2006 The Absolute Sound


Of Magnets and Turntables


I read [your article] on magnets and turntables. I also have intimate experience with the Teac

TN-400 Magnefloat turntable, having owned one since 1976 or ’77…. First, your statement about

not knowing about the unit is the immediate qualifier. You make a point of saying because the

unit was not reviewed by a golden ear; it must not have been practical or it would have been

extensively used (my paraphrase). Well, it does work and it sounds quite good. It is only one of

two pieces of equipment I have kept in continuous use for most of my adult life; the other is my

ReVox A77 (which hasn’t even been close in reliability). The unit floats the platter on a magnetic

field. I have compared it to many turntables. It sits next to my Linn LP-12.The two units don’t

sound identical but the Linn doesn’t best it; it does sound different….

My unit was the one shown at the l976 CES. People in the know told me that Teac was sued

over the design and immediately dumped the units that had been brought into the market for

initial sale. Hence, the reason for no one ever getting one for review.

I used to work for the distributor and that is how I got mine…

Dan L. Williams

Avery Dennison Printer Systems Americas

I have now learned that there was a turntable using magnets preceding the Teac (see Letters, Issue

165). It was from Stanton, the Stereotable Model 800B. Long-time reader Carlos Bauzá (of Puerto

Rico) sent along copies of reviews, one from High Fidelity, the other from the January 1964 (!)

issue of Audio. Just guessing, but I’d bet it was Stanton that push the kibosh on the Teac design,

since both used magnets, not to drive the platter, as in the EAR unit or the new Clearaudio, but in

place of the tables’ bearings, much as the expensive Blue Pearl from Britain does.

At first, I was surprised I hadn’t heard of these early uses of magnetic suspensions, but given

the Teac’s abrupt disappearance from the market and the fact that the Stanton came out almost a

decade before the first issue of The Absolute Sound did, I now understand why. I can tell you this:

We haven’t heard the last of both magnetic-suspension and magnetic-drive systems

The Negatives Have It... So Far


There are two big questions facing us right now:

(1) Is digital finally on the verge of surpassing reference LP

(2) Can any combination of electronics beat the awesome ASR Emitter

John Harnick

(1) No.

(2) That remains to be seen.

Errata: In Issue 165’s Editors’ Choice Awards, we neglected to make the following price

changes to the gear from Edge Electronics: G4, $4038; G8+, $12,248; NL10.1, $15,188;

NL12.1, $20,800; G3, $6180; G2, $5148; Signature 1.1, $12,268. The Cary CD 306 was

inadvertently left off the Editors’ Choice List.

In the same Issue’s HP’s Workshop, the Burmester 001 preamp was mistakenly referred

to as the 001 Mk 3. No such model exists; it is simply the 001.

December 2006 The Absolute Sound 13



Classical Ringtones and the Commoditization

of Music: Nothing New and Maybe Not So Bad

Three years ago this past

August, I returned from a

greatly anticipated pilgrimage

to Richard Wagner’s Bayreuth.

Wagner’s operas are among

the most important music

there is for me, so it was a dream-come-true to

attend the annual festival in southeast Germany

devoted to the composer’s music dramas and,

as an audiophile, to hear the singular acoustic of

the famed Festspielhaus. For nearly two weeks

I’d immersed myself in all things Wagnerian.

I saw seven operas, spent a few afternoons at

Wahnfried, Wagner’s home in Bayreuth (and

now a museum devoted to his life and work),

and visited other sites associated with the great

musician. I flew home on a Sunday, tired but


The following Tuesday, I found myself

in a prototypically American fast-food

establishment, one whose name promises a

hamburger of regal quality. I was just about

to chow down when, a few feet away, a young

woman’s cell phone went off. The ringtone was

“Ride of the Valkyries.”

There was so much I wanted to ask her. Did

she know who wrote the music Did she know

the name of the piece Did she know who the

Valkyries were and what they did for a living

And I wanted to know why she picked that

ringtone. I never got to ask. Twenty minutes

later, I’d finished my 2000-calorie supper but

she was still gabbing away.

Had it been possible to quiz her, there’s a

good chance she couldn’t have answered all my

questions. Recently, I started asking people at

work to hear their phones in action and the first

few with classical ringtones didn’t know what

they were hearing, and didn’t especially care. One

thoughtful middle-aged hospital case-manager

told me she figured hers was “a minuet” (it was

the first movement of “Spring” from Vivaldi’s

The Four Seasons; a 29-year old physician couldn’t

identify Für Elise by Beethoven). “It sounded

nice and calming.”

Is this yet another instance of the decline of

civilization, thanks to rampaging technology

The soul-crushing commoditization of art, the

reduction of music to “content” in this Götterdämmerung of a digital age Actually, it’s nothing new.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, loads of popular Wagner tunes were available on

mechanical instruments including music boxes and player pianos. (A fascinating CD on the Oehms

label, Wagner méchanique, holds fifteen examples.) Lots of classical material has been absorbed into the

mass cultural stew over the years, separated from the original context and the identity of its creator.

How many people know the opening “Sunrise” section of Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra only

as 2001: A Space Odyssey Or—while we’re on the subject of dates—Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture as

the Quaker Oats commercial

We’re now just so much better at disseminating shards of music than we used to be. In the realm

of hip-hop, digital sampling has become commonplace, with today’s rap consumer frequently

unfamiliar with the original soul, R&B, or rock song from which the sample was lifted. Cellphone

ringtones are an example of the further flowering of this cut-and-paste mentality. There are dozens

of Web sites offering thousands of downloads, either “polyphonic tones”—cheesy, synthesized

rings—or “real tones”—actual excerpts from recordings. There’s plenty of Wagner. One site I visited

(unlimitedringtones.com) had around 75 “real tone” choices for the telecommunicating Wagnerian,

from Parsifal to the Wesendonck-Lieder.

“Such uses of classical ‘content’ help

to prevent the chasm between popular

and high-art forms from getting wider,

and to keep timeless musical monuments

in everyday parlance”

No, this isn’t a new phenomenon, and it isn’t necessarily a terrible thing either. Such uses of classical

“content” help to prevent the chasm between popular and high-art forms from getting wider, and

to keep timeless musical monuments of all musical genres in everyday parlance. Beyond ringtones,

the Internet has continued to expand as an effective way to distribute music, evolving in just a few

years from the outlaw culture of Napster to the entrepreneurial iTunes present. In the classical world,

Universal Music Group has started providing new releases on-line to be downloaded by reviewers

and radio stations. Tellingly, there’s an audio option superior to the standard VBR algorithm (which

isn’t bad) available for these downloads—an uncompressed higher-resolution alternative that I can

confirm is, indeed, of CD quality. In the not-too-distant future, even sound-conscious music lovers

may not have to compromise if they choose to obtain their classical “content” with their computer.

My own ringtone I’ve decided to get “Ride of the Valkyries” myself—I found a snippet from an

old Herbert von Karajan performance at one of the on-line sites. But first, I have to figure out how

to get rid of Nelly’s “It’s Gettin’ Hot in Herre,” which my teenaged daughter, in a mischievous mood,

downloaded onto my cell a few months ago. Until then, please don’t call me.

Andrew Quint, Senior Writer

December 2006 The Absolute Sound 17



Chris Martens

Mary Cardas Joins NHT

On August 28, 2006, Benecia, California-based

NHT (Now Hear This) announced that industry

veteran Mary Cardas had joined the firm as its North

American Sales Manager. Cardas is a second-generation

contributor to the high-end audio industry, following in

the footsteps of her father George Cardas, founder of

the cable manufacturing company that bears his name.

Prior to joining NHT, Mary Cardas worked as

Managing Director of Cardas Audio and then as

National Sales Manager for Theta Digital. She later

worked for Sunfire Corporation and—most recently—

for Classic Records, a firm she helped to become one

of the most successful operations of its kind. Cardas

brings a wealth of experience to the table, which we

expect will benefit both NHT and its customers.

Directed Electronics Acquires Polk Audio

On September 25, 2006, Vista, California-based Directed Electronics announced

that it had successfully closed its acquisition of Polk Audio, purchasing the company for

approximately $136 million in cash. As many enthusiasts know, Directed Electronics entered

the home-audio market in a significant way via its 2004 acquisition of Definitive Technology,

another major manufacturer of loudspeakers. Now, with the Polk Audio acquisition, the firm

will vault to “the #1 position in the U.S. home-speaker market,” according to Jim Minarik,

President and CEO of Directed.

Under Directed ownership, Polk Audio will continue to operate as an independent entity,

just as Definitive Technology has done since it was bought by Directed two years ago. Many

believe, however, that the acquisition will create opportunities for active cooperation between

the two speaker manufacturers, in part because there is considerable shared history between

the companies. For example, Sandy Gross, founder of Definitive Technology and President

Emeritus and Chief Strategist for the Directed Home Audio group, began his career as a

founding partner of Polk Audio.

According to a Directed press release “Polk co-founders Matthew Polk and George

Klopfer will remain actively engaged after the transaction by using their 35 years of industry

experience to advise on the direction of Directed’s home-audio strategy.”

Reference Recordings

Celebrates 30th Anniversary

The year 2006 marks the 30 th anniversary of the founding of Reference

Recordings, an independent record label whose goal is and has always been

to create records that capture “the sound of real musicians making music

in real spaces.” Throughout its history, Reference Recordings has been led

by J. Tamblyn Henderson, Founder, President, and Producer; Keith O.

Johnson, Chief Engineer and Technical Director; and Marcia Martin, Vice

President and head of Business Affairs.

Johnson has received six Grammy nominations for “Best Engineered,

Classical” records, while Henderson was nominated for “Classical Producer

of the Year” in 1998. Apart from this recognition, Reference Recordings’

artists and productions have garnered five other nominations, producing

two winners. These awards seem even more remarkable in light of the

fact that Reference has been extremely selective in issuing new material,

releasing only about 110 titles in the label’s 30-year history.

Part of the label’s success can be attributed to the creativity and technical

acumen of Keith Johnson, an acknowledged audio legend. Johnson

was co-developer of the High Definition Compatible Digital (HDCD)

process, the creator of the optical tracking servos now standard in CD

players, the developer of the first polyphonic sound-sampling synthesizer,

and the engineer for the world’s first direct-to-CD recordings [RR-30DCD

and RR-50DCD]—recordings that demonstrated the now well-known

importance of low digital jitter. But impressive though these technical

accomplishments are, the music, in the end, is what matters most.

We asked Reference representatives to name six recordings that could

serve as an introduction to the label’s overall catalogue, and the following

titles were culled from Keith Johnson’s personal list of favorites:

1. RR-2102: Medinah Sessions/

Chicago Pro Musica

2. RR-57: Rutter Requiem/Turtle

Creek Chorale and Dallas

Women’s Chorus, Timothy

Seelig, conductor

3. RR-59: From the Age of Swing/Dick Hyman with Phil

Bodner, Urbie Green, Milt Hinton, Butch Miles, Bucky

Pizzarelli, Joe Temperly, Frank Wess, and Joe Wilder

4. RR-71: Exotic Dances From the Opera/Minnesota

Orchestra, Eiji Oue conductor

5. RR-76: Holidays and Epiphanies: Music of Ron Nelson/

Dallas Wind Symphony, Jerry Junkin conductor

6. RR-96: Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances/Minnesota

Orchestra, Eiji Oue conductor

Anniversaries are times for looking back, but also for looking ahead, and

Reference Recordings is at work on new releases that will do a bit of both.

Looking back, Reference plans to restore and then release a recording of

Virgil Fox’s 1976 San Francisco Bach Gamut concert (Johnson recorded

the concert, but the material was never previously released). Reference

most recently issued World Keys (reviewed in Issue 165), the solo debut

album of pianist Joel Fan, who is a member of Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road

Ensemble. We hope Reference will continue to capture the sound of real

musicians performing in real spaces for many years to come.

18 December 2006 The Absolute Sound

Industry News

High-End Audio Updates

from CEDIA Expo 2006

CEDIA (Custom Electronics Design & Installation Association) Expos are

generally regarded as specialized events created by and for custom-installation experts who serve the

home-theater/home-automation marketplace. However, CEDIA Expo 2006, held in Denver, Colorado from

September 14–17, 2006, marked the arrival of a number of new products of potential significance to the

high-end audio community. Below are some highlights:

• Ambience Speakers of Australia, a manufacturer of hybrid ribbon/dynamic loudspeakers,

demonstrated both its Reference Series floorstanders (speakers first shown in this country

at the 2005 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest) as well as a new “Hi Efficiency” ribbon/dynamic inwall

speaker. The Ambience in-walls rated sensitivity is a very respectable 96dB (1W/1m).

• Era Acoustics announced its first-ever on-wall loudspeakers, the PL24 ($500 each) and

PL28.5 ($600 each). Both models feature drive units originally developed for the firm’s Design

Series mini-monitors, which were favorably reviewed by TAS Editor-in-Chief Robert Harley.

• McIntosh Laboratories announced its model C220 vacuum-tube-powered stereo

preamplifier, which incorporates an excellent on-board phono section. McIntosh insiders spoke

in glowing terms of the C220’s sound, acknowledging that the unit falls only a little short

of McIntosh’s flagship C1000C preamplifier. See Future TAS in this issue for further details.

• Meridian announced a very high performance, active in-wall speaker called the A350i. The A350i uses an

outboard electronic crossover/amplifier module

that can power multiple sets of A350i speakers,

and that can be located in the owner’s main

equipment rack. Meridian president Bob Stuart

said the speaker is “offered without apologies,”

adding that its performance is comparable

to that of Meridian’s freestanding models.

• NAD announced an audio-only, Masters Series

SACD/CD player called the M5. Based in part on

the firm’s already good M55 universal player, the

M5 is said to provide even better analog audio

circuitry than the M55, and to take a significant

step forward in terms of sound quality.

• Paradigm announced substantial revisions

to two speaker lines, both recipients of TAS

Editors’ Choice awards. Specifically, Paradigm

updated its flagship Signature Series speakers

to Version 2 status, and its popular Studio

Series speakers to Version 4 status. See

Future TAS in this issue for further details.

• Pioneer demonstrated the EX family of

loudspeakers, which draws upon drive unit

and enclosure technologies developed for use

in the expensive TAD (Technical Audio Devices)

line of speakers. A Pioneer spokesman indicated

that the EX models were intended as costreduced

“TAD juniors” that would make ideal

complements to the firm’s Elite-series displays.

• Pro-Ject introduced its $2500 flagship RM10

turntable, the most sophisticated analog player

the firm has ever offered. Though CEDIA is a

“home-theater” show, a Pro-Ject spokesman

indicated there was ongoing interest in

stylish, high-quality analog platforms. See

Future TAS in this issue for additional details.

• REL rolled out its all-new entry-level T Series

family of subwoofers, which will eventually

replace the firm’s familiar Q Series subs. REL’s

Q108e, favorably reviewed by TAS Editor

Wayne Garcia and the recipient of a TAS

Editors’ Choice award, has long been an

audiophile favorite. But according to REL

spokesman John-Paul Lizars, the attractively

priced and beautifully styled T-models will

sound even better than their predecessors.

• Revel gave The Absolute Sound a private

showing of its new flagship Ultima 2 family

of loudspeakers. A brief demonstration of the

top-of-the-line Salon 2 models, priced at $22k/

pair, leads us to think the Salon 2s may be a

significant design.

• Sunfire demonstrated Bob Carver’s superb,

pint-sized Cinema Ribbon Mini loudspeakers,

priced at $800. We cover this exciting product in

more detail in Future TAS in this issue, but here’s

a hint: Sunfire describes the tissue-box-sized

CRM as a “floorstanding loudspeaker—without

the floor.”

20 December 2006 The Absolute Sound



Chris Martens

Sunfire Cinema Ribbon Mini


Veteran audiophiles might recall the

floorstanding, hybrid ribbon/dynamic driverequipped

Carver Amazing Loudspeakers,

designed by the legendary Bob Carver. Now,

history repeats itself with Sunfire’s release of

the Carver-designed Cinema Ribbon Mini

(CRM) loudspeakers, priced at $800 each.

While the Carver Amazings of yesteryear

were large (roughly five feet tall), the CRMs

are essentially high-output mini-monitors

whose enclosures are not much larger than

cube-shaped boxes of tissues. Maximum

output for the pint-sized CRMs is specified at a

whopping 115dB.

Despite the speakers’ compact dimensions,

the CRMs’ waveguide-loaded ribbon tweeter

offers as much surface area as did the tall,

slim, early-generation ribbon drivers of the old

Amazings. Complementing the CRMs’ ribbon

driver is a pair of side-firing, long-throw 4.5"

woofers. The CRMs’ bass rolls off at a relatively

high 95Hz, but users can easily enjoy fullrange

bass response by adding any of Sunfire’s

compact, high-output True Series subwoofers.

In a brief demonstration, the CRMs largely

lived up to Sunfire’s promise that the little

monitors would sound like “floorstanding

speakers—without the floor.” Readers whose

systems do double-duty for music and film

playback will be interested to know that Sunfire

also offers a companion center-channel speaker

called the CRM-2C, which sells for $800.


ATC Entry-Level Loudspeakers

The British firm ATC has released a new “Entry Series” of 2- and 3-way passive monitors. Bob Pulley,

ATC Director of Operations, says the “new speakers feature a number of subtle and substantial

improvements, as a result of ATC’s in-house research program, and the availability of new materials,

giving a considerable gain in overall performance.”

The Entry Series range consists of three 2-way, stand-mount monitors of progressively larger enclosure

volumes, plus a 3-way floorstanding model. The range includes the SCM7 ($1150/pair), SCM11 ($1900/

pair), SCM19 ($3300/pair), and SCM40 ($4400/pair). All Entry Series models feature what ATC terms

“monocoque cabinet construction,” stepped baffles with curved edges for low diffraction, and new 1"

soft-dome tweeters with neodymium magnet assemblies and a solid aluminum waveguide for smooth

high-frequency dispersion. The more costly models also incorporate ATC’s “Super Linear Technology”

mid/bass drivers, developed for ATC’s active monitors.


Paradigm updates Reference Signature and

Studio Series

Paradigm’s Signature and Studio Series loudspeakers have been

well received by the staffs of The Absolute Sound and The Perfect

Vision, and Paradigm has just made substantial improvements to

both product families.

The former Studio speakers have been upgraded to Studio v4

status. All Studio v4 speakers get the G-PAL (gold-anodized pure

aluminum) dome tweeters previously reserved for Paradigm’s

upscale Signature models. The Studio v4s also incorporate new

S-PAL (satin-anodized pure aluminum) mid/bass drivers, said to

be more open-sounding than the mica-loaded polymer drivers

previously used. Finally, the Studio v4 range introduces two new

models: the Eclipse (L/R) and Eclipse C (center channel) speakers.

Similarly, the former Signature speakers have been upgraded

to Signature v2 status. All Signature v2 models receive new

beryllium-dome tweeters and cobalt-infused aluminum mid/bass

drivers. For the first time ever, the Signature v2 range includes an

S6 model that slots into the lineup between the stand-mount S4

monitors and the flagship S8 floorstanders.

Though changes in both lines are mechanically and sonically

significant, prices have increased only a modest amount. For

example, the original Signature S8 speakers were priced at about

$6500/pair, while the new S8 v2s will sell for about $6700/pair.


22 December 2006 The Absolute Sound

Future TAS

McIntosh C220 Stereo Preamplifier

McIntosh Laboratories recently announced its new $3300 C220 vacuum-tube preamplifier,

which offers great flexibility, a user-friendly design, and what is said to be a superb built-in

mm phono section based on tried-and-true 12AX7 tubes. The preamplifier features seven

balanced and two unbalanced inputs and outputs.

Interestingly, a unique “Headphone Mode Mute” function allows the C220 to be used

as a high-quality headphone amplifier. McIntosh insiders told us they feel the C220’s sound

quality is second only to McIntosh’s own megadollar, three-chassis C1000C flagship. They also

hinted that, though the C220’s phonostage is meant for use with high-output cartridges, the

phonostage is so quiet and offers so much gain that it can actually be used with medium- and

low-output moving coils.


Revel Ultima 2 Series


Revel’s new Ultima 2 speaker line is the result of

an intense, three-year development effort that

leveraged virtually all the development resources

of Revel’s parent company, Harman International.

The new Ultima 2 family consists of the

four-way, six-driver Salon 2s ($22k/pair); the

three-way, four-driver Studio 2s ($16k/pair); the

three-way, three-driver, wall/stand-mount Gem 2s

($5k/each); and the three-way, four-driver Voice 2

center channel speaker ($8k/each). The Ultima 2s

feature beryllium tweeters mounted in a newly

developed wide-dispersion waveguide, plus

titanium midrange drivers and woofers. Among

the design goals for the speakers were broad

dispersion, ultra-low diffraction, extremely even

power response within the room, and very low


In a brief demonstration, the new Salon 2s

proved quite impressive, exhibiting astonishing

levels of “see-through” transparency, lively and

lifelike dynamics, full-range bass, and the ability

to resolve exceedingly fine musical details. They

represent a big step forward relative to the

original Salons.


Pro-Ject RM10 Turntable

At the CEDIA Expo 2006, Pro-Ject gave the first-ever public showing of its new flagship

RM10 turntable—by far the most ambitious analog platform the firm has offered. Distinctive

features unique to the RM10 include a main bearing that reduces friction via an ingenious

magnetic-repulsion system, plus a special sub-plinth for vibration isolation. The RM10 will sell

for $2500, and is slated for a full review in an upcoming issue of The Absolute Sound. Stay

tuned for details.


24 December 2006 The Absolute Sound

Start Me Up

Rega’s small room solution

Barry Willis

Rega Brio 3



R3 Loudspeaker,

and Apollo CD


First, a bit of history: Rega Research is now in its fourth

decade of building high-quality affordable audio

products. Along the way it’s made some legendary stuff, including the

glass-platter Planar 2 and Planar 3 (P3) turntables, the RB300 tonearm, and

the Planet CD player. A wonderful expression of delight in recorded music,

the current P3 is available in eight color combinations. Components in bright

happy colors are the perfect antidote to audiophiles’ often all-too-serious

approach to music.

While I have great admiration for U.K. companies like Linn, Meridian,

QUAD, and Rega, I’m no Anglophile. I’ve especially never been able to

26 December 2006 The Absolute Sound

Start Me Up

Rega Brio 3 Integrated Amplifier,

R3 Loudspeaker, and Apollo CD Player

grasp the appeal of British mini-monitors

of the LS3/5a variety. Their laughable

low-frequency potential makes them noncontenders

for me. So it was with a bit of

trepidation that I accepted Dallas-based

Sound Organisation’s offer to take an entrylevel

Rega system for a test drive—complete

with The Chord Company’s interconnects

and speaker cables, for what they called

“a full British experience.” Not included:

bangers, peas, warm beer, and a heartfelt

rendition of “God Save the Queen.”

Most suspect were Rega’s R3 speakers,

little baby columns no taller than the average

tabletop. Not so doubtful were the Apollo

CD player (praised by Chris Martens in Issue

165) and the Brio 3 integrated amp, the latest

iteration of a piece that’s been quite well

received in the audiophile community. The

electronics are “affordable state-of-the-art,”

but at less than 20 pounds each, the speakers

shout, “Shangai knock-offs,” though they

are made in England.

The Brio 3 can do

justice to vinyl

I share Chris Martens’ enthusiasm for the

top-loading Apollo CD player. Put a disc in,

close the smoothly operating, hinged disc

cover, and the player automatically starts the

“initialization” process. (Pressing the frontpanel

play button or the corresponding

button on the remote yields no results until

the disc has been read.) Rega claims that

the Apollo “optimizes” itself for each type

of disc that it plays: Red Book standard

CD, MP3, or WMA media. Opening the

disc cover stops playback. Unlike some

similar-looking designs, the disc cover

doesn’t clamp the disc to the mechanism’s

spindle—the disc is secured in place by

the spindle’s three tiny spring-loaded nubs.

The play button doubles as a pause button,

a bit of ergonomic design that’s becoming

commonplace. The only other buttons are

back/forth arrows, a square stop button,

28 December 2006 The Absolute Sound

and an illuminated power switch to the left

of the display. The player’s look is clean and

elegant, but I prefer blue LED displays to

Rega’s red. Back-panel connections include

stereo analog outputs on RCA connectors,

and coax and optical audio outputs.

Simple, compact, easy to operate, and

great-sounding, the Apollo is reasonably

priced at $995. It’s also the most expensive

piece in the Rega system, and justifiably

so. With a precision disc transport

mechanism, vanishingly low jitter, Wolfson

WM8740 DACs, a Class A output stage,

20MB of buffer memory, and an overbuilt

power supply, the Apollo competes both

technologically and musically with some of

the best players on the market.

Sharing the Apollo’s dimensions and style,

the $645 Brio 3 integrated amp appears to

be built on the same chassis. But because the

Brio’s cover acts as a heat sink for its output

stage, Rega cautions against the natural urge

to stack the two. (You can’t put anything on

top of the Apollo, of course, so the two need

to sit side-by-side.) Two large knobs grace

the Brio’s front panel—one for volume, the

other for choosing inputs, each labeled for

commonly used components: Phono, CD,

Tuner, Tape (people are still using tape), and

the odd “Line1” (odd because there is no

“Line2”—whatever happened to good old

reliable “Aux”). The back panel has goldplated

RCA jacks for all inputs, and a pair

to feed a recorder. Speaker outputs are two

pairs of 5-way binding posts. Everything’s

nicely labeled in white against black for

goof-proof hookup.

Output power is rated at 49Wpc into 8

ohms and 64Wpc into 4 ohms—enough to

drive most relatively sensitive speakers. The

power supply features a toroidal transformer

and large filter caps. The amp’s phonostage

is a Rega “Planar” IC. In a nod to reliability,

the 150-watt Sanken output devices are

operated far below their limits.

Most unusual are the $845 R3 speakers.

Styled like larger columns—from pictures,

you would expect them to stand at least fourfeet

tall—they have a 4" paper midrange at

the top, with a 1" dome tweeter below it.

A side-firing 5" woofer handles the bass,

augmented by a 2.5" port in the bottom

front of the speaker. (Front ports enable

placement of speakers closer to walls.) The

back panel has a single pair of 5-way binding

posts; the contrasting plinth has threaded

recesses for spike feet.

The test drive happened to coincide with

a home invasion by a team of plasterers

and painters, the outcome of a summit

meeting with my mate over living in a

perpetual remodel. I’ve had to swallow my

perfectionist do-it-yourself pride and admit

that even if I can do everything myself—and

better than anyone else—I can’t do it within

any reasonable time frame. So my main

system went into hibernation, draped in

plastic sheeting, and the Rega system got set

up in the small back bedroom that serves as

my office—actually an appropriate space for

it, considering the domestic environments

likely to house it. Most folks outside North

America live in much smaller spaces than we


Truthfully, I wasn’t expecting much from

the R3s, and I was pleasantly surprised to

discover that not only do they not have

British mini-monitor syndrome (excessively

lean bass), they actually have amazingly

good bass, with excellent pitch definition.

Imaging was also a surprise. With the R3s

about six feet apart, and a foot off the wall, I

was able to sit ten feet away and get a pretty

good sense of dimensionality from a big

range of recordings—including a few LPs.

I have an old Rega Planar 2 turntable, with a

Sumiko Blue Point high-output moving-coil

cartridge. My vinyl days are long behind me,

but I hooked it up to see how it sounded,

and found the results delightful, especially

with high-quality recordings like some of

Mobile Fidelity’s remasters. The Brio 3 can

do justice to vinyl, boding well not only

for old-school music fans, but for the new

generation just discovering the format.

A tad astringent when first powered up,

the Rega system needed a lengthy warm

up before it began to really breathe. Strunz

& Farah’s Americas [Mesa] didn’t begin to

feel articulate and dynamic until about

20 minutes in, but then the system began

to open up. Physically modest, the Rega

system has a sonic signature that seems

bigger, like a shadow cast late in the day.

While I couldn’t push it into the “red zone”

without needing to dial back the volume,

it did well at moderate to moderately loud

levels—perfectly adequate for a small room.

Rega Brio 3 Integrated Amplifier,

R3 Loudspeaker, and Apollo CD Player

Start Me Up

The dynamic interplay of the two guitarists

was fascinating, with plenty of inner detail,

and the rhythmic drive of their backing

percussionists was compelling.

Junior Brown’s bass-baritone had plenty

of heft in “Darlin’ I’ll Do Anything You Say,”

from Semi Crazy [MCG/Curb], but I couldn’t

crank the volume up loud enough to really

meld with “Surf Medley,” his instrumental

tour de force. That was also the case with

the Dixie Chicks. “Landslide” on Home

[Monument] was a vocal delight, the Chicks’

voices a perfect combination of individual

differentiation and group harmonizing, but

songs that demand to be played really loud,

like “Tonight The Heartache’s on Me,” from

Dixie Chicks [Monument], got too screechy

to be enjoyable. But that may have been

expecting too much; hard-driving, bassheavy

rock, pop, and country aren’t really

suitable for small systems in small rooms.

Other, less dynamically demanding

material was totally enjoyable— for example,

check out Kitty Margolis’ wry cover of the

Pink Floyd classic “Money,” on Left Coast Live

[Mad Kat]. Her smoky contralto floated over

Scott Steed’s jazzy, urbane bass lines. The

ability of these little speakers to articulate

and define low-frequency instrumentals was

really quite amazing, provided I didn’t try to

push them out of their comfort zone.

What was most impressive was the R3’s

talent for defining the essential character

of singers and instruments. In the operatic

aria “Ebben No andro fontano” from

Catalani’s La Wally, from Diva! A Soprano at

the Movies [Silva America], Lesley Garrett hits

all the right notes but somehow manages to

render the piece an academic exercise. By

contrast, Renée Fleming’s version on By

Request [Decca] infuses it with heartbreaking

emotion made all the more potent by her

rich honey-toned voice and superior mastery

of musical nuance.

The fact that this is evident from a pair

of lightweight loudspeakers says much

about their potential. The Rega R3 isn’t a

loudspeaker for everyone. It certainly won’t

perform optimally at filling large rooms with

heavy rock or symphonic music. Anyone

trying to do that will be disappointed. Those

whose tastes run toward chamber music, light

jazz, bluegrass, and acoustic country tunes

will derive a great deal of enjoyment from

the R3, especially if it’s set up in a bedroom

or study. It’s a stealthy playback solution for

polite recordings in small spaces.

The Apollo CD player and Brio 3

amplifier have wider applications, of course.

The amp should be perfectly at home

driving any reasonably sensitive loudspeaker

(89dB or better), and its input array will

accommodate the typical assortment of

sources owned by most music fans. The

inclusion of a real phonostage—not just a

line-level input labeled “phono” requiring

an outboard device—is a nice touch. The

CD player is one that should be considered

by any music fan valuing high performance

at an accessible price.

Even so, both pieces have a shortcoming

considering probable usage situations. That’s

the lack of a headphone jack. It’s not much

of a problem for the Apollo, but I can’t

imagine why it was excluded from the Brio

3. Including it wouldn’t add more than a few

dollars to the amp’s retail price, but would

contribute substantially to its versatility.

The Rega Apollo/Brio 3/R3 system is

worthy of consideration if you want an

unobtrusive system for a small space. The

Apollo CD player is clearly the system’s

crowning jewel, and is highly recommended.

The Brio 3 is a good-sounding, well-built

little amplifier at a reasonable price. The R3

loudspeakers can perform very well within

certain spatial and dynamic parameters.

I’d rate them excellent, very good, and

good, respectively. Music fans with studio

apartments and a budget in this niche should

give them a serious

audition. TAS

Specs &


The Sound Organisation

11140 Petal Street, Suite 350

Dallas, Texas 75238

(972) 234-0182



Apollo CD player

Single-disc top-loading CD player

Supported formats: Red Book CD, MP3, WMA

Outputs: Analog (RCA), coax, optical digital

Dimensions: 17.1" x 3.9" x 10.6"

Price: $995

Brio 3 integrated amplifier

Power: 49Wpc into 8 ohm; 64Wpc into 4 ohm

Inputs: Phono, CD, Tuner, Line, Tape

Outputs: 5-way binding posts

Dimensions: 17.1" x 3.9" x 10.6"

Price: $645

R3 loudspeaker

Three-way ported floorstander

Driver complement: 1" dome tweeter, 4"

paper midrange, 5" woofer

Sensitivity: 89dB

Frequency Response: N/A

Impedance: 6 ohms

Dimensions: 29.5" x 5" x 10.5"

Weight: 19.8 lbs.

Price: $845

Associated Equipment

Rega Planar 2 turntable w/Sumiko Blue Point

cartridge; Sony Vaio notebook computer and

Stereo link 1200 USB DAC; Chord “Siren”

interconnect and “Carnival Silver Plus”

speaker cable; Tributaries TX-700 power



Note to Rega: Please hire a copy editor. On page 4

of the R3 owner’s manual is a caution that bi-wiring

or bi-amping offers “no advantage.” On page 5, the

specifications say that the speaker can be bi-wired or

bi-amped, despite clear physical evidence that it has

only one pair of terminals. And, grumble grumble,

the Rega Web site doesn’t know the difference

between “it’s” and “its.”

December 2006 The Absolute Sound 31



Other Bard

Neil Gader

One of the great challenges in

the next few years will be the

streaming of high-resolution audio and

video signals over a home wireless network.

Even now, in wi-fi’s nascent stage, the landscape is clouding over with competing

standards. Many industry insiders forecast that resolution of these issues is further

away than anyone is willing to admit. But there is a simpler approach, at least for those

interested in exporting music to multiple rooms. Bardaudio, a division of Sonneteer of

England, offers a line of wireless digital audio distribution systems in the here and now,

for existing homes and for homeowners seeking to avoid the pitfalls of building permits,

contractors, and “early adopter” technology.

Bardaudio makes three distinct systems that operate digitally in the 2.4 gigahertz range

(like many wireless phone systems). Each comprises transmitter and receiver elements. Since

there are up to eight selectable channels per Bardaudio system, you can also add receivers and

create distributed music in up to eight rooms from a single Bardaudio source, or have multiple

sources transmitting to assigned receivers.

The $825 Bardone system includes the Tx and Rx

(short for transmitter and receiver), small tea-saucer-like

pods with an embedded omnidirectional antenna and a

pair of RCA input jacks. Each is powered by a multi-head

universal power supply. Adding modules and synching up

modules is made easy thanks to internally selectable DIP


The $599 BardUSB is designed for those who enjoy

their computer as a media hub to playback CDs, iTunes,

podcasts, or even Web-based XM satellite. It’s a plugand-play

transmitter no bigger than a typical microdrive

or memory stick. It, too, is selectable for up to eight


Finally, there’s the $1295 Bardthree, a slick bundle that

marries Rx technology to a two-channel digital amplifier

with volume control that plugs into a wall socket. That’s

right, into—at 4.5" x 2.5" x 2.5", it’s smaller than a box

of animal crackers. It outputs 25Wpc into 4 ohms, uses

triple protection circuitry, and launches into a powersaving

sleep mode when no signal is present. It has

speaker terminals suitable for banana plugs and, like the

Bardone/BardUSB, is selectable for up to eight channels.

For extra zones operating from the same Tx source, just

add another Bardthree and a set of speakers and you’re good to go. A bi-amp “monoblock”

version is also available.

Installation is straightforward enough; the Bardone Tx runs off of any analog source with

a pair of RCA outputs (in the instance of an iPod, via a T-adapter). The Bardone Rx connects

to the inputs of an amplifier or active loudspeaker. Bon voyage, interconnect.

Look Ma, No Wires!

Prior to determining its long-range performance, I first wanted to establish the Bardone

baseline at an interconnect-length distance from each other. Sonically I found the Bardone

and BardUSB have similar signatures. There is some reduction of gain in comparison to

conventional interconnect cabling, but the signal remained robust and free of noise and


May Audio Marketing

2150 Liberty Drive Unit #7

Niagara Falls, New York 14304

(716) 283-4434



34 December 2006 The Absolute Sound

eakup. The character of the sound is smooth,

though mildly subtractive at the frequency

extremes, with a shaded treble that reduces the

snap of drummer Stewart Copeland’s highpitched

drum kit in the Police’s Synchronicity

[A&M] or the transient tickle of upper-octave

piano trills during Mary Stallings’ Live at the

Village Vanguard [MaxxJazz]. In almost exact

proportion is a reduction in bass extension

and definition, although midbass remains

pretty sturdy. An overall roundness and

plumminess prevails. The result is a sound

that’s neither overly warm nor digitally icy. In

a way it reminds me a bit of the vintage British

BBC sound, which concentrated on getting

the midrange right and maintaining voice

intelligibility, and avoided fatigue-inducing

treble edginess at all costs. The upshot is a

highly musical experience that rivals another

antenna-driven source device, the venerable

FM tuner. And like a tuner, there is a reduction

of channel separation, a bit of soundstage

“squeeze” that confines images and acoustics

within a narrower ambient window between

the speakers.

The Bardthree introduces the variable

of digital amplification into the wireless

equation. With a modest 25Wpc on tap, amp/

speaker matchups are important. Although

Bardthree will drive less sensitive speakers to

moderate levels, clearly it performed its best

with easier loads like the 91.5dB-sensitive

Triangle Altea Esw. Naturally, the Bardthree

doesn’t have the hulking low-frequency

presence and dynamics of an MBL or

Plinius amp (bass remains a little soft and

rolled in comparison with these high-output

mega-integrated-amps), but the Bardthree

has a lively and highly resolved midrange,

with dynamics and resolution to match.

Generally speaking, its sound fell into line

with that of the standalone Rx module, but

there is a coloration in the treble unique to

the Bardthree. High frequencies are clear and

detailed but also suggest a thinner, papery

quality. Not grainy per se, but a sense that the

harmonic bloom of high strings and brass

has been condensed and desaturated of

color. Not a deal-breaker by any stretch—in

fact, it comfortably compares with a variety

of integrated amps and receivers in its price


Arguably, it’s the BardUSB where the

wireless system really shines. In my system

the BardUSB/computer connection made

good on its promise to “plug-and-play”

as soon as I booted up iTunes aboard my

PC. On one occasion when I inserted the

A Bard By Any Other Name

What separates the Bardaudio system from gizmos found at Hammacher Schlemmer is that

it makes good on its promises. Sonically these wireless systems performed admirably and

musically. Signal strength over longer runs remains an issue—one highly dependant on

listening environment and Tx/Rx placement. So, as they say, “your results may vary.” That said,

this is a company on a mission and clearly prepared to meet the challenges of an increasingly

unwired world. And, in the here and now, if you can demonstrate an easier way to pipe music

to multiple rooms with zero electrical fuss and construction hassles, I’m all ears. NG


Fine Print

Bardaudio advertises wireless performance

between roughly 60 and 120 feet. In

practice these are idealized figures.

The reality is that wireless systems are

prisoners of the infinite number of interior

obstacles they must face. A transmitter

that “sees” fifty unobstructed feet in

front of it performs very differently than

one confronted with a couple of lathand-plaster

walls. So the real test of the

Bardaudio’s prowess was transmitting to

another room. In my home, the system

began breaking up slightly beyond fortyto-fifty

feet with a one-wall obstruction—

basically at the low side of the stated spec.

Without obstructions, throw distance

increases markedly.

Also be prepared to don your tweaker’s

hat in order to optimize the signal—small

shifts of the Tx/Rx modules (which are

also antennae, after all) are needed to

lock in the signal, much like the time we

all spend positioning speakers to accord

with the listening-position “sweetspot.”

Placement on higher shelves is a distinct

advantage. Even so, at or near the limits

of reception, there will be the occasional

dropout, heard as a vinyl-record-like lowlevel

tick or snap. NG

BardUSB with the PC already powered up,

I got a conflict message from my LinkSys

router, but I simply mouse-clicked “Repair”

in the Windows XP Wireless Network

Connection Status menu, and the software

automatically sought a different channel for

my DSL. It took hardly a minute, the bluelight

connection indicator on the BardUSB

shone brightly, and I was back up and

running. Note: CD playback was consistent

with my results for the Tx, but performance

was about what I’ve come to expect from

a highly compressed formats like iTunes—

sonics are lightweight with a whitish cast,

dynamically squeezed, and generally bereft

of low-level detail. But none of this was the

fault of the BardUSB, which went about its

appointed rounds admirably, transmitting

without drama or dropouts.

I need to add that, on a broader

philosophical basis, what makes the

BardUSB a home run is its potential to bridge

the technological and generational divide

between computer users (read: younger)

and high-end audio hobbyists (older). It has

the power to open up a dialogue between

what makes these two worlds tick. And any

device that underscores compatibility rather

than divisiveness is a worthy addition to the

wider audio conversation. TAS

December 2006 The Absolute Sound 35



Designed for someone who just wants

to sit back and enjoy the music Jim Hannon

Clearaudio Ambient

Turntable System

How often have you thought that an audio component was “drop-dead

gorgeous” only to be told by your spouse or significant other that you needed your eyes (or head)

examined Whereas I might consider a hulking, piano-black turntable the size of a small desk beautiful,

most non-audiophiles do not. However, when people with a well-developed sense of style, like the females

in my household, unanimously agree that an audio component is gorgeous, I’m very suspicious of its sonic

performance. My own empirical research suggests that if it looks so fine that it qualifies as a “lifestyle” product,

its sonic performance is generally lacking.

Well, the Clearaudio Ambient turntable system, with its matching Satisfy Satiné arm and Concerto cartridge, is

one gorgeous-looking product that breaks the mold. It certainly wouldn’t be out of place in MOMA’s industrial

design collection, yet its performance rivals that of other serious high-end turntables in this class, and a few

beyond. Higher-end acrylic Clearaudio tables have gained a well-deserved reputation for clarity, but they’ve

always struck me as being a little too sterile. Great for hearing all the detail you could ask for, but perhaps a bit

too much of a good thing. The Ambient sounds different from its earlier brethren in one major way—its sound

is more warm than cool. Fortunately, this sonic transformation doesn’t come at the cost of a loss of fine inner

detail, clarity, or accuracy. Mind you, the Ambient’s sound is not at all dark or ponderous; it’s just somewhat more

rich and forgiving. For me, this is a welcomed shift in Clearaudio’s traditional sonic signature and helps make

instruments and voices sound more natural and lifelike.

Insert the Ambient into your system, and it will generate both excitement and beauty. Combined with the

shockingly dynamic, quick, and revealing Eben X-3s, for example, the Ambient more than held its own. The

sound was explosive on hard transients, the bass was lightning fast, and the highs went out to the moon. In a

system with a somewhat different sonic character, the Ambient did nothing to obscure the midrange magic of the

Quads, both old and new, nor blunt the leading edges of transients. Voices and instruments had a transparency

that was lifelike and palpable.

36 December 2006 The Absolute Sound

Clearaudio Ambient Turntable System

Absolute Analog

How has Clearaudio dialed up its warmth

and richness without diminishing clarity and

transient speed Like a great musical instrument

(or concert hall) the answer is that it’s using

wood with desirable acoustic properties

throughout the system. For instance, the Satiné

wood used in the armwand and in the body of

the Concerto cartridge offers high rigidity and

low resonance without sucking the life out of

the music. Additionally, a multi-layer, highly

compressed wood called “Panzerholz” is used

as the core of the table’s plinth, sandwiched

between two machined aluminum plates. It is

relatively lightweight, non-resonant, and rigid,

yet so incredibly dense that it is able to stop a

bullet. (Panzerholz is also used in several other

new models in the Clearaudio line, including

the $80,000 Statement, as well as in the floors

of limos and armored vehicles in Europe for

presumably more than a quieter ride.)

The Ambient’s sophisticated outboard

combo motor and speed controller is physically

isolated from the plinth and connected via

three very thin belts which drive the 40mm

acrylic platter. These seamless, silicon-based

belts are said to transfer less noise than the

typical rubber belts found on most belt-drive

tables. The motor/speed controller is a joy

to use, has the feel of a precision instrument,

and ensures accurate pitch control. The speedcontrol

function alone rivals the performance

of my VPI SDS box, the best external speed

controller I’ve used this side of the Walker.

The Ambient is certainly one of the best

’tables in its class at reproducing the sound

of a piano, as sustained notes are incredibly

solid and do not waver in pitch. While it’s not

free of some occasional resonance (heard

as a little muddiness in the bass) and slight

surface noise, I found myself preferring piano

recordings on the Ambient to that of my

digital front-end—something I can’t say about

most ’tables, regardless of price. There was

just more naturalness, air, and realism without

a loss of pitch stability. Music emerged from

a black background with excellent dynamics,

clarity, and transient speed. When called upon,

this system is also sonorous and can accurately

portray the singing tone of the piano.

You’ll hear lots of inner detail with the

Ambient, too, like Joe Pass’ fingers sliding

along the neck of his guitar on Take Love Easy

[Pablo], and the leading edge of transients as he

strums or plucks the strings. On the same LP,

Ella Fitzgerald’s voice is free of excess sibilance

and is natural and beautiful, perhaps a tad less

seductive than with my Koetsu Black cartridge,

but far, far closer than Clearaudio tables and

cartridges used to be. Not surprisingly, the

Clearaudio Concerto cartridge on the Ambient

outpoints my Koetsu in terms of inner detail,

top-end extension, focus, and tracking ability,

all notable strengths of many of Clearaudio’s

more exotic cartridges. Indeed, the Concerto

is described as the entry-level cartridge in

the “super-class” of Clearaudio’s new line

of moving-coil cartridges. When coupled

with the Ambient, the Concerto’s extended

dynamic range and transient quickness makes

music listening very exciting.

Precision is one of the words that comes

to mind when describing the Ambient. The

inverted bearing is very quiet and the overall

design and execution results in a low noise

floor. Admittedly, when using the Satisfy

Satiné arm, the Ambient combo has a slightly

higher level of groove noise than my reference

and falls a bit short of the eerie silence and

jet-black background of some of the far

more expensive table/arm/cartridge combos.

However, the Ambient is much closer to the

“super analog rigs” than its price warrants, and

it is better isolated from extraneous vibrations

than most other mass-loaded tables in its class.

Consequently, the Ambient doesn’t benefit

nearly as much from placement on an airsuspension

platform as many others do.

The Ambient system appears to be designed

for someone who just wants to sit back and

enjoy the music, but if you must tweak,

there are a few substitutions that improve its

performance. The supplied “Clever Clamp”

provides good, but not great, coupling of the

record to the platter. You might experiment

with other clamps, or if you want to seriously

flatten records, you could go for Clearaudio’s

“Outer Limit” peripheral stainless steel ring

clamp. You might also consider a higher

performance tonearm. Make no mistake, the

Satisfy Satiné, with its tighter-spec’d bearings,

higher-mass counterweight, and wonderful

wood armwand is a major step up from the

stock Satisfy. But substituting my Graham

tonearm reduced groove noise, tightened up

the bass, and rendered even more detail and

nuance. Admittedly, it didn’t look as good,

and it costs a lot more. Fortunately, you can

purchase the Ambient table alone or with a

higher-performance Clearaudio arm. Finally,

consider adding the Clearaudio “VTA-Lifter.”

This is more of a convenience than anything,

as VTA can be adjusted with the stock

system, but is a tedious process. The “VTA-

Lifter” has to be the most precise and refined

“aftermarket” VTA adjuster there is. It lets

you easily dial in the optimal VTA setting for

different record thicknesses and quickly return

to the sweet spot for each.

The Ambient turntable system proves that

great looks do not always limit performance.

Its richness and warmth will come as a shock

to most of you familiar with the previous

Clearaudio “house sound,” but it still maintains

the fine detail, clarity, and transient quickness

you’d expect. The fine performance of the

table and the Concerto cartridge, in particular,

made me think it’s about time to upgrade my

analog front end, and the Ambient, as well

as other “Panzerholz” Clearaudio tables, will

definitely be on my short list. TAS

Specs &



5662 Shattuck Avenue

Oakland, California 94609

(510) 547-5006



Ambient Turntable System

Bearing: Inverted with ceramic ball

Type of Drive: Belt

Tonearm: Satisfy Satiné

Speeds: 33-1/3 and 45 rpm

Dimensions: 21.1" x 5.9" x 13"

Weight: 26.5 lbs.

Price: $3500 (without arm), $4600 (with arm),

$6200 (as tested with arm and cartridge)

Concerto Cartridge

Type: Low-output MC

Output: 0.7mV

Weight: 4.0 grams

Recommended Tracking Force: 2.8 grams

Price: $2000 (when sold separately)


VPI Aries turntable (w/TNT V platter &

bearing), Graham 1.5 arm (w/2.2 bearing),

Koetsu Black cartridge; Musical Fidelity

Tri-Vista 21 DAC; Chapter Preface Plus

preamplifier and Couplet amplifier; MFA

Venusian preamp (Frankland modified);

PrimaLuna Prologue 6 amplifiers; Eben X-3

and Quad ESL-57 (PK modified) loudspeakers;

Nordost Valhalla cables; Gingko “Cloud Ten,”

vibration control platform

December 2006 The Absolute Sound 39

Basic Repertoire: Britpop

Andy Downing

The sudden rise and

fall of England’s

chipper musical and

cultural response to

grunge, and the trail

of sounds left behind

in its wake

Coined “Britpop” by Sound magazine in the late 1980s, the second wave of

British pop music was part of a U.K. cultural and musical revolution that helped

propel Tony Blair into office and made global stars out of a couple of pint-swilling, blue-collar blokes from

Manchester. Unlike England’s first artistic outburst, where artists like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones made

a lasting global impact, the second coming was more or less an afterthought in the United States, gaining little

traction outside of Oasis’ dueling Gallagher brothers and “Song 2,” an accidental hit by scene originators Blur,

which started its climb on the U.S. charts when the movement was well into its death throes.

But in 1990s England, the genre was of immense significance. With America dominating the artistic

landscape—be it fashion, film, or music—a generation of young Brits began pulling away and exhibiting a more

nationalistic sense of pride. This cultural backlash revealed itself in ways both subtle (Pulp singer Jarvis Cocker’s

“mooning” of moonwalking U.S. icon Michael Jackson at the 1996 Brit Awards) and obvious (April 1993’s cover

of Select magazine, which saw Suede’s Brett Anderson posing with a Union Jack background alongside the phrase

“Yanks go home!”), though most U.S. citizens were unaware of the hubbub.

The political import of the music is more easily catalogued, as Blair, then a young, fresh-faced politician

and not the dour lapdog he would become, latched onto the music, posing for photographs with Oasis’ Noel

Gallagher and other scene luminaries. In 1996, Blair’s press secretary, Alastair Campbell, even issued a statement

saying, “Something has shifted. There’s a new feeling in the streets. There’s a desire for change. Britain is exporting

pop music again. Now all we need is a new government.” Campbell’s vision came to fruition in 1997 when Blair

was elected Prime Minister.

With Britpop, as in most cultural movements, the first warning shots were fired long before the initial impact

was felt. The earliest of these long-range missiles was delivered by Manchester’s Stone Roses. The band’s selftitled

1989 debut [Silvertone] received near-unanimous praise from the British music press for songs like “I

40 December 2006 The Absolute Sound

TAS Journal

Basic Repertoire: Britpop

Wanna Be Adored,” which sported an instantly

recognizable, danceable bassline—a surprising

“Madchester” twist to the hazy accompaniment,

the album’s trippy pastiche often making it

sound as if the group is engulfed in billowing

clouds of pot smoke. When the quartet played

an open-air show at Spike Island in 1990, it

turned into a landmark event in England,

drawing an audience (including the omnipresent

Noel Gallagher) that would later form Britpop’s


Less than a year later, amidst much innerturmoil,

the La’s finally released their selftitled

debut on Go! Discs. The band, led by

volatile frontman Lee Mavers, discarded several

producers before settling with U2 knob-twiddler

Steve Lillywhite for the difficult sessions. Mavers

has spoken in numerous interviews about his

desire to sabotage the recording, intentionally

playing poorly out of spite for

the War producer. Fortunately, the

record doesn’t reflect this tension,

tracks like “There She Goes”

building a sunny jangle that owes a

significant debt to the Byrds’ Roger

McGuinn and British rockers like

the Small Faces. The recording is

slightly tinny, but Mavers’ ear for

melody reveals itself in a barrage

of pop hooks nearly as relentless as

a 24-year-old Mike Tyson backing

his opponent into a corner.

When the La’s and the Stone

Roses struggled to follow-up their

respective debuts (the latter, in

particular, were crushed by the

expectations of the fawning U.K.

music press), the cultural vacuum

was filled by the rising Seattle

sound known as grunge, and in

November 1991, scene godfathers

Nirvana played a drawling version


of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on the U.K. music

program Top of the Pops. But even as grunge

dominated media coverage, a British scene was

developing as a counterpoint to the unkempt,

flannel-clad yetis of the Pacific Northwest.

Drawing on British pop music of the 60s and

70s, especially the Kinks, the Small Faces, the

Who, and the Beatles, acts like Blur, Oasis, and

Pulp began to construct a musical repertoire

that, while not always original (here’s looking at

you, Oasis), is well worth examining.

In many ways, Britpop functioned as grunge

music’s scrubbed-up older brother, leering at

its underachieving sibling as if to say, “Clean

up and get a job.” Velvet smoking jackets and

three-piece suits replaced flannel shirts; freshly

pressed melodies took over for rumpled guitar

riffs. During this time, English culture embraced

42 December 2006 The Absolute Sound

the buttoned-up grandeur of its “Great Britain”

lineage—even the music being recorded was

in direct response to grunge’s couch-crashing

ethos. Following Nirvana singer/guitarist Kurt

Cobain’s suicide on April 5, 1994, British rockers

again began to establish dominance on their

home continent. The year saw inspired third

albums from Blur and Manic Street Preachers

as well as debut efforts from Oasis and the

long-underrated trio Supergrass.

Released the same month as Cobain’s death,

Blur’s Parklife [Food/SBK] is a cheeky album

written after an extensive tour of the United

States. Appalled by the plastic, shopping-mall

culture they witnessed, singer Damon Albarn

and guitarist/sparring partner Graham Coxon

lashed back with the record’s title track, urging

listeners to “Cut down on your park life, mate, get

some exercise.” The album is ostensibly British,

from Albarn’s pronounced Cockney accent on

the synthetic chug of “Girls & Boys” to Phil

Daniels’ “Parklife” narration, the Quadrophenia

actor twisting his syllables with obvious glee.

Stephen Street’s production highlights the neon

quality of the songs, string sections, punchy

drums, and sharp bursts of guitar marching in

lock step like the Royal Guard parading in front

of Buckingham Palace.

Oasis’ Noel Gallagher has consistently

mocked this kind of high-concept, artistic

statement from Albarn, dismissing the singer

as a “fuggin’ stoo-dent” in John Dower’s 2003

Britpop documentary Live Forever. With songs

like “Rock ’n’ Roll Star” and “Cigarettes &

Alcohol” on its Epic debut Definitely Maybe,

Oasis’ ambition was clear from the start,

brothers Liam and Noel Gallagher firmly

believing they were stars long before they

recorded a single note. Liberally borrowing

from everyone from the Beatles to the Rolling

Stones (“Shakermaker” even echoes the New

Seekers’ “I’d Like To Teach the World To

Sing”), Oasis appeared to embrace America’s

“bigger is better” philosophy—bigger guitars,

bigger personalities, and bigger choruses. The

production highlights this rawk element, guitars

buzzing and gnashing like a timber mill as Liam

Gallagher rasps, “It’s just rock ’n’ roll.” But a

mix of the Gallagher brothers’ refreshingly

brash attitudes as well as undeniable tunes like

“Supersonic” and “Live Forever” gave credence

to the group’s inflated self-worth.

Breaking through with the same tenacity and

a tenth the ego, Supergrass released I Should Coco

[Capitol], a breakneck, mash-up of an album

that finds the trio, barely out of its teens, tearing

at its instruments with the manic

energy of a speed freak searching

out another hit. Sam Williams’

production is justifiably sloppy,

capturing the sound of three

friends recording in a basement

with too much beer and not

enough time. But the resulting

album is a thrill-a-minute joyride,

whether the threesome is on the

run from the cops (“Caught By

the Fuzz,” which could also refer

to the band’s recording technique)

or off chasing the wrong girls

(“She’s So Loose”).

Often lumped in with the

Britpop movement, though its

roots aren’t British (the band hales

from Blackwood, Wales) and

music not overtly poppy, Manic

Street Preachers’ The Holy Bible

[Epic] is one of the direst records

to emerge from the scene. The

lyrics, some of the last penned by guitarist Richey

James prior to his unsolved disappearance

in 1995, touch on anorexia (the devastating

“4st 7 lb”), sexual confusion (“Yes”), and an

overwhelming desire to change, even at the high

cost of death (“Die in the Summertime”). Singer

James Dean Bradfield imbues the songs with

the necessary desperation, his vocals soaring on

“Mausoleum” as guitars scratch and claw like

demons pulling him towards hell. Sonically, the

album is not as dour as its lyrics might suggest, a

wide soundstage leaving room for the cavalcade

of razor-sharp guitar riffs. Especially impressive

is “The Intense Humming of Evil,” a rumbling

bassline echoing the title as Bradfield tosses and

turns with night terrors, the song smoldering

like Mephistopheles brooding upon his dark


TAS Journal

Basic Repertoire: Britpop

If 1994 was the year that Britpop began

its commercial ascent, then 1995 is when the

genre crested. Blur and Oasis were again at the

forefront, releasing new singles on the same

day in August, an event British music magazine

NME dubbed the “British Heavyweight

Championship.” Initially Blur sold more

copies of its single, “Country House,” than

Oasis did of its entry, “Some Might Say,”

but behind the strength of “Wonderwall,”

“Champagne Supernova,” and “Don’t Look

Back In Anger,” Oasis’ sophomore (What’s

the Story) Morning Glory wound up crushing

Blur’s Modern Life Is Rubbish, selling over 19

million copies and establishing the Gallaghers

as global stars.

Released in April of the same year to

relatively little fanfare was Radiohead’s

sophomore The Bends [Capitol]. The band

received a good deal of airplay with the cachunk,

ca-chunk of its 1993 hit “Creep,” but the

rest of its debut, Pablo Honey, displayed little

of the ingenuity the band is known for today.

The Bends, however, proved revelatory, the

Oxford quintet lashing out at a perceived lack

of support from its record label (“My brain

says I’m receiving pain/A lack of oxygen from

my life support,” sings Thom Yorke on “My

Iron Lung”) and tearing into a host of tracks

that seem almost designed to ward off its onehit-wonder

status. “Street Spirit [Fade Out]”

is a hallucinatory dream, resting somewhere

between sleep and death; “Fake Plastic Trees,”

ostensibly a ballad about breast implants (“He

used to do surgery on girls in the eighties/But

gravity always wins/And it wears him out,”

coos Yorke), twists and turns until the band

is railing against the inevitability of failure;

“Just” is a snarling six-string workout, Jonny

Greenwood bending his guitar lines like aural

origami. The album doesn’t have the cohesive

feel of Radiohead’s later work, but without

the redemption The Bends provided (for fans,

critics, and suits at the band’s label) it’s likely

44 December 2006 The Absolute Sound

the group wouldn’t have been around long

enough to reach the career highs of 1997’s

OK Computer or 2000’s Kid A.

Pulp, another band that experienced a

mid-90s breakthrough, toiled in obscurity

for far longer than any of its contemporaries.

Jarvis Cocker and company first got together

in Sheffield, England in 1978, releasing a

handful of under-the-radar albums in the 80s.

In 1994, the band finally received recognition

for His ’n’ Hers [Island], Cocker refining his

sexually-depraved, lounge lizard persona. But

it was Different Class, released the following

year on Island (and recently reissued, along

with His ’n’ Hers and This Is Hardcore as

import-only, double-disc sets by Universal/

Island), that functioned as a perfect storm of

sorts, combining indelible melodies with an

inherently British sensibility, best recognized

in the class struggle of the über-hit “Common

People.” Chris Thomas’ production is

insanely catchy, creating a spiky cocktail of

disco keyboards and new-wave guitars that

dance around the eloquent ruminations of

Cocker, who preens, sighs, and croons like a

lascivious alley cat, declaring war on everyday

conceptions, not with bombs or guns, but

“with the one thing we’ve got more of—that’s

our minds.”

There is nothing quite so high-minded on

Elastica’s self-titled debut [Deceptive], only a

cadre of riffs that often sound cribbed from

better-know acts. In fact, shortly after its

release, the band was sued by Wire, which

noted the similarity between the electronic

detonation kicking off “Connection” and its

own “Three Girl Rhumba.” But singer Justine

Frischmann, whose brief dalliance with Blur’s

Albarn was Brangelina-like fodder for the U.K.

tabloids, elevates these songs from their tracepaper

origins, oozing sex appeal like a British

Deborah Harry on the you-can’t-have-me

pleas of “Hold Me Now” and “Stutter,” a track

where the singer

compares wouldbe

suitors to windup

toys dancing

around her feet.

Marc Waterman

produced the

record, wisely

leaving behind

some sonic grit that

toughens up the

band’s sound.

If Frischmann

was the streetsmart

girl listeners could never have, then

Suede’s Brett Anderson, by contrast, was

the British dandy that would cozy up to

anyone and anything. With guitarist Bernard

Butler, the band released two albums (Suede

and Dog Man Star, both on Nude/Columbia)

that were the sonic equivalent of 18 th -century

period pieces with elaborate costumes

and powdered wigs—grand gestures that

bordered on melodrama. With Butler’s

departure, Anderson reined in the sound for

the striking and often-overlooked Coming Up

[Nude/Columbia]. Still tending towards the

glam stylings of David Bowie and T-Rex,

Suede (which Stateside, was forced to go by

the name London Suede after legal wrangling

with a smalltime country act that shared its

name) shows an increased maturity on the

glittery stomp of “Film Star” and the artfully

ragged “Beautiful Ones.” Ed Buller produced

the album, favoring a guitar-heavy mix that

shuns the low end and makes the songs twinkle

like a cavalcade of stars. While this formula

sometimes proves detrimental on the rockers,

it makes ballads like “By the Sea” as elegiacal

and moving as eleventh-hour prayers.

The Verve’s spiritual leader/frontman

Richard Ashcroft chants many of the lyrics on

the band’s sophomore album A Northern Soul

[Vernon Yard, and later released on Virgin

in the U.S.] as if they’re ancient incantations.

But even if the delivery sounds celestial,

Soul is tethered firmly to the Earth, Ashcroft

struggling with class division (“This Is Music”),

the fleeting nature of love (“So It Goes”), and

the imprint one leaves before moving on in

this life (“History”). Sweeping string sections

heighten the feeling of loneliness, Ashcroft

walking—hands deep in his pockets—sideby-side

with the Thames, life’s big questions

swirling in his overactive cranium. Guitarist

Nick McCabe plays a nice counterpoint to the

cerebral frontman, his psychedelic washes on

“A New Decade” circling the singer like an

approaching storm front.

By 1997, after racking up an assist in Blair’s

ascension to Prime Minister, the Britpop scene

was on the verge of collapsing, burdened by

increased drug use, outsized egos, and the

weight of commercial expectations. Oasis’

massively anticipated third album, Be Here

Now, failed to impress critics or fans, with

Noel Gallagher later dismissing the album

as “the sound of a bunch of guys on coke

in the studio not giving a [expletive].” Pulp’s

masterstroke This Is Hardcore, arguably the

critical nadir of the Britpop movement, was

written during this steep, chemical-driven

downturn in the scene, a period awash in more

white powder than the Winter Olympics. In

Dower’s documentary, Pulp frontman Cocker

talked about the record’s dark turn. “It was

the worst period of me life. I was a mess,” the

TAS Journal

Basic Repertoire: Britpop

lanky crooner said. “Taking drugs didn’t help.

You don’t often hear people say, ‘Oh, since

he’s been on drugs he’s such a nice person.

He’s really come out of his shell.’”

The album reflects this desperation with

perhaps the most depraved/detached sexual

treatise ever. “And that goes in there. And

that goes in there,” directs a callous Cocker

on the title track. Elsewhere, the frontman

turns his sharpened lyrical sensibilities on the

ravages of time (“Help the Aged”), compares

lost love to a crummy film (“TV Movie”),

and finds salvation in housework (“Dishes”).

Chris Thomas’ production is pitch-perfect,

creating a cinematic backdrop for Cocker’s

lyrical musings, which seem to echo the

overriding feel in the Britpop community.

“The revolution was televised,” he sings on

“The Day After the Revolution.” “Now it’s

over, bye bye.”

Late in its career Blur wisely started to

shy from Britpop, a shift that culminated in

Coxon’s 2002 departure from the band, and

an album, Think Tank, heavy on dub and

African influences. But in 1997 the band was

just discovering, at Coxon’s urging, U.S. acts

like Pavement and early REM. The band’s

love affair with American music coincided

with a new album and the single “Song 2”

(known to many as “that woo-hoo song”), a

punk goof and its first Stateside hit. The selftitled

album (recorded with Street and released

on Food/Virgin), embraced basement lo-fi,

ramshackle country, and on the gorgeous

“Beetlebum,” the band’s Britpop roots. But,

much like Pulp’s Hardcore, Blur sound keenly

aware of the era’s end, Albarn turning “Death

of the Party” into a dour funeral procession

as he sings, “The death of the party/Came as

no surprise/Why did we bother/Should have

stayed away.”

While Albarn’s detachment is striking,

it shines a spotlight on the boom-or-bust

nature of the music industry. Why did he

bother Because nobody turns down the

invite to a killer party. Like Cocker, he was

just fortunate to hang around long enough to

witness the cleaning crew’s arrival. With the

lights on and the floor littered with cigarette

butts, it was time for the true players to head

elsewhere. TAS

10 Essential

Britpop Albums

Pulp: This Is Hardcore. Island 524492

Radiohead: The Bends. Capitol 29626

Supergrass: I Should Coco. Capitol 33350

The La’s: The La’s. Go! Discs 828202

Verve: A Northern Soul. Virgin 40437

Pulp: Different Class. Island 524165

Blur: Parklife. SBK 29194

The Stone Roses: The Stone Roses. Silvertone


Manic Street Preachers: The Holy Bible. Epic


Oasis: Definitely Maybe. Epic 66431

46 December 2006 The Absolute Sound





Rightful heir to NAD’s classic 7020

Neil Gader


& Pricing

NAD Electronics

Lenbrook America

6 Merchant Street

Sharon, Massachusetts 02067

(781) 784-8586


Power output: 50Wpc into 8


Inputs: Four audio, one tape loop

Dimensions: 17" x 5.75" x 15.1"

Weight: 19.2 lbs.

Price: $599


MBL 1531 and Simaudio

Moon Supernova CD players;

ATC SCM20-2 and MBL 121

loudspeakers; REL Britannia

B3 subwoofer w/Synergistic

Research Resolution Reference

X2 cable and X2 power cord;

Nordost Baldur and Crystal Cable

interconnects and speaker cables;

Virtual Dynamics Master Series,

Wireworld Silver Electra, and

Kimber Palladian power cords;

Richard Gray line conditioners;

Sound Fusion Turntable stand

It’s awfully easy to get spoiled in this industry. Gear that I could not possibly afford is

dropped at my door, and for a brief window of time I live under the illusion that my champagne-and-caviar

dreams have materialized. Such was the case when I reviewed NAD’s Master Series M3 integrated amplifier in Issue

163—a superb effort that I only grudgingly relinquished. But NAD didn’t leave me empty-handed for long.

The 720BEE is heir to NAD’s classic 7020 receiver (and the more recent C740). Its 50Wpc amplifier section is

based on the company’s C320BEE integrated amp, but here equipped with an RDS AM/FM tuner and a secondzone

output that allows music to be exported to speakers in another room (separate amplifier required). The

absence of the video functionality of the Rotel RX-1052 and the iPod jack and USB connectivity of the Outlaw

RR 2150 may suggest that the C720BEE is strictly old school. But NAD compensates for these omissions with a

hefty toroidal transformer, defeatable tone controls, remote control, and subwoofer output—a thoughtful nod to

the expanding sub/sat marketplace. The only misstep is the lack of a volume-readout on the front-panel display.

When partnered with a high-performance speaker of medium sensitivity, like the Proac Studio 140 (review to

come), the NAD continues its tradition of midrange neutrality and resolution, and freedom from noise and gritty

treble artifacts. It reveals more inner details and microdynamics than it has a right to at this level. To hear what

I mean, listen to Holly Cole’s puffs of breath as she tests the mike at the beginning of “Take Me Home,” from

Temptation [Alert]. It also shows a fair share of transparency at the end of Sinatra’s “Angel Eyes,” from Only The

Lonely [Capitol]. When the Chairman sings, “’scuse me, while I disappear,” the NAD captures a voice weary with

regret—the very atmosphere of the wee, small hours of the morning.

These tracks cut both ways, however, by revealing the NAD’s mildly subtractive personality. There is some

shortening and lowering of the soundstage during Rutter’s Requiem [Reference Recordings], and the NAD doesn’t

quite resolve the complex microdynamics and imaging of such a large collection of voices. At the bandwidth

extremes, it does lack a bit of air in the treble and pitch control in the bass. So the acoustic stand-up during “One

For My Baby” is not as defined or dynamic as it could be, and when Diane Reeves hits a lyric hard in the Good Night,

and Good Luck soundtrack [Concord], the NAD thins some of the chesty resonance from her voice.

I’m a big fan of radio, so a tuner’s sonics had better be able to shoulder the weight. The C720BEE performed

strongly, reproducing orchestras with a dimensionality and dynamism that were arresting. The NAD can’t match

the sensitivity and dynamic explosiveness of $1000-plus stand-alone FM tuners like Magnum Dynalab’s MD-90

or 106T, but it had good adjacent-channel separation and pulled in even some of my local low-power favorites


The NAD C720BEE validates a no-nonsense philosophy that rejects the “bells and whistles” philosophy of

audio by letting its musicality do all the talking. Make no mistake, I still miss the M3, but nothing takes the edge off

the loss like this honey of a BEE. TAS

December 2006 The Absolute Sound 49



Cambridge Audio Azur 840A

Class XD Integrated Amplifier

Playing above the grade

Chris Martens

The Azur 840A is the most flexible,

most powerful, and best-sounding

integrated amplifier that the British

firm Cambridge Audio has ever built, and

it even introduces a new “Class XD” mode

of amplifier operation that I discuss in the

sidebar, below. Briefly, Cambridge’s Class

XD circuit leverages the strengths of Class

A and B amplification in an innovative way,

yielding lower distortion than is typically

produced by traditional Class AB amplifiers.

Interestingly, the 840A is also a “multizone”

integrated amplifier, in that it provides dual A-

BUS interfaces that can send audio signals via

CAT5 wiring to two remote listening zones.

The 840A puts out a feisty 120Wpc, and sells

for $1499.

The Azur 840A incorporates numerous

touches that purist audiophiles will appreciate.

For example, the amplifier provides separate

power supplies for its preamplifier and power

amplifier sections, and offers eight usernameable

analog inputs—including one that

supports both single-ended and balanced

input jacks. Any of the amplifier’s inputs

can be locked to fixed gain levels, making

the Cambridge ideal for home-theater passthrough

applications. Switch-selectable

balance and tone controls are provided, as is

a front-panel “Direct” control that ensures

the cleanest signal path possible. Finally,

to complement its low-distortion circuitry,

the 840A controls output levels via a relay-

controlled precision-matched resistor ladder.

Over time, I’ve heard a number of small

British integrated amplifiers that to some

degree fit the stereotype of sounding warm,

softly focused, and polite. The 840A is not

among them. Right out of the box, the 840A

exhibited a big bold sound characterized

by terrific midrange definition and detail,

and by clean powerful bass. By comparison,

the mid-priced YBA Designs YA201

amplifier I reviewed in Issue 165 was more

of a contemplative sonic introvert, where

Specs & Pricing


156 Lawrence Paquette Industrial Drive

Champlain, New York 12919

(800) 633-9352



Power output: 120 Wpc into 8 ohms, 200 Wpc into

4 ohms

Inputs: Eight single-ended stereo analog (RCA,

one as Tape Monitor), one balanced stereo

analog (XLR)

Outputs: Two single-ended stereo analog (RCA,

one as Tape Out), two A-BUS/Cambridge

Incognito multi-zone audio (CAT5)

Dimensions: 16.9" x 4.5" x 15.2"

Weight: 33 lbs.

Price: $1499

the ebullient Cambridge puts its lively and

engaging sound right out in the open for all

to hear. In short, the moderately priced 840A

signals from the outset that it wants to play

with the big boys. And in many ways it can.

One important way in which the 840A

seems to play above its pay grade is in carving

the leading edges of transients with the sort

of energy and definition I normally associate

with more expensive amplifiers. A multifaceted

musical example will help to illustrate

this point. I put on Long John Hunter’s “Let’s


Rega Planet CD player with Musical Fidelity X-PSU,

X-DAC v3, and X-10 v3 tube buffer; Musical Fidelity

Tri-Vista SACD player; Wilson Benesch Full Circle

analog system; Musical Surroundings Phonomena

phonostage; NuForce P-8 preamplifier; NuForce

Reference 9SE and Spectron Musician III power

amplifiers; Paradigm Reference Signature S8 and

Mirage OMD-28 loudspeakers; Furutech Alpha

Reference interconnect, speaker, and power

cables; RGPC power conditioner

52 December 2006 The Absolute Sound

Cambridge Audio Azur 840A

Class XD Integrated Amplifier

Set The Time” from the Untapped Blues Festival

2004 Live album [Bluestopia], and I came

away marveling at how vividly alive the 840A

made Hunter and his band sound. If you

enjoy listening to (or playing) electric guitar at

moderate volume levels, then you already know

how sound seems to erupt from the guitar

amplifier a split second after the pick sweeps

past the guitar strings. In fact, some notes can

launch so hard that you might initially expect

the sound to become unpleasantly loud. But

when recording and playback levels are set

just so, what actually happens is that individual

notes cry out with gripping visceral authority,

yet without ever reaching painful levels. This

punchy evocative sound is exactly what the

840A achieved in reproducing Hunter’s guitar

solos on “Let’s Set The Time.”

Similarly, the 840A did a spectacular

job with the sound of keyboardist Tommy

Washington’s electric organ. If you listen

closely, you’ll observe that some electric organs

(typically older Hammonds) produce a soft

slightly scratchy-sounding “click” just as their

keys are depressed. These clicks might actually

be indicative of wear in the instrument, but

many experienced blues keyboardists—

Washington among them—use those key

clicks to give the notes in fast-paced runs a

bit more kick and definition. The Cambridge

amp nailed the powerful sound of the organ,

clicks and all, and it perfectly caught the eerie

shimmer of the Leslie rotary speaker used

to give the organ its voice (Leslie speakers

feature a rotating horn tweeter whose sweep

speed can be controlled by a foot pedal).

The Cambridge

took propulsive bass

lines in stride

Finally, the Cambridge did a gutsy job with

the sound of bassist Tracy Mortimer’s electric

bass, which sounds clean, clear, and absolutely

thunderous on the Untapped Blues Festival

disc. Even though four-string basses don’t

reach down into true low-bass territory they

are still difficult to reproduce, partly because

they have deceptively complex timbres, and

partly because they impose abrupt large-scale

power demands on amplifiers. The trick is that

amplifiers must answer those demands without

losing composure or detail in the midrange

and treble regions. Even when I cranked up

“Let’s Set The Time” to quite invigorating

volume levels, the Cambridge took Mortimer’s

propulsive bass lines in stride while keeping

the rest of the band in sharp focus.

About Class XD


Traditional Class AB amplifiers are thought to offer a good compromise between the sonic

purity of Class A amplifiers, which eliminate so-called “crossover notch” distortion, and the

efficiency of Class B amplifiers. But according to Cambridge, at mid-to-high output levels

amplifiers operating in Class AB mode typically produce higher levels of distortion than pure

Class B amplifiers would.

In theory, then, an ideal solution would be an amplifier that could make a clear-cut transition

from pure Class A operation at low power levels to pure Class B operation at higher power

levels—with no intermediate Class AB operation in between. This, in a nutshell, is exactly what

Cambridge Audio’s Class XD amplifier circuit allows. The result is an efficient, cool-running

amplifier that exhibits very low distortion at both low and high output levels.

Cambridge Audio Web site offers an in-depth white paper that discusses the concepts

underlying Class XD amplification, and that traces the evolution of the circuit used in the

840A amplifier. The paper also gives fascinating insights into the design process, and is highly

recommended for technically minded TAS readers. CM

Thus far, we’ve focused on the 840A’s

strengths, which are wonderful and exciting,

but we should also discuss two areas where the

amplifier’s performance is good, but not great.

First, the amplifier’s treble response, though

clear and well-detailed, is shelved downward

a bit, at least relative to the treble regions of

some of the more transparent-sounding power

amplifiers I’ve heard of late (e.g., the Spectron

Musician III or the NuForce Reference 9

Special Edition—both of which cost far more

than the Cambridge does). This doesn’t mean

the 840A’s highs ever sound “soft” or diffuse,

but rather that they are just slightly recessed in

the mix.

Second, the 840A fails to achieve the

sculptural three-dimensionality that competing

integrated amplifiers such as the YBA Designs

YA201 provide. Though I would normally

call the Cambridge a very detailed amplifier,

it tends—for whatever reason—to downplay

small sonic cues that can reveal the acoustics

of recording venues, and the size, depth and

body of instruments. You can maximize the

840A’s performance potential by equipping

the amplifier with a good aftermarket power

cord (e.g., the Furutech Alpha Reference) and

by pairing it with speakers that are inherently

strong soundstagers (e.g., the Mirage OMD-

28s). Even so, the French-designed YA201

does a better job of conveying depth and

dimensionality. Listening to the 840A is like

gazing at a high-resolution photograph, while

hearing the YA201 is more like viewing a

sculptural object. Good though the photograph

may be it never conveys the substance and

smooth, continuous shadow detail that the

sculpture possesses.

The Azur 840A is beautifully made, and its

power, clarity, detail, and life-like dynamics make

it a blast to hear. For those ready to embrace

the world of multi-zone audio the Cambridge’s

flexibility may also prove irresistible. In the

areas of dead-neutral treble response and

of holographic three-dimensionality, the

840A can be outperformed, but only—in my

experience—by amplifiers that cost more.

Even taking minor shortcomings into account,

I regard the 840A as one of the finest midpriced

integrated amplifiers I’ve heard; it

consistently conveys the vitality and dynamism

of live music. TAS

December 2006 The Absolute Sound 55



Resolution Audio

Opus 21 CD Player

and Integrated


A stack with high-end aspirations

Alan Taffel

There is no getting around it: Resolution

Audio’s Opus 21 is a component stack.

That’s right, a stack in the manner of

those sold at big box stores by unknowing

salesmen to unknowing consumers. But try

not to condemn the Opus 21 through guilt

by association. This particular stack might be

different. And stacks, as a concept, may not be

all bad.

Consider, for instance, the matter of stacks as

a pure packaging scheme. It turns out that they

have a lot going for them. They don’t require

a hand truck to lug around or a divestiture to

purchase. Their stylishly coordinated aesthetics

beg to be showcased in an actual living space.

Operationally, stacks are beyond convenient;

they are near-telepathic. And while in these

respects stacks resemble all-in-one boxes, in

other ways they are more like separates. Stacks

are flexible and modular, and can relegate

sonically combative elements—like digital and

analog circuitry—to separate chassis. Perhaps

most remarkably, stacks have an unheard-of

effect on significant others: They implore you

to buy one.

Externally, the Opus 21 may be a 9.5"-wide

stack; but inside it’s high end all the way. From

prioritizing sonics over frivolous features, to

the use of high-grade parts, to fine-tuning by

ear, this is a product consistent with the best

traditions of the high end.

Because the Opus 21’s design and

execution is in a different league than its

mid-fi counterparts, so is its price. The whole

works—including a CD player, mm and mc

phonostages, AM/FM tuner, integrated amp,

and a control center with comprehensive

digital and analog connectivity—runs $7500.

While clearly not in mid-fi territory, that’s still

a bargain in a world where one single-function

high-end component can easily reach that

sum. And many Opus 21 systems will come

in for less; nothing says you have to buy the

full stack.

All the hallmarks we

audiophiles cherish

are right here

Stacks are like Lincoln Logs; you build them

up piece by piece. In the Opus 21’s case, the

analogy is particularly apt since its modules

actually physically interlock by means of 25-

pin connectors on their respective tops and

underbellies. This approach negates the need

for interconnect cables, with their inherent

losses, and requires but a single solder

point directly to each circuit board. Analog

signals, status/command traffic, and power

travel between components through these

connectors and along a high-speed bus. Digital

signals traverse an entirely separate path in

order to quarantine their noise.

Both Lincoln Log structures and stacks

require a foundation. The Opus 21’s is its CD

player. This module actually consists of two

chassis: the transport/DAC, and the Power

Center. The latter contains a power supply

and large display that serve not only the CD

player, but any additional modules present.

Cleaving the CD player’s traditional functions

makes such efficiencies possible and, again,

segregates noise-generating from noisesensitive


Because the CD player forms the Opus

21’s foundation, it is the only module that

can be deployed in a stand-alone capacity. But

even in that role, it is far more than a simple

source. The transport/DAC chassis includes

a coaxial digital input that will accommodate

any stereo PCM source up to 24-bit/96kHz

resolution. That allows the player to host an

external device such as an XM radio receiver,

PC-based music server, or DVD player. The

CD module also includes a built-in high-grade

analog volume control. With these features,

the player becomes all that many systems will

need as their front end—just add a power amp

and speakers.

Of course, if you require an amp, the Opus

21 stands ready with the S30 module. Inserting

it between the CD player’s two chassis adds

a sophisticated though modestly powered

(30Wpc) amplifier with a transformer of its

own to supplement that of the Power Center.

Because the S30 is actually a full-fledged

integrated amp, it incorporates a linestage, its

own volume control, and three analog inputs.

December 2006 The Absolute Sound 57

Resolution Audio Opus 21

CD Player and Integrated Amp

Thus, together with the CD player, the S30

forms a flexible three box mini-tower that

requires only a set of reasonably sensitive

speakers to create a complete system.

Those who require additional inputs and

outputs can avail themselves of the Opus

21 family’s newest member, the XS (“Xtra

Sources”) module. Slotting beneath the CD

transport, the XS boasts five digital inputs,

including USB. The latter permits a fussfree

direct connection to a PC, providing

access to whatever music might dwell therein.

(See sidebar.) In addition, the XS includes a

headphone amp, an AM/FM tuner, separate

moving-magnet and moving-coil phonostages,

two analog inputs, and yet another volume

control. There are also fixed and variable

outputs, the latter being ideal for driving a

powered subwoofer.

Although all these mix-and-match elements

may seem confusing, they work with a level

of harmony untouchable by separates—even

those from the same manufacturer. For

example, pop in a CD and press “Play.” No

matter what source was previously selected, the

system instantly switches to CD. If the tuner is

not actually in use, Opus shuts it down to reduce

noise. The S30 mutes itself when headphones

are plugged into the XS. And although there

are as many as three volume controls in a stack,

the Borg-like conglomerate knows exactly what

every element is doing and never subjects an

audio signal to duplicate circuitry. One simple

remote controls everything. Such operational

niceties, once experienced, seem so obvious

that they become awfully hard to forego.

Happily, you won’t need to sacrifice the

Opus 21’s practical advantages to achieve

superior sonic performance. All the hallmarks

The XS in Use

Most Opus 21 buyers will not need the XS module. Even without it, the stack allows for two

digital and three analog sources—plenty for most systems. But for those with a wealth of

sources and/or a turntable in need of a phonostage, the XS is just the ticket. However, there

are a few caveats to bear in mind. First, the XS routes its digital traffic to the CD transport/DAC

module by means of a coaxial cable. Unfortunately, that puts the link on the signal’s critical

path and, wouldn’t you know it, the supplied wire is dreadful. With it in place, XS-connected

digital sources are noticeably degraded compared to a direct connection to the DAC module.

Fortunately, the solution is a cable swap away. When I replaced the cheapie supplied cable with

my reference Empirical Design 118 (about $75), the XS could, for the first time, do justice to its

digital sources.

If one of those sources is a PC, another caveat applies. Though there is a USB port on the XS,

it may not be the best sonic choice. The port is certainly easy to use; it bypasses the PC’s sound

card and doesn’t even require a driver. Yet while the port does not embarrass itself sonically,

it does not sound as good as playing the identical bits from the CD. Through the USB, there is

less air around musicians, scale is reduced, the perspective is flatter, rhythms are less sharp, and

there is an increase in grain. I was able to get much better PC-based sound—better, even, than

the CD player—by connecting the sound card’s digital output to one of the XS’s (or CD player’s)

coax inputs.

For those with turntables, the XS incorporates two phonostages—one for moving-magnet

cartridges and another for moving coils. I tested the moving-coil input with my Clearaudio

Insider Gold and found it to have huge dynamics, crisp transients, plenty of depth, and the easy

musicality of the overall stack. On the other hand, the phonostage sounds somewhat closed-in

and is unaccountably recessed in the lower midrange. These aren’t disqualifiers; rather, they

indicate that careful cartridge matching is in order. Choose an mc on the romantic side of the

spectrum to best complement this phonostage. AT

we audiophiles cherish are right here: clarity of

detail and of musical expression; proficiency in

unraveling complex lines and instrumentation;

that nearly spooky “you are there” quality;

the chameleon-like ability to change sound

according to the recording’s dictates; and that

sense of wonder and surprise at just how good

home audio can sound with the right system.

The Opus 21 attains its captivating sonics

through a rare combination of richness and

resolution. All too often, these attributes are at

odds; tonal lushness is usually overwrought and

comes at the expense of timbral complexity

and inner detail. The Opus 21, however,

suffers from none of these ills. It exhibits

only a gentle swell in the lower-midrange,

and its highs are nicely extended, allowing

it to deliver the full spectrum of timbral

overtones. Consequently, both instruments

and vocals sound completely natural. Nor is

inner detail slighted in the least. Apparently,

the manufacturer doesn’t call itself Resolution

Audio for nothing.

By way of illustration, consider two very

different works by budding rock auteur

Sufjan Stevens. On the plaintive, unadorned

“The Dress Looks Nice on You” from

Seven Swans [Sounds Familyre], the Opus

stack conveys not only the acoustic guitar’s

burnished warmth, but also Stevens’ fingers

as they caress and stroke its strings. The

effect is uncannily realistic. This track also

demonstrates that the Opus requires neither a

flailing drum kit nor looped electronica to get

across a beat. Here, the simple guitar figure’s

subtle dynamic accents are sufficient to create

forward motion.

“The Tallest Man, The Broadest Shoulders”

from Illinois [Asthmatic Kitty]—Stevens’

ambitious opus—could not be more different.

Resolution Audio Opus 21

CD Player and Integrated Amp

In terms of compositional technique, structure,

and instrumentation, this piece owes as much

to classical music as to rock. Its sonic scale is

vast, and there is a lot going on. Other systems

become hard-pressed to sort it all out, but

the Opus 21’s resolution and low noise floor

let each instrument and musical line step out,

allowing the listener to follow and wallow in the

song’s sublimely intertwined intricacies. As for

scale, the Opus 21 is that rare component that

can swell to symphonic proportions when the

music calls for it. Indeed, everyone exposed to

this unassuming stack was stunned that it could

generate such a big sound.

Naturally, there are areas in which the Opus

21 doesn’t measure up to reference-caliber

standards. As I’ve mentioned, imaging is quite

natural; yet reference equipment can delineate

images more sharply and place them more

precisely. Similarly, the Opus delves deeply to

the most subterranean depths, and the bass is

good and tight, but it could stand to be more

fleshed out. Finally, and most importantly, for

all its excellence in dynamics, resolution, and

openness, the Opus is still outperformed in all

three areas by my reference system (though not

by a whole lot). While such differences are not

insignificant, they are clearly swamped by the

Opus’ overwhelming strengths and attractive


Before concluding, I would be remiss if I

failed to note that the Opus 21’s CD player,

at $3500 as a stand-alone unit, constitutes its

own bargain. All of the qualities I’ve ascribed

to the overall stack apply in full to the solo

player, which is saying a lot. Even more, this

player actually exceeds my reference unit in two

areas: timbral realism—trumpets, for instance,

sound more like real trumpets—and rhythmic

accuracy. By the latter I do not mean that the

Opus CD enforces a stricter meter. Rather,

this player more faithfully conveys every tiny

lag or anticipation of the beat—every device

musicians use to impart rhythmic swing, fluidity,

or drama—than any other CD player I’ve

heard. Needless to say, the Opus 21 CD player

is highly recommended in its price range.

Resolution Audio’s Opus 21 proves that

the sonic limitations we associate with stacks

are not endemic to the breed. This stack has

high-end aspirations and achieves them

decisively. In addition, the Opus 21 reminds

us of the architecture’s inherent practical and

operational advantages. Indeed, it makes a

compelling case for rejecting the massive,

costly, tweaky, and disjointed systems that

populate the high end in favor of what the

Opus 21 delivers in such abundance: carefree

simplicity and musical enjoyment. TAS

Specs & Pricing


88 Hoff Street, #106

San Francisco, California 94110

(415) 553-4100


CD Player

Outputs: One each, analog balanced,

analog single-ended, analog DIN

Dimensions: 9.5" x 3" x 9.8"

Weight: 27 lbs.

Price: $3500

Integrated Amplifier Module

Power Output: 30Wpc

Inputs: Direct connection to Opus 21 CD player,

one analog balanced, two analog single-ended

Dimensions: 9.5" x 3" x 9.8"

Weight: 21 lbs.

Price: $2500

XS Module

Dimensions: 9.5" x 3" x 9.8"

Weight: 20 lbs.

Price: $1500


Goldmund Studietto turntable; Graham 2.2

tonearm; Clearaudio Insider Gold cartridge;

Goldmund Mimesis 36 CD transport & Mimesis

12++ DAC; Arcam FMJ DV-27A DVD/DVD-A

player; Goldmund Mimesis 22 and Aesthetix

Calypso preamps; Goldmund Mimesis 29.4 power

amplifiers; Metaphor 1 & 2 speakers; B&W

ASW850 subwoofer; Empirical Design cables and

power cords; Goldmund cones; ASC Tube Traps

60 December 2006 The Absolute Sound



Jamo R 9O9


A speaker that transports you to a

recording’s acoustic space

I’ve often visited Baltimore, which is where my wife Paige is from. I have felt patriotic at Fort

McHenry, admired the musical traditions of the Peabody Conservatory, and had the crab cakes

that are the city’s culinary specialty. But I had never been to Baltimore Symphony’s Meyerhoff

Hall. Never, that is, until some weeks ago when the Jamo R 909 speakers arrived and took me

to Baltimore for an acoustic tour. I still do not know what the Meyerhoff looks like, but I do

know what it sounds like—after listening to the Jamos play the Rachmaninoff Second Symphony

recorded there by Telarc.

Robert E. Greene

62 December 2006 The Absolute Sound

Jamo R 9O9 Loudspeaker

All right, so allow me a little rhetorical

flourish. But what I wrote is not really an

exaggeration. The Jamos do a truly remarkable

job of recreating space, of “transporting” you

to the acoustic venue of the recording. Properly

set up, the Jamos let surprisingly little of your

own listening room into the picture. Sit quietly

for a while with your eyes closed listening to

them, and a sudden sound in your room

can bring you back with a disconcerting

jolt, so much are you likely to feel as

if you’re somewhere else. The manual

clearly explains how to achieve this and

why it happens. These are my kind of

people—they really tell you how things


The Jamos are dipole speakers in

the bass and midrange. Physically,

they consist of two 15" woofers

mounted one above the other on a

48" high by 19" wide, slightly curved,

rigid baffle, with the midrange driver

and tweeter mounted on the same

baffle above. Rather than being in

an enclosure of any kind, the two

woofers and the midrange are open

in the back. The baffle is supported

behind by a central metal brace, and

the whole back is covered with a grille

cloth so one does not see the working

back ends of the drivers. The speaker

is unusual but elegant looking. The

review sample had a spectacular yellow

baffle, with black grille cloth behind

and removable black front grilles. The

tweeter, while baffle-mounted as noted,

has by its nature a closed back. But up

into the treble, the whole speaker really

operates as a dipole, so there is the usual

dipole acoustic null to the side. This

absence of sideways radiation opens

up the possibility of greatly minimizing

sidewall reflections.

The crucial ingredient is to delay

the early reflections from the room

boundaries. Peter Walker, himself a

designer of dipole speakers of course,

used to like to talk about how he hoped

that nothing but direct sound would arrive

for at least 10 milliseconds. The trick was

and is to aim the dipole null at the side wall,

angle the speakers and set them far from

the wall behind, and yourself far from the

wall behind you, and voila, nothing but the

floor and ceiling—and, on account of the

dipole pattern, those will be quite weak and

can be damped out. The Jamos do this, as

do Walker’s Quads.

But there is this important difference,

64 December 2006 The Absolute Sound

The Jamos have

glorious, full, yet

precise and

extended bass

and obvious it was, too, from the first note of

the Rachmaninoff. The Jamos have glorious,

full yet precise and extended bass, a bass

undreamed of by any but truly enormous

electrostatics. They are also free of the middlebass

“hole” that afflicts so many point source

speakers. And as the symphony proceeded,

the Jamos turned out to have a dynamic

capacity beyond electrostatic realms. I

was tempted to subtitle this review “the

electrostatic perfected.” And while that

might have been a bit mean-spirited it

would not have been inappropriate, for

the Jamos do have the same kind of

low distortion, transparency, coherence,

and smoothness ’stats have, but with a

power and fullness that electrostatics

can only dream of. Though the

orchestral range is fully covered, you’ll

still need a subwoofer for earthquakes

and pipe organs at full volume—even

dynamic dipoles do have limits. By the

end of the Rachmaninoff symphony, I

was quite swept away, as if I had been

at a concert.

I tend to reserve the word “great” for

things like the works of Beethoven and

Michelangelo, but if I were to relax this

rule, I would say this is without doubt one

great speaker. It joins in my experience

a select few—the McIntosh XRT28, the

DALI Megaline, my Harbeth M40 (with

subwoofer), the Gradient Revolution

(with active, doubled bass units)—at the

outer reaches of actually reproducing

the live experience of large-scale music

in a domestic environment, including a

convincing sense of the original acoustic


The Jamo is not just superb at

reproducing large-scale music. With its

cost-no-object midrange and tweeter it

does superbly well with the small-scaled

music, too. The Water Lily recording of

Arturo Delmoni playing solo violin was

right on the mark as to tone, while the

reverberant acoustics of the church where

the recording was made were revealed

naturally, with clarity but no exaggeration.

(The disproportionateness of a pair of

15" woofers to the 5.5" midrange and 1"

tweeter is only visual.) Ulf Bastien’s voice in

Schubert’s Winterreise [Ars Musici] sounded

natural and integrated, and very much like

my memory of Bastien’s voice (I have heard

him sing this from close range in a domestic

environment). And Ella Fitzgerald’s Let

No Man Write my Epitaph [Classic/Verve]

sounded beautifully natural.

Jamo R 9O9 Loudspeaker

All this superlative performance of the

Jamos is, however, available only with careful

set up. In my experience, dipoles are actually

rather easier to set up in the bass than are box

speakers. But in the midrange, the opposite

is true. The Jamos do indeed reproduce bass

quite well almost anywhere you put them as

long as they are at least a few feet from

the back wall. But the midrange was all

over the map unless I gave them lots

of space behind. (These remarks do

not apply to the highs, which radiate

forward only.) I ended up with the

speakers seven feet from the back

wall with nothing behind them except

some acoustic treatment on the wall.

And leave the grilles off for serious

listening (with the grilles on there is a

not-unpleasant but not quite neutral

balance that leaves the 3–4kHz region

a bit recessed).

The balance between the bass and

mids is sensitive to listener position.

Up close the speaker is warm, with

ample bass and a little extra fullness in

the lower mids (around 200–300Hz).

Further back, with proportionately

more room sound (and less proximity

effect, I suppose), the balance shifts to

the middle midrange while making the

speaker sound less smooth. I sat quite

close to listen yet one more time to

Barenboim’s Tristan und Isolde [Teldec],

which then had its true Wagnerian

character of depth, fullness, beauty,

and power.

The Jamos really appealed to me, but

nothing is quite perfect and I have to

admit that even in the best position they

did not quite offer the automatically

nearly perfect mid and treble flatness

of, say, the BBC-heritage box monitors

or of a born-to-be-flat professional

monitor like the Mackie HR 626. The

Jamos are a little extra-full-sounding, as

noted. They also slightly recess, even with

grilles off, the upper mid/lower treble

regions. These are amiable deviations,

and the Jamos certainly give one a natural,

convincing, and indeed beautiful tonality.

But if you are in the (unlikely) business

of, say, checking out microphones, you

might want to back up your results with

one of the absolute flat-liners. And if you

are really touchy about materials coloration,

you might be able to feel that the SEAS

magnesium drivers, for all their magically

low distortion, have a little color, a slight

“sheen” I would call it, of their own, not

66 December 2006 The Absolute Sound

The Jamos really

appealed to me,

but nothing is

quite perfect

obvious and not disagreeable, but audible

with enough exposure. Still, talk about picking

nits on a wonderful product—overall, the

Jamos give so much of the truth and beauty

and strength of real music that one’s critical

faculties are all but disarmed.

Jamo has been a well-established brand in

Europe for a long time. But has not been

a major presence in the U.S. until now.

From here on out, though, they should

be a high-end force to be reckoned

with. The Jamo R 909s are poised to

become a legend in their own time.

And they deserve it. I haven’t had such

a good time with a review sample in a

month of Sundays. TAS


& Pricing


3502 Woodview Trace, Suite 200

Indianapolis, Indiana 46268

(877) 878-JAMO



Type: Three way baffled dynamic driver

dipole (monopole treble)

Driver complement: Two 15" woofers; one

5" SEAS magnesium midrange;

one 1" Scanspeak Revelator tweeter

Frequency response: 25Hz–30kHz

Sensitivity: 89dB

Nominal impedance: 4 ohms

Dimensions: 21" x 50.2" x 19"

Weight: 139 lbs.

Price: $14,999


Nakamichi TX1000 turntable; Morch DP-6

tonearm; Bang and Olufsen MMC1 cartridge;

Classé Audio CD-1 transport and DAC-1

converter, Benchmark DAC1 converter; Plinius

and Bryston BP-25 preamplifiers; Z Systems

RDP-1 and RDQ digital preamplifiers/ EQ

devices; Bryston 14 B ST and Carver A-220

amplifiers; Harbeth Monitor 40 and Gradient

1.3 loudspeakers; Audio Physic Minos

subwoofer; Liberty Audio Suite and Liberty

Praxis measurement systems



Rotel RB-1091

Monoblock Amplifier

A fast, tight, and transparent sound that is hard to resist

Jacob Heilbrunn

True or false: The more you spend

on an audio system, the better it will

sound I found myself pondering

this question after a recent visit to the

West Coast where I heard three stellar (and

costly) systems in rapid succession. The first

featured the Brinkmann Balance turntable

and DALI Megaline loudspeaker; the

second, the Clearaudio Statement turntable

and the Magnepan 20.1 loudspeaker; and

the third, the Continuum Caliburn turntable

and Avantgarde Trios with two pair of

Basshorns. Each system sounded different,

of course, but they all had one thing in

common: a stupendously dynamic sound

that, while it wasn’t the same as live, came

pretty darn close, at least as near as I could

tell. So I returned from my peregrinations

wondering if the new Class D Rotel RB-

1091 monoblocks powering the Magnepan

1.6 could possibly match up to these


Actually, that’s a lie. I didn’t wonder about

that at all. I knew they wouldn’t have the heft,

power, and dynamics of topflight amplifiers

driving big systems. What I was curious

about was whether the Rotels would provide

an enjoyable, emotionally satisfying listening

experience. They did. I shouldn’t have

wasted any psychic energy fretting about the

Rotels. From the moment I unboxed and

plugged them in, they pleasantly surprised

me not only with their snazzy looks, but

also with their performance. These 500-watt

monoblocks excel at producing a fast, tight,

and transparent sound that is hard to resist.

68 October 2006 The Absolute Sound

My memories of Rotel are rather hazy,

but a decade or so ago they looked, if I

recall correctly, like clunkers. You know the

style: forbidding black faceplate and a hunk

of clumsily shaped steel. They sounded

that way, too. Not anymore. The new Rotel

peers confidently at you. It behaves that

way, as well. It doesn’t emit much heat. It

features a protection circuit that operates

instantaneously. (After my active crossover

transmitted a static pop, the amplifiers shut

down, which is what they’re supposed to

do.) And it’s nice and light, which, believe

me, is a wonderful contrast to the 200-

pound heavyweight monsters that require

two people to haul around.

I was impressed by

its speed and clarity

The reason it’s so light but fairly powerful

is because the Rotel is a switching amplifier

built around ICEpower technology. Now,

I know that it is heresy in some circles to

contemplate the use of a Class D amplifier.

The ability of technology to evoke spats and

feuds among audiophiles is really something

to behold. I try to avoid these internecine

disputes and to take a more Catholic view:

Forget the type of technology; does it sound

good or not My experience with the Rotel

and other switching amplifiers I’ve heard,

including the Bel Canto, is that they produce

fine sound with few of the hassles associated

with more traditional amplifiers.

Initially, I ran the Rotels on the bass panel

of the Magnepan 20.1. I usually run the

bass panel off a Marchand XM-44 active

crossover, which allows me to bypass the

big capacitors and enormous inductors

in the passive crossover that drag down

its performance. The Rotels performed

admirably; while they didn’t have the

refulgence of the VTL-750s, the Rotels

produced a taut and controlled sound.

These demure monoblocks had no difficulty

powering the bass panels and, consistent with

a switching amplifier, produced little heat, a

marked contrast to the VTLs, which have

a penchant for turning the area around my

loudspeakers into a miniature sauna, which

is nice in wintertime but daunting during the

summer. (Incidentally, given the rising cost

of electricity, not to mention preserving the

environment, the minimal energy use of the

Rotels is nothing to sneeze at.)

Their performance on the bass panel of

the big Maggies whetted my appetite to hear

them on the 1.6, the kind of loudspeaker

they were intended to drive. Once again,

I have to confess that I was taken aback.

Maybe it’s just prejudice, but I was halfexpecting

a wispy, perhaps inchoate sound.

It never happened.

Right off the bat, I was impressed by the

speed and clarity of the amplifiers. On Waltz

for Debby [Analogue Productions SACD],

Bill Evans’ piano came through with great

clarity, and on the song “Who Cares” the

Rotels did an exemplary job of conveying

the jauntiness of Cannonball Adderley’s alto

Rotel RB-1091

Monoblock Amplifier

saxophone. This was no tapioca pudding

of sound, but crisply enunciated music that

swept you away with its vividness.

The Rotel’s good resolution also shone

to fine effect on another SACD, Telarc’s The

Music of Paul Dukas. The Rotels revealed just

how superb the brass section of the Cincinnati

Symphony Orchestra must be; it captured

their exuberant, ringing sound on Fanfare to

La Peri. Once again, the Rotels did a fine job

of separating the various brass choirs rather

than presenting them as a sodden mass of

sound, as a lesser amp might do. You not

only heard the full chorus of trumpets or

trombones, but also each instrument within

it. The power and burnished sound of the

brass came through with exemplary fidelity—

each time I go to hear a live orchestra, I’m

reminded of the warm, resonant sound that

professional brass players produce as a matter

of course.

the Rotels possess a transparent, almost

silvery sound. In contrast to the Parasound

JC-1 monoblocks, which were also powering

the Magnepan 1.6, the Rotels sounded faster

but lacked some heft. They also didn’t have

quite as large a soundstage as the Parasounds,

but were more precise. Tradeoffs: You

like this kind of sound or you don’t. Some

audiophiles will find it too clean and perhaps

lacking some body on the notes. I’m starting

to think that this may be an inherent part of

switching amplifiers. Is it possible that Class

D amps are eliminating a coloration that

more conventional amplifiers share Will

Class D amplifiers, in turn, push designers

to eliminate colorations that hadn’t seemed

intrusive until now

I don’t know the answer to those questions.

But it’s a little unnerving to think that Rotel is

offering performance that would have cost a

bundle a decade ago, and that, in some ways,

might not even have been achievable. To be

sure, as I suggested at the outset, the Rotels

will not match up to megabuck systems, and

aren’t really intended to. Money makes a

difference. The more you spend intelligently,

the better your system will sound. But how

far do you really want to go in chasing

audiophile rainbows Throwing dollars at

your system can sometimes produce as much

frustration as satisfaction. The Rotels are

neutral and nimble amplifiers that will power

most loudspeakers, providing sound that is

very hard to reproach. If you’re looking for

an amp that provides more than an entry into

the high-end for a reasonable price, the Rotels

are well worth considering. TAS



The Rotel is a

switching amplifier

But perhaps the music that really got me

was Louis Armstrong’s Satch Plays Fats [Sony

SACD]. Armstrong’s work after his legendary

performances with the Hot 5 and Hot 7 is,

at best, uneven, but this 1955 tribute to Fats

Waller ranks among his greatest. On “Blue

Turning Grey Over You,” Armstrong almost

literally overpowers the trumpet with his force

of imagination and physical power, conveying

a tremendous sense of melancholy. I was left

awestruck listening to it. How much of this

was the amps and how much Armstrong’s

astonishing performance, I’m not prepared to

say. But the amps captured everything from

Armstrong’s gravelly voice to the unexpected

twists and turns of his trumpet solo.

To be honest, the Rotels didn’t really call

all that much attention to themselves. They

sounded very smooth, period. I never really

heard any part of the frequency spectrum

dominate another. What stuck out was that

Specs & Pricing


54 Concord Street

North Reading, Massachusetts 01864

(978) 664-3820

Type: Class D Switching Amplifier

Power output: 500 watts into 8 ohms

Inputs: One single-ended (RCA)

Dimensions: 17.25" x 3.75" x 16.25"

Weight: 17.2 lbs.

Price: $1499 each


VPI-HRX turntable and JMW 12.6 tonearm;

Sony SCD-777ES SACD/CD player; EMM Labs

DCC2 preamplifier/DAC and EMM Labs CDSD;

Messenger and Convergent Audio Technology

Mk. 3 preamplifiers; Parasound JC-1 and VTL 750

monoblock amplifiers; Magnepan 20.1 and 1.6

loudspeakers; Jena Labs and Cardas Golden Cross

cables; Shunyata Hydra-6 and PS Audio P-300

power regenerator

70 December 2006 The Absolute Sound



Chapter Electronics

Précis Integrated Amplifier

The genuine article in Class D amplification

Neil Gader

In our last issue we featured

a special report on the

current crop of Class D

amplifiers. Most of us are aware that this

technology is already available in a variety

of applications—from active loudspeakers

and subwoofers to receivers and other

multichannel components. Now, Chapter’s

Class D Précis enters the premium division

of integrated amplifiers.

The Précis (a précis is a summary of

the main points of a theory or argument)

outputs 130Wpc, doubling that into 4

ohms, and features proprietary Class D

power modules. The linestage elements

come from the company’s Preface Plus

preamp, while the output stage is borrowed

from its Couplet amplifier. With its stylish

bead-blasted aluminum-alloy casework, the

Précis also makes a strong impression as a

design statement. A “standby” touch-sensor

illuminates from red to blue when the amp

powers up, and a blue-lit multifunction

front knob controls volume as well as input,

display, and preamp functions. With its

circular wire-mesh vents and top-mounted

glass portal, which allows a view of its

tidy internal layout, the Précis conveys a

Jules Verne meets Steve Jobs impression.

72 December 2006 The Absolute Sound

(Speaking of Mr. Jobs, the mini input jack

on the front panel is designed for iPod use.)

The single knob elegance of the front

panel belies the complexity of the Chapter’s

smart software control. Simply punch

the knob’s center button to cycle through

functions, and give it a forward or backward

twist for the preferred setting. Release it and

it returns the display to the previous volume

setting. The volume control is speed sensitive

to the user’s input and employs ultraprecision

Melf-style surface-mount resistors

for dead-on accuracy at any level. Chapter’s

software “vectors” the controller speed

between 0.1dB and 1dB steps depending on

knob speed or how long the remote-control

button has been depressed.

Prior to any intensive listening, I noticed

how quiet the Précis was. At least part of

the credit should go to Chapter’s efforts to

shield components against RF—an issue

that has grown in significance in the age of

home wireless communications. Chapter also

addresses chassis resonance control by using

a novel base-plate system in which three

sheets of aluminum are bonded together

with an elastic polymer agent. Chapter calls

this Acousteel Vibration Control.

Sonically, it didn’t take a substantial

amount of listening to realize that the Précis

competes against a small fraternity of highquality

integrated amps, irrespective of class

or type. And it does so not by accenting

personality disorders but by hewing to

honest reproduction, top to bottom. First

and foremost, it gets the meat of the

tonal spectrum spot on. The midrange is

as rich and satisfying as a Kobe steak; the

lower midrange and midbass resolution

are striking in their tonal density, with

just a hint of warmth yet an overriding

sense of evenness throughout. Channel

separation—an area that normally isn’t a

strength of integrated amps—is excellent.

At its frequency extremes, the Précis doesn’t

quite have the brute force to drag the lower

depths or the subtlety to elicit a whisper of

harmonic bloom at the treble’s summit, but

I never felt short-changed, either.

What the Précis does do is grip low-level

information with the kind of punch and

energy that emerge from real instruments

played in an acoustic space. During Sinatra’s

“Angel Eyes” from Only The Lonely [Capitol],

it unearthed the deep bass line and a gang

of other musical treasures to a degree that

I didn’t think possible. Not the least of

which was Sinatra’s vibrato—an element of

his delivery that he used sparingly. Even the

delicate harp accompaniment was followed

so precisely that I found myself leaning

slightly forward in order to hear deeper

into the mix. And even if it didn’t play back

the bass of Claire Martin’s “Black Coffee”

from Linn’s Too Damn Hot CD as well as

the Conrad Johnson CA200 or the MBL

7008, the depth from the snare drum and

the natural timbre and growl of a sliding

bass string was more than enough to send a

couple of shivers down my spine.

Transient response is a strong suit

with the Précis. During Arturo Delmoni’s

Chapter Electronics

Précis Integrated Amplifier

“Obsession” from Water Lily’s Bach, Kreisler,

Ysaÿe, the violin was so resonant that it

almost tasted of wood, and the highs were

wonderfully extended. During aggressively

bowed passages, notes were crisp with attack

and filled with the inner details of fingerboard

maneuvers. This is a characteristic that

serves rock fans and classical aficionados

equally well. For example, Slayer wouldn’t

be the first metal band to come to mind

in regard to sound quality, but its new CD

Christ Illusion [American] makes clear just

how much information and speed reside

in the mix, if the electronics are sensitive

and dynamic enough to reproduce them.

Listening to the intro to “Jihad,” with its

simple high-hat flare partnered with Dave

Lombardo’s punishing double-kick drum

and the churn of multiple guitar rhythms,

was at times no less hair-raising than the

orchestral climax of Shostakovich’s Eighth


The Précis over-emphasizes the upper

registers of wind instruments, certain voices,

and, during the Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto

No.1 [Channel Classics], Pieter Wispelwey’s

cello. The amp seems to grow cooler as it

reaches up higher in pitch; hall sound also

firms up, as if damping has been removed.

Strings sound a bit more tightly wound, a

touch wiry on top, and slightly forward.

And though this makes for a very clean,

fast sound, some delicacy and resonance are

traded off.

One other area where I felt the Précis

might be improved is the mid-treble. The

Chapter doesn’t have the same command

over soundspace and dynamics in this

region as it does throughout the rest of the

frequency spectrum. On Bartók’s Concerto

for Orchestra [Telarc], for example, the

microdynamics and harmonics of complex

orchestral passages in the treble were

Specs & Pricing


8816 Patton Road

Wyndmoor, Pennsylvania 19038

(215) 836-9944


Power: 130Wpc into 8 ohms (260Wpc into 4 ohms)

Frequency response: 0.5Hz–48kHz

Inputs: Four RCA, one XLR

Outputs: One RCA, One XLR

Dimensions: 16.5" x 4.5" x 14"

Weight: 35 lbs.

Price: $6500

communicated less specifically, as if the

flow of sound were being channeled from a

wide pipe into a much narrower one. Again,

with Reference Recordings’ Rutter Requiem,

the resolution of soundstage layers and of

individual voices in the chorus was a little less


In the Class D survey mentioned above,

Jonathan Valin characterized this anomaly

as “top-end compression,” and I think this

description is as accurate as any I’ve heard

about what appears to be a common issue

with switching amplifiers. It’s a sensation less

like the grainy artifacts of early transistor

designs and more like a scrim overlaying the

air of the performance—a tether holding

down the ceiling of both instruments and

venue. It was the only region where I felt the

otherwise-effortless Précis was laboring.

Note that the extent to which this oh-sosubtle

trait revealed itself was dependent on

cabling. In this instance, it was the TARA

Labs “Zero” interconnects that played

super-sleuth, uncovering the Précis’ sonic

fingerprint in the treble. With most other

cables it slipped past virtually unnoticed. On

a more philosophical note, it was a reminder

that when you hear the full potential of a

system the results may be mixed. In this case,

the Zero interconnects not only improved

the performance of Précis in every area, but

also pointed out where the Précis didn’t quite

fully rise to the occasion.

The Chapter Electronics Précis is the

genuine article. Only a few years ago, this

degree of power and finesse in a package

no larger than a preamp would have

been unimaginable, but today’s premium

integrated amps are setting standards that

even some separates struggle to match. This

includes the Précis—a component that joins

the exclusive company of some of the finest

integrated amplifiers I’ve heard. TAS


Sota Cosmos Series III turntable, SME V pick-up

arm, Shure V15VxMR cartridge; MBL 1531 and

Simaudio Moon Supernova CD players; TARA

Labs Omega, Nordost Baldur, and Kimber Kable

BiFocal XL cables; Wireworld Silver Electra &

Kimber Palladian power cords; Richard Gray line

conditioners; Sound Fusion Turntable stand

December 2006 The Absolute Sound 75



Dual Connect

DC-I100 interconnect

The sound of a pure gold interconnect cable

Neil Gader

Gold’s mystique is as gripping today

as it has been throughout the ages,

and this charismatic metal continues

to be a source of enchantment for high-end

companies as well. From gold-plated preamp

knobs, phase plugs, RCA inputs, footers, record

clamps, and a galaxy of accessories, nothing

can match its timeless glow for exclusivity. In

the world of audio cables, where copper (and

sometimes silver) is the norm, gold is still held

in high regard for its signal-carrying prowess

and its unparalleled resistance to oxidation.

Which brings me to the Dual Connect DC-

I100, a one-meter .999-fine gold monofilament

interconnect. The DC-I100 combines

solid gold conductors of a very fine gauge

(checked the price of gold lately) in a dual

configuration within a thin helix tubing of

Teflon. Jewel-like to the touch, its construction

is first rate. Underscoring Dual Connect’s

commitment to high standards, the Eichmann

Bulletplug RCA connectors have a 24kt gold

overlay of the standard pure silver, rather than

the less conductive gold-plated brass that’s

more common to the breed.

The sound of the DC-I100 is warm with

a near-rosy midrange patina. It’s cliché to

characterize its sound as having a “golden”

aura but after a few minutes of listening,

the descriptor is unavoidable. On Sinatra’s

“Angel Eyes,” for example, from Only The

Lonely [Capitol], the DC-I100 brings a dark,

mellow, effortlessly smooth foundation to

his legendary pipes, with a slightly forward tilt

through the mids and vivid presence. There’s a

subdued quality in the treble—perhaps linked

to a reduction in microdynamic action—

that imparts a more relaxed perception of

Specs & Pricing




Price: $1090/meter, RCA;

$1290/meter, XLR


Sota Cosmos Series III turntable;

SME V pick-up arm; Shure

V15VxMR cartridge; MBL 1531

and Simaudio Moon Supernova

CD players; MBL 7008 and

transients like rapidly hammered piano keys,

tambourine rattles, or quick-wristed rim shots.

The Dual Connect doesn’t quite crackle with

the last word in speed and authority, but to its

credit neither does it grow edgy or harsh.

Like a spritz of sonic Endust, images are

polished to a sheen—enough for them to

maintain distinct positions on the soundstage.

And because there’s no etch of artificiality

to vocalist Dianne Reeves on the Good

Night, and Good Luck soundtrack [Concord],

her voice sounds like a single distinct body

rather than like divisible fundamental and

harmonic components. If you’re system has

the resolution (and the MBL system I have

on hand most certainly does), then you’ll

discover the Dual Connect is gently rolled at

the frequency extremes. For me it’s of little

consequence, but it will be an issue if you’ve

got an ongoing flirtation with the bottom

octave. However, during complex passages

that easily trip the highest harmonics, say a

piano solo or massed strings, there is some

attenuation of transparency. The result is the

sense that the harmonic profile of a sustained

note doesn’t hang in the air as cleanly, that its

borders have become shrouded and slightly


In my experience, cabling adds the last bit

of spit ’n’ polish to a great system, but the

results are rarely predictable. And personal

listening biases play a crucial role. In this

$1000 range, each competitor brings strengths

and weaknesses. The good news, however, is

that it’s easy to assess these relative merits and

demerits by auditioning a variety of wires. To

the list of usual suspects I would confidently

add the Dual Connect DC-I100. TAS

Chapter Précis amplifiers;

Kimber Kable and BiFocal XL

cabling; Wireworld Silver Electra

& Kimber Palladian power cords;

Richard Gray line conditioners;

Sound Fusion Turntable stand

76 December 2006 The Absolute Sound



Joule Electra


Emerald OTL

Stereo Amplifier

Is it a cult or the real deal

A look at one outputtransformerless

tube amp

Sue Kraft

Lacking the literary prowess of HP, I’m

at a bit of a loss to explain the cult-like

following the output-transformerless

(OTL) amp has garnered over the years. I

suppose it could be compared to a Harley

rider and his bike. If you have to ask what’s so

great about a Harley, you probably shouldn’t

own one. In the case of an OTL, if you have

to ask what’s so special about the simplicity

of an output tube directly coupled to your

speaker, then you just might not appreciate the

utter beauty of it all. Short of actually crawling

inside a tube and becoming the music, you’d

be hard pressed to feel a closer connection

to your system than with a properly designed

OTL amp.

Unfortunately, you have to pay the piper for

such sonic erotica, which probably explains

why you don’t need many fingers to count the

number of OTL manufacturers in existence.

That output transformer, which ultimately

acts as a filter and can’t help but leave its sonic

footprints up and down the signal path, also

serves an important function in the audio

chain. Without it, you’re basically driving a car

with no transmission. Obviously, this is no

problem on a flat open road. But no matter

how much horsepower you put under the

hood, those steep hills and inclines are going

to give you headaches.

78 December 2006 The Absolute Sound

So the rub here is that if you want to do away

with the output transformer and its inherent

negative side effects you have to carefully

match the OTL amp with relatively sensitive

speakers. Otherwise, you’ll be getting bogged

down on the steep musical passages, and the

performance of your system will suffer. Is the

extra effort worth it I’d say emphatically yes,

and point to the Joule Electra VZN-80 MK V

Emerald as one example why.

Retailing at $16k with the optional

Musicwood case and automotive paint finish,

the 80W stereo VZN-80 is the “entry-level”

offering in Joule’s OTL model line. I have

to admit I got off to a bumpy start with this

amp when I had to chase the UPS truck

down the street because I thought the driver

had left a microwave oven on my doorstep

by mistake. Turns out it was no mistake. The

VZN-80 apparently ships from the factory

in a U-Haul microwave box. Knowing how

small most high-end audio manufacturers are,

I rarely complain about less than professional

packaging. But in this case, I feel compelled

to speak out. If we are truly serious about

extolling the virtues of our hobby to the

unwashed masses, how about starting with

a dedicated shipping container that reflects

the quality of what’s inside Besides that, I’m

getting too dang old to be chasing delivery

trucks up and down the block.

U-Haul microwave boxes aside, the VZN-

80 itself looked sharp, with a black acrylic

top and Wineberry automotive finish. I was

surprised by the substantial size of this unit,

as it barely fit on the 19" x 24" Symposium

Svelte shelf I used to keep it off the carpeting.

While the complement of ten driver tubes

came already installed, an octet of 6C33-CB

output tubes and a Variac were packed in a

smaller, separate box. The Variac is housed in

a matching leatherette-covered wooden box

with a large rotary knob mounted on top and

dual captive power cords for attaching to each

channel of the amp. I initially thought both

the amp and Variac had missing bottom plates

but was told they are left open for ventilation

purposes. Basically what you see when you

look underneath are the bare (as in unfinished)

wood frames of the enclosures. A suggestion

might be to paint the underside so it looks a bit

more finished.

Before getting to my listening impressions,

I’d like to note that according to Joule designer

and proprietor Jud Barber, the review sample

VZN-80 is a MK V version, with upgraded,

professionally made circuit boards. Prior

versions all have handmade circuit boards.

Other than looking inside, the only way to

differentiate a MK V iteration is to check

Joule Electra VZN-80 MK V

Emerald OTL Stereo Amplifier

for the letters “MV” along with the date of

manufacture on the back panel of the amp.

While I wouldn’t exactly call the VZN-80

a plug ’n’ play component, none of the user

settings were difficult to make, save for the bit

of angst I developed over the feedback control.

Adjusting the bias for both the input and

output tubes was as easy as pushing a button,

and ramping up the voltage on the Variac to

the appropriate level was straightforward, as

well. There was a minor issue with buzzing

that I was never able to resolve, but it wasn’t

loud enough to interfere with my listening.

The sonics of the Joule VZN-80 did give

me a bit of a struggle, however. I don’t mean

to suggest that the amp sounds bad and I’m

trying to figure out a way to dance around it.

In fact, looking back at my notes, I saw that my

very first comment was to wonder how anyone

could possibly be objective about a component

that sounded so incredibly gorgeous. I was

listening to one of my favorite vocal harmony

tracks on Nickel Creek’s Nickel Creek [Sugar

Hill] and, as cliché as it sounds, I’m sure my

jaw was scraping the floor. I doubt my initial

listening impressions could have been more


After further auditioning with a variety of

music and a side-by-side with another OTL,

the struggle ensued, as everything I heard

through the Joule was sounding perhaps too

gorgeous—to the point of being overdone.

The lushness was ofttimes too lush, masking

detail, and the rich tonal colors were almost too

rich to sound real at times. Adding feedback

(via the feedback control) thinned out images

and brought back missing air and detail but at

the same time washed out the vibrant tonal

color. So at the suggestion of Jud Barber, I

thought it best to leave the feedback control at

the factory setting (9 o’clock), which I am told

is 4dB of feedback.

The comparison I performed was against

the Atma-Sphere M60 monoblocks. While the

two amps are quite different—and neither one

perfect—it was still a weekend of OTL bliss

for me. For speakers I used the very capable

and tube-friendly Coincident Super Eclipse

(along with the highly detailed and open

Coincident TRS Extreme speaker cable), while

the Atma-Sphere MP-3 preamp and Meridian

G08 CD player held down front-end duties.

The M60 was decidedly more neutral, open,

and airy without a drop of lushness in sight.

Listening to Dave Grusin’s “Baby Elephant

Walk” on Two for the Road [GRP], you could drive

a truck through its wrap-around soundstage

and superb separation of instruments. While

I’d still give the Joule relatively high marks for

three-dimensionality, I’m afraid I can’t say the

same for its separation, especially not on this

particular piece of music. The muted horn had

superior tonal color with the Joule, but much

better detail and leading-edge definition with the

M60. And while both amps were surprisingly

gutsy when driven hard, the Atma-Sphere (with

25% less rated power) showed signs of strain at

high playback levels. A fairer comparison, both

price- and power-wise, would have been with

the Atma-Sphere MA-1, which, unfortunately,

I no longer have on hand.

If you want to

do away with the

output transformer,

you have to carefully

match the amp with

sensitive speakers

The Joule never cracked under pressure, at

least not in my smaller listening room, and

had substantially more dynamic slam than

I anticipated. Bass notes had considerable

weight and roundness, but lacked specificity

and detail. On Misty River’s “Black Pony,”

from Live at the Backgate Stage [Misty River],

images were clumped too closely together

in the center of the soundstage, making it a

bit difficult to sense the space between the

performers and instruments. The bass fiddle

could be heard somewhere in the mix, but

image placement wasn’t specific enough,

nor was there sufficient detail, to give the

impression of the strings being attached to

the body of the instrument. The vocals were

velvety smooth and lovely, however, with

remarkable density and body. The music was

also quite spirited and lively.

Specs & Pricing


103 Lark Lane

North Augusta, South Carolina 29860

(803) 279-6959



Power output: 80Wpc into 8 ohms, 50W into 4


Tube complement: Output, eight 6C33-CB; input

four 6350, two 12AX7, four 6DJ8

Dimensions: 19" x 9" x 15"

Weight: 60 lbs.

Price: $12,000–$16,000 (w/ optional Musicwood

case and automotive paint finish)

Although the Symposium Svelte Shelf

worked sufficiently well to keep the VZN-80

off the carpeting, I was disappointed that I

never had the opportunity to try the Critical

Mass platform that is specifically made for

this amp. (It even has the same matching

Wineberry automotive paint finish.) I have it on

very good authority that this platform makes a

fairly dramatic top-to-bottom improvement in

the performance of the Joule amps and may

have substantially changed the outcome of

this review.

I actually had the Critical Mass platform

in my possession for a brief period of time

before starting this review, but had to send

it back. Just for grins, I thought it might

be interesting to give it a trial run under my

McCormack DNA-500 amp. Instead of the

factory Delrin interface blocks, I opted to use

some aluminum blocks I had on hand, with

surprisingly good results. When I related this

to the manufacturer, he immediately asked for

the return of the platform, saying it must have

sustained shipping damage. (Huh) I never

saw it again. Apologies were fruitless, and I’ve

yet to figure out what I did wrong. I relate this

story as an example of the weirdness in this

hobby and also to encourage readers to try

the VZN-80 with the Critical Mass platform.

If my source is correct, it will be well worth

the effort.

Even with the VZN-80’s few shortcomings,

there’s no arguing that this is one colorful, lively,

and gorgeous-sounding amp with the rare

allure only an OTL design can bring to your

system. I’m also willing to concede that my

perception of the Joule as being “overdone”

could simply be a matter of taste—or lack

thereof. If you’re a fan of lushness and bloom

from the Old School of tube design, the VZN-

80 will eat you alive. And all I can say to that is,

what a way to go! TAS


Meridian 808, G08, and Marantz PMD-320 CD

players; Van Alstine Ultra DAC; Meridian G02

control unit, Sonic Euphoria passive, and Van

Alstine Ultra preamp; Meridian G57, Atma-Sphere

Novacron OTL, and McCormack DNA-500 amps;

Coincident Super Eclipse, Von Schweikert VR4jr,

B&W 800D, and B&W 704 speakers; Coincident

TRS, Paul Speltz anti-cable, Harmonic Tech speaker

cable, Harmonic Tech, Audio Magic interconnects;

Cardas RCA to XLR adapters; Elrod, JPS power

cords; Bright Star Audio, Symposium Svelte

shelves; Chang Lightspeed Encounter, PS Audio

Ultimate outlet; Echo Busters, ASC room treatment

80 December 2006 The Absolute Sound



Eben X-3


It’s fast and dynamically explosive, yet svelte and a snap to set up

Jim Hannon


couple of reasons why most

loudspeakers don’t sound like live

music are that they are dynamically

compressed and that they fail to accurately

replicate hard transients. Ultimately, they

just don’t have enough dynamic headroom

or speed. If you’ve ever sat up close at a big

band jazz concert or a piano recital, you know

that unamplified music can not only get very

loud, it also has tremendous dynamic swings.

In order to accurately reproduce the sound of

big chords on the piano, cymbal crashes, a full

brass section playing accented notes, or mallets

striking a tympani with intensity, a loudspeaker

must be able to explode dynamically without

acoustic breakup. It must also be able to

start and stop instantaneously to replicate

the leading edge of transients without

overhang. Think of the “ping” you hear at a

live performance when a trumpet player hits

a note or the hammers strikes the strings of

a piano. Large multi-driver horn speakers can

come close to the dynamic realism one hears

at a live concert, but this often comes at the

expense of coherency, natural timbre, and/or


The good news is that dynamic realism is

not limited solely to physically imposing and

costly horn-loaded speakers. The remarkable

MBL 101 E certainly has it, as do some large

multi-driver arrays and high-ticket speakers,

but at one-third of the cost of the MBL and

with an even smaller footprint, the Eben

X-3 from Danish manufacturer Raidho

captures the dynamic swings one hears at a

live performance. The X-3 combines five

mid-sized, but extremely fast cone drivers

with an exotic planar-magnetic tweeter. Like

the MBL, it has a rare ability to replicate

hard transients with blazing quickness but

without acoustic breakup or overhang. These

capabilities alone would be enough to qualify

the Eben as worthy of an audition, but this

Danish design also disappears like a great

mini-monitor, offering precise image focus

and fine inner detail. While it has dramatically

better natural timbre than most large multidriver

horn systems, the Eben falls a bit short

of the MBL’s overall excellence. Although

room placement and setup are relatively easy,

this Nordic powerhouse requires careful

system-matching because of its chameleonlike

ability to change sonic character based on

what precedes it in the audio chain. Yet with

the right components, the X-3’s performance

is of reference quality in many respects.

A problem with reviewing speakers this

revealing is that the sonic flaws one hears are

likely to reside in upstream components, not in

the Eben X-3s. For example, the PrimaLuna

Prologue Six monoblock amps I reviewed last

issue were outstanding with my Quads, yet I

heard a hint of midrange glare when these

tube amplifiers were matched with the Eben.

I was ready to ascribe this coloration to the

This Danish design

also disappears like

a great minimonitor,

has precise

image focus, and

fine inner detail

X-3, but then I remembered that this slight

forwardness wasn’t present when I heard the

smaller Eben X-Centric, which uses some of

the same drivers as the X-3, matched with

Chapter electronics at CES. Chapter’s U.S.

distributor, Jason Scott Distributing, kindly

sent some demo Chapter gear for me to try

with the larger Ebens. When mated with the

Chapter Couplet amplifier, the X-3’s slight

glare in the upper midrange vanished, the bass

was more extended and powerful, and overall

transparency was breathtaking. It’s no wonder

Raidho demonstrates the Ebens with Chapter


The Eben X-3’s sonic prowess came

together on two of my favorite torture tests

for loudspeakers: piano and voice. The Eben’s

portrayal of the sound and scale of the piano

was incredibly realistic and compelling. Yes,

the perspective is typically first row rather than

82 December 2006 The Absolute Sound

Eben X-3


mid-hall, yet there were even times when the

sound approximated what I hear while sitting

at the keyboard—talk about subtle details

coming through on recordings. To get an idea

of the Eben’s low-frequency extension, I used

a Jorge Bolet recording of Liszt’s Funérailles

[London], which repeatedly, and hauntingly,

hits the lowest “C” on a piano. After hearing

the note (with a fundamental frequency of

32.7Hz) on the Eben, I ran over to my Grotrian

Steinweg concert grand in the next room and

played the same low “C.” The overall sound

was remarkably similar—far closer than I

would have expected. Another surprise was

the clarity of fast octave-runs in the bass on

many of my favorite Chopin pieces, which on

most big speakers sound slow and muddy, but

not on the X-3. The bass matches the speed of

the treble which, in turn, matches the brilliance

of the top end of a Steinway. I found myself

devouring my classical and jazz collections of

piano recordings and appreciating the artistry

of some of favorite performers like Emil

Gilels and Bill Evans even more.

Voices were also riveting. The Eben

uncovered subtle cues, like the changes in a

singer’s breathing, moisture in the mouth, and

the launch of consonants, without artificial or

additive sibilance. Occasionally, an individual

note would have an added emphasis, suggesting

perhaps a slight cabinet resonance or room

interaction, but the image of the vocalist

was well focused and behaved, staying at or

behind the plane of the speaker rather than

being thrown forward into your lap as some

horn speakers do. If you hear any distortion,

it’s most likely your cartridge mistracking or

amplifier clipping, or tape-saturation on the


While I typically favor beauty over accuracy,

dipoles over direct radiators, and a mid-hall

versus front of the hall perspective, the Eben’s

uncanny ability to capture the dynamic realism

and hard transients of a live performance, as

well as its many other fine attributes, ultimately

won me over. This is a speaker that may very

well change your sonic priorities, too, and

it is equally at home with rock, bluegrass,

jazz, and classical. The Eben has a wide and

deep soundstage within the boundaries of

the speaker, sacrificing some of a dipole’s

air and expansiveness at the sides of the

stage for more imaging precision and

stability. Although it doesn’t plumb the

subterranean depths of a MIDI synth

or pipe organ, it is a relatively full-range,

reference-caliber transducer with a

sound that is compelling.

Part of the fun of being an

audiophile is discovering components like the

Eben X-3 that bring one closer to the recorded

performance, or better still, the concert

hall, jazz club, or rock venue. Indeed, the

Eben X-3 produces far more than its

fair share of breathtaking moments and

goosebumps. Like other components

of reference quality, it can dig out

seemingly hidden information in your

favorite recordings and make you feel

as if you are hearing them for the

very first time. While it may force

you to swap out components you

previously held in high regard,

its sonic payoff is substantial

and can move you closer to

the sound of the real thing.

Once you’ve experienced its

realism and immediacy, it’s

hard to accept anything

less. TAS

Specs & Pricing



46 Elaines Way

Eliot, Maine 03903

(207) 451-9369



Type: Three-way, floorstanding loudspeaker

Driver complement: One planar-magnetic

tweeter; one 6.1" midrange cone; and four 6.1"


Frequency response: 30Hz–50kHz

Sensitivity: 90dB

Impedance: 6 ohms

Dimensions: 7.1" x 53.15" x 13.8"

Weight: 150 lbs.

Price: $15,800 (standard grey metallic finish);

$17,500 in piano black and other custom finishes


VPI Aries/Graham/Koetsu, and Clearaudio

Ambient/Satisfy/Concerto analog systems; Musical

Fidelity Tri-Vista 21 DAC; Chapter Preface Plus

preamplifier and Couplet amplifier; MFA Venusian

preamp (Frankland modified); PrimaLuna

Prologue 6 amplifiers; Hyperion HPS-938 and

Quad ESL-57 (PK modified) loudspeakers; Nordost

Valhalla and Virtual Dynamics “David” cables

December 2006 The Absolute Sound 85

Eben X-3


Design Elements

Denmark produces some of the world’s best speaker drivers, and the units in the Eben are quite

special. Designer Michael Boerresen has created a unique, sealed, planar-magnetic tweeter

whose voice coil is etched onto a diaphragm that is less than 1/10th of a millimeter thick and

weighs only 1/10th of a gram. I do not know of a planar-magnetic, ribbon, or electrostatic

tweeter with better power-handling or more extended high-frequency response than this

one. Three large, powerful, neodymium cobalt magnets are distributed across the back of the

membrane, which is constrained right around its periphery. Voltage is applied across the

entire membrane, top and bottom. A word of warning—avoid anything metal near this

tweeter, like a screwdriver or stethoscope, or the powerful magnets will suck it into the


As appealing as the design of the Raidho/Eben planar appears, exotic tweeters are

notoriously difficult to integrate with conventional midrange drivers without negatively

impacting coherence, timbre, and transient speed. The reality is that most cones have

trouble keeping up with the speed of low-mass/high-speed ribbon, planar-magnetic,

or electrostatic tweeters and they have different launch patterns. Both the design of

the planar tweeter on the X-3 and its placement on the front baffle, recessed slightly

back for time alignment and flanked by a sloping foam-like surround, help make

it far easier to integrate with the Eben’s cone drivers, which also happen to be

lightning-fast. Raidho teamed with Per Skanning of Audio Technology to develop a

custom set of relatively small (6.1"") dynamic drivers which use expensive, massive

Audio Technology motors assemblies and Raidho cones. Each column uses five of

these and although these dynamic drivers are the same size, they incorporate

slight differences to optimize their performance. For instance, the midrange

unit has a Kapton voice-coil former to improve its speed and resolution. It may

be the quickest cone midrange unit I’ve heard and it, too, has excellent powerhandling

and frequency response out to 12kHz, although it gently crosses over

to the planar tweeter at 2kHz. This integration between the Raidho planar

tweeter and cone midrange driver is very good and rivals the coherency and

speed of the original Genesis V loudspeaker I used as a reference for several

years, while exceeding the Gen V’s high-frequency extension, if not its air.

(That speaker mated two circular ribbon tweeters with a midrange dome

driver that was anything but conventional. Both of these superlative

performers come surprisingly close to the single-driver coherency of a

large SoundLab electrostatic in treble/midrange area, and the Eben is just

as coherent as the big ’stat in the midrange/bass.)

The four woofers in each speaker are the same size as the midrange

unit but are only asked to handle the frequencies below 200Hz down to

30Hz (at a rated -3dB), aided by the downward-firing port. These relatively

small drivers don’t move the air that the four 12" woofers on one of my

Infinity Beta woofer columns used to move, and they don’t have the

Beta’s awesome bass weight and extension, but the Eben’s are much,

much quicker, more articulate, and more coherent with the midrange.

The X-3 not only captures the bottom octave of a piano, but also has

the snap and aliveness of the real thing. Just listen to the sound of

stand-up bass on the Eben, and you’ll see what I mean. As with the

tweeter and midrange, the bass drivers are allowed to naturally

roll off, with each crossover consisting of a single high-quality

part “using first-order techniques to produce a second-order

design.” This approach keeps the crossovers from sucking the

life out of the music as many complex crossover networks

can. At 90dB sensitivity the X-3 is easy to drive and is

internally wired with Nordost monofilament cable.

The speaker is decoupled from the floor using

two sets of Cold Rays (cups with ball bearings)

separated by a plinth. JH

The X-3’s

performance is of

reference quality in

many respects

86 December 2006 The Absolute Sound

88 December 2006 The Absolute Sound


Primare 130 Integrated

Amplifier and CD31

Compact Disc Player

A winning

pair of aces

by Sallie Reynolds

The Primare (pronounced “prime

air”) units, from Sweden, are handsome, easy

to set up and run, and high in performance. In a

year that dealt me good moderately priced high-end

audio electronics to review, this pair has come up aces.

The 130 integrated ($2495) started its sojourn here in my

small system, with the Spendor S8es and a couple of good CD

players (the $600 Music Hall cd25.2, and $2500 Musical Fidelity

A5), and Nordost Heimdall cabling. I was breaking the amp in, not

really listening critically, but liking the balance and clarity I heard

on the fly. Then, in the middle of a loudspeaker review, I called

on the Primare to pinch hit in the main system for the big

Musical Fidelity kW500, which had to go in for retubing. I

set up the Primare amp with the Acoustic Zen Adagio

loudspeakers, MF CD 5 player, and Acoustic Zen

cabling, and carried on.

December 2006 The Absolute Sound 89

The first moments after the exchange were

discombobulating. Putting a 100Wpc device in place

of one more than double that can shock the ear. But

in time, the glories of the Primare began to make themselves

heard, and in the months since, it has continued to improve,

slightly but audibly. The kW500 came back after some weeks

and I compared the two again. This time the Primare came off

better in the contest than it had earlier.

The most important aspects of the perceived improvement

underscore the real value of the little Primare. Built with the

Norse genius that fashioned early ocean-worthy ships and that

still knows how to blend art and function (here, unusual attention

at its price is paid to power supplies and isolation techniques),

this little amp is a royal. Under its aegis, music of all kinds sounds

wonderful. It is perhaps happier with delicacies than with the full

storm force of orchestral tuttis, but it doesn’t subtract much there,

either, and delicacies, remember, can include grace notes and fullspectrum

melodic runs on the organ on Reference Recordings’

The Great Organ at St. Mary’s Cathedral; chorus in full roar; the

gamelan magic of Lou Harrison, which combines big-throated

bellows and the smallest of tinker-bells. On Mariza: Fado em Mim

[Times Square Records], the Primare brings out the details of

voices and instruments, of lyrics and small interactions among

instrumentalists, yet remains satisfyingly sonorous in the bottom

octaves, and handles a subwoofer well. It has a full midrange,

dramatic and musical; it brings out sweet, sweet highs and the primal

cry of the treble on violins; it sparks cymbals and bells into life. It

also lays bare recording venues and miking techniques, and you’d

better hope they’re good—on studio stuff, you’ll hear sometimes

more than you want to. For instance, in Woman of Song [Chesky],

Rebecca Pigeon’s lovely, controlled soprano soared out of an overly

reverberant studio that nearly marred the songs. I hadn’t heard that

studio hollowness so clearly before.

More powerful amps of equally good provenance have greater

height in the stage, deeper lows, and the veritable power-pulse of

large music that less powerful units lack. But the Primare has so

little distortion and so few “noise” effects, it shines.

After first pairing the 130 with the Musical Fidelity A5 CD player,

I put in the Primare CD31 ($2295), which, initially, was startling. This

little unit, like its integrated sister, has that remarkable combination

90 December 2006 The Absolute Sound


December 2006 The Absolute Sound 91


Nothing stood

out in any

frequency range

of clarity and balance, and a silence that leaves the music floating

on what sounds like real air and not a bed of fog or grain. On

good recordings, nothing stood out in any frequency range, and

the sweetness of the instrumental voice, any instrumental voice,

had the stunning drama of a child soprano. The CD31 doesn’t

have the depth that makes the midbass to bottom octave on my

reference MF unit stand apart. But its lovely balance point, like a

fine hairspring, held the fabric of the music under control, and the

noiseless background kept the delicacies sweet while retaining the

rich wash of the music. After a couple of months of listening, and

rereading my notes about recent visiting amps and players, I began

to think that the difference between these and other units I’ve

heard under $2500 lies in that silence of the background. (The 130

integrated is a true dual-mono, differential circuit design, and has

other important-sounding elements that lie beyond my ken.

The CD player has multiple isolated power supplies. These

things may explain their golden silence. Or not.)

Two recordings demonstrate well everything I have

been hearing. I use Reference Recording’s Great

Organ at St. Mary’s as a test for almost any piece of

equipment: It lays bare the reproduction of power,

clarity, frequency response, and the subtle stuff.

And soundstaging, which here lies in the breadth

and height of the instrument rather than side

information or imaging. Some of the music is

difficult—a tour of the full organ from 1600 to

the late twentieth century—but it is excellently

recorded, and a really good system will sort out

the musical themes and elements and make

the whole comprehensible to ear and brain.

Throughout, the Primares let the melodies in

the high ranks float out over the bassline of

growling lows. Sometimes, the melody and its

ornamentations dwell briefly in the big pipes, while

the rhythm pulses in the highs. And those melodic

lows have to be clear, clear, clear. I heard these glories

in all their particularities with the Primares, as in no

other modest system I know. For sheer excitement,

listen to “Carillon de Westminster” by Vierne. Crank this

one up—the amp can take it, if your speakers can—and you

will be surrounded by flesh-trembling organ swirls.

The second recording is an odd duck. I’ve found three rock or

folk or whathaveyou groups whose sheer musicianship excites me:

Lunasa, Nickel Creek, and the Portland, Oregon trio, Sneakin’ Out,

the newest of the lot (self-described as “post-apocalyptic electro-

92 December 2006 The Absolute Sound


acoustic throw-down”). Sneakin’ Out is eclectic and brash, with art

and skill to burn. I loved its first recording, Train Wreck, and now it

has a new CD, O.T.T.O. (go to www.sneakinout.com for ordering

info). This one just happens to have all the tests you need for the

Primares, or indeed any system. O.T.T.O. was well recorded, and the

venue is interesting. There is some acoustic stuff, as well as EQ’ing

and electronicking, which, combined, make it a complete musical

exercise for your system. First of all, and throughout the sound

spectrum, the Primares bring out a sense of breath-catching musical

drive, which I believe in this case owes its glory to lack of distortion

and noise. As to soundstaging on this studio recording, sometimes

the space will suddenly go all small, as if it sucked in its breath.

Then it will open out to fill your room beyond the speakers. I don’t

know how this was achieved, but it was all faithfully reconstructed

by the Primares and Acoustic Zen speakers.

A third CD, McPhee’s Tabuh-Tabuhan [Mercury], demonstrated a

slight graininess in high hats and piccolos that I hadn’t heard before.

I exchanged the Primares for the Musical Fidelity units, and heard it

there, as well, but not as bitingly. I don’t have the LP to see if this is

a digital effect, but I didn’t hear it in any other (good) recording.

I’ve recently become addicted to good power cords and both the

Primare units were wearing the Acoustic Zen Tsunami II ($350).

With them, their virtues became more evident, particularly in

soundstaging and the low frequencies. No vices, at least to these

ears, were added.

My main conclusion about the Primares is that they are

remarkably musical, accurate, exciting—on all kinds of music, loud

and complex as well as soft and subtle. With good, clean speakers,

you really can’t go wrong with this pair (about $4800 for both). Of

the two, the 130 integrated is the star, because at $2495 it performs

beyond anything in its class I’ve heard. Sweet, clear, full, deep,

untangling musical lines without separating them into an amusical

mosaic. It’s built with great attention to detail, and even has a 0/180º

polarity switch on the front panel. You might have to double your

money to better this amp.

At $2295, the CD31 costs only about $200 less than the Musical

Fidelity A5, which is still my benchmark. The A5 has richer, more

extended lows than the Primare, and provides an overall greater

sense of the power and force of a musical tutti. The A5 without a

good power cord slightly out-soundstages the CD31 with one. The

CD31, on its side, has greater clarity in the treble octave than the

A5, and it doesn’t pay the all-too-ordinary price for that by sounding

wimpy in the midbass or too thin in the lows.

Now, put this Swedish pair together, and they win the day. They

seem to double their family virtues: sweet clarity across the musical

spectrum, and golden silence between the lines. TAS

You might have

to double your

money to better

this amp


2431 Fifth Street

Berkeley, California 94710

(510) 843-4500


Specs & Pricing

130 integrated amplifier

Power output: 100Wpc into 8 ohms, 180Wpc into 4 ohms

Inputs: Two balanced XLR, six unbalanced RCA

Dimensions: 17" x 4.25" x 15"

Weight: 34 lbs.

Price: $2495

CD31 CD player

Outputs: AES/EBU, TOSLink, SPDIF co-ax, balanced XLR and

unbalanced RCA, RS-232

Dimensions: 17" x 4" x 15"

Weight: 23 lbs.

Price: $2295


Musical Fidelity MF A5 CD player and kW500 integrated

amplifier; Acoustic Zen Adagio, Vienna Acoustics Beethoven

Baby Grand, and Spendor S8e loudspeakers; REL Q108

subwoofer; Nordost Heimdall; Acoustic Zen Hologram II

speaker cable, Absolute interconnects, Tsunami II power cords

94 December 2006 The Absolute Sound


Cutting Edge

Beauty is a rare thing

Wayne Garcia

Kharma’s Mini Exquisite is a perfectly named

loudspeaker. More than any other (super) model I

know of, it offers a staggeringly seductive blend of fine

detail and, yes, exquisite beauty. It will immediately signal the

slightest change to any other component in your system—say,

whether or not the front-panel displays of my reference MBL

electronics are turned on or off (they sound much better off),

or a hair’s degree of shift to the overhang setting of a movingcoil

cartridge. And yet, as transparent and high in resolution

as it is, the Kharma Mini never sounds cold or analytical. If

anything, the opposite is true. This speaker has drop-deadgorgeous

tone colors and an overall silken presentation.

Kharma Mini



96 December 2006 The Absolute Sound

The Cutting Edge

While the Mini

Exquisite cannot

be called a

“bargain” it is

arguably a value

A two-way floorstander, the Mini Exquisite is the smallest model in

this Dutch manufacturer’s flagship Exquisite series. At $45,000 the pair,

it is also a very expensive purchase. I can already hear the yowls of

indignant protest that a “mere” two-way should cost so much money, as

if a speaker’s cost should hinge on the number of drivers stuffed into

its box or, like steak, be sold by the pound. I’ll get to price, perceptions

of value, and what goes into the Mini Exquisite shortly, but before I do

let me tell you that everything I treasure in a speaker can be found in

Kharma’s superb little package.

As someone who listens to a wide variety of music, including some

fairly demanding rock, I want a speaker with the kind of top-to-bottom

coherence, midrange beauty, and disappearing act of a Quad electrostatic,

but one that can also play loudly, with excellent dynamics, visceral impact,

and reasonable bottom-end extension. I do not and never have cared if

a speaker reaches below 30Hz—there’s very little music down there,

anyway—and have never cottoned to large, multi-tower arrays because

to me they frequently sound just like they look—like big speakers, not

live music. Now, while there are a few speakers out there that deliver

some of the Kharma Mini’s attributes—and maybe equal or better the

Kharma’s sound in some areas—none I know of combine the detail,

beauty, and single-driver-like coherence I’ve already mentioned, with the

Mini’s exceptional transparency, a wide bandwidth (rated from 30Hz–

100kHz) that starts with an impressive bottom end reach and impact

and finishes with glorious, diamond-tweeter-born highs, and the ability

to disappear as well as any speaker I’ve heard. (Another great Mini, from

MAGICO, offers much of what the Kharma does, but it is, at least to

the degree I’m familiar with it, not as breathtakingly beautiful as the

Kharma is. Both are highly detailed, the MAGICO may be even more

dynamic, but the bass of these two speakers couldn’t be more dissimilar.

Beyond driver differences, the MAGICO’s enclosure is sealed and the

Kharma’s is ported. As listeners who have heard both can attest, these

different ways of loading the bass contribute mightily to each sonic

signature.) Let me also add that to me the term “transparency” does not

simply mean that a speaker is especially clear, though that’s part of it,

and it’s not just about resolution, though that, surely, is part of it, too;

what it means to me is a component is a transparent window to the source.

In the case of a speaker—and this speaker to the max—this means

starting at the binding posts through to the speaker cables and on to the

power amp and so on, all the way back to the information encoded in a

CD or cut into the surface of a vinyl platter.

Consider Libra, from the great sounding Decca LP of English

composer Roberto Gerhard’s Astrological Series: Libra-Gemini-Leo. As

heard through the Kharma (along with the components listed below),

the players in the London Sinfonietta—flute, piccolo, clarinet, violin,

98 December 2006 The Absolute Sound

The Cutting Edge

Everything I treasure in a speaker can be

found in Kharma’s superb little package

guitar, a variety of percussion, and piano—are laid out in my listening

room with a highly convincing recreation of scale (both in size and

relationship to one another) and a tactile physical presence. And

because my room is small and I listen in the near-field, the Mini’s slightly

forward projection makes for a thrillingly lifelike experience. There are

essentially no speaker boundaries, and the air of the soundstage has

enormous width, height, and depth. And as the musicians interact with

one another, the air in my room becomes vibrantly charged with their

instruments’ energy. Whether from a fat sforzando piano chord that leaps

forth before slowly lingering back into nothingness, the quick barrooming

bulge of a tympani thwack, the angry sounding pizzicatos of the violin,

the classical guitar’s flamenco-like chords and arpeggios, or the in and

out pulse of the player’s breath as it flows though the flute’s body. This

recording also demonstrates the Mini’s wonderful way with “bloom” or

“action.” As the flute, or really any of the other instruments, increase

or decrease their output volume, you hear just that, their volume—as in

size—blossom and wilt, while moving forward and then receding back

into the soundstage.

These descriptions bring to mind something Kharma’s Charles van

Oosterum told me about his design goals—that he wants his speakers

to retrieve as much information as possible without, as he put it in

his Dutch-accented English, “added colorations, interpretations, and

without magnifying the soundstage.” As he sees it, this is a major

challenge for all speaker designers, “considering that every part used in

a speaker introduces its own sonic footprint into the sound, and this on

more levels than one considers at first.”

To control structural resonance, Kharma starts with carefully selected

enclosure materials. For the beautifully finished and striking-looking

36" tall, 95-pound Mini Exquisite, this is a proprietary, 30mm-thick

high-pressure laminate that debuted in Kharma’s $250,000 Grand

Exquisite (where it is actually 40mm thick). Said to be twenty times as

costly as MDF, this material offers just what van Oosterum seeks in his

enclosures—an ideal combination of rigidity and internal damping. The

diamond tweeter is housed in its own chamber, and substantial internal

bracing and internal diffusers are built into the Mini’s entire structure. A

cast and round-lipped aluminum vent is fitted into the rear-firing port

found just above Kharma’s custom binding-post station, and a heavyduty

base structure bolts to the enclosure’s bottom panel, into which

large and pointy feet are threaded. These in turn sit on protective and

non-resonant discs, whether the speaker rests on carpet or hardwood.

Speaking of diamonds, while several top speaker makers are using

diamond tweeters for their extreme rigidity and lightness, Kharma is

among the few to use a 25mm (one-inch) dome rather than the much

more common 19mm (.75-inch) variety. Van Oosterum tells me that the

diamond is made in a microwave plasma reactor in accordance with the

poly-diamond-deposition method, in which the reactor is loaded with

gas and the diamond is deposited on a mold to create the desired shape.

The thickness of the diamond is directly related to its time in the plasma

reactor, and it takes an enormous amount of energy for the diamond

to reach its ideal thickness, which in this case is 60 microns—or thinner

than a sheet of paper. Kharma’s U.S. importer Bill Parish of GTT Audio

added that, in addition to its 25mm inverted diamond-dome, each of

the Exquisite tweeter’s remaining parts—from wires to magnets to voice

coil—are made exclusively for Kharma and final assembly is done inhouse.

As you might imagine, such tweeters are both extremely delicate

(a protective removable screen is part of the kit) and costly items—

roughly the same price as a case of first-growth Bordeaux.

Similarly pricey (if not nearly as) and just as fragile is the 7" ceramic

bass/midrange driver. Protected by a mesh grille to keep it, too, from

ending up like Humpty-Dumpty’s shell, the ceramic mid/bass driver in

the Exquisite series differs from most others, including those in other

Kharma models, such as the terrific little Ceramique 3.2 that had been

100 December 2006 The Absolute Sound

The Cutting Edge

Specs & Pricing


356 Naughtright Road

Long Valley, New Jersey 07853

(908) 850-3092



Type: Two-way, floorstanding, bass-reflex loudspeaker

Driver complement: 1" concave diamond-dome tweeter; 7" ceramic


Frequency response: 30Hz–100kHz

Sensitivity: 89dB

Impedance: 8 ohms

Recommended amplifier power: 100Wpc

Dimensions: 16" x 36" x 16"

Weight: 95 lbs.

Price: $45,000


Avid Acutus Reference turntable, SME V arm, and Mobile Fidelity

cartridge; Redpoint Model D turntable, Graham Phantom arm, and

Transfiguration Temper V cartridge; MBL 1521 A CD transport, and

1511 E DAC; Artemis Labs LA-1 linestage and PL-1 phonostage; Kharma

MP-150 monoblock amplifiers; MBL 5011preamp and 9007 monoblock

amplifiers; Kubala-Sosna Emotion interconnects, speaker cables, power

cords, and Expression digital cable; TARA Labs Zero interconnects and

digital cable, Omega speaker cables, The One power cords, and AD-10B

Power Screen; Finite Elemente Spider equipment racks; Hannl record

cleaning machine, L’Art du Son LP and CD cleaning fluids

Perceptions of Value

The French Laundry in the Napa Valley is on most people’s lists of

the world’s finest restaurants. Not surprisingly, the menu is priced

accordingly—the 9-course tasting menu will set you back $210 perperson,

which includes service but no wine. Like most restaurants

here in the San Francisco area, The French Laundry thrives on

taking the absolute finest seasonal ingredients and allowing them

to express themselves with minimal interference. Unlike a lot of

high-end places I’ve tried, the food here is sublime. So sublime, that,

given the second-to-none nature of the ingredients, the glory of the

meals composition and flavors, the simple, unassuming service, and

the overall quality of the experience, the price, to me, was actually

a value. Not a bargain, but a value—there is a difference. That is

exactly how I feel about the Kharma Mini Exquisite. Like the chefs

at The French Laundry, the Mini Exquisite allows music to express

itself—with minimal interference.

By the way, the price of the Mini Exquisite is actually higher in

Europe, where it sells for €45,000, or roughly 30% more than it sells

for in the States. (In a mutual arrangement, Kharma and GTT have

both cut their margins to bring the Mini in at this price.) So, like that

French Laundry meal, while the Mini Exquisite cannot be called a

“bargain” it is arguably a value, especially when you consider all that

goes into the design, and most importantly, what it delivers with

each listening experience. WG

my reference until the Mini came along. As Bill Parish explained it, “All

drivers have a resonance frequency, and ceramic cones are no different.

They actually ring (you can here this in non-Kharma products that use

ceramic cones).” In the Ceramique series, Kharma addresses this ringing

by placing a notch filter in the crossover, outside the audible frequency

range. In the Exquisite series, Kharma uses a somewhat different

method, hit upon by pure chance. It seems that one day while eating

lunch at an outdoor café, van Oosterum happened to glance up as a car

was driving by. The vehicle’s driver had outfitted his buggy with a set

of fancy rims, and van Oosterum further noticed how the car’s wheels

were balanced by the use of weights. Eager to try a similar balancing act

on his ceramic drivers, van Oosterum returned to his facility and soon

discovered that the approach worked. Photos of the Mini’s cone reveal

two black dots. This is where, after measuring each driver’s response,

Kharma laser trims two holes in each cone before applying the weights

that eliminate ringing. This also helps simplify the crossover design and

reduces the number of component parts in the signal path.

Although Kharma is pretty secretive about the origin and values of its

crossover components, I did glean that the Exquisite series crossovers

use silver coils and Kharma’s own Enigma wiring, and are cryogenically

treated after assembly. When I asked van Oosterum the secret to his

speaker’s unusually coherent sound, he replied that “the seamlessness

is created by the synergy of the crossover, shape of the cabinet, and

all other parameters involved in the design” and that, “special attention

has been paid to off-axis phase response, as that influences greatly

the ‘source-ability’ of the speaker. Meaning that off-axis sound gets

reflected by the surroundings, and the more natural the reflections are

the more they will blend in with the directly perceived sound.”

Moving beyond the Gerhard piece described above, the thought,

care, expertise, and cost that go into every aspect of the Mini Exquisite

pays off with all types of music (though hip-hop, metal, and even

Mahler fans might prefer something harder-hitting and deeper-reaching,

like the similarly-priced MBL 101 E). A recent New York Times article

on Ornette Coleman prompted me to revisit Beauty is a Rare Thing:

The Complete Atlantic Recordings [Rhino], and oh how this music comes

alive on the Mini. From Billy Higgins’ opening snare rolls to the flurry

unleashed by Coleman’s alto sax and Don Cherry’s trumpet to Charlie

Haden’s brief acoustic bass solo, the hairs on my arms were electrified

by the excitement of their music making. The disc also highlighted the

Mini’s extraordinary speed and lack of coloration. As in the Gerhard,

each instrument sounded distinct and whole and yet connected to the

102 December 2006 The Absolute Sound

others in my room’s acoustic space. Cherry’s

trumpet had the piercing bite of the real

thing yet was never shrill, brittle, or bright,

and Coleman’s alto sounded much like my

friend’s instrument does whenever he and I

play music together—with a sweet yet slightly

funky tonality that is entirely different from

the bigger, throatier, and richer sound of

a tenor sax. From bottom to top the Mini

simply seemed to step aside in order to let the

music speak for itself.

Those who perhaps raised an eyebrow

over my above remark about harder-driving

stuff should take a few moments to hear the

Mini Exquisite with their favorite challenging

music to see if the speaker has enough weight

and wallop for them. Even at this level, all

speakers involve some tradeoff. When you

do audition the Minis, also listen to the

rewards that powerful amplification bring

to their performance. A nominal 8-ohm

load, the Mini sounds perfectly lovely with

the Kharma MP150 Class D monoblocks

I reviewed as part of last issue’s Class D

feature. These amps are rated at 100Wpc

into the Mini’s load. But a recent spin with

MBL’s 440 watt-per-side 9007 monoblock

provided an entirely different experience

(not to mention a four-times-as-costly one:

$6800 the pair v. $26,600). The point is, if

you want to hear Nine Inch Nails with the

torso-slamming impact of the live event,

or the classic Klemperer performance of

Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 [EMI] in all its

heaven-shaking glory, then you’ll want to

drive the Mini with plenty of gas. Even in

my 11' x 13' x 9' room, the difference in the

speaker’s performance with each amplifier

was substantial. And though the Mini delivers

a thrilling experience—check out that Mahler,

with its beyond-wall-to-wall soundscape

of seemingly limitless depth, remarkably

easy and lifelike dynamic capability (talk

about “bloom!”), and meltingly gorgeous

delivery of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s ethereal

soprano—if you feast regularly on the big

stuff, the Mini’s lack of the deepest bass for

the organ that rides the symphony’s huge

climax or ever-so-slightly smaller than life

soundstage may leave you wanting a larger, if

less elegant, model.

For me, though, it’s pretty simple.

Kharma’s Mini Exquisite floats my boat

like no other. But I must emphasize that the

only reason to consider owning a pair of

Mini Exquisites—assuming you’re privileged

enough to have this kind of money to spend

on a stereo system (’cause the rest of the rig

is going to be just as expensive)—is not the

costly materials and techniques that go into

making each pair, or van Oosterum’s smart

and Zen-like approach to speaker design, but

if—and only if—the Mini floats your boat like

no other. And the only way to know is by

listening to a pair for yourself TAS

December 2006 The Absolute Sound 103


Cutting Edge

Kuzma Stabi

XL Turntable/

Air Line Arm,

Walker Proscenium

Black Diamond

Record Player

As most of you already

know, when analog

records are mastered,

the cutter head that inscribes the

signal in the lacquer blank travels in

a straight line from the outer edge

toward the center of the spinning

disc. It is generally accepted that,

all other things being equal, the

tonearm should follow the same

line as the cutter head for the

most accurate playback and lowest

tangential error. Of course, all

other things aren’t equal, but we

will come to that in a moment.

Both the $40k Walker

Proscenium Black Diamond

and the $28.5k Kuzma Stabi XL

turntable with Air Line tonearm

are air-bearing, tangential (straightline-tracking)

record players. Both

tonearms ride on a very thin

(10-micron) cushion of air, which acts as a frictionless bearing; both

arms trace the same straight line across the LP that the cutter head did,

theoretically playing back discs with zero tracking error. Why, then, do

they sound so different

Well, part of the difference is attributable to the different ways these

two superb record players spin LPs.

The Kuzma Stabi XL is a suspensionless, modular, twin-belt-andmotor-driven

turntable that depends on the carefully chosen materials

it is made of for damping. Since it has no suspension and no means

104 December 2006 The Absolute Sound

Jonathan Valin

to adjust level, the Kuzma ’table

and arm must sit on a sturdy

stand or air-suspension table,

like a Vibraplane, that can itself

be precisely leveled.

The Stabi XL doesn’t have

a traditional rectangular plinth.

Instead, it has a 59-pound

“base”—a beautifully machined

cylindrical hunk of brass, with an

inverted, oil-bathed, non-metallic,

ruby-tipped bearing-shaft in its

center. An aluminum subplatter

is fitted snugly onto the bearingshaft,

a 48-pound platter—made

of a sandwich of aluminum and

acrylic plates and topped with a

proprietary rubber-and-textile

mat—onto the subplatter. Drive

is supplied to the platter by two

cylindrical, brass-encased motors

that fit into cutouts on either

side of the turntable base. Twin belts run from both motors around the

subplatter—a symmetrical setup that is said to maximize stability and

minimize vibration. Motor speed is controlled by a quartz clock in the

Stabi XL’s outboard power supply. The whole thing looks exceptionally

cool—a genuine work of applied art. 1

The Walker Proscenium Black Diamond is an air-suspended, singlebelt-and-motor-driven,

air-bearing turntable. It, too, depends on the

mass and composition of its component parts to provide damping,

although the Walker also sits on air-suspension feet that decouple it from

The Cutting Edge

whatever else it rests on. Unlike the Kuzma,

the Walker can be leveled via adjustments to

the pressure in its feet, and since it has its own

built-in air-suspension system, you will not

need to buy a Vibraplane—something to keep

in mind when you consider the considerable

difference in price between it and the Stabi


The Walker does have a rectangular

plinth—a 165-pound composite of crushed

marble, epoxy resin, and lead, finished in a

piano-black gel-coat. Unlike the Kuzma, the

Walker does not use a conventional ball-andthrust-plate

bearing. Instead, its platter, like

its tonearm, rides on air. A ten-inch-diameter

air-bearing subplatter (the largest yet made

for a turntable) and its attendant plumbing

are fitted into a large hole in the center of the

plinth. A 75-pound, fully-sealed lead-platter

is then placed (very carefully) onto this airbearing

subplatter. Pressurized air routed

from reservoirs in the Walker’s huge, filtered

(for moisture, dust, and oil) air-supply box is

sent through three low-pressure, hand-lapped

jets in the air-bearing subplatter, lifting the

massive lead platter and allowing it to rotate

frictionlessly. Because of the size of the airbearing,

it only takes 1.2psi to lift the platter. 2

Drive to the Walker ’table is supplied by

a single, outboard, low-torque, instrumentgrade,

ball-bearing AC motor, encased in

a marble-epoxy-lead box of its own and

mounted on Walker Valid Points (giant brass

tiptoes). The motor sits in a brass cradle that

Both arms trace the

same straight line

across the LP, why

then do they sound

so different

allows you to tension the silk belt that runs

from the pulley to the platter and is controlled

by Walker’s Ultimate Motor Controller—an

outboard device that filters AC in addition to

stabilizing speed.

The turntables—with their diverse

suspensions, bearings, drives, materials, and

masses—are sufficiently different to account

for some of the dissimilarities in the way the

Kuzma and Walker

sound. But, then,

their tangential airbearing

arms are also


The Kuzma Air

Line is what might

be called a “traveling air bearing,” in that its

sleeve-like bearing glides (with the tonearm,

which is attached to it) on a cushion of air

along a fixed, polished, large-diameter spindle.

The Walker is what might be called a “fixed

air bearing,” in that the bearing does not move

along a large-diameter spindle; rather, a smalldiameter

spindle (to which the tonearm is

attached) moves, on a minute cushion of air,

through a long, pressurized hole in the bearing


Perforce, the Kuzma Air Line’s traveling

bearing is considerably shorter than Walker’s

fixed bearing—just two inches across. Lined

on the inside with a highly porous material and

supplied with air from an outboard pump at

extremely high pressures (65psi), the bearing,

says its designer Franc Kuzma, is so stiff that

it’s virtually immune to mistracking caused by

106 December 2006 The Absolute Sound

The Cutting Edge

the centripetal forces that “pull” the cartridge

through the grooves of an LP and that tend,

simultaneously, to twist it away from its ideal

straight-line course.

Walker’s fixed air-bearing is housed in a large

rectangular brass block—six inches long, two

inches wide, and two inches tall—with a hole,

just a bit larger in diameter than the spindle

that travels through it, running through its

center. Air from the same huge outboard box

that supplies the air-bearing turntable and airsuspension

feet is piped into the hole in the

tonearm-bearing assembly at 50psi through

eight hand-lapped jets in what Walker calls a

“high pressure, medium-flow” arrangement.

Once again, because of the bearing’s stiffness

and the considerably greater length of spindle

that is being “supported” by the air in the

bearing, the effects of torsion are virtually


Bearing size and type are not the only

differences between the two tonearms.

For one thing, there is the way they are

attached—or not—to the turntables. As

with the free-standing modular parts of the

Kuzma Stabi XL ’table, the Air Line tonearm

is itself free-standing, bolted at its far end to

a thirty-one-pound brass pillar that can be

moved up and down

via a thumbscrew.

Kuzma supplies a

digital VTA gauge

that reads the height of the pillar with great

precision, allowing you to experiment with

VTA and return precisely to the same spot on

the gauge. You can also adjust VTA, precisely

and repeatably, via a numbered knob on the

tonearm assembly itself.

Because it is not physically attached to

the ’table, the Air Line tonearm does not

“see” any of the noises or resonances of the

turntable/motor assembly, save as they are

fed back through the stand on which both

Though a bit of a

split decision, to me

the final call isn’t

that close

’table and arm sit. Not being fixed to the

table does, however, make arm setup a bit

more complicated, as the entire freestanding

arm/pillar must be carefully moved, rotated,

and leveled vis-à-vis the platter to make sure

that the tonearm travels at the right height in

a straight line across an LP. (Kuzma supplies

well-written instructions and an alignment

tool that make this process a snap.)

The Walker tonearm is attached to the

’table—sort of. The massive air-bearing block

is fixed on top of two sizeable carbon-fiber

rods that come up through holes in the plinth.

Although the rods are bolted on their bottom

to the plinth’s base, you have to wonder how

much vibration the tonearm might see, given

its own material composition, the mass of

the air bearing and plinth, and the facts that

both tonearm/spindle and platter ride on

air and that the motor is physically isolated

from the ’table. Although not as cool or

convenient as the Kuzma in this regard, the

Walker arm also allows precise repeatability of

VTA adjustments via two knurled knobs on

the tonearm pillar, and because the Walker’s

bearing assembly and arm are fixed in relation

to the platter, arm/cartridge alignment is

somewhat easier.

Another significant difference between the

Kuzma and Walker is the material composition

of their tonearms. The Kuzma uses a stiff,

hollow, conical tube—beautifully machined

from three solid blocks of aluminum and

damped internally—that is welded to the

traveling air bearing. Air is fed to a nipple

on the bearing via flexible tubing that runs

between it and a valve at the supported end of

the tonearm assembly. (A nifty little gauge at

the free end of the tonearm assembly tells you

how much air pressure you’re running through

the bearing.) Air is supplied to the bearing by

a regulated, oil-lubricated, industrial-grade

compressor that filters for dust and moisture.

Because of the occasional loud “spitting”

noises it makes during its duty cycle, the

108 December 2006 The Absolute Sound

The Cutting Edge

compressor is best stored in a separate room,

with the air piped to the bearing via thin

(4mm) PVC pipe. 3

The Walker Proscenium Black Diamond

turntable is fitted with an entirely different

arm/spindle assembly than the Walker

Proscenium Gold (thus the new moniker).

Gone are the small-diameter carbon-fiber

arm-tube and carbon-fiber spindle of the

Gold; in their place are a small-diameter armtube

and spindle made of an entirely new,

expensive, proprietary material—some sort

of ceramic-composite that is said, by Walker,

to be twenty-times stiffer than the carbonfiber

arm/spindle and so hard it can only be

cut with diamond bits. Whatever this mystery

material is, the new arm and spindle have

made a huge improvement in the sound of the

Walker ’table (and the Proscenium Gold was

scarcely low-fi to begin with).

There is one other difference between the

Kuzma and the Walker that I might as well

point out right now: The Kuzma Stabi XL

turntable and Air Line tonearm comprise

the most beautifully machined, professionally

finished, and intelligently ergonomic straightline-tracking

record player I’ve seen or played

with. While the Walker is also beautiful and

beautifully made, if high-tech sexiness and

ease of adjustment are your first priorities,

then this contest is over before it starts. The

Kuzma wins.

Before I turn to the sound, let me tell you

how I tested the ’tables. First, using the same

discs, I compared the Kuzma and Walker

to each other and to the sound of the real

thing in a real space (as I hear it). I made no

attempt to determine which ’table was more

“faithful” to what was on the mastertapes.

I’m not equipped to do that; plus, tapes sound

different than vinyl. Second, I used identical

cartridges (the Air Tight PC-1) in both arms,

set at the same tracking force and as near as

I could come to the same VTA. All other

equipment—from phonostage to preamp to

power amp to loudspeakers—remained the

same for both ’tables, as did the loading of

the cartridges. Third, both ’tables were seated

Air Tight PC-1 Cartridge

I’ve been recommending the cartridge I used in this shootout, the PC-1 from the Japanese firm

Air Tight, for some time now and gave it an Editors’ Choice Award in Issue 165.

What makes this moving coil so special—and the first thing you will note about it if you listen

to any music with plucked strings or piano played staccato—is its astonishingly realistic transient

response. The pizzicatos and sforzandos I talk about on the Schnittke piece wouldn’t have been

nearly as lifelike through either ’table/arm were it not for the PC-1, which is audibly faster than

anything else out there (including the super-quick and still very worthy London Reference).

There is a reason for this. The PC-1 is the end product of a good many years of research and

development. Designed by the legendary Y. Matsudaira, who was largely responsible for some

of the great designs from Koetsu, Miyabi, and others, the PC-1 is an extremely low-impedance

(2.5 ohms at 0.6mV output) moving coil. Its low internal impedance (opposition to the flow of

current) was achieved, in part, by completely rethinking the cartridge’s magnetic structure and

the materials it is made of.

After years of research, Matsudaira and his colleagues developed a high-µ core and winding

material (designated SH-µX) that is said to have three times the saturation flux-density and

initial permeability of conventional high-µ core materials. In plain English, the PC-1’s magnets

saturate more quickly at much higher levels with fewer losses, greatly increasing the sense of

“energy” we hear through our loudspeakers.

But it isn’t just energy that gets a boost. Resolution is increased in all regards—and noise and

coloration greatly lowered. Details are clearer, air is more audible, dynamics are more lifelike,

stage width, depth, and height are phenomenal, and “action” is, too.

Available through Art Manzano at AXISS Distribution, the PC-1 is already a hit among

audiophile cognoscenti. One listen will tell you why. The PC-1 isn’t

simply a flavor of the month or a slight improvement over

what came before it; it is a leap forward in moving-coil

design. And well worth its $5500 asking price.

(Load it between 200–1000 ohms—at 47k, the PC-1

can lean out timbre and be a mite aggressive on top. And

track it between 2.03 to 2.11 grams.) JV

on top of the same

massive platform—

Lloyd Walker’s 450-

pound, rock-maple,

shot-loaded, Valid-

Point-tipped Prologue Reference equipment

stand—which was carefully leveled, fore

and aft. The only variable in setup—and

it was unavoidable—were the tonearm

interconnects. The Kuzma comes with singleended

Cardas interconnects hard-wired to the

tonearms leads; the Walker has RCA outputs

at the back of its plinth, to which you attach

interconnects of your choice (in this case,

Tara Labs “Zeros”).

Since both record players showed the same

sets of virtues on every record I played—no

matter what kind of music or how large the

ensemble—I am going to try something a

bit different in this review. I am going to talk,

primarily, about how well each turntable let

me hear one representative piece of music,

Alfred Schnittke’s Quasi una sonata [EMI]—a

brilliant post-Modernist caprice for violin

and piano that is extraordinarily dynamic,

extraordinarily rich and nuanced in tone color,

and extraordinarily well-recorded.

First a bit about the piece itself. In Schnittke’s

words, Quasi una sonata “is a report on the

impossibility of the sonata in the form of a

sonata.” It begins with a tremendous crashing

G minor chord played sforzando (suddenly, with

great force) on the piano, followed after a long

moment of silence by a rippingly dissonant

chord played sforzando on the violin—tonality

and atonality (the twin poles of twentiethcentury

music) deliberately pitted against each

other at the top of each instrument’s voice,

like a shouting match between, say, Samuel

Barber and Arnold Schoenberg.

As the piece goes on, these two kinds

of music are stated and restated at

different dynamic levels and with different

articulations, like the “themes” and tonal

centers of a traditional sonata. Yet despite

constant attempts to set them in joint musical

motion—including an adagio ironically

based on the classic B-A-C-H motive and a

fugue also ironically based on the classic B-

A-C-H motive—the two musics refuse to be

reconciled. No matter how loudly or softly

the instruments play or what manner they

play in—and they are played in every form of

staccato and legato known to man, making for

a stunningly virtuosic sonic exercise—musical

momentum keeps breaking down.

To make musical sense of Quasi una sonata,

a record player has, first and foremost, to

capture realistically the unusual timbres that

are at the heart of this argument between

the tonal and the atonal; while doing this, it

110 December 2006 The Absolute Sound

The Cutting Edge

also has to capture the bravura way the piece

is played—for the extreme means it takes to

produce these timbres is the other great point

and pleasure of Schnittke’s composition.

If leading-edge dynamics were the whole

of these tasks, the Kuzma Stabi XL/Air Line

would win by a nose. It is phenomenally quick

and clear and clean. Though it gets a leg up in

these regards from being paired with the Air

Tight PC-1, which is the “fastest” cartridge

I’ve auditioned (marginally faster, even,

than the super-speedy London Reference),

even when paired with lesser cartridges the

Kuzma reproduces violinist Gidon Kremer’s

pizzicatos, collés (where the

bow is thrown forcefully

against the strings, making

a hard, explosive “T”-

like sound), and ricochéts

(where the bow is bounced

off the strings, making a

kind of rat-a-tat-tat noise,

like “ta-ta-ta-ta-tah”), with

unprecedented realism.

Indeed, anything transientrelated—such

as the little ripping noises

that the hairs of a violin bow makes

just as they bite into a string, or the

slight, soft shifting of a piano’s action

when a key is jabbed or of a foot-pedal

when it is depressed or released—is

more clearly reproduced by the Kuzma

than by anything else I’ve heard, digital

or analog, including the Walker.

When it comes to the performancerelated

details that describe how the

instrument is being played—one of the

twin heartbeats of Quasi una sonata—

the Kuzma is superb. It gives you the

full articulation of each note, no matter

how loudly or softly or lengthily or

briefly it is sounded, regardless of pitch

or register. If, for instance, pianist Andrej

Gavrillov pedals a G minor chord, you hear

harmonics fill the air for as long as the pedal is

depressed. (And the Kuzma will tell you exactly

when he lifts up on the pedal.) If, on the other

hand, he plays an arpeggio staccato in the top

octave, you hear each sparkling sixteenth note

distinctly, without any blur or slur. Resolution

of this order cannot help but clarify style,

tempo, and line.

(What is true of this smaller piece is just

as true of larger ones. For example, on Peter

Maxwell Davis’ parody mass Missa Super

L’Homme Armé for chamber orchestra and

speaker [L’Oiseau Lyre]—another postmodernist

prank that, like the Schnittke piece,

deconstructs a traditional form of tonal music

[in this case, the mass] and derives much of

112 December 2006 The Absolute Sound

its wit and expressiveness from its unusual

timbres and outlandish dynamics—you hear

the performance style, tempo, and inner

voices somewhat more distinctly through the

Kuzma than you do through the Walker. For

instance, the Kuzma makes Alan Hacker’s

flutter-tongued bass clarinet whirr like a card

in the spokes of a bicycle wheel. Through

the Walker that whirr is just a bit less crisp

and clear. Ditto for the individual strokes of

percussionist Gary Kettel’s drum rolls, which

the Kuzma preserves intact and the Walker

slurs just the slightest bit.)

When it comes to timbres—the other

expressive pole of the Schnittke piece—

the Kuzma sounds just plain gorgeous,

without sounding just plain real. It

persistently adds a slight voluptuous

darkness to the timbres of the violin

and piano. In the treble, the Stabi XL

consistently sounds a bit quicker and

slightly more extended than the Walker, but

also brighter, less airy, and more forward. In

the bass, it is just a bit “faster,” leaner, and

tighter. (Because of its speed, definition, and

reach in the bottom octaves—and because

of the overall way it clarifies rhythms and

tempi—the Kuzma is simply a killer on beatdriven

music like rock.)

You’re probably thinking, at this point,

that all of these “little bit fasters and clearers

and better defineds” should add up to a

clear victory for the Kuzma. And were we

talking about the Kuzma versus the Walker

Proscenium Gold—my analog reference for

the past four or five years—I’d be tempted to

agree. Certainly the call would be very close.

However, we’re not talking about the

Kuzma and the Proscenium Gold; we’re talking

about the Kuzma and the Proscenium Black

Diamond. And to me, the call, though a bit of

a split decision, isn’t finally all that close.

Here’s the difference between the Kuzma

Stabi XL/Air Line and the Walker Proscenium

Black Diamond on Quasi una sonata (and

everything else): The Kuzma reproduces the

violin and piano on the Schnittke piece like

the best possible hi-fi—everything you could

possibly want to know about how they are being

played is there for the hearing. All the Walker

does, by comparison, is make that violin and

piano sound a bit less like superb reproductions

and a bit more like real instruments playing in

your room. That’s all.

Returning to Quasi una sonata, the very first

thing you notice when you switch from one

’table to the other isn’t what’s gone missing

with the Kuzma but what’s been added by the

Walker. The change isn’t subtle—not something

you need “golden ears” to hear. It’s as if some

of the air from the Walker’s massive airsupply

box has been piped directly into

the soundstage. The space between the

violin and the piano—and the sense of

space around both instruments—grows

much larger; the stage “walls” seem to

move considerably farther back and

farther apart; and the instruments

themselves sound bigger, as if some

of that same air has been pumped into

them, blowing them up and filling them

out more fully in three dimensions. As

a result, you suddenly realize that this is

a live recording, made in front of a real

audience in a real space. You also realize

that part of what makes Quasi una sonata

work is the way that the violin and piano

bisect that space—each owning (and

holding) its own ground in this contest

of musical wills.

Then there are the changes in the

timbres and dynamics of the instruments.

The Kuzma’s slight overall darkness vanishes,

replaced by a neutrality that simply sounds

“right.” No, the violin’s pizzicatos and collés

aren’t quite as fast as they are on the Kuzma

(though still plenty fast), but its fundamentals

and overtones are considerably more realistic;

no, the piano doesn’t have quite the articulation

of the Kuzma in those top-octave runs, but it

has more of the color, authority, and solidity

of an actual grand piano from bottom to top.

That hard-to-find but essential quality that I

call “action”—the way instruments change

their size, shape, and projection with changes

in register and intensity, making them seem to

“bloom” out towards you and recede back away

from you as the pulse of the music rises and

falls—is much more clearly in evidence. Indeed,

The Cutting Edge

through the Walker both instruments sound less

like superb two-dimensional reproductions, and

more like living, breathing, three-dimensional

semblances of the real things.

What the Walker’s bloom, space, size, air,

neutrality, solidity, dimensionality, and dynamic

authority buy you, musically, in Quasi una sonata,

is not just more lifelike timbres, but a keener

sense of how each instrument’s timbre both

separates it from and, on occasion, joins it to

the other instrument. You hear that pedaled

G-minor chord of the piano, for instance, and

the answering atonal shriek of the violin, and

because of the realism with which the timbres

of each instrument are stated and sustained, you

suddenly realize that a musical offer has been

made and musically answered—that the piano

and violin (and the musics each represent) aren’t

just insisting on their own separate identities but

are also attempting to share some of the same

harmonic ground. You also realize—once again

because of the truthfulness with which their

tone colors are stated and sustained—that this

will never quite come to pass, because all they

don’t share is also more clearly audible.

Most of all, what you get with the Walker—

and what sets it apart from any other source

component I’ve auditioned—is a “fool-you”

sense that you’re hearing actual instruments there

in the room with you. Whether it is Kremer’s

violin or Gavrillov’s piano, or the coterie of

string, wind, and percussion instruments in

the Maxwell Davies mass, or Joan Baez singing

“Gospel Ship” in Carnegie Hall, or the London

Symphony Orchestra summoning up the

Roman legions in Repsighi’s Pines of Rome, the

Walker Proscenium Black Diamond comes

closer to sounding “real” more often than any

other source I’ve heard in my system. (Just for

the record, the Kuzma comes in second.)

If the differences between these two record

players seem familiar to you, it is because they

are familiar. If I weren’t talking about record

players, you might think I was talking about

great solid-state amplification and great tube

amplification. Like great solid-state, the Kuzma

is a bit higher in low-level resolution, more

extended and incisive at the extremes, gorgeous

but darkish in tone color, and outright superior

on transients, pace, and big dynamic swings. If

fidelity were simply a matter of extraordinary

detail (particularly performance-related detail)

presented with extraordinary beauty and clarity

(and, in the case, of transients, extraordinary

realism)—and I concede that for a number of

you it might well be—the Kuzma would be the

winner of this shootout. But if the “gestalt” of

a live concert or recital—the lifelike presence of

instruments, their colors, their dynamics, and the

space they play in—is what fidelity means (and I

believe that it is), then the Walker wins handily.

Like the best contemporary tubes, it is fuller and

more realistic in tone color; bigger, bloomier,

airier, and more three-dimensional in imaging;

wider, deeper, more layered in soundstaging;

and a bit more authoritative dynamically. If the

Kuzma gets the small parts closer to right, the

Walker gets the wholes closer to right.

Understand that neither of these great

record players is a “loser.” I switch back and

forth between them fairly often and, if push

came to shove, could live with either. For

much less money, the Kuzma is a no-brainer

recommendation—and would undoubtedly

be the best tangential-tracking record player

money could buy, were the Walker Proscenium

Black Diamond not available. But, of course,

the Walker is available. It’ll cost you more and,

though gorgeous, won’t be quite as sexy to look

at or play with, but if you have the dough, are

married to LPs, and are into symphonic or folk

or chamber or jazz you simply can’t find a better

source component for any amount of money.

Sonically, the Kuzma may come a bit closer to

the best hi-fi, but the Walker comes closer to the

absolute sound. TAS

Specs & Pricing


P.O. Box 93896

Los Angeles, California 90093

(323) 466-9694



Kuzma Stabi XL Turntable/Air Line Arm

Type: Belt-driven turntable

Arm: Traveling air-bearing, tangential

Speeds: 33rpm and 45rpm

Dimensions: 15.75" x 12.6" x 12.6"

Weight: 176 lbs.

Price: $28,500


1139 Thrush Lane

Audobon, Pennsylvania 19403

(610) 666-6087



Walker Proscenium Black Diamond Record Player

Type: Belt-driven, air-bearing, air-supported


Arm: Fixed air-bearing, tangential

Speeds: 33rpm and 45rpm

Dimensions: 18" x 23"

Weight: 304 lbs. (not including air supply)

Price: $40,000 (including in-home setup by Lloyd

Walker and Fred Law)



The little length of airsupply

hose and the

little loop of tonearm

wire that feed into and out of the Kuzma’s traveling

bearing may exert some progressive “lift” on the

tonearm. I noted, a bit to my dismay, that on the

Kuzma VTF consistently measured .15 grams less at

the end of a record side than it did at the beginning.

Since the Air Line (or rather the stand it sits on) was

leveled perfectly by Scot Markwell of Elite Distribution

(Kuzma’s importer/distributor) and double-checked

by my friend Bill Parish (a Kuzma dealer), I can only

guess that variations in the tension and torsion of

these two sets of hoses may be contributing to the

problem, which is audible, by the way, as a slight

progressive “lightening” of the overall sound, rather

as if VTA were gradually being raised just a tiny

amount towards the end of the record. (The Walker

does not suffer from this problem.)


Though expensive to make and tricky to properly

implement, a really well-engineered air-bearing is

perhaps the stiffest and most friction-free of all

bearings, which is why it is so often used in critical

high-end industrial applications.


Though Kuzma claims that the Stabi XL’s massive

platter will start rotating within 30 seconds of

turning on the motor controller, more often than

not I found that I had to give the platter a little push

to overcome its inertia and set it spinning. Once in

motion, however, the platter continues to spin, even

if you slow it down or stop it to change records or

put on the record clamp. (The Walker Proscenium

Black Diamond’s giant platter also has to be started

by hand.) Neither turntable uses vacuum hold-down;

both depend, instead, on a massive clamp to flatten

records against the platter surface. Both also provide

variable viscous damping for the tonearm, an option

you can choose to use—or not.

JV’s Exotica Reference System

Loudspeakers: MAGICO Mini with two Wilson-

Benesch Torus subwoofers, MBL 101 E,

Ascendo M-S Mk II

Linestage preamps: Audio Research Reference 3,

MBL 6011 E

Phonostage preamps: Audio Research PH-7,

Lamm Industries LP-2 Deluxe

Power amplifiers: Audio Research Reference 210,

MBL 9008, MBL 9011, Edge 12.1

Analog source: Walker Audio Proscenium Black

Diamond record player, Kuzma Stabi XL

turntable, Kuzma Air Line tonearm

Phono cartridges: Air Tight PC-1, London


Digital source: MBL 1621 A transport,

MBL 1611 DAC

Cable and interconnect: Tara Labs “Zero”

interconnect, Tara Labs “Omega” speaker cable,

Tara Labs “The One” power cords

Accessories: Shakti Hallographs; Walker Prologue

Reference equipment stand; Walker Prologue

amp stands; Richard Gray Power Company 600S/

Pole Pig line/power conditioner; Cable Elevators

Plus; Walker Valid Points and Resonance Control

discs; Winds Arm Load meter; Clearaudio Matrix

record cleaner; HiFi-Tuning silver/gold fuses

114 December 2006 The Absolute Sound



The Hansen Audio

KING Loudspeaker

System, Version 2

Part One: A Sneak Preview

What I was not expecting when these rather formidable

looking speakers of Lars Hansen arrived was for them

to be decisively better than either the Burmester B-100s

or the Marten Coltrane, although not at a price approaching that of

the Nola Grand References, with which they have more than a few

characteristics in common. That is, they will set you back 60 grand

for the pair and have been designed with the emerging audio “luxury”

market in mind (that same market, I might add, now so dominated

by Wilson loudspeakers). And I am not quite sure, given my populist

upbringing in the mountains of North Carolina how I feel about

the more general “luxury” market, that dominated by Bentleys,

Rolexes, and other examples of what Thorstein Veblen would call

“conspicuous consumption.”

And, after intensive listening sessions, compressed into less time

than I’d have liked, I am convinced that THE KINGs (such a modest

and humble name) are the superior of (the Nolas excluded) virtually

every enclosure-type speaker with which I’ve had experience. I cannot

directly compare these with the Nolas because I have positioned,

against the designer’s true wish, THE KINGs in Room 2, which is far

December 2006 The Absolute Sound 117


HP’s Workshop

smaller than Room 3, but which has been the

happy host of some quite large speakers from

the multi-paneled Magneplanars to a series of

Infinity IRS systems.

Hansen, who did an initial positioning of the

speakers—which I changed as soon as he left—

said they were only doing two-thirds or so what

they could have done in a larger room, like 3.

He specifically thought one could achieve

a more impressive soundstage, with far better

depth, and true extension of the speaker into

the bottom octave (which I define as being that

below 32Hz).

118 December 2006 The Absolute Sound

As it came to pass, with exquisitely careful

adjustments in Room 2 (whose acoustic strengths

and one major node I know oh-so-well), and the

just right combination of associated equipment,

we were able to achieve dramatic results, and

with a superb soundstage and soundfield and

considerable strength audibly flat down to 32Hz.

It did not plumb the depths, e.g., the 16Hz

pedal point on Reference Recordings Felix Hill

organ recital—to be specific, it happens on the

Rheinberger “Abendfriede” cut—but THE

KINGs did move a great deal of air, and with

such definition—articulation—that you’d never

think anything at all was missing.

I want to backtrack a bit. We first used in the

Room 2 setup, the EAR Acute CD player with

the Burmester 04 preamplifier and 911 Mk III

monoblocks (actually stereo amps wired for

mono operation). We switched from a motley

arrangement of interconnects and cables to

an all Nordost Valhalla system, complete with

the company’s superb Thor power-distribution

device and listened that way. In the next phrase,

we inserted an ASR amplifier. We did not bypass

the Burmester preamp, as we could have with

the ASR’s battery-operated input stage, feeding

the EAR directly in. When we did try a bypass,

without the 04 in the system, the ASR, surprisingly,

didn’t sound quite right, and, at the point of this

writing, we still hadn’t isolated whatever gremlin

was causing the eccentricity of the sound.

Then, in the next phase, we warmed up the

Conrad-Johnson Premier 350 solid-state amp

and inserted it in the system. Around this time,

we made final modifications to the speakers’

placement in the room, returning actually to

what I’d called the “classic” position, one that

obeyed what I jokingly call the Pearson Rule

of Thirds (which is not how the speakers were

first placed, nor where they were “re”-placed

by Hansen himself) but this time farther out

into the room, one-third of the way actually,

and moved the speakers closer together until

both were positioned at the one-third points of

the side walls. In a good room, which 2 is, the

Rule of Thirds should always be your starting

point in setting up a system. (See diagram.) By

this time, I knew we were getting extraordinary

results from THE KINGs, and decided to go

one step further. Out went the EAR player and

in came the Lab 47 Pi/Tracer, to my way of

thinking, the very best CD playback system I’ve

yet heard. And the increase in resolution, clarity,

and scarcity of distortion was nothing short of

revelatory. But this did not work to the Premier’s

advantage, since the new setup revealed its

rather soft and slow response in the 30 to 50Hz

region, manifest as a lack of articulation there,

and a subtle but gentle veiling throughout the

frequency range, and a slightly colored sound

that will be familiar to anyone who knows the

Conrad-Johnson’s family “character,” that is, a

mellow almost goldish glow.

So out went the C-J, and back came the

Burmester 911s and the system came “alive”

in a way that belied its less than grandiose

dimensions (at least compared with the Nolas

and other monsters).

So back in went the Burmester amps into

the system now dominated by the Lab 47 player

and repositioned speakers, and the results —

not quite literally, but almost—took my breath


HP’s Workshop

Because of the intensity of the sessions, I

used fewer CDs than I normally would, and

no LPs, since there is no operating turntable in

Room 2, nor has there been in many a moon.

But the CDs I did use are those I always begin

my sessions with, CDs whose sound allows me

to get a fix and reference on the other gear I

am testing. This means I used the quite stunning

XRCD transfer of Zubin Mehta’s reading

of The Planets (especially Mercury, Saturn and

Uranus), the second cut of Hearts of Space’s

The Lost World (a mind-boggler of a sonic

storm), the Mercury recording of The Composer

and His Orchestra (the first section), Mercury and

Fennell’s reading of Grainger’s Lincolnshire Posy

(cuts 1 and 6), Holly Cole’s version of “I Can

See Clearly Now,” and the two-channel layer

of the SACD I produced for Telarc Records

(the two cuts from Carmina Burana). If you

know these discs, or some of them, you can

appreciate that they will test the mettle of any

gear, from the amplifier to the speakers. (The

Premier 350, to my surprise, actually sounded

stressed on some of the most massive peaks

on a few of these recordings. Lest it seem I

am picking on this amp, which was one of my

Editor’s Choices in Issue 165, keep in mind

that it is reasonably priced at circa $7000 and

more than a bargain, given its many strengths.

The Burmester combo comes out at $44,000,

roughly six times the price, and certainly not a

“measurable” six times the better.)

And so, how did THE KINGs really


For the answer to this, you’ll have to read Part

II, next time out.

I know, such a tease.

Part Two:

HP’s LOG—The Perils

of Reviewing

I guess you might call this a blog, without the

“b” and without the word cyberspace. But I’d

rather call it my personal log, at least for now

and the time being.

I felt compelled to write these nearly random

notes to bring you up to date on some of the

workings behind the scenes here.

One of the projects I had planned to do

over a six-month period, thus six issues of the

magazine, was to review a half-dozen large,

fairly ambitious speaker systems.

And I began this survey with the provocative

new Burmester B-100 three-way system, whose

crowning glory was an updated modified

version of the legendary Heil tweeter, which

was/is capable of quite high playback levels

and wide dynamic swings, with exceptionally

low coloration and distortion. The system had

120 December 2006 The Absolute Sound

Robert Harley comments

on the Memory Player

The Memory Player (see p. 120) might, indeed, produce a sonic improvement, but that improvement is

certainly not attributable to the mechanism claimed by the manufacturer.

First, uncorrected errors on CD playback are rare. The datastream read from a disc is rife with bit

errors, but those errors are instantly corrected and replaced with the identical original data. Corrected

bit errors result in absolutely no loss of information or change in sound quality. The CD’s CIRC (Cross-

Interleaved Reed-Solomon Code) error-correction scheme is remarkably robust, allowing burst errors of

up to 4000 consecutive bits (equivalent to 2.5mm of track length on a CD) to be reconstructed with the

identical missing data. This is not interpolation or error concealment, but perfect bit-for-bit correction.

This powerful error correction is what allows CD-ROM to work so well. Missing or interpolated data in

audio data could introduce a momentary glitch; errors in computer code could cause a program to crash.

Granted, CD-ROM has an extra layer of error detection and correction above and beyond that of CD, but

that extra safeguard is rarely invoked.

Second, if uncorrectable errors do occur (primarily because of disc scratches or dirt), error-concealment

circuits replace the missing data with a best-guess interpolation based on the waveform’s values before

and after the missing data. Error concealment is rarely audible. In some instances, concealment can be

heard as a low-level tick sound. The manufacturer’s assertion that error concealment is commonplace,

and results in “a congestion and harsh odd (order) harmonics borne of a synthetic tone” is simply false.

Uncorrected errors, at worst, introduce momentary ticks, not a global change in sound quality. If the error

is too great for concealment (12,300 consecutive bits, or 7.7mm of track length), the player momentarily

mutes the signal. Furthermore, these interpolated data are not “called ECC (error correction codes)” in

any of the technical literature.

I must repeat that an uncorrectable error is a rare event on a CD that has not been abused. In fact, the

uncorrected error rate for a reasonably well-made CD that has not been abused is roughly 10 –10 , or one

error in every 10 billion bits.

This isn’t to say that the Memory Player doesn’t improve the sound. There are many instances in highend

audio where an audible change exists that cannot be explained by our limited understanding of the

science. Indeed, other mechanisms might be at work. But “a congestion and harsh odd (order) harmonics

borne of a synthetic tone” is not one of them.

I have some familiarity with this subject: I worked in a CD mastering lab where my job duties included

modifying CD players to extract the various error-correction flags from the decoding chips for input to

custom error-analyzers, performing bit-for-bit comparisons between the data on CD mastertapes and

CDs replicated from those masters, examining CD pit structures with a scanning electron microscope,

and correlating error rates on replicated CDs with mastering parameters (see my Audio Engineering

Society paper, co-written with Ray Keating, “CD-V Signal Optimization,” presented at the 1989 Hamburg


a remarkable integration of its drivers, although

the side-firing woofer setup could be tricky

to place, since one would run the risk of a

spatial discontinuity. I wanted more time with

these, especially to use them with components

other than Burmester’s most impressive new

electronics (the latest version of the 04 preamp

and the 911 Mk III amplifier) but found, to

my consternation, that Burmester had already

promised the B-100s to Sound By Singer of

Manhattan—already sold, I was told—and that

it wouldn’t be until October that another pair

would find its way to my doorstep.

Next in line were the Marten Coltranes,

which I made mention of in Issue 165, and

which I found bewitching once they were finetuned

with a vengeance (in terms of placement).

Since then, I have found even more to like in

the Coltranes, and was looking forward to an

in-depth shot at them. Why Because, there was

something about their “sweetness” that made

me wonder if the ceramic drivers might not

be adding a particularly glorious and musically

consonant coloration to the sound. Then, there

was that diamond tweeter, which struck me as

some kind of breakthrough, in terms of purity

and a seeming absence of an all-too-common

high-frequency resonance in the audible range.

The next speaker on the schedule was the

top-of-the-line Usher from Taiwan a beautifully

crafted and luxurious looking three-speaker

system for an extravagantly reasonable price

(just over $16k.) Turns out, the designer

had decided to “tune” the speakers for the

American market, which, in this case, meant

a tweeter level that sounded audibly louder in

volume than the other drivers in the cabinet,

and this, to these ears, meant these were not

HP’s Workshop

quite ready for primetime. I suspected a simple

level adjustment would cure the problem and

so returned the speakers for an update. This

threw my schedule into a spin, since that left

a hole that would not be filled until just after

Labor Day with the top-of-the-line Hansen

speakers, THE KINGs, from Canada.

I toyed with the notion of a quick listen to

the new “statement” speaker from Coincident

Technology (also from Canada), but decided

to wait for the Hansens, and further down

the line, take up the Ushers again and then

the Coincident. (Of course, that could be the

opposite of how things happen.)

I had a backup in mind—you have to in

this business—all along, fingers crossed,

of course. It seemed likely that the delivery

date of the Nova Physics Memory Player

was close at hand, and with a little luck, I

could probably get a sneak preview (at the

very least) into this issue. Alas, that was

not to be. If all had gone well, we would

have had first dibs on what just might be

a promising solution to certain seemingly

intractable problems in CD playback, those

caused by information dropouts. But that

unit was not quite ready for primetime,

either; it needed some minor adjustments.

And so did this writer after encountering

its (Dell) computer-controlled processor. It

is no simple matter to master its operation.

So I pushed the review date back or ahead

(depending on whether you’re a futurist or

an antediluvian) to the next issue.

If the claims made for the Memory Player

check out, it could, as I suspect from what I

understand of the operating principle, elicit an

unparalleled degree of fidelity from the compact

disc. A few words to whet your appetite: “it is

nearly impossible,” the literature says, “for a CD

drive to read 100% of the data on a CD on a

single pass…” and this, they say, is true of all

CD drives. Furthermore, “When the CD drive

misses a bit, it ‘fills the hole’ with a synthetic bit

of data called ECC (error correction codes).

This is done to prevent the listener from hearing

gaps of silence…since the ECC has no actual

information on it, the result is a congestion and

harsh odd (order) harmonics borne [sic] of a

synthetic tone, inserted to ‘hide’ the silences of

a misread CD.” One further thought, and again

I quote from Nova Physics literature, “The

Memory Player reads your inserted CD and

stores the state on banks of memory. When its

laser misses any data, it returns to read it again

until it reaches 100%. It will re-read a CD up

to 99 times, to capture all the information and

store it on banks of solid-state memory.” Hmm.

The company also claims the finished work is

indistinguishable from the digital master tape.

Equipment Updates

The Jadis D-1 Mk II CD Transport and JS-1 MkIII DAC

In Issue 163, I took a long look at a handful of CD players to assess the present-day state of the art. Not,

as you may have noticed, every last one on the market. The most troublesome of the lot was the Jadis

combination, which sounded rather spectacular, big, bold and even a bit juicy (in the musically positive

sense) upon first listen. But, some time later, in the survey, I found the unit sadly deficient in the top octave,

which wasn’t the way I first heard things. I wasn’t entirely sure whether the other players were that much

better or, more logically, whether something had gone awry with the Jadis. The North American importer

of Jadis gear these days is Pierre Gabriel, who is based in Quebec, and whose local contact man did not

have the elaborate test gear necessary to determine what, if anything, was wrong with the player.

Eventually, after much ado with messages flying back and forth across the border, we managed to

arrange shipment of the units (player and processor) back to Gabriel and offered—an offer that still

stands—to retest the Jadis if he found problems with it. Gabriel tested the unit and sent us these notes…

“The problem is in the D/A Converter’s right channel, the 5814 double-triode tube, positive phase….”

Some symptoms this caused (and we heard here in Sea Cliff) were an “unnatural top end, confusion in the

highs, less deep bass and low bass, unstable images…” and an uninvolving, unmusical sound.

Those of you who have read the magazine over the years know that Jadis makes some of the world’s

best tube-based electronics and that this reviewer holds their products in high esteem. All of this would

have been more expeditiously handled if Jadis had an American distributor and/or authorized repair

center. But their last experience with an American importer left them leery of a repeat experience here.

To sum up: We are ready, if Gabriel is willing, to have another shot at the Jadis, and put it up against

those players with which we found the most favor. HP

Editor’s Choice Redux

There were several reasons for the

omission of these Editor’s Choice awards

from Issue 165, the prime one being space.

The room resonators, in particular, almost

deserve an essay themselves. They did

dramatically change the sense of acoustic

space in Room 3, allowing a far more

convincing illusion of both soundstage

and soundfield. And they are but one of

several room resonance treatments which

I have been trying to figure out how to

describe in ways that will be meaningful

to the readers. (I wrestled with one in the

Golden Ear issue.) Anyway, without much

more ado, and no more commentary (for

now), the missing selections belong to:

Vital Accessories

Acoustic Systems Room Resonators (platinum/


Prices: Platinum, $2700; Gold, $1000; Special Gold,

$1000/each; Silver. $450 each

Marigo Audio Signature 3-D Mat

Price: $195

Linestages and Phonostages

Tom Evans Vibe + Pulse power supply

Prices: The Vibe, $4600; The Pulse (optional power

supply upgrade for Vibe), $4000

Contact Information


13401 SW 96th Avenue

Miami, Florida 33176

(888) 991-9196




3112 SE 51st Ave.

Portland, Oregon 97206




(818) 802-0020



Letters to the Workshop should be sent to me in

care of HpsAudioMall@aol.com.

122 December 2006 The Absolute Sound

Manufacturers Comments

Bardaudio Wireless Audio System

One thing to clarify is that the user can have as many receivers as he

wishes “listening” to one transmitter transmitting on any one of

the eight channels. So there are no limits to the number of rooms,

other than the size of the house. Also, and particularly in the case of the

USB-based system, the sound quality is defined by the DAC at the receiving

end, i.e., the BardThree or the BardOne Rx. It is also governed by the

source material—16-bit/44.1kHz uncompressed WAVs are best. As implied

in the review the products are designed to rival similarly priced, wired hi-fi

products. More high-end (and hence more expensive) products are in the

Sonneteer pipeline.

Chapter Electronics Précis

Integrated Amplifier

Haider Bahrani

Managing Director


would like to thank Neil for providing an extremely accurate description

of our product. Neil makes reference to what Jonathan Valin calls top-end

compression in Class D amplifiers; whilst I am aware of what Jonathan

describes, this is not entirely accurate in the case of the Précis. All of our

amplifiers use exactly the same amplifier circuit and the effect described is not

present in our award-winning stereo unit, the Chapter Couplet. The difference

is caused by power supply alone. The Précis uses a standard Linear PSU,

whereas the Couplet uses a high-frequency power-factor-corrected PSU using

spread-spectrum techniques to provide virtually limitless instantaneous power.

This technology is, however, very expensive and thus sets aside our higher-end

units by its use there. This effect can also be greatly affected by the choice of

power cable, which is why we have introduced a complete range of cables to

accompany our products. These cables also protect and shield further against

the RF interference so prevalent in our industry today.

Duncan Shrimpton, Technical Director

Chapter Electronics Limited

Clearaudio Ambient Turntable

We are pleased that Jim Hannon enjoyed our Ambient turntable

system’s look and sound, noting it retains the sonic strengths

of our previous products and now adds enhanced musicality,

naturalness, and lifelike qualities. Jon Valin has already mentioned (in his

Clearaudio Titanium cartridge review) how the improved generator design

of our new “super-class” cartridges contributes to this evolution. [With the

Ambient ‘table] we feel it is important to talk more about the Panzerholz

material. It is an extremely hard multilaminated material manufactured

from beech veneers and synthetic resins under high pressure and heat. It

combines metal-like hardness and mechanical strength with the advantages

of accurate workability. It has a particularly favorable strength-to-weight

ratio, low sonic resonance, low electrical conductivity, and antimagnetic

properties, and works at ambient temperatures from -320 to +203 degrees

Fahrenheit. It wasn’t that last spec which led to our naming the table, it was

as Jim notes “one gorgeous looking product.”

Garth Leerer, Musical Surroundings

Robert Suchy, Clearaudio

Kharma Mini Exquisite


Kharma and I would like to thank Wayne for his wonderful review.

The Exquisite family of speakers is the “super models” of Kharma’s

outstanding, standard-setting Reference Ceramique Line. Specifically,

the Mini builds upon and improves the performance of the CRM3.2FE. We

like to think of it as the best speaker in the world for a small-to-mediumsized

room, and would like to point out that the when the ceramic driver is

mounted in its basket and surround, short of being poked and prodded by

foreign objects, it is no more fragile than a paper cone.

Wayne hints—and we would like to drive this point home—that this worldclass

speaker does benefit from being played with the finest equipment available,

and will perform up to the level of the other components in the system.

Bill Parish

GTT Audio & Video, USA/Canada Kharma Importer

Kuzma Stabi XL/Airline

Turntable and Arm

Thank you for the opportunity to have our Kuzma Stabi XL/Airline

turntable and arm reviewed in TAS. While we feel that JV has done an

admirable job in his review, there are a few points that we would like

to clarify and expand upon.

First, I want to focus on pricing. JV discusses in his review that the Kuzma

unit, as supplied, retails for $28,500.00. While this is correct for the unit as he

auditioned it, we provided JV with the adjustable VTA tower; if the consumer

wants to have a dedicated tower for just the Airline arm, it is available for

$1500 less. There is also the issue of the stand needed: We recommend that a

finely-adjustable solid stand (such as Walker’s or Kuzma’s own) be used rather

than a Vibraplane or other rather more pliant air platform, in order to control

the “set” of the platform more precisely.

Lastly, there is the issue of the wiring used for the tables: The Kuzma is

hard-wired with 1.5M of copper Cardas tonearm cable to the Eichmann RCA

bullet plugs, while the Walker, with its separate female RCA jacks, allows the

owner to use interconnects of his/her choice (in this instance JV elected to use

the [admittedly superb] TARA Labs Zeros). We feel that this may well be an

advantage to Walker, and we plan to have this feature available for the Airline

in the near future.

Scot Markwell and Peder Beckman, Elite AudioVideo Distribution

Rega System

We appreciate Barry Willis’ review of our all British Music System. We are

happy that he was surprised by the R3 speakers, the unsung heroes of

the line. Like all Rega products, they are made in England and include

real wood veneers and Rega’s own mid and bass drivers. The R3 is designed to sit

close to the wall, preserving the square footage of your home. The electronics share

the same extruded aluminum chassis, which makes for superior performance over

folded metal boxes at reasonable prices. For the headphone enthusiast, Rega offers

a headphone amp called the Ear. The limitations Barry noted are based more on

usage than the components themselves. For the hardcore rocker, such as Barry, Rega

offers both larger speakers and amps to get your SPLs on.

Chad Harper

Rega USA Distributor, The Sound Organisation

124 December 2006 The Absolute Sound

Rowland Model 201 Class D


While Jeff Rowland Design Group is pleased to provide reviewers

an opportunity to critique its products there is always the chance

that the resulting judgment will produce an assessment both

surprising and puzzling. Such was the case in The Absolute Sound’s recent

review (Issue 166) of the Model 201 in which the amplifier’s high frequencies

are judged to be “cut off.”

I find this criticism perplexing in light of the fact that the 201 has earned

such high praise among buyers who specifically laud the amp’s high-frequency

clarity and sweetness. I can only presume the issue is one of interpretation

since our test measurements of the 201 produce nothing that would support

assertions about any such shortcoming. Further, contrary to an occasionally still

propagated myth, JRDG amplifiers are not designed to be either “rolled off”

or “dark” sounding, but are uniformly designed to pass along to listeners all

the wonder and majesty of music, complete and unabridged. While respectful

of the judgment of others, I certainly believe the Model 201 is resolutely

capable of this task.

Finally, I believe Class D amplification offers an entirely new perspective on the

art of audio design involving uniquely innovative and highly promising engineering

strategies. However, this class is neither uniform in concept nor immune to

developmental birth pains and, like all technology, is in a constantly fluid state

of change. I find it regrettable that some in the audio community are willing to

discount it so readily when they have explored its potential so superficially.

I would also argue that Class D design, taken as a whole, is not inherently

flawed in terms of high-frequency extension or any other design parameter.

As a result, JRDG will continue its efforts to create benchmark products using

this, or any other, technology that I believe will further this company’s wellestablished

and hard-won reputation for audio excellence.

Jeff Rowland

President, Jeff Rowland Design Group, Inc.

Walker Proscenium Black Diamond


We extend our thanks to Jonathan Valin and the entire staff of TAS

for the review. His review reinforces our conviction that great sound

is more than the sum of analytical details. Truly great sound defies

easy description because it is a visceral experience. We worked hard to achieve a

realistic soundstage in width and depth and avoid an upfront presentation.

The price of the Proscenium Black Diamond turntable includes spare parts, a

Wally mirror cartridge alignment kit, a KAB strobe for precise speed setting, the

Walker Ultimate motor controller, and our personal time and attention.

The purchase of the turntable includes in-home set-up by the designers and

builders of the turntable—myself and business partner Fred Law. We teach the

new owner how to use and maintain the table. We also share some of the tricks

we’ve learned along the way that maximize a system’s performance. What’s

more, we usually have a lot of fun and count many turntable owners among our

close friends. The price quoted in the review is for the continental U.S. only and

does not include shipping. The shipping weight is approximately 420 pounds.

Options available for the turntable include: tonearm wires fitted with male

connectors for direct connection to a phono amp, the Prologue Top Shelf, or a

complete Prologue equipment rack.

Lloyd Walker

Walker Audio

December 2006 The Absolute Sound 125










Tomasz Stanko

Quartet: Lontano.

Manfred Eicher, producer. ECM 1980.

Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko has been on

a roll since 1994, when he renewed his ECM

affiliation with Matka Joanna, his first album as

a leader in two decades, and followed it up with

Litania (a tribute to the late pianist/composer

Krzysztof Komeda) and From the Green Hill.

In 2002, after being teamed with such ECM

regulars as Bob Stenson, Anders Jormin, Terje

Rypdal, John Surman, and Edward Vesala,

Stanko settled into an especially fertile groove

with his young countrymen Marcin Wasilewski

(piano), Slawomir Kurkiewicz (bass), and

Michal Miskiewicz (drums).

Lontano is the third and most representative

128 December 2006 The Absolute Sound

document of this ensemble’s live sensibility.

The previous Quartet discs, Soul of Things

and Suspended Night, were essentially extended

theme-and-variation suites, an approach

partially echoed here in the three noncontiguous

sections of the title track. While

lush with the group’s trademark long lyrical lines

and contemplative moods, Lontano explores

a wider variety of ideas—reinterpreting

“Kattorna” from the Komeda quintet’s 1965

LP Astigmatic, and “Tale,” from Stanko’s 1975

Balladyna—and captures more of the quartet’s


A European free-jazz pioneer who played

in Komeda’s groundbreaking quintet and

Alex von Schlippenbach’s Globe Unity

Orchestra, the 64-year-old Stanko nonetheless

remains faithful to melody, albeit fractured,

and internal harmonic structure. He builds

tension in his music by abstractly aligning

those elements at often exquisitely unhurried

but not exactly relaxed tempos and in vast,

yet somehow intimate spaces, and also by

injecting the occasional mercurial run after

long-held notes and legato phrases. Wasilewski

(who’s rightly been cited as a latter-day Bill

Evans), Kurkiewicz, and Miskiewicz, who

have recorded together as Trio, are as in-synch

with Stanko as Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter,

and Tony Williams were with Miles Davis,

whose bittersweet expressiveness Stanko

nearly matches.

Manfred Eicher’s transparent production

places the instruments in realistic threedimensional

relationships on a perfectly

proportioned, deep, and not-too-wide

soundstage, with warm, round bass and piano

tones, shimmering cymbals, and glorious

reproduction of Stanko’s typically silky

trumpet. Derk Richardson

Further Listening: Tomasz Stanko

Septet: Litania: The Music of

Krzysztof Komeda; Edward Vesala:




Evan Parker:

Time Lapse.

Parker, producer. Tzadik 8026.

One person’s room-clearing music is another’s

Holy Grail. Maybe no one has really ever played

an Evan Parker recording with the express

purpose of bringing a party to an abrupt

end, but parts of Time Lapse could send the

faint of musical heart scrambling to the door.

Conversely, this masterwork by the legendary

British improviser will suck a different kind of

listener down a rabbit hole of effectively eternal

investigation that in turn yields virtually infinite

aural, cerebral, and physical pleasures.

Recorded intermittently from 1996 to 2001in

a lusciously resonant studio that was originally a

rehearsal space for the London Sinfonietta, the

eleven tracks include saxophone solo, densely

overdubbed multivoiced compositions (some

resulting from multiple studio visits, some from

single sessions), and one especially atmospheric

sonic experiment with sax textures and organ

drones. Because of Parker’s technically virtuosity

(which includes circular breathing) and brilliant

command of original musical vocabulary

(practically an encyclopedia of alternatives to

conventional melody, harmony, and rhythm), it

is occasionally difficult to distinguish between

the solo and overdubbed tracks. That sense of

mystery is just one of the absorbing qualities

of this giddily challenging yet exquisitely logical

music. Hence, titles as “Threnody for Steve

Lacy,” “Gees Bend” (a quilt-making community

in Alabama), “Pulse and the Circulation of the

Blood,” and “Alone on a Long Hard Road”

indicate a few of the 60-year-old’s inspirations

and, perhaps, afterthoughts.

A deep respect for history, abiding love of

pattern and mutated repetition, irrepressible

urge for inner exploration, and palpable

dedication to sonic accuracy come together

Kenny Garrett:

Beyond The Wall.

Steven Epstein and Garrett, producers.

Nonesuch 79933.

From the opening salvo on “Calling,” an

imposing fanfare that kicks off an intense modal

investigation, it’s clear that alto saxophonistcomposer

Kenny Garrett is delving into deep

waters. With its allusions to Africa and the overall

sense of searching inherent in the music, along

with the presence of tenor-sax legend Pharoah

Sanders, the marvelous Elvin-esque drumming

of Brian Blade, and the McCoy-like droning

and piano voicings of Mulgrew Miller, this recording may indeed be closer in spirit to

John Coltrane than Garrett’s acclaimed 1996 homage, Pursuance: The Music of John Coltrane.

On various occasions over the past few years, Garrett has shared the bandstand with jazz

elder and former Trane sideman Sanders. Together they have developed a kindred relationship

based on their mutual desire for pushing the envelope and seeking a place where high energy

meets spirituality. Their inspired chemistry is in full effect on the burning title track (recalling

Trane’s heightened excursions on uptempo vehicles like “Mr. P.C.”) and the droning “Gwoka”

(reminiscent of Trane’s “India”). Garrett’s other mentor on this exploratory session is the great

vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, prominently featured on the McCoy-ish “Qing Wen,” the Latinflavored

“Now” and the affecting vocal number “Kiss To The Skies,” buoyed by a six-voice choir.

Recorded shortly after his first eye-opening trip to mainland China last year, Beyond The Wall

also reflects Garrett’s fascination with the country’s culture, music, and spirituality, particularly

on the fragile “Tsunami Song,” which features Guowei Wang on the keening two-string Chinese

erhu, alongside harp, cello, and violin. Garrett also strikes an evocative and highly original note on

“Realization (March Towards The Light),” underscored by a hypnotic sample of Tibetan Monks

chanting. The closing “May Peace Be Upon Them” is a stirring quartet vehicle for Garrett’s

alto with pianist Miller, drummer Blade, and bassist Robert Hurst III. It opens on a soothing

enough note in gentle waltz-time fashion, but gradually builds to a frantic, sanctified peak over

a rubato pulse with Kenny digging deep and throwing torrents of notes around the room.

Beyond The Wall is distinguished by particularly good drum sound, as well as clear separation

of the various cross-cultural elements that converge in the mix. Garrett, who possesses one

of the most pungent tones along with the most commanding technique of any alto-sax player

on the scene today, is relentless in his pursuit of excellence. This project is yet another feather

in his cap. Bill Milkowski

Further Listening: Kenny Garrett: Pursuance: The Music of John

Coltrane; Branford Marsalis: The Footsteps of Our Fathers

in beautiful segments that range from tightly

compressed in the center of the soundstage

to spaciously spread between, beyond, in front

of, and behind the speakers. Saxophones have

astonishing visceral presence, and the realistic

detail of the intricate, often teeming timbres is

as magnificent as the music. DR

Further Listening: Evan Parker

Electro-Acoustic Ensemble: The

Eleventh Hour; Evan Parker, Barry

Guy, Paul Lytton, Marilyn Crispell:

After Appleby

Von Freeman:

Good Forever.

Freeman, Michael Freidman, Jim

Anderson, co-producers. Premonition


When Chicago jazz icon Von Freeman puts

his tenor sax to his lips and blows on a lush,

romantic ballad like “Didn’t We,” you can

hear all 83 years of his life experience passing

through the horn. At first the breathy tone

may recall Ben Webster, or maybe a young

modern-day upstart like tenor terror James

Carter in full Websterian mode. But then,

being Von Freeman, he can’t control his

subversive instincts. Invariably, in the middle

of a sensitive solo, he’ll get frisky and veer

off the straight and narrow. The intonation

will head into Albert Ayler territory just a bit,

130 December 2006 The Absolute Sound



and the old Vonski charm will surface in the

forceful overblowing accompanied by a few

irreverent squeaks and skronks, along with a

few humorous slurs on the horn. As the title

of the gorgeous opener to this appealing

collection of ballads and blues so perfectly

states, “Why Try To Change Me Now.” It’s an

apt motto for the renegade tenor man.

Accompanied by veteran drummer Jimmy

Cobb (a member of the Miles Davis quintet

of the late 50s, whose effortless timekeeping

fueled Miles’ landmark 1959 session, Kind of

Blue), former Charles Mingus pianist Richard

Wyands, and ubiquitous New York bassist

John Webber, Freeman imparts these oldschool

ditties with a larger-than-life personality

marked by warmth, humor, and just a touch

of eccentricity. Think of him as Sonny Rollins’

older, “outer” brother. Freeman is at his

friskiest (and outest) when swinging, as on a

jaunty rendition of “An Affair to Remember”

and on a surging uptempo version of his own

“A Night in Paris.” His beautiful ballad playing

on Sy Coleman’s “Why Try To Change Me

Now” and on Charlie Chaplin’s heartbreaking

“Smile” are underscored by Cobb’s sensitive

touch with brushes. And he deals in some realdeal

blues on an earthy reading of “I’ll Never

Be Free.”

Known throughout his storied career

for successfully straddling the free-jazz and

bebop worlds with his blustery tenor sound,

Vonski plays it relaxed and easy here without

sacrificing his signature unorthodox sonority

and indefatigable charm. Recorded and mixed

by Jim Anderson at Avatar Studios in New

York, the intimate session brilliantly captures

the spectrum of textures and dynamics issuing

forth from Freeman’s golden horn. BM

Further Listening: David S. Ware:

BalladWare; Pharoah Sanders:

Crescent With Love

Medeski, Scofield,

Martin and Wood:

Out Louder.

Indirecto 856549.

A decade having passed since their first and,

until now, only joint project, this reunion

of guitarist John Scofield and organ-trio

Medeski, Martin and Wood finds these

musical explorers pushing the boundaries

even further than they did on A Go Go, a

sometimes-electric, sometimes-acoustic

affair that remains one of Scofield’s most

satisfying recordings. While the latter seldom

David Binney:

Out of Airplanes.

Binney, producer.

Mythology Records 0005.

A distinctive alto sax player, innovative composer,

and restlessly creative sonic provocateur, David

Binney surrounds himself with stellar company

on Out of Airplanes, his eighth recording as a

leader. Guitarist Bill Frisell, keyboardist Craig

Taborn (a ubiquitous figure on New York’s

downtown music scene), bassist Eivind Opsvik,

and drummer Kenny Wollesen (a member

of Frisell’s group and Sex Mob) all put their

individualistic stamps on Binney’s intriguing compositions, and particularly on three wideopen


They open on a dissonant note with “Brainstorms, Pt. 1,” an edgy free-form excursion

that sounds like an outtake from Miles Davis’ On the Corner sessions. On Binney’s fugue-like

“Contributors,” the saxophonist engages in sparse contrapuntal dialogue with Frisell against

the backdrop of Taborn’s hypnotic piano ostinato. As the piece builds dynamically, from Philip

Glass-like delicacy to screaming crescendo, Frisell commits sonic mayhem with his fuzz box

set on stun. On the title track, the guitarist again unleashes hellacious, grunge-laden loops and

backwards effects on the tumultuous middle section, then wails with distortion-laced impunity

through the rest of the piece. The poignant “Home” carries a simple, heartland feel that radiates

warmth and beauty—right up until the moment that Frisell stomps on the fuzz and sends bits

of sonic shrapnel flying in all directions.

Opsvik’s lyrical and introspective “Jan Mayen,” underscored by Wollesen’s gentle brushwork

and Taborn’s sensitive touch on piano, offers a calming breath between the more densely

unhinged encounters. Binney delivers one of his more impassioned alto solos here, gradually

building to an intense peak (reminiscent of David Sanborn’s more emotive playing with the

Gil Evans Orchestra) as the tune picks up steam. Binney’s brief “Wild Child” recalls one of

Frank Zappa’s buoyant, chamber-like ditties like “Sofa No. 2,” while “Brainstorms Pt. 2” is

an off-kilter, Devoesque interlude underscored by Wollesen’s mechanical backbeat. On the

potent closer, “Instant Distance,” Binney turns Wollesen loose for some whirlwind flailing on

the kit against a slow, deliberate ostinato played in unison by the rest of the band.

Recorded over two days last March in Frisell’s hometown of Seattle and jointly mixed by

Binney, co-producer Opsvik, and Mike Marciano at Systems Two in Brooklyn, Out of Airplanes

resonates with crystal clarity at its most precious moments and rocks with tumultuous fury at

its most dense peaks. The chemistry established on these experimental vehicles is immediate,

and the resulting music is both provocative and compelling. BM

Further Listening: Cuong Vu: It’s Mostly Residual; Richter 858: Music By Bill Frisell

strayed from subdued straight-ahead funk,

Out Louder effortlessly merges avant-jazz

and groove-oriented influences, stretching

into the free-jazz of “Miles Behind” and

the Cuban-inflected styling of “Tequila and


The foursome has clearly gained

confidence and learned to loosen up since

last meeting. Case in point is the deliciously

funky groove of “Tootie Ma is a Big Fine

Thing.” In lesser hands, this seemingly simple

jam might be dismissed as a tossed-off track.

But it’s exhilarating to hear these modernjazz

greats at play, drummer Billy Martin

serving up a Meters-inspired syncopated

New Orleans beat; bassist Chris Wood

laying down a dizzying bass line; organist

John Medeski punctuating the rhythms

with razor-sharp accents; and Scofield

snaking lithe guitar lines throughout. It’s

akin to watching master chefs concocting

sumptuous gumbo out of table scraps.

With each successive track, the quartet

utilizes a new device, sound, tone, or

direction—a touch of Memphis blues here,

a flash of psychedelia there. One moment,

Scofield is channeling Jimi Hendrix on

the space jam “What Now”; the next,

he’s reaching into his trick bag for sultry

132 December 2006 The Absolute Sound



harmonics that add luster to the Beatles’

“Julia.” Stick around for another decade to

see what the future holds.

Sonically, Out Louder is a mixed bag.

The bottom end can be a tad muddy,

especially when the bass steps into a

prominent role in the mix, as on “In

Case the World Changes Its Mind.” But

these recordings also display striking

detail; check out the melodic bass

line on “Tequila and Chocolate” or

Medeski’s crisp organ solo on “Tootie

Ma is a Big Fine Thing.” You’ll simply

need to find a happy medium on your

subwoofer or baton down the hatches.

Greg Cahill

Further Listening: John

Scofield: A Go Go; Medeski,

Martin and Wood: Note Bleu:

The Best of the Blue Note Years,


Music Editor bob

gendron’s system

BAT VK-300x integrated

amplifier; Gallo Nucleus

Reference3 loudspeakers; Rotel

RSX-1065 receiver; Sony SCD-

CE775 SACD player; Panasonic

DVD-RP91 DVD-A player;

Clearaudio Champion turntable;

Clearaudio Virtuoso Wood

cartridge; Bright Star Audio

IsoRock GR3 speaker supports;

Synergistic Research, MIT,

Monster Cable, and Audioquest

cables and interconnects;

SolidSteel 5.5 rack


Anthony Wilson Nonet:

Power of Nine.

Joe Harley, producer. Hybrid stereo.

Groove Note 1035 (SACD and two-45rpm


After two albums in a trio setting, composer,

arranger, and guitarist Anthony Wilson returns on

Power of Nine to the large-ensemble format for which

he became known on his 1997 eponymous debut.

As the son of legendary Los Angeles bandleader

Gerald Wilson, you might expect that bop-based

jazz and richly-textured charts run in his blood. And

you’d be right.

Wilson, who also commands a clean, Wes

Montgomery-influenced guitar style, is tasteful and

innovative in his approach to material that ranges

from the swing of Duke Pearson’s “Make it Good”

to the ballad “I and Though,” one of two tracks

from Wilson’s four-song Tokyo Wednesday suite (the other is the exhilarating “Melatonin

Dream”). Diana Krall lends a breathy vocal to Cheryl Ernst/Jimmy Rowles’ ”Looking

Back,” a wistful remembrance of childhood. It’s a prime example of Wilson’s knack for

writing charts that embrace a melody, and allowing it to breathe on a bed of harmonic


Such arranging abilities come to fore on the four-song “Quadra” suite, which forms

the heart of this release’s largely laidback Sunday-afternoon mood. Each piece is designed

to stand on its own, though each is linked to the others through metric modulations,

harmonic inventions of Ivan Lins, and melodic themes inspired by Brazilian New Year

holiday traditions. The pieces also serve as a chance for the eight musical guests to step

out and solo.

Power of Nine packs plenty of audiophile credentials. Started by Classic Records cofounder

Ying Tan, Groove Note was one of a handful of labels to participate in Sony’s

early SACD pilot program. For a nonet, it’s amazing how well the instruments lay out

on the soundstage, uncluttered but vibrant, with the intimacy of a house concert. The

bell-like tone of Gilbert Castellanos’ trumpet, the punch of Darek “Oles” Oleszkiewski’s

bass, and the sparkle of drummer Mark Ferber’s ride cymbal all are there. Power of Nine

also is available as a deluxe, 180-gram, 45rpm double-LP set that further opens the

soundstage and showcases the players with an even greater clarity. GC

Further Listening: Anthony Wilson Trio: Savity; Various: True Audiophile:

The Best of Groove Note

134 December 2006 The Absolute Sound



Paganini: Violin

Concerto No. 1.

Spohr: Violin Concerto No. 8.

Hilary Hahn, violin; Swedish Radio

Symphony Orchestra, Eiji Oue,

conductor. Thomas Frost, producer;

Jürgen Bulgrin, engineer. Deutsche

Grammophon 289 477 6232.

Though Hilary Hahn impressed as a teenager,

her steady artistic growth in her twenties has

been especially gratifying. After a disc of wellplayed

Mozart sonatas, Hahn was ready to let

some sparks fly, and this release of concertos

by two nineteenth-century violin virtuosos

certainly fits the bill. But while Hahn’s

technique is more securely dazzling than ever,

musical considerations come first.

That’s a good thing because, at close to

forty minutes, the Paganini concerto can wear

thin if it registers only as a series of hurdles

for the soloist to overcome. With Hahn, the

piece can be enjoyed both for the pyrotechnics

and as music. Even the most jaw-dropping

passage work has shape and a musical point.

The violinist’s effortlessly produced harmonics

sound as a natural extension to the rest of her

instrument’s range—identical in strength and

tonal character to her “natural” notes. The

cadenza, by Émile Sauret, could serve as a

recital encore piece in and of itself.

Ludwig Spohr’s Concerto No. 8 was a

favorite of Jascha Brodsky, Hahn’s principal

teacher at the Curtis Institute. It’s more modest

and intimate in scale; the entire concerto is

shorter than the Paganini’s opening movement.

Still, the work is a virtuoso vehicle nonetheless,

requiring stylish and confident execution

to succeed. Hahn delivers. She’s especially

wonderful in the singing central Adagio,

carefully shading dynamics so that the melodic

line has a flowing, spontaneously developing

organicity. Oue and the Stockholm orchestra

don’t have any great demands placed upon

them here, but provide solid support. Sonically,

the solo violin is positioned forward but isn’t

oversized. The extraordinary beauty of Hahn’s

tone—sweet, focused, without overwrought

vibrato—is honestly reproduced.

Hahn’s busy touring schedule for the

upcoming season includes performances

of the Dvorák, Goldmark, and Korngold

concertos. One only hopes that all of these

will make it to disc. Andrew Quint

Further Listening: Khachaturian/

Prokofiev/Glazunov: Violin Concertos

(Julia Fischer) (SACD); Brahms/

Stravinsky: Violin Concertos (Hahn)

Leon Fleisher:

the journey.

Music by Bach, Mozart,

Chopin, Stravinsky, Beethoven. Leon

Fleisher, piano. Grace Row, producer;

Charles Harbutt, engineer. Vanguard

Classics 1796.

The journey is another reminder of how much

Leon Fleisher was missed during his longenforced

absence from two-handed piano

playing before his miraculous recovery from

focal dystonia. Time has ripened his art and,

like his earlier Vanguard disc, this recital is an

indispensable addition to a discography that

includes some of the finest piano recordings

of the past half-century.

Bach is represented by the Capriccio,

“On the Departure of a Brother,” and the

Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, both played with

technical aplomb and a knowing combination



Extraordinary Excellent Good Fair Poor

136 December 2006 The Absolute Sound



of thoughtfulness and vivacity. In the fugues

of both pieces, Fleisher’s even runs, precise

trills, and clarification of the work’s strands

are unimpeachable. The Capriccio, often played

with theatricality, is given its programmatic due

but treated with understated wit—the piano’s

mimicking of the posthorn effective without

undue emphasis as the basis of the fugue

and not as a climax. Mozart’s early gem, the

Sonata in E-flat Major, K. 282, gets a flowing

performance notable for the characterization

of the middle movement’s contrasting dances

and the gravity of the opening Adagio.

Chopin’s lovely Berceuse won’t erase memories

of Moravec or Rubinstein, replacing their

Romanticism with more objectified emotion.

The lone “modern” entry is Stravinsky’s

neo-classic Serenade in A, an unfairly neglected

four-movement work. Fleisher brings a touch

of Lisztian declamation to the opening of the

imposing Hymne and plenty of charm to the

rest, adopting a dry-wine timbre that perfectly

suits it. The recital closes with a Beethoven

Bagatelle, Fur Elise, which Fleisher makes into a

fetching lesson in pacing, rhythmic suppleness,

and gorgeous legato, turning this salon staple

into an endless stream of melody. A bonus

interview disc is also included.

First-rate sonics convey Fleisher’s beautiful

tone and wide range of dynamic and timbral

shadings with warm realism, the sparkling

treble notes rich with overtones and the bass

solid. The engineering is close-up enough to

occasionally capture the sound of fingers on

the keys while also putting some air around the

instrument. A must-have. Dan Davis

Further Listening: Fleisher: Beethoven

Piano Concertos; Fleisher: Two Hands

Beethoven: Piano

Concertos Nos. 3

and 4.

Leon Fleisher, piano; Cleveland

Orchestra, George Szell, conductor.

Charles Harbutt, reissue producer;

Howard H. Scott, original producer.

Sony 78767.

Mozart: Symphonies

Nos. 28, 33 and

35. Eine Kleine

Nachtmusik; Overture to Le

Nozze di Figaro.

Cleveland Orchestra, George Szell,

conductor. Andreas Meyer, reissue

producer; Paul Myers, Howard H.

Scott, and Andrew Kazdin, original

producers. Sony 78765.

Earlier this year, Sony Classical re-launched its

“Great Performances” mid-price CD reissue

series with new remasterings using the Direct

Stream Digital process and a slate of material new

to disc. Comes now the second wave of 10 titles,

featuring Leonard Bernstein’s iconic Beethoven

Fifth with the New York Philharmonic, the

world-premiere recording of Shostakovich’s Cello

Concerto No. 1 (with Mstislav Rostropovich

joining Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia

Orchestra), and a generous offering of chestnuts

from George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra.

The bounty includes Szell’s outstanding Brahms

First with the Clevelanders, the Mendelssohn

Violin Concerto with Zino Francescatti, and the

two discs up for review here.

It is good to see Leon Fleisher’s accounts

of the Beethoven piano concertos among the

new releases, and to hear them sounding as

if they were newly minted. Fleisher’s playing

is fluent, noble, and technically impeccable (if

not particularly theatrical), while Szell and his

band provide a fine-hewn accompaniment that

is buttoned-down almost to a fault, perfectly

suiting the soloist’s poised approach. The

Mozartean grace these interpreters achieve in

the outer movements of both works suggests

a determination not to overplay the drama

latent in Beethoven’s vigorous reworking of

the Classical model, yet the music making is

far from detached—both slow movements are

emotionally riveting.

Bartók: Mikrokosmos.

Jen Jandó, piano. Ibolya Tóth, producer; János Bohus, engineer. Naxos 8.557821-22

(two CDs).

For years, Jen Jandó has been the house pianist at Naxos. He’s done cycles of Mozart, Beethoven, and Liszt along with a

variety of other fare, much of it excellent, all of it respectable. His portfolio already includes a handful of discs devoted

to the music of his countryman Béla Bartók. Here he turns to what is certainly the most familiar of Bartók’s solo piano

works, the six books of progressive piano pieces known as Mikrokosmos. Anyone who has studied piano during the past

60 years has encountered this compendium, and learned to either love it or hate it.

The 153 pieces, a 20th-century Gradus ad Parnassum, begin with simple unison exercises and ascend through various technical difficulties—

involving intervals, chords, ostinatos, syncopations, contrary motion, modal scales, and assorted rhythmic and metric complications—to fully

realized virtuosity in the closing pieces of Book VI. Yet already by the concluding piece of Book I, “Free Canon,” you know this music could

only be by Bartók and nobody else. And by the first piece in Book V, “Chords Together and in Opposition,” you know you’ve arrived at bigleague

Bartók. The way Jandó plays it here sends a thrill of admiration through the wrists of this writer, who would have loved to be able to

dispatch it so dashingly.

Throughout this transit of Mikrokosmos, Jandó presents each exercise as a musical gesture, without wringing too much out of the notes or

dryly going through the motions. Even in the simplest of the pieces in Book I, he attends carefully to the shaping of sound, while in the most

challenging pieces from the later books, particularly the ones set in compound Bulgarian rhythms, he’s as steady as a spinning top. (If you think

it’s only budding pianists who have to contend with the Bulgarian stuff, listen to the scherzo of Bartók’s String Quartet No. 5, and observe four

grown men struggling to keep from going off the rails.)

The recorded sound is as direct as the playing—a solid, pleasantly dry studio sound that makes no attempt at mimicking a recital hall

ambience, and is exactly right for the music. Mezzo-soprano Tamara Takács provides the vocals for songs in Books II, III, and V, and pianist

Balázs Szokolay does the honors as second pianist in the two-piano pieces sprinkled through the collection. Ted Libbey

Further Listening: Bartók: Out of Doors, Ten Easy Pieces, Allegro barbaro (Jandó); Bartók: String Quartets (Emerson Quartet)

138 December 2006 The Absolute Sound



Sonically, Sony’s single-bit remastering totally

surpasses the job it did with this material the

first time around on CD, in 1987. The bass is

firmed, the midrange much more detailed, and

the high end considerably opened up. The new

remastering delivers a more spacious image

and a meatier texture, with winds sounding

clearly and real pop on the timpani; the piano

is much more present. For Concerto No. 3,

recorded in 1961, the result seems little short

of a revelation. The sound for Concerto No. 4,

recorded in 1959, is nearly as much improved.

Much the same good news can be reported

for the Mozart selection even though the

opening attack in the first movement of

Symphony No. 28 has been partially cut

off. After all these years, one still marvels at

the ensemble, balance, and articulation Szell

and Cleveland brought to Mozart. Now it’s

possible to marvel at the beauty of their sound

as well. Once again, the older recordings—the

1958 Figaro overture and the 1960 Haffner

Symphony—remain slightly grainy, with the

violins prone to an acidulous edge in forte.

The newer ones, Symphonies Nos. 33 and 28

(from 1962 and 1965, respectively) and Eine

kleine Nachtmusik (recorded in 1968), sound

wonderful. The improvement over Sony’s

1991 20-bit remastering of this material is

striking. TL

Further Listening: Brahms: Piano

Concertos (Fleisher, Szell); Mozart:

Piano Concertos (Casadesus, Szell)

Gabriela Montero:

Bach and Beyond.

David Groves, producer; Jonathan

Allen, engineer. EMI 64647.

Here’s a different kind of crossover CD.

Instead of a classically trained singer trashing

pop songs, a formidable classical pianist

improvises on Bach themes. It comes with

the trappings of the crossover genre: plenty

of photos, including a cover showing a comehither-looking

Gabriela Montero draped over

the arm of a couch; an interview about how

much fun it is to improvise; and the mandatory

justification about connecting with audiences

and helping them get into classical music.

Montero is a prodigiously gifted pianist, a

protégé of Martha Argerich and a prizewinner

whose earlier EMI recital was well-received.

She demonstrates a facile technique, sturdy

tonal resources, and rhythmic zest. But what

we have here is a Bach soufflé prepared by a

Michelin-starred chef who whips a dollop of

Bach, touches of Latin-American rhythms, a

little Rachmaninoff, some Art Tatum, and a

dash of silent-movie-style music into a neat

dish of cocktail-lounge pianism that tickles

the palate without satisfying the appetite.

The pianist’s take on Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,

familiar from arrangements played by Lipatti,

Kempff, and others, is nicely done but other

slower works—such as her improvisation on

the D minor keyboard concerto’s Adagio—

feature an aimlessly languid lyricism that

outlasts its interest. Typical of her freestyle

approach is the Air from Suite No. 3, where

140 December 2006 The Absolute Sound

she vamps like a torch singer at the opening

and then picks up the tempo to run through

a series of Baroque-tinged variations with

puckish humor. The Air from the Goldberg

Variations begins with directionless doodling

before settling into sprightly, light-fingered

variations that lead to a much-decorated

statement of the theme and a coda with more

than a whiff of ragtime.

The engineering is true to her sound,

which can get edgy, and encompasses her

wide dynamic range, from the powerful

opening of the D minor Toccata BWV 565

to the wispiness of the slower pieces. It’s

also well-detailed, as in the fleet-fingered

articulation of the Italian Concerto’s Presto.

But for spiced-up Bach, stick with Jacques

Loussier. DD

Further Listening: Montero: Recital;

Jacques Loussier: Plays Bach

Sting: Songs from

the Labyrinth.

Music by John Dowland. Edin

Karamazov, lute. Sting and

Karamazov, producers; Donal

Hodgson, engineer. Deutsche

Grammophon 06025 170 3139.

Who knew Gordon Matthew Sumner,

known to the multitudes as Sting, plays the

lute. I carefully checked my old Police LPs

for lute credits. Nothing. It turns out that

Sting is fairly new to the instrument. A few

years back, a member of his band gave him

a gift of a custom-made nine-course lute and

now the rock star has released a disc of music

by English Renaissance composer John


Actually, most of the lute playing here

comes courtesy of the Serbian musician Edin

Karamazov, who served as a mentor to Sting.

Karamazov’s playing is the best part of this

release, and a little hyperkinetic for some

tastes—he’s no Paul O’Dette or Anthony

Rooley—but accomplished and propulsive.

Sting plays only in the background beneath his

portentous recitation of excerpts from a 1595

letter Dowland wrote to Queen Elizabeth’s

Secretary of State, and in one duet. But the

vocals are all Sting, and Elizabethan airs are

not his strong suit.

His Dowland is at once anachronistically

overblown and strangely flat and

unresponsive to the texts. He sees Dowland

as “an archetype…of the alienated singersongwriter”

but these performances lack

the sense of profound introspection that

so many others have brought to the music.

Compare Sting’s version of “In darkness let

me dwell” to that by the late Alfred Deller.

The latter’s quiet, soulful rendition has plenty

of emotional range but seems directed to one

or two listeners—maybe just to himself on a

moonless, desperate night. Sting’s playing to an

arena-sized crowd; his phrasing is frequently

coarse and his shaping of the songs awkward.

Worse are the couple of partsongs on which

he overdubs all the voices; these come off

dangerously close to bad 70s art-rock.

The sound is very close up and aggressive,

airless with harsh vocal sibilants and too much

extraneous noise from the lutenist sliding and

scraping the strings of his instrument. A bad

idea, poorly executed. AQ

Further Listening: Dowland: Airs &

Partsongs (Deller Consort); Dowland:

Honey from the Hive (Kirkby/Rooley)


December 2006 The Absolute Sound 141



Symphony No. 11,

Classical SACD

“The Year 1905.”

WDR Symphony Orchestra,

Cologne, Semyon Bychkov, conductor.

François Eckert, producer; Christoph Gronarz, engineer. Hybrid multichannel.

Avie 2062.

Eleni Karaindrou:

Elegy of the


Manfred Eicher, producer. ECM New

Series 0007327.

Color her blue. In her first concert recording

for ECM, Greek composer and pianist Eleni

Karaindrou seamlessly weaves samples

of her sad but beautiful film and stage

music from 13 scores spanning 22 years,

producing a stunning career retrospective

that transcends genre. The result is a wholly

new body of work that she calls Elegy of

the Uprooting. It is a remarkable, almost

otherworldly, showcase for her intensely

moving songs of love and loss.

At the heart of this

sprawling elegy is

haunting music from

two of Karaindrou’s

best-known works

The two-disc set, recorded over three

nights in Athens during spring 2005, enlists

110 musicians and singers. Those include

the Camerata Orchestra, conducted by

Alexandros Myrat; a traditional instruments

ensemble; the Hellenic Radio/Television

Choir, under the direction of Antonis

Kontogeorgiou; and singer Maria Farantouri.

Karaindrou has had a long association

with several musicians that appear here,

some having recorded with her for two

decades. Indeed, she and Farantouri briefly

performed in a folk group in the 1960s and

it was Farantouri—who would go on to

become one of Greece’s best-loved singers

Shostakovich: Symphony No.7, “Leningrad.”

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Mariss Jansons,

conductor. Everett Porter, producer and engineer. Hybrid multichannel.

RCO Live 06002.

As the Shostakovich centenary year winds down, we get two more recordings of two

of the composer’s most popular and programmatic symphonies. But what were the

programs The Seventh Symphony, ecstatically received at home and in the West at the

time of its creation during World War II, was assumed to depict the siege of Leningrad—

the invasion of the Germans, their engagement by the Red Army, and, in the finale,

the Motherland’s glorious victory. But others hear the work instead as a retrospective

look at the Stalinist horrors of the 1930s. Likewise, the Eleventh, composed in 1957,

has movement titles that quite specifically refer to events in January of 1905, when the

Czar’s soldiers massacred hundreds of protesters in front of the Winter Palace in St.

Petersburg (soon to be Leningrad). Many detect in this piece a commentary on the brutal

suppression of the 1956 popular uprising in Hungary.

Mariss Jansons and the Concertgebouw

provide a glimpse of how these symphonies

might be viewed in 50 years, at a distance

from the tumultuous events of the twentieth

century, devoid of any particular political

program. The conductor implores us—in the

notes and, especially, with his performance—

to listen to the Seventh, “with its enormous

range of emotions and experiences,” as we

would a Mahler symphony. Janson’s reading

may be less cinematic than others but is no

less exciting. Relieved of the requirement

to continually maintain a pressure-cooker

atmosphere, the two inner movements serve

as a contrasting respite from the turmoil of

the first and fourth. The Adagio, in particular,

achieves a late Mahler-like stillness that nicely sets up the finale. The symphony’s closing

pages are knowingly paced for a grandly exhilarating finish that isn’t overblown, as it so

often is.

With a less rewarding outcome, Semyon Bychkov—another distinguished Russian

conductor leading a fine non-Russian orchestra—also minimizes the film-score nature

of the Eleventh Symphony. At a tad over 59 minutes, this is one of the fastest recordings

around (13 minutes shorter than Mstislav Rostropovich’s absorbing Eleventh on LSO

Live). The opening movement, “The Palace Square,” sounds rushed, missing the hushed

expectancy of competing versions; Shostakovich’s heartrending setting of the Russian

song “You fell as victims” in movement III also seems hurried and underinflected. The

finale, “Toscin,” is more successful, possessing the defiant streak it needs to bring the

work to an adrenaline-producing conclusion.

The RCO Live recording is big, bold, clear, and detailed, the 5.0 surround program

offering a near-holographic presentation of the musicians on stage. There’s excellent

delineation of the smallest dynamic gradients and, particularly in multichannel, the sound

holds together well at the first movement’s gigantic climax. The performance derives

from two January 2006 concerts at the Concertgebouw given before exceptionally quiet

audiences. For Bychkov, Avie’s sonics are best at the lower end of the spectrum, with

beautiful instrumental timbres; the firmly played muted trumpets in “The Palace Square”

are an example. But louder passages can get a bit aggressive in an old-fashioned digital

kind of way if the SACD is played at anything approaching lease-breaking levels, as

Shostakovians are oft inclined to do. AQ

Further Listening: Shostakovich: Symphony No. 7 (Bernstein/Chicago);

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 11 (Rostropovich/LSO) (SACD)

142 December 2006 The Absolute Sound



during the reign of that nation’s military

junta—who encouraged Karaindrou to

pursue composition.

At the heart of this sprawling elegy is

haunting music from two of Karaindrou’s

best-known works, The Weeping Meadow

(originally written for Theo Angelopoulos’

2003 film of the same name) and Trojan

Women (written for K.X. Myris’ 2002

adaptation of the classic play by Euripides),

both dealing with themes of parting and

expatriation. Karaindrou has commented

that the stories tell the same tale; they’re just

set 2500 years apart. This is interspersed

with music from film scores such as Eternity

and a Day, Ulysses’ Gaze, Landscape in the Mist,

and Happy Homecoming. Karaindrou paints

a broad canvas while working with a rich

palette of styles and instrumentation. The

opening “Prayer” is an expansive choral

benediction, softly pleading over a sustained

string section that is punctuated by quiet

spaces and the unadorned colors of a folksy

Constantinople lyra, French horn, harp,

and accordion. The sparsely arranged track

sets the tone for the melancholia of the

entire work, music that tugs on the heart

strings with an endless array of mournful


For a live recording, Elegy of the Uprooting

has a full-bodied but uncluttered sound with

impressive separation of the 110 singers and

instruments on stage, especially Karaindrou’s

piano. Greg Cahill

Further Listening: Kim Kashkashian:

Music of Komitas and Tigran

Mansurian; Jan Garbarek: In Praise of


Mozart: Zaide.

Soloists; Concentus

Musicus Wien, Nikolaus

Harnoncourt, conductor.

Friedemann Engelbrecht, producer;

Michael Brammann, engineer.

Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 82876


Zaide is a misbegotten venture that founders

on multiple levels. Mozart’s unfinished

singspiel is burdened by generic, uninteresting

music, making it a one-aria work though

that aria, Ruhe sanft, is irresistible. The story

doesn’t help. Spunky European girl held

captive in a harem. European slave boy

revolts. Girl meets boy. They fall in love.

Their goal is freedom. Brutal Sultan’s goal

is to behead them. End of story. Mozart

dumped the work, replacing it in 1781

with another “Turkish” opera, the comic

masterpiece Die Entführung aus dem Serail,

whose characters display the humanity

missing in Zaide.

Yet what ultimately sinks this set is the

extended narration written and performed

by Tobias Moretti. Instead of replacing the

now-lost spoken dialogue with a summary

that advances the narrative, Moretti

interprets the drama, supposedly making it

relevant to our times. Smugly pushing his

own slanted political viewpoint, he harangues

the audience rather than enlightening it,

though he does give a good Hitler imitation.

Fortunately, his rants are separately tracked.

Skip them.

If Moretti takes Mozart’s opera fragment

as a blank page for scribbling, Harnoncourt

takes it as a challenge to infuse the music

with life. His overture is an earlier Sinfonia by

Mozart, played with biting strings, buoyant

rhythm, and precise articulation, making you

want to hear more, a hope quickly dashed by

an extended narration and a banal prisoners’

chorus. The vibrant orchestral playing is

full of verve and appetizing detail, a lesson

in making something from nothing. The

singing is on a lesser level, though acceptable.

Diana Damrau is the Zaide, disappointing in

a strained Ruhe sanft but improving later.

Made at concert performances in 2006,

the recording initially places the singers

within the orchestra, lending distance and

a touch of the opaque to Damrau’s Ruhe

sanft. But balances soon improve and there’s

more presence to the sound, which captures

the space and air of Vienna’s Musikverein.

Nevertheless, Mozart would be better served

with a single disc of excerpts instead of this

mess. DD

Further Listening: Mozart: Zaide

arias (Dessay); Mozart: Die

Entführung aus dem Serail (Böhm)

144 December 2006 The Absolute Sound



Symphonies. Giuseppe Verdi

Symphony Orchestra of Milan, Oleg

Caetani, conductor. Producer and

engineer uncredited. Arts 47850-8 (10

hybrid SACDs).

Among the noteworthy Shostakovich releases

in this centenary year of his birth is a box

set of the complete symphonies on a small

German label led by a little-known conductor

and played by an equally little-known Italian

orchestra. However, these forces combine

for one of the better complete Shostakovich

symphony sets.

The obscure credentials aren’t as disqualifying as they might appear at first sight. Conductor

Oleg Caetani, for example, has a growing European reputation, and directs the Melbourne

Symphony as well as these Milan players. His Russian bona fides include being the son of the

late composer-conductor Igor Markevitch (he takes his mother’s name), study with conductor

Kiril Kondrashin, and a St. Petersburg Conservatory diploma. If the orchestra isn’t in the same

league as the big guns, it’s a very capable outfit, playing with intense concentration and lacking

the slickness that can affect more renowned outfits. Led and trained by Riccardo Chailly, it

works with many top conductors.

Caetani began this live Shostakovich cycle in December 2000 with the Seventh (“Leningrad”

Symphony) and ended it with the Fourteenth in June 2006. Four of the ten hybrid discs in the

box set are newly released and comprise seven of the fifteen symphonies. Of course, complete

sets are never definitive. Since any large body of work benefits from different interpretive

viewpoints, there will always be some hits and misses for individual listeners. That said,

nothing here is less than adequate, some rank among the best performances, and even those

that don’t include aspects worth hearing.

What separates Caetani’s set from the

pack, aside from the fine sonics, is the

intensity of much of the playing, the

power of his climaxes, and his attention

to lyric passages

What separates Caetani’s set from the pack, aside from the fine sonics, is the intensity of

much of the playing, the power of his climaxes, and his attention to lyric passages, which

come off with plenty of delicacy, itself relatively rare in performances of this composer. In

general, he takes flowing tempos that don’t dawdle; his Eighth will startle with the fastest first

movement I’ve ever heard. But there are exceptions, like the last movement of the 15th and

the Largo of the Eighth, which misfire with tempos that drag. Caetani’s versions of Nos. 1,

4, 5, 6, and 11 are near the top in my estimation, while those of Nos. 9, 13 (“Babi Yar”), the

death-haunted 14, and the enigmatic 15 are above much of the competition. If his Nos. 2, 3,

7, and 12 didn’t do much for me, no one else’s have either. Despite often wonderful playing

(low strings and wind solos are first-rate) there are occasional rough spots, inescapable in live

concert performances.

The engineering is impressive, with close-up, impactful sound and enough hall resonance to

indicate the orchestra’s Milan Auditorium is a fine venue. Arts says no dynamic compression

is used and I believe it since the ravishing pianissimos are in realistic proportion to the huge

climaxes, while solo turns within the orchestra are never outsized. Given the time span over

which these performances were recorded, there are small variations from disc to disc, but all

are prime examples of the warm, natural sound of a large orchestra in a good hall. My one

reservation concerns the occasional recessed quality of trumpets and high percussion on some

discs; on others, those xylophones Shostakovich favored cut through the orchestra with power

and trumpets blare forth unimpeded. I listened in both Red Book CD and SACD stereo,

but cannot comment on the multichannel aspect of the sound. All considered, a stimulating

set. DD

Further Listening: Shostakovich: Complete Symphonies (Barshai); Complete

Symphonies (Haitink)

December 2006 The Absolute Sound 145


Rock etc.

sunnO))) & Boris:


sunnO))) and Boris, producers.

Southern Lord/SUNN 62 (CD, limited

two-CD, and three-LP).

Something wicked this way has come. Pairing

two of music’s heavyweight experimentalists,

Altar is a collaboration in the truest sense of

the term—a sensory-numbing capitulation

to the power wrought by amplifier, guitar,

drum, and volume, written, executed, and

performed by sunnO))) and Boris. It arrives

as interest in both groups has reached fever

pitch, the timely result of increased exposure,

tandem touring, and overdue recognition of

their boundary-burning craft.

Led by Greg Anderson, owner of the

burgeoning Southern Lord label, sunnO)))

emerged in the late 90s, its initial albums

expounding upon the rough drone fields

explored by Earth. Named in tribute to the

now-defunct SUNN Amplifier company,

the duo wears druid robes, generally forgoes

vocals, and plays at volumes that make

standing next to a thrusting jet engine a

relaxing occasion. Gradually having attracted

a loyal, still-growing following, the Los

Angelinos’ surging influence can be directly

traced to their artistic maturation. SunnO)))

scaled new heights on last year’s Black One,

an ambient work that eviscerates the lines

between art-rock, trance, metal, minimalism,

and the avant-garde.

Boris pursues similarly unconventional

paths, the veteran trio’s output ranging from

soil-shoveling sludge to wallpaper-melting

noise to tuneful garage-rock, all touched

upon on the recent Pink, to date the band’s

most accessible and representative release.

Analogous to fellow Japanese peers Keiji



Extraordinary Excellent Good Fair Poor

148 December 2006 The Absolute Sound


Rock etc.

Haino and Acid Mothers Temple, Boris prides

itself on adapting to varying approaches and

chameleon styles. Adding to the intrigue are

its highly sought-after, limited-pressing discs

that document everything from drum-free

concerts to arthouse-film soundtracks.

Altar contains elements of each act’s

trademark sounds, and in step with both

artists’ mindsets, forages into unexpected,

fresh-growth areas of the black forest.

The sonic experience is equivalent

to that of a deep-sea expedition, the

contrasting compositions evoking sunless

environments where predators lurk in

search of gruesomely camouflaged prey,

the netherworld a mysterious place where

struggles for survival occur amidst serene

beauty. Boris and sunnO)))’s shared love of

frequency-diving, bottomless bass, resonant

feedback, and endless decay are the common

denominators in creating ominously bleak

and deceptively hypnotic landscapes.

The foremost movement of the opening

“Etna” functions as an awakening of a

slumbering beastie, waves of rust-decaying

chords humming in the background before

teaming for a flurry of action. The entrance

of chain-rattling effects, drum volleys, and

smashed gongs stir what’s escalated to a

battle for warrior supremacy, the bloodbath

ending after a distortion bomb sails in from

overhead and destroys its target. Conversely,

“N.L.T.” delivers mystical enchantment via

tonal vibration, the eerily floating drifts

recalling a priest waving an incense-filled

canister as he walks between pews. Akin

to reports of aliens landing in a cornfield,

the music feels invisible and yet leaves a

decidedly distinctive imprint.

Such understated tactics continue

on “The Sinking Belle (Blue Sheep”), a

gorgeously barren free-folk ballad that

may jolt fans accustomed to the artists’

probing of the other extreme. Guest Jesse

Sykes’ breathily soft singing is ethereal as it

hovers over carefully picked notes, reflective

piano passages, and a space-capsule-travel

score that may be the ghostliest piece ever

performed by musicians celebrated for their

wraithlike sound. The sheet-metal-flattening

“Akuma No Kuma” is also graced by

vocals, though Joe Preston’s are psychedelic

and filtered through a vocoder, befitting a

suffocating composition that marches like

Darth Vader. The sound of steaming lava

crawling down a mountainside, “Blood

150 December 2006 The Absolute Sound

Swamp” is a classic meeting of two forces:

Boris’ phlanged licks play off of sunnO)))’s

groaning blues in an inspired display of

seismic riffing and methodical control; the

ampere-rich currents impede the reluctant

tempo flow, inducing wintry chills.

Sonically, Altar thrives on juice. SunnO)))’s

dependence on texture, build, sustain,

vibration, and wattage ensure that the

recording is crammed with inner details and

eggshell subtleties. Increasing the volume to

maximum levels reveals a literal physicality

and visceral punch that plumb subterranean

regions of the low end, while howling

frequencies force one to wonder how many

amplifiers were required to produce such a

storm. There’s not much of a high end, but

midrange, depth, and impact are stunning

enough that the listener may want earplugs

at the ready and furniture bolted to the

floor. Suffice it to say that Southern Lord’s

impeccable vinyl pressings rival the very best

in the biz.

Bob Gendron

Further Listening: Fushitsusha: Live;

Earth: Earth 2

TV on the Radio:

Return to Cookie


David Andrew Sitek, producer.

Interscope 7466.

TV on the Radio’s sophomore album is as

terrifying as it is ambitious, drifting through

the aftermath of massive floods and

bombed-out war zones. “Try to breath, as

the world disintegrates” sing Kyp Malone,

Tunde Adebimpe, and guest David Bowie

on a show-stopping “Province.” “Hold your

heart...as we walk into this dark place.”

The Brooklyn-based band heightens this

anxiety with a psychedelic wall of sound;

guitars rise like 20-foot storm surges;

keyboards mimic trains careening off-track;

drums hit with the impact of bunker-busting

warheads. Album opener “I Was a Lover”

sets this anything-goes tone, combining

Middle Eastern strings, muted horns, and

waves of electronic feedback that buzz like

highway traffic.

This is the effort many expected of the

quintet after it stormed out of the gate in

2003 with the Young Liars EP, a stunning

debut that found the collective mixing

and matching genres with surprising ease;

witness the gospel-inflected, a cappella

cover of the Pixies’ “Mr.Grieves.” The act’s

first full-length, the disappointing Desperate

Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes, was a significantly

tamer affair, as if the constant accolades

had drained the band of its ambition. Cookie

Mountain is a dramatic return to form, the

band dabbling in everything from drone

rock to afropop to psychedelia. Adebimpe

and Malone still sound like an interstellar

barbershop quartet, their voices intertwining

to create harmonies that are at once

beautiful and unsettling—a feeling now

matched by the music. “A Method” begins

with handclaps and a lonesome whistle

before piling on howling voices, stampeding

drums, and an unnerving spectral chime that

resonates like the warning bell at a railroad

crossing. “Let the Devil In” is a rumble in

a junkyard. “Wolf Like Me,” all propulsive

drums and the hornet-swarm guitar, is a

midnight drive through a seedy underworld.

The production matches this dark, dense

feel, the separation between instruments

sometimes blurring to the point that none

exists. The decision seems deliberate,

tensions building as instruments rise and

fall. On one song the drums disintegrate

into static; on the next they connect with

drywall-pulverizing authority. The feverish

sonic backdrop wisely cocoons the rich

vocal harmonies, almost suggesting that

hope can flourish even amidst destruction

and decay. Andy Downing

Further Listening: Brian Eno: Taking

Tiger Mountain (By Strategy); The

Beta Band: The Three EPs

Bound Stems:

Appreciation Night.

Tim Sandusky, Evan Sult, producers.

Flameshovel 037.

The emergence of interesting new rock

bands continues unabated. While no one

knows which ones will endure, it’s sure fun

hitching along for the ride. The latest to grab

my attention is the Chicago-based quintet

Bound Stems. On Appreciation Night, the


Rock etc.


of the Issue


Newsom: Ys.

Newsom and Van Dyke Parks,

producers. Drag City 303 (CD

and two-LP).

The harp has never enjoyed a large role

in popular music. But Joanna Newsom

has other ideas. On her sophomore

Ys (pronounced “ees”), they involve

arranger Van Dyke Parks, a 32-piece

orchestra, recording engineer Steve

Albini, and jack-of-all-trades Jim

O’Rourke. The rich results justify the

murderer’s row lineup of talent.

Newsom was reared by a family

steeped in the arts and at a young age, began folding South American, jazz, and pop

influences into a folk-hued playing technique. After issuing two EPs and attracting

interest after opening for acclaimed acts such as Cat Power and Will Oldham, she

landed with cutting-edge label Drag City. Released in 2004, Newsom’s The Milk-Eyed

Mender has become one of the three best-selling albums in the imprint’s history—no

small change given its roster.

While Newsom performed with minimal support on her debut, her latest album

comes with an ambitious instrumental base that includes strings, woodwinds, brass,

dulcimer, marimba, banjo, percussion, accordion, bass, and electric guitar. After laying

down the harp and vocal parts with Albini, she started collaborating with Parks, who

wanted final versions to which he could refer for precise arrangements. The decision

was necessitated as much by Newsom’s improvisational style as Parks’ perfectionist

view that every move she made would influence his score.

And Newsom makes plenty of motions throughout Ys, her whimsical voice treading

the line between small child and spirited princess. She rolls vowels, swishes words like

mouthfuls of wine, and pronounces syllables with an accent that belongs to an era

hundreds of years bygone—her fluttering timbre both majestic and impossibly pure.

Four of her five thoroughly original songs come in just under or well above ten-minute

lengths, the compositions fittingly suiting the 26-year-old’s capricious singing, the

tracks doubling as fairy tales, nursery rhymes, film narratives, and stream-of-conscious

poetry intended for mature audiences but which could just as easily be enjoyed by a

class of kindergartners.

“Emily” is Chaucerian in reach, an ode to nature that flows along on stately harp pops,

snaps, and picks, breaking occasionally for a bluegrass graze before frolicking back to

the river. Gentle plucking persuades the animal-based morality play “Monkey & Bear”

to dance, its conclusion teeming with pathos, sympathy, and mystery. On “Sawdust

& Diamonds,” the sole solo selection here, Newsom’s arpeggio runs lend a fragile

beauty, the harp conveying bass and rhythmic figures that feed a dramatic progression.

And though it begins pensively, “Only Skin” is the equivalent of a ball of twine being

unraveled by kittens. Smog’s Bill Callahan supplies a dry baritone background vocal, a

third-person narrator who trails the star-gazing harpist. The orchestra always follows

Newsom, too, its symphonic heft and presence at times suggesting Disneyesque magic,

a pushing and pulling force that brings a fantasy world to life.

Due to its complex elements, final production of the all-analog Ys called for

spreading 40 tracks over two synchronized 24-track tape machines at Abbey Road.

O’Rourke’s mix includes a few tweaks, the outcome focusing Newsom’s spontaneous

voice and harp dead-center, the rise-and-fall of the orchestration hovering all around

and achieving the shimmering presence the artist desired. The perspective isn’t totally

faithful to what one might hear on a straight-up classical album, but this isn’t that

kind of work. What’s presented is spectacularly detailed, nuanced, and intimate—the

harp’s resonance in full bloom thanks to an allegedly ingenious miking scheme by

Albini. Newsom’s controlled spontaneity, imaginative imagery, and bar-by-bar colorshifts

pour through. The two-LP set wasn’t available at deadline, but if the gorgeoussounding

disc—complete with gold-embossed liner-note pages—and Drag City’s past

efforts are any indication, it should be the optimum medium on which this brilliant

spectacle should be experienced. BG

Further Listening: Edith Frost: It’s A Game; Fairport Convention:


152 December 2006 The Absolute Sound


Rock etc.

group’s full-length debut (an EP came out

last year), the music is as fun-loving as it is

seriously crafted. Constantly unpredictable

shifts of tempo and style merge guitars, bass,

drums, synths, keyboards, and a violin with

a trio of different vocalists. This delightful

wackiness never seems contrived or out of

place, but simply the only way it could be


Although the music is seemingly

spontaneous, two years work and countless

hours of practice are said to have gone into

this release, which runs uninterrupted over

its 15 tracks. Interspersed between story-like

tunes such as “Andover,” “Fire, Burglary,

Flood,” and “Book of Baby Names” are

snippets of sound and conversation recorded

throughout the city—at the airport, an

elevated train, a party. “Pulling on Pigtails”

has a crazy, popcorn-popper sample that

sounds lifted from an old Tom-Tom Club

LP, while the lyrics mix social observations

with references to history.

Like the music, the disc is sonically all

over the map. Unlike most rock recordings,

the perspective here is slightly recessed,

starting someplace about a foot behind the

front baffle of the speakers. At times this

lends a more natural feel to instruments,

such as the drums, which take on more

depth perspective than one normally

hears. The mix is densely textured, awash

in bouncy synths, rich rhythm guitars, and

a strongly chugging bass line. And though

the soundstage is artificial, the soundscape

is vast and exciting.

While Bound Stems has an irrepressible

pop sensibility that encompasses a huge

range of genres, its music somehow

manages to come out sounding fresh, if not

always entirely original. One thing’s for sure,

though—jaded is one thing these guys are

not. Wayne Garcia

Further Listening: Fiery Furnaces:

Blueberry Boat; The Subways:

Young For Eternity

Willie Nelson:


Ryan Adams, producer. Lost

Highway 693902 (CD and LP).

Willie Nelson doesn’t always sound fully

engaged on his recent recordings, but he’s

so affable a presence and so savvy a singer,

he can almost make a Rob Thomas song

154 December 2006 The Absolute Sound

palatable. Songbird, though, finds Nelson

fully engaged—laidback, but in the moment

and savoring it. His “Rainy Day Blues” gets

the affair off to a bluesy, boozy start. A tip

of the hat goes to producer Ryan Adams,

who brought in his edgy Cardinals band to

back Nelson (whose only “family” member

on this long player is harmonica maestro

Mickey Raphael) and wrote a song (“Blue

Hotel”) especially for the artist.

The Cardinals play with a twangy, sludgy

drive, a band on a mission, and its thick

wash of fuzzed-out guitar, gospel organ,

evocative pedal steel, and occasional gospel

choruses conjure the feel of something at

stake, resulting in Willie digging deep for

vocal nuance. He reprises a couple of his

own gems from the catalogue (including a

lovely, country tear-jerking treatment of “Sad

Songs and Waltzes” from Shotgun Willie),

treats Jerry Garcia-Robert Hunter’s “Stella

Blue” as a sad, achingly beautiful torch

song (complete with Adams punctuating

the lament with stabs of jangling, howling

guitar protestations), and brings Brechtian

drama to Leonard Cohen’s venerated

“Hallelujah,” simply by copping character

from Cohen’s own desiccated reading.

“Amazing Grace” is reimagined for the

first time in recent memory, not as a gospel

celebration of redemption but rather as an

ominous, surging, ironic blues ballad that

would be right at home in a blood-spattered

scene from one of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti


At no point does Adams call attention to

himself in the way Jack White did when he

produced Loretta Lynn’s remarkable Van

Lear Rose. Instead, Adams speaks through the

melancholy beauty of “Blue Hotel,” and via

a soundscape that is a well-balanced palette

of resonant pedal-steel moans supplemented

by note-perfect harmonica embellishments,

periodic electric guitar commentary, and a

discreet, right-there rhythm section.

If Adams and Nelson never cross each

other’s paths again, what they’ve left behind

does right by the latter’s formidable legacy.

David McGee

Further Listening: Loretta Lynn: Van

Lear Rose; The Byrds: Dr. Byrds &

Mr. Hyde

Chris Thile: How

To Grow a Woman

From the Ground.

Thile, producer. Sugar Hill 4017.

At the ripe ol’ age of 25, Chris Thile has

taken his fans on some kind of journey,

both with Nickel Creek and especially on

fascinating solo projects on which he has

challenged himself by pairing with seasoned

virtuosos on the order of Mike Marshall,

Bela Fleck, Edgar Meyer, Byron House, and

Jerry Douglas—be it doing a scintillating

one-man-band show (2004’s Deceiver) or,

on the album here, fronting a relatively

unknown bluegrass quartet and again testing

the genre’s progressive boundaries.

Thile hails How to Grow a Woman from

the Ground—the folkish title song about an

obsessive love is from L.A.-based singersongwriter,

Tom Brosseau (review, Issue

156) whom Thile is right to champion—as

his return to pure bluegrass, but he offers

an expansive definition of the form. His

original songs are cut from familiar cloth:

an instrumental breakdown that is both

traditional and progressive (the showcase

of fleet-fingered picking, “Watch ’at

Breakdown”) and somber, winsome tales

of splintered love affairs, the dissolution

of which he sees as magnifying his own

shortcomings as a companion, so much so

that when he opens himself up to a new

possibility in “I’m Yours If You Want Me,”

his acute fatalism leaves no room for the

song to be anything other than the spare

dirge it is.

Lightening up a bit, he brings rootsy

grandeur to Jack White’s recondite “Dead

Leaves and the Dirty Ground,” casting it as

a stomping, bluesy entreaty. And on Julian

Casablancas’ “Heart In a Cage,” he hears

a gospel cry where others might find only

petulance. Recorded in live takes around a

pair of mics, the music jumps out of the

speakers. The passion emanating from the

vibrant, cleanly articulated instrumental

solos and dialogues is near palpable (and


Rock etc.

especially captivating on the ebullient

Irish-flavored instrumental, “O Santo

De Polvora”), a measure of how deeply

invested everyone was in the task at hand.

Would that Thile could work out the love

thing as assuredly as he does the music his

misadventures inspires. DM

Further Listening: Jim Lauderdale &

Donna the Buffalo: Wait ‘Til Spring;

The Seldom Scene: Act I

Madeleine Peyroux:

Half the Perfect


Larry Klein, producer.

Rounder 11661-3252.

Madeleine Peyroux is a singer of a different

place and time. The Georgia-born, Parisraised

jazz stylist sings in the classic tradition

of her idols, Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith,

and seems indifferent to the vocal histrionics

and artifice of current pop divas or jazz/bigband

crossovers like Norah Jones and Jane

Monheit. Her voice is a soft sell—calming

and lilting with a winking insouciance

Marlene Dietrich would appreciate. The 32-

year-old’s retrograde persona calls to mind

late nights, basement cabarets, an audience

of eyes squinting through the blue fog of

Gaulois smoke, and pouty lips caressing the

rims of wine glasses in anticipation.

Peyroux’s Half the Perfect World follows up

Careless Love, a 2004 effort that broke her

into the mainstream with much help from

Starbucks’ stamp of approval and retailing

effort. The new record’s twelve tracks are

rooted in a jazz/folk style but tilts toward

the contemporary with covers like Tom

Waits’ “Looking For the Heart Of Saturday

Night,” Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’,”

Johnny Mercer’s “Summer Wind,” and a pair

of tracks by Leonard Cohen that include

156 December 2006 The Absolute Sound

the superb bossa-nova-accented title track.

Another standout is Peyroux’s duet with k.d.

lang of Joni Mitchell’s “River,” an intriguing

contrast of stylistic visions that underscore

the song’s ambivalent theme. Peyroux also

collaborated on four tunes with returning

producer Larry Klein and Norah Jones alum

Jesse Harris, and with Steely Dan’s Walter

Becker on the jaunty survival anthem “I’m

All Right.” She’s also reunited with her crack

core of musicians, including guitarist Dean

Parks, bassist David Piltch, and drummer

Jay Bellerose.

The sonics are tasteful, with a darker tonal

balance that seems appropriate. Sensitivity

is given to micro-dynamics and low-level

details. Peyroux’s naturalistic vocals are set

back in the soundstage, maintaining a clubby

atmospheric. The album closes with “Smile,”

complete with ukulele accompaniment, a

classic that in Peyroux’s hands expresses

the hope and optimism required to navigate

the mysterious depths of life’s waters.

Neil Gader

Further Listening: Jane Monheit:

Come Dream With Me; Norah Jones:

Come Away With Me

Solomon Burke:


Buddy Miller, producer.

Shout! Factory 10179.

During Solomon Burke’s glory years with

Atlantic in the 60s, when he carried the

great label and forged a path that led to soul

music, the one-time “Wonder Boy Preacher”

from Philadelphia brought the gospel spirit

into his secular music with a fervor matched

only by Sam Cooke and Ray Charles. In his

expressive, multitextured vocalizing was the

sound of the church and the street, and in

his emotional investment was the eternal

struggle between the flesh and the devil. His

first Atlantic hit was a cover of a country

ballad, “Just Out of Reach,” so this sojourn

to Nashville is a figurative homecoming.

The church and the street, the flesh and the

Devil, and the heart’s deepest yearnings are

all in play—sometimes all in the same tune—

on this tour de force of quintessential soul

dramaturgy in song, writ large by a largerthan-life


The music comes from the likes of

Bruce Springsteen, Don Williams, Tom

T. Hall, Dolly Parton, George Jones, Jim

Lauderdale, and Paul Kennerly; and the cast

includes the E Street Band’s Garry Tallent,

Willie Nelson’s indomitable harmonica

man Mickey Raphael, roots masters Byron

House and Sam Bush, and lap steel/pedal

steel/dobro giant Al Perkins. Parton is

formidable in shadowing Burke as he turns

her “Tomorrow Is Forever” into a hymn

of invitation. Emmylou Harris is a ghostly

presence in turning George Jones’ “We’re

Gonna Hold On” into a moment of dread

and foreboding. But in the end it is the

King who burns, whether he’s working a

deep country-blues take on a stripped-down

reconsideration of Hall’s “That’s How I Got

To Memphis” or being wickedly ironic in

his sly kiss-off of a lover who dumped him

during Williams’ “Atta Way To Go.”

In judiciously casting string sections and

full-on bands populated by players both

sympathetic and empathetic when it comes

to walking the thin line between country and

R&B, and masterfully blending acoustic and

electric textures in the soundscape, producer

Buddy Miller presents Burke in the best

possible settings to bring out the richness

of his crooning and electrifying brio of his

gospel petitioning. They don’t often make

’em like this anymore, but they made this

one, and it’s a quite a moment. DM

Further Listening: Various: Night

Train To Nashville: Music City

Rhythm & Blues, 1949-1970;

Various: White Man’s Blues

Lupe Fiasco: Lupe

Fiasco’s Food &


Soundtrakk, Prolyfic, The Neptunes,

Mike Shinoda, Kanye West, et al.,

producers. Atlantic 83960.

Hip-hop fans are in such need for artists that

have some substance to offer that they’re

often quick to embrace any up-and-coming

MC who isn’t mindlessly rapping about

drugs, guns, and sex. So it’s no surprise that

talented lyricist Lupe Fiasco has been thrust


Rock etc.

from underground sensation—thanks to

impressive performances on mixtapes,

Kanye West’s “Touch The Sky,” and other

material—to a quasi hip-hop savior, an artist

who can bring balance back to the genre.

Fiasco’s debut, the uneven Food & Liquor,

halfway lives up to its expectations. Brassy

single “Kick, Push” tells the tale of young,

ostracized skateboarders in love, while the

gripping “He Say She Say” is a touching

reach from a mother and her child to the

son’s absentee father. The wide-ranging,

strangely catchy “American Terrorist”

bashes everything from the treatment of

American Indians and blacks to American

imperialism. All demonstrate Fiasco’s talent

in taking uncomfortable issues and making

them into enjoyable songs.

Unfortunately, there are several stumbling

blocks that keep the record from reaching

its promise. The album’s “Intro” starts off

strong with a vivid, minute-long spokenword

piece about Chicago ghettos by an

unidentified female poet. But when Fiasco

pipes in with a rambling talk that vaguely

outlines his album’s objectives, it’s hardly

enticing. Similarly, “Outro,” which uses the

same synthetic orchestral beat as that of

Fiasco’s portion of “Intro,” is more than 12

minutes of the artist reciting the names of

various friends and music-industry people

who helped make Food & Liquor possible.

For those not mentioned in an extensive

laundry list, it’s an unlistenable experience

in frivolity.

In addition, much of the singing that

accompanies the sharp raps—as well as

the underdeveloped production, which

sounds amateurish and lacks force and

genuine soulful punch—seems stilted and

beneath someone of such lyrical potential.

The drawbacks result in an uneven effort

that simultaneously hints at Fiasco’s artistic

gifts and highlight his musical deficiencies.

Soren Baker

Further Listening: The Roots: The

Tipping Point; Mos Def: Black On

Both Sides

Tortoise: A Lazarus


Brendan Canty, producer. Thrill

Jockey 152 (three CDs, one DVD).

The term “post-rock” might not have been

invented to explain Tortoise, but no band

better epitomizes that ambiguous category

158 December 2006 The Absolute Sound

than said group, which gets the remix-heavy

treatment with this budget-priced, three-

CD/one-DVD retrospective. A post-grunge

band that non-dogmatic jazzers can love,

Tortoise leads the motley post-rock pack

by virtue of its longevity, sundry references,

and instrumental acuity. An aficionado can

identify a Tortoise number by the left-field

feel that erases borders between lounge,

jazz, electronica, dub, and hip-hop.

But a Tortoise project rarely boasts the

kind of consistency found in Godspeed

You Black Emperor!, the Dirty Three,

or Sigur Ros. That goes triple here. This

box eschews chronological and thematic

organization until you get to disc three,

which resurrects 1995’s out-of-print album

Rhythms, Resolutions & Clusters (plus a long-

M.I.A. Mike Watt remix), and is unified only

by the remix concept, executed by Steve

Albini, Brad Wood, Jim O’Rourke, Bundy K.

Brown, and others. A five-star commodity

for diehards who haven’t scoured record

stores and on-line auctions for its bounty of

rare singles, tour-EP and compilation tracks,

and video and TV segments—all augmented

by previously unavailable vault material—A

Lazarus Taxon (“a species that disappears,

then reappears in the fossil record”) is not

the best place to make first acquaintance

with Tortoise. For that, try 1996’s Millions

Now Living Will Never Die or 2001’s


Still, all of the collective’s signature

elements are present, including the trendresetting

vibraphones, fashionable but not

slavish drum’n’bass spasms, savvy post-Reich

pulsations and post-Buchla electronics, jazzrock

guitars and basses, dizzying sound/

dreamscapes, and nonchalantly virtuosic

turns by past (Bundy K. Brown, David

Pajo) and present (Dan Bitney, Douglas

McCombs, John McEntire, John Herndon,

and Jeff Parker) members as well as the ittakes-a-village

ethos that unites Chicago’s

cross-pollinating experimental rock and jazz


Sonics range from claustrophobically

compressed and murky, to generously

expansive and pointillistically detailed.

Though inconsistent, the mixes underscore

the compatibility of the brainy deliberation

and raw spontaneity that define Tortoise.

Derk Richardson

Further Listening: Gastr del Sol:

Camoufluer; Jaga Jazzist: The Stix

Buddy Guy: Can’t

Quit the Blues. Jerry

Rappaport, producer. Silvertone/

Legacy 81967 (three CDs, one DVD).

With a career that spans five decades,

multiple record labels, and dozens of

albums, Buddy Guy is tailor-made for

and well-deserving of a box set. Despite

limitless potential, Can’t Quit the Blues falls

short of providing a definitive overview

and showcasing Guy’s best work. Doing

the opposite of what it should, the

majority of the chronologically ordered

triple-disc compilation is devoted to the

guitarist’s late-period work and, ironically,

serves as a condensed history of the

blues’ decline into what’s mostly become

an outmoded genre.

The last surviving big-name

representative of post-World War II

blues, Guy began his run at Cobra before

heading to the same Chess Studios at

which many other fellow Chicago legends

cut their famous sides. Guy arrived later in

the game, but in time to be part of an era

when electrified volts of gritty rhythms,

cried vocals, and mussed-around backbeats

poured out of urban apartment windows

and dingy, street-level clubs. Guy’s torrid

solos and scorching licks are present

on cuts such as the iconic “First Time

I Met the Blues” as well as subsequent

Vanguard songs, i.e. 1968’s “One Room

Country Shack.” Inexplicably, such

material is colossally shortthrifted here,

likely because of licensing issues. Guy’s

depreciated work for JSP Records appears

at the end of disc one, his sentimentally

titled “DJ Play My Blues” indicative of

the artist’s increasing desperation.

The remaining bulk of the compilation

spotlights selections from Guy’s comeback


Rock etc.

albums for Silvertone—efforts that

sold well and won Grammies but which

have little of his trademark rawness,

soulful inspiration, or eyebrow-curling

magnetism. Reeling off showy histrionics

and formulaic takes, Guy becomes what

the blues had become: watered-down and

sanitized for white suburban audiences

who consumed it as genuine hooch. The

chinsy pop hooks and vanilla-flavored

superstar collaborations of “Mustang

Sally” and prophetically named “The Price

You Gotta Pay” bear little resemblance to

the adventurous, impassioned shows he

puts on every January at his hometown

Chicago club. A few cuts from Sweet Tea,

Guy’s superb return to his juke-joint roots,

break up the losing streak.

The sonics greatly vary, from the roughand-tumble

perspectives of the Chess

material to slick-backed smoothness of the

modern fare. On the former, instruments

crackle and snap even as balances fade

and drift; the latter skate by with a clean,

dimension-zapping polish that robs what

bite they had. A 40-page booklet and

performance DVD accompany a package

that should’ve offered much more. BG

Further Listening: Buddy Guy: The

Complete Chess Studio Sessions;

Junior Wells: Hoodoo Man Blues

The Decemberists:

The Crane Wife.

Tucker Martine, Chris Walla, and the

Decemberists, producers. Capitol


Colin Meloy was born in the wrong

century. On the Decemberists’ fourth

album, the frontman’s Dickinsonian lyrics

160 December 2006 The Absolute Sound

imagine burials at sea, bayonet-toting

soldiers, and saber-wielding tenants.

Despite its turn-of-the-century dialect, The

Crane Wife is significantly less precocious

than its predecessors, with the gypsy

waltz of “Summersong” taking its place

among the simplest, most melodic tunes

the Portland quintet has ever recorded.

That’s not to say that the album—the

group’s first since signing to a major

label—sacrifices creative ambition in the

name of commercial gain.

Meloy and company make this clear

early on with “The Island,” a 12-minute,

three-part mini-suite reminiscent of The

Tain, an 18-minute, one-track EP the

band released in 2004. The murderous

tale opens with an ominous warning and

ends with the landlord’s daughter slipping

away to a watery grave. The musicians

match this lyrical ambition lock step, the

song shifting from a distorted boogie to

a prog-rock keyboard freak-out before

closing with an orchestral flourish, Meloy

delivering the knotty verses with all the

levity of an undertaker. A second suite,

“The Crane Wife 1 & 2,” appears near the

end of the album. Inspired by a Japanese

folk tale, the song sounds like a summer

meadow slowly coming to life, sunlight

stretching over gentle guitar and chirping


In between these epic bookends, the

Decemberists drift further from the sea

chanteys and folk musings that populated

its first three albums—with varying

results. “The Perfect Crime” is a perfect

mess, pairing 1890s prose with 1980s

new wave. “When the War Came” is a

faux-metal bore, leaden guitar marching

solemnly in place. Better is the acoustic

“Shankill Butchers,” a sadistic bedtime tale

designed to scare children into minding

their mothers’ words.

The sonics range from excellent to

fair, with the acoustic cuts displaying a

wide soundstage that seems to be lacking

on the harder-edged tunes, particularly

the pancaked “When the War Came,”

which sounds as if it’s been run over by

a flatiron. By comparison, the imaging on

slower tracks, like the redemptive “Sons

and Daughters,” is first rate, accordion

spilling out and filling the room. AD

Further Listening: Laura Veirs:

Year of Meteors; Shirley Collins:

Anthems In Eden



Bob Dylan:

Modern Times.

Jack Frost, producer.

Columbia 82876 (two-LP and CD).

Funny how life works. Back in 1992 and 93,

few paid attention when Bob Dylan released

two of his finest albums—Good As I Been To

You and World Gone Wrong—solo outings in

which he put his all into some of his favorite

historic blues and folk songs. Today, it seems

the 65-year-old chameleon can do no wrong.

In actuality, few but the die-hards paid any

attention for a long time. To the casual listener,

the man who took the 60s by storm might as

well have gone fishin’ from his late-70s bornagain

phase up through 1997’s Time Out Of

Mind. But Dylan hadn’t gone anywhere, he

kept on being Dylan—as mercurial as the

sound he once said he was aiming for on

Blonde on Blonde. Sure, his records were largely

forgettable up until 1989’s under-appreciated

Oh Mercy, and his live performances, with

unrecognizable melodies and mumblemouthed

lyrics, had turned into what

sounded like deliberate perversions of his

greatest songs. But for those keeping score,

those records of 89–93, and the so-called

Never Ending Tour that soon followed (and

continues to this day), signaled that Dylan

had been back for some time.

His most recent elevation to God-like

status began last year, with the publication of

Chronicles Volume One and Martin Scorsese’s

documentary, No Direction Home. Now we

have Modern Times, over which critics have

been drooling with superlatives and five-star

ratings. Dylan’s 43rd studio effort isn’t a bad


Rock etc.

record—it’s actually quite a good one—but it

requires fresh perspective.

Modern Times is a safe album. It’s very well

performed, and Dylan’s singing is in good

form. His now dry-as-the-desert voice is

articulate and engaged, and his current road

band backs him beautifully, with a remarkably

relaxed cohesion. But the whole affair is just

a little too relaxed. Side One gets off to a

great start with “Thunder on the Mountain,”

a playful, shuffling rockabilly tune on which

Dylan describes our not-particularly-easy

world with apocalyptic turns of phrase.

“Spirit on the Water” is a retro-sounding love

song backed by a gentle country waltz, while

the band rips it up on a re-worked version

of Muddy Waters’ “Rollin’ and Tumblin’.”

The tunes gently sway to and fro between

ballads and country-flavored, and, perhaps in

a deliberate bit of irony, Modern Times sounds

anything but modern. “Workingman Blues

#2” is an altogether too schmaltzy plea for

the plight of today’s wage-stagnant workers,

while “Beyond the Horizon” is reminiscent

of something from an old Roy Rogers


As he did on Love and Theft,

Dylan produced and the sound is very

good—warm, expansive, and like the tunes,

easy on the ears. Everything, except for his

voice, is a bit distant, but crystal clear in a way

that’s more natural than analytical.

The album ends with three powerful

songs, including “Aint Talkin’,” which creates

a surrealistic landscape for Dylan to stroll

through while observing a world gone wrong.

“My eyes are filled with tears/My mouth is

dry” he sings on the album’s final and best

tune. WG

Further Listening: Various: Anthology

of American Folk Music; Emmylou

Harris: Wrecking Ball

Good God! A Gospel

Funk Hymnal.

Tom Lunt, Rob Sevier, and Ken

Shipley, producers. Numero Group 10

(two-LP and CD).

Good God! A Gospel Funk Hymnal, the latest

surprise nugget unearthed by Numero

Group, provides a snapshot of a minor

musical movement most don’t even know

exists—specifically, the embrace by gospel

ensembles in the 70s of that era’s progressive

soul flavors. Painstakingly assembled

via long-forgotten, sometimes-lost, and

limited-batch 45s issued on tiny labels,

this ain’t your momma’s gospel.

Strutting with urban sass, sticky

rhythms, and drumming might, most

of the 18 tracks here could legitimately

pass as full-on R&B sides intended to

complement the work of James Brown

and George Clinton. At heart, they remain

the service to the Lord—the savory lyrics

praising Jesus, the emotions kicking with

adoration, the choruses imbued with

robe-swishing dedication. Nonetheless,

the classic grooves on which they glide are

undeniably funky, more fancy dress-code

nightclub cool than storefront church


Preacher & the Saints’ “Jesus Rhapsody,

Part I” makes no attempt to stifle its

rocking ways, the familiar refrain predating

the Black Crowes’ hit “Remedy” by 18

years. There’s the Masonic Wonders’

reassuring “I Call Him,” subtly referencing

Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour”

as it sweeps the floor with a slick chord

progression that makes dancing shoes

move. The Mighty Voices of Wonder ride

The Mars Volta: Amputechture.

Jonathan Debaun, Robert Carranza, and Paul Fig, producers.

Gold Standard Labs 126 (two-LP and CD).

Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, the principles behind the Mars Volta, have

never been much for compromise. Just witness the duo’s late-90s split from At the Drive-In,

which occurred just as the group was beginning to crack the mainstream. While their running

mates formed Sparta, a more conventional rock band, Bixler-Zavala and Rodriguez-Lopez

opted to record a pair of ambitious, death-inspired prog-rock concept albums: De-Loused in

the Comatorium, which was borne of a close friend’s suicide, and Frances the Mute (review, Issue

154), a song-cycle loosely based on a diary discovered in the back seat of a repossessed car by

the band’s audio artist, Jeremy Ward, who died of heroin overdose just a month before the

album’s 2003 release.

Volta’s third effort, Amputechture doesn’t share a similar, unifying thread, though references

to the afterlife and zombification are prevalent: “It

lacks a human pulse”; “Unwrap my corpse and let it

thaw”; “We snuffed ourselves an angel and cut her

by the wings.” Musically, the pair is as inventive as

ever, delivering a chaotic mash-up of heavy-prog,

jazz fusion, and Latin rock that, while sometimes

impenetrable, reveals a mastery of tension and

release. “Vicarious Atonement” drifts in like a

dense mist over the river Styx before giving way to

“Tetragrammaton,” a 17-minute six-string workout

where the dueling guitars of Rodriguez-Lopez

and guest John Frusciante ride the line between

space exploration and intergalactic warfare. “Asilos

Magdalena” is an acoustic wonder, Bixler-Zavala

singing like a weary gaucho over sparse acoustic

picking before the tape begins to deteriorate, melting

and distorting under a white-hot Frusciante riff. “Meccamputechture” merges Bixler-Zavala’s

keening death wail with finger-numbing fretwork and a coda that sounds like a jazz quartet

being mangled by robots.

The sonics are fairly exceptional, with the vinyl pressing exhibiting a wide soundstage that

allows space for each instrument to unwind in the sometimes dense tapestries. Witness “Day

of the Baphomets,” where asphalt-crushing bass, spider web guitar, and a tropical rainstorm

of percussion create a cyclone that sounds like it could tear the listener’s living room asunder.

“Give me a plague,” Bixler-Zavala squeals, zeroing in on the sonic devastation. “Nothing you

own is safe.” AD

Further Listening: At the Drive-In: Relationship of Command; Ornette

Coleman: Dancing In Your Head

162 December 2006 The Absolute Sound


Rock etc.

an incessant hi-hat, ringing cymbal, and

wailing cry of its leader on “I Thank the

Lord,” a weirdly close cousin of ZZ Top’s

“I Thank You.” Not to be outdone, the

Voices of Conquest don’t depend on a full

band for its message, instead pumping up

cymbal splashes and beats for the exoticsounding

“O Yes My Lord.” Be it heavy

or subdued, shaken or stirred, African or

Motown, percussion is the stirrer of fires


Known for detective-like research and

anecdotal liner notes, as well as flushing out

fringe musicians and producers that seem

pulled out of a pulp paperback, Numero

Group retains its high batting average

with this, its tenth release. Good God! is

also the label’s first LP pressing, a move

the makes sense, given its preservation

and documentation goals, and that all of

the tunes originate from analog singles.

While far from audiophile quality, the LP

retains a vibrancy and warmth that isn’t

as intense on the CD, which also lacks

the larger format’s eye-popping artwork.

Head-and-shoulders above a growing

number of fine American boutique

archival labels responsible for exposing

dusty-groove sounds, every Numero

release has something to recommend,

particularly Eccentric Soul: The Bandit Label,

Yellow Pills: Prefill, and Cult Cargo: Belize City

Boil Up. Consult the label’s comprehensive

Web site (numerogroup.com) for

backgrounders on all of its projects.


Further Listening: Sam Cooke: The

Complete Specialty Recordings of

Sam Cooke; Eccentric Soul: The

Bandit Label

Bonnie “Prince” Billy: The Letting Go.

Valgeir Sigurdsson, producer. Drag City 420 (LP and CD).

Will Oldham’s latest outing under the Bonnie “Prince” Billy moniker opens with

the Kentucky native wondering aloud why “love comes to me” and closes with

a meditative “Called You Back,” the singer-songwriter cooing “Every time we

kiss we find ourselves in love

again.” Enclosed between

these bookends is a lifetime

of love, pain, holding on, and

letting go, Oldham singing

of soft kisses in dark rooms,

playful winter days, and tearful

summer nights. Appropriately

falling close to the center of

the album, “No Bad News”

best captures the prevailing

mood: “Thank you for not

letting go of me when I let go

of you.” In other words, The

Letting Go is inherently human,

confronting the pitfalls and tender moments buried in the words “Til death do us


An indie-rock demigod whose status was forever cemented when Johnny Cash

covered his “I See A Darkness” on American 3: Solitary Man, Oldham has rarely

The vinyl pressing enhances these

subtleties, from Dirty Three drummer

Jim White’s sympathetic percussive work

to an Icelandic string quartet’s

heartbreaking sighs

sounded so at peace. The results are almost alarmingly intimate, his voice only once

rising above a whisper, on the nightmarish “The Seedling,” complete with howlingwind

strings. The remainder of the album is comfortably lived-in, as if it were

recorded at the foot of the singer’s unmade bed while his lover serenely slept at his


Like Oldham’s best work—I See a Darkness and Ease Down the Road—Letting Go has

the warm glow of backwoods Americana, understated instrumentation giving life to

his carefully crafted words. Producer Valgeir Sigurdsson (Bjork) wisely maintains

this natural soundstage, the guitar strings practically humming on the country blues

of “Cold & Wet.” The vinyl pressing enhances these subtleties, from Dirty Three

drummer Jim White’s sympathetic percussive work to an Icelandic string quartet’s

heartbreaking sighs.

The most striking element, however, remains the backing vocals by Faun Fable

singer Dawn McCarthy, who acts as the Emmylou Harris to Oldham’s world-weary

Gram Parsons. This is especially true of “Love Comes To Me,” where her voice

hovers like an apparition that—much like the love the pair is singing about—Oldham

can’t quite grasp. AD

Further Listening: Grateful Dead: American Beauty; Gram Parsons: Grievous Angel

164 December 2006 The Absolute Sound


11 Questions for Ted Denney

III, Lead Designer/Owner

of Synergistic Research

Neil Gader

What’s your earliest memory of the high end

Going with my father to FEDCO to purchase some Soundcrafstman gear

in the high-end corner. We brought an LP of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite

to play on a Garrard turntable. That Firebird—I think it was on Deutsche

Grammophon—is still one of my favorites.

What was the system you dreamed about as a teen

Some Dynaco tube gear, an AR turntable, and I don’t even want to admit

to the speakers.

Oh, come on.

Let’s just say there was a 901 in the designation.

What prompted you to get into the industry

I was a printer and I did some work for one of the major wire manufacturers.

I needed some long cables and couldn’t believe how expensive they were. I

built up some cables myself and one sounded pretty good, so I thought if

I made some cable for a couple different kinds of systems I could sell them

and maybe save up enough money to buy a Mapleknoll Apollo Turntable.

That was a big motivator for me. I thought I could do it as a part-time gig.

That turned into Synergistic Research.

What do you say to people who say it’s just wire

If somebody has diligently compared cables in an A-B comparison and they

don’t hear a difference, it’s questionable to me whether they need to spend

a lot of money on a stereo in the first place. Because if you can’t hear that

difference then how can you hear the difference between CD players or

speakers and amplifiers For some people the differences in systems aren’t

that important. A lot of musicians don’t have great systems. Their sense of

the live event is so strong, all they need is something to trip them over and

their brain takes care of the rest. But I’m dismayed at the state of a lot of

what passes for high end today. Maybe it’s just because I’ve heard so much

and know better, but a lot of what’s being sold today is being driven by

margin and terms at the retail level not by actual performance.

A lot of wire companies are criticized for that very


If you’re experienced with certain high-end wires, then you’re probably

feeling that wire all sounds the same and that it’s overpriced. In that context

those feelings would definitely be justified.

And haven’t margin-driven sales always been critical

in a market driven economy

I’m not sure, but I seem to remember better hi-fi in the early- and mid-90s

in terms of quality choices and sonics.

So you could take a dream system of a decade and

half ago and put it up against the best today

Sure, the Forsell Air Reference turntable/tonearm. And some Spectral gear

is still a benchmark for transparency.

What do you think you’ll be listening to in ten years

Hard drives—if you have the proper D-to-A conversion that’s one of the

best sounding transports there is. They don’t have the jitter problems and

distortions associated with transports.

Do you prefer analog or digital

I like them both—with my Forsell Air Reference, the transport for digital

sounds quite a bit like my Forsell turntable with Clearaudio cartridge. I can’t

speak highly enough about that old Forsell gear.

You’ve been around the block—seen any high-end

quackery over the years

There’s so much out there! Somebody reviewed a Radio Shack CD player

and it was supposed to be real good. Then somebody came out with an

extremely expensive anodized, CNC-machined cradle that you could plug it

into so it could sound even better. So you’re taking a $100 or $150 portable

CD player designed for headphones and sticking it into a $1000 or $2000

cradle. I thought that was pretty hilarious. Oh, and the Tice TPT clock. That

was a hoot. You had to really think about it if you heard anything or not.

What’s the biggest mistake buyers make assembling

a system

Going too much on a “Class A” rating or some other recommendation list

and not thinking about how the separate links in the chain are going to work

together to create a whole. What you end up with is a room full of very

loud “furniture.” Everything competes with everything else for attention,

but there’s little cohesion.

What’s the best advice from an old pro

Get to know your system. Don’t change things too quickly. And don’t

overspend initially. Learn your biases—what you like, what you don’t like.

You can’t do everything in a system. Also don’t worry so much about what

your system sounds like or you’ll never enjoy the music. You’ll always be

listening for what’s wrong and never be happy. TAS

168 December 2006 The Absolute Sound

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