I don’t have all of this figured out yet, but I know where I’m not going, and that establishes some upper price limits for the components that will eventually comprise my new stereo system. To review where I’ve come from:
My colleagues at SoundStage! have accused me of being a by-the-pound guy. There’s some truth to that. By any reasonable standard, my speakers have always been heavy, and so have the amplifiers that have driven them. For the most part, heavy gear is just a fact of life in ultra-high-end audio. The upper-end speaker models from Magico, Rockport, Wilson, et al., have always been heavyweights. Same goes for amps -- the Boulders, Gryphons, Soulutions, etc. With these companies, I always knew that the fact that they made their products with heavier materials and parts was a good thing: lots of bracing inside speaker cabinets, and big power supplies inside amps, were what we were told made great sound possible. It meant you were getting your money’s worth.
Womanly Hips WHRC001
Musical Performance: ****
Sound Quality: ****
Overall Enjoyment: ****
Although Joan Osborne has written her share of good songs, she has from the beginning shown a talent for sensitive interpretations of work by others. Relish, her 1995 breakthrough, included tunes by Bob Dylan and Sonny Boy Williamson, and her strong feel for classic soul and blues was obvious on How Sweet It Is (2002), Breakfast in Bed (2007), and Bring It on Home (2012).
When I was a kid growing up in the pre-statehood Hawaiʻi, three generations of my family would spend each Sunday night after dinner watching The Ed Sullivan Show from New York, a magical city an ocean and an entire continent away from our islands. On the stage of CBS Studio 51, in the Maxine Elliott Theatre, at Broadway and 39th Street, all manner of clowns, comedians, magicians, and musicians would cavort and play, inspiring us provincials into laughter, tears, or quiet admiration. Besides the big stars -- the singers and actors of the day -- there were novelty acts like the Spanish ventriloquist Señor Wences with his talking, lidded box; the Little Italian Mouse, Topo Gigio, a hand puppet that bantered with the host; and Borscht Belt comedians galore who kept us in stitches.
The Dynaudio Contour 60 loudspeakers had just landed in the Music Vault and the Soulution 711 stereo amplifier was on its way out the door. A second set of speakers, the TAD ME-1 compact standmounts, were inbound. I had an amplifier lined up for review that would have given me a smooth transition from the Soulution, but, as often happens with these things, that shipment was delayed. Now my concerns were that there’d be a gap between power amps, and that I was running the risk of changing so much in my system in so short a period of time that I would muddy the waters of which outswapping of gear had caused which change in the sound.
One of the first makers of audiophile cables, Golden Enz, began business in the 1970s. With conductors of ordinary electrical-grade copper and connectors of gold-plated nickel, Golden Enz cables now seem archaic. However, they were undoubtedly better than the lamp-cord wire then available at the local RadioShack.
Blue Note B002681502
Musical Performance: ****1/2
Sound Quality: ***1/2
Overall Enjoyment: ****
Last year, tenor saxophonist and flutist Charles Lloyd released I Long to See You, a quintet recording with guitarists Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz; it was challenging and musically satisfying, but still accessible. His new disc on Blue Note, Passin’ Thru, is credited to the Charles Lloyd New Quartet, though this group -- pianist Jason Moran, bassist Reuben Rogers, and drummer Eric Harland -- has played together since 2007. The quartet lineup and approach are more traditional than on I Long to See You, but the music is bracing and alive, crackling with energy and creativity.
Mytek Digital has been a pioneer in digital audio reproduction. Their Stereo192-DSD was one of the first DACs capable of playing DSD files, and their Brooklyn was one of the first non-Meridian DACs to play Meridian’s new Master Quality Authenticated (MQA) files.
MQA is a system of encoding audio files that its developer, Meridian Ltd. (MQA Ltd. has since been spun off as a separate company), claims sounds better than such high-resolution encoding methods as DSD and DXD, while resulting in file sizes much smaller than those formats. The small files mean that MQA encoding can be used to stream hi-rez audio over standard Internet connections -- and indeed, Tidal is currently streaming MQA files. I’ve seen Tidal stream files of resolutions up to 24-bit/352.8kHz, and I understand that MQA can handle up to 768kHz.
Some of you guys might remember Randall Smith, who wrote for the SoundStage! sites from 2006 to 2013. He reviewed a lot of home-theater gear, but also integrated amplifiers from the likes of Simaudio and Boulder, speakers from companies as varied as KEF and Rockport Technologies, subwoofers from JL Audio, and a source component from Esoteric. He accompanied me to Maine to pick up the Rockport Arrakis speakers that formed the heart of The World’s Best Audio System 2009, and has been to Canada to tour the R&D facilities of Paradigm and Axiom Audio. He’s helped schlep countless speakers and amps into my Music Vault listening room, a space he helped construct in 2006. (Randall lives only minutes away from me.) In short, Randall has not only been around the high-end industry, he’s been my friend and accomplice in my own audio adventures.
I’m a sucker for the double-down solid-state power amp. But to explain what this means and why it’s important to me I need to start about 30 years ago.
While I’ve always been passionate about home audio, I used to be rabid about car audio, and three decades ago I became very good friends with Colin Kay, owner of Autoworks Car Audio, here in Toronto. Colin introduced me to such esoteric concepts as tube monoblock amplifiers and external DACs (this was about the time Audio Alchemy pioneered the affordable DAC). He also infected me with Mobile Bass Disease.
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