Author Archives: Paul Wilson

Trying To Decide on a Streaming Service

I suppose, technically, streaming might be traced back as far as 1999 when the service Napster first arrived as a peer-to-peer service. History recalls Napster almost immediately being consumed in legal troubles over copyright infringement. Shortly after their inception, they were forced to suspend their services and were ultimately acquired by Rhapsody – although the service is now called Napster. Streaming hardly stopped there, however. 

It might be at least partially true that young kids with earbuds helped make streaming what it is today. With services like Pandora and Spotify, services who grew exponentially at the hands of mostly younger-ish, non-audiophile listeners, streaming became firmly entrenched as a means to listen to a song. 

Audiophiles, however, in the early days remained circumspect. We still used physical media. Then came Tidal

Now, suddenly, we had a way to stream a CD quality song from the Internet. We marveled at the availability of, what, an entire world of music right at our fingertips. Perhaps best of all, we could enjoy all this music each month for the cost of a standard CD purchased at a music store. As Tidal gained popularity, audiophiles signed on in droves. Suffice it to say today, streaming is the predominate method audiophiles employ for digital music. 

Tidal, for a while anyway, was about the only choice. While CD quality, presumably at a bitrate of 1411 kbps and the familiar 44.1 / 16, was initially offered, Tidal soon enough teamed up with the highly controversial format called MQA

Not long after Tidal and MQA partnered, the audiophile world suddenly heard about a new game, one from France called Qobuz. For US based audiophiles, we heard how marvelous this new European service was and our big question was simple – when would it find its way to the US?

From day one, the very instant Qobuz hit US shores, it made an impact in the choices audiophiles made for streaming services. And here is where it gets really fun, Qobuz has actual high-resolution music, all the way up to 192 / 24 or 9216 kbps. And Tidal? Remember MQA? Audiophiles suddenly had two platforms about which they could disagree. 

For my purposes, I signed on to Tidal at some point before the availability of Qobuz in the US. Here’s the rub, however – I am not especially a fan of streaming. I prefer a physical CD copied to my server. Why? Simple. On my system it sounds better than streaming. Noticeably better. Dramatically better. And to a point, I like owning my music. For whatever that’s worth these days. 

I was very content to continue to buy CDs, copy and enjoy them. I used Tidal for really one purpose, discovering new music I could then purchase. Peripherally, I could also play a song I did not have in my library if a visitor was in the audio room and made a specific request. 

I started thinking about streaming recently because of something I usually don’t even notice – the cost of Tidal. I have seen the monthly $19.99 charge to my account for who knows how long. It is just something to which I typically pay very little attention. When the July charge showed up in my financial information, I became curious about what the other services offered and their associated fees. I decided to start looking at alternatives. 

While I realize Amazon and now even Spotify offer higher than 320 kbps bitrates (Amazon even offers HD), I never really considered using either of them, or the other similar services. There’s also compatibility with my equipment issues. For my purposes, the decision was singular – Tidal or Qobuz?

For most listeners who plan to use streaming as their predominate way to play a song, having a variety of packages makes sense. Want to download music? Qobuz fully supports downloads. Tidal does as well but my sense is they are a little less convenient in the effort. 

Considering cost, Qobuz has multiple packages where Tidal has two main offerings – less than CD quality and CD Quality. As previously mentioned, Qobuz offers hi-rez up to 192 / 24 and Tidal has MQA. 

I’m not one to place a huge emphasis on two music plans that have, at their lowest common denominator, a difference of about $5.00 but that’s pretty much the bottom line. A monthly basic cost for Qobuz is $14.99 per month. That can be brought down to $12.49 if you pay yearly. Tidal is steadfastly $19.99 per month for CD quality. Qobuz offers other packages at higher yearly costs with increased features. Tidal has two plans however, they do have videos for those interested in a video aspect. Personally, I’m only concerned about music. 

So far, I see both services as pretty much even. Here is where we reach the fork in the road – deciding on a format. 

There are those who will champion MQA. They feel it is a superior format in every way, at least as compared to standard CD quality. I’m sorry but I’m not one of those believers. I have heard music played in MQA that sounded amazing. I’ve heard MQA sound okay, nothing to get really excited about. I’ve heard MQA sound positively dreadful. 

I can also say the exact same thing about CD quality and high-resolution quality. Face it, some recordings sound better than others regardless of the format. I said the exact same thing in the 1970’s when I first started buying albums. My guess is recording quality will always be variable. 

Because, however, I have always been leery of MQA, I decided full-fledged, if there is such a thing, high resolution recordings are a better mousetrap. So, the scales tip towards Qobuz. However, my DAC is not MQA capable so I’m not getting “Master Quality Authenticated” anyway. Theoretically, at best I’ll get 192 / 24 from Tidal but my guess is most often it will be at 96 / 24. Either way, still better than Red Book CD. 

As it stands, I am still riding the fence. I have subscribed to Qobuz and like Tidal, more or less struggle with making the app work seamlessly. Chalk that up to inexperience. It is also fair to say that manifestly, this has only succeeded in me spending an extra $15.00 per month with a not as yet declarative outcome. Here again, that is not a concern to me. 

What is a concern is sonic quality. While I find Tidal and Qobuz to be mostly equal in that regard (my opinion varies), here again, neither of them measures up to a CD copied to my server. Basically, I am right back where I started, just fifteen bucks a month poorer. 

Original Resource is Audiophile Review

How A Pandemic Changed High Performance Audio

When history looks back on 2020 and however much longer Covid 19 occupies our minds in 2021, I suspect remembrances will encompass the fear arising from the spread of a virus. I’m guessing there will be mention of how we shut down most of our entire economy for more months than many would have ever imagined. Maybe there will be reference how city streets, highways and interstates were mostly devoid of cars. And of course, it will talk about people getting sick and those who tragically passed away. 

I seriously doubt any mention whatsoever about how audio changed will occur. 

When pretty much everything was closed, and very likely out of boredom, I visited my local Lowes and Home Depot about once a week – sometimes more. I wasn’t really looking for anything, not usually anyway, I was just passing time in one of the few places open. I looked at appliances, lighting, hand tools, power tools (a few of which I did buy) and did so not with any intent of an immediate purchase. Call it planning for the future – planning for the day the washing machine actually did kick the bucket. What amazed me most was every time I went to either store, the parking lot was almost full, and the place was packed with people whom I imagine were doing the same thing I was doing. Killing time. 

Needless to say, I spent a lot of time with my audio system. Listening sessions, just several months before, lasting only an hour or two suddenly lasted three or four. On days starting out with no real impetus to leave the house, I found myself in the audio room, no shower, unshaven, listening to music I ordinarily wouldn’t because the day before I already played all my favorite songs. It was, generally speaking, on those days I eventually took a shower and went to Lowes. I got to know the store better than the stock boy. 

I would call my circle of audiophile friends and talk about the hobby, anything new they had tried, anything new I had tried, and passed music recommendations back and forth. Trucks left packages with CD’s and LPs on my doorstep more times than I can count. I went through my music library on Roon and made sure everything was correct – things like artist and album name, artwork, anything I felt was wrong. I experimented with different settings on my DAC and phonostage. I checked my cartridge with my Fozgometer. I rearranged how I store my LPs, twice even. Moving speakers and subs around almost became a pastime and not a search for an optimized position. All were an effort to obviate boredom. 

In talking with several dealers, I was told 2020 was one of their best years ever in terms of equipment sales. I suppose our hobby is one that is, to a point anyway, pandemic proof – as such, many audiophiles could afford new equipment even though the pandemic had brought about economic upheaval. All of a sudden that legacy amp no longer sufficed.  A replacement was in order. I myself made hardware upgrades to my music server, brought in a new set of speakers, and moved things around so often I almost got dizzy in the effort. And I consider what I did as very minor. Some almost completely replaced their entire system. 

I have talked with people who have categorically informed me that they simply do not have the time to sit in a chair in a room and listen to music. They are too much on the go and if music is played and listened to at all, in any respect, it will be by means of a portable player. Those with such resolute opinions will hardly be convinced to try a home-based system. They are best left to their own devices. Audiophiles, it would seem, have a differing posture on how music is best enjoyed. We listen at home. How likely is it that Covid based boredom provided a catalyst for new equipment? 

Eventually, as pandemics throughout history have all done, Covid-19 will hopefully come to an end.  While some states and areas of the country still suffer, others are doing very well. My home state of North Carolina, and the neighboring state of South Carolina have both returned to normal operation. Stores, restaurants shops, stadiums, sports venues are all open to full capacity. Mask mandates have ended. Only busses, trains and planes, as mandated federally, still require a mask. Basically, NC is back to life before Covid. Finally. At long last. About time!

So how will the Covid 19 pandemic be judged by audiophiles? How will those who chose to comply with shelter in place mandates view this time from an audio system standpoint? Will Covid be remembered as “that year” when my system got a complete transformation? Or will it be remembered as the year I spent a lot of time looking at washing machines I didn’t need? 

How Covid may be remembered will be very different to many people. Some will judge more harshly than others. For me, it did have its moments, like the early mornings during shelter in place I took my Maserati out on empty highways and interstates and had an absolute blast. Or the days I spent discovering new music. Or that new, better sounding speaker position I found. Or the sub placement that sounded positively horrible. Oh well, it was an experiment and not all of them work. 

Covid-19 will be remembered in many ways. For audiophiles, I suspect it will be remembered as the “year I really got to know my system” – however and to whatever extent that occurred. For a hobby all about music and its accompanying equipment, you can’t go wrong there. 

Original Resource is Audiophile Review

How Do You Explain Our Hobby to A Non-Audiophile?

Noted humorist Mark Twain once said, “we are all ignorant, just about different things.” I have also heard a variation that goes – “we are all ignorant about something.” It seems to make sense that while any of us are knowledgeable about some, maybe even many things, we are not experts on everything. High performance audio included.

When we look at the number of audiophiles who spend ever increasing sums of money on a musical playback system and compare that to everyday, plain ole music lovers, we easily find a schism in the numbers. How many audiophiles there are compared to how many music lovers there are makes our hobby indiscernibly small. “i” somethings or other sell in the tens of millions, maybe even more. Most all play music. Yes, not great music but music none the less. How many, by comparison, world class, best of the best amps sell each year? 

For most listeners, taking a smart phone and connecting it to some type of Bluetooth device is wonderful. A magical feeling usually ensues. Better still is connecting that smart device to a home network allowing listeners to enjoy music stored on their “i whatever” – all over the house. And of course, there are devices that play music on demand – “Alexa, play some jazz” and poof, jazz plays. 

If this is the extent of real world, practical experience an ordinary, everyday music aficionado uses to play a song, and little is known about better playback methods, how does an audiophile explain the hobby to one who could care less about dynamics and standing waves? Try doing so may enact a deer in the headlights look, and an internal question that resembles “what is he talking about?” 

How then do we, as music lovers, as listeners who want something better and are prepared to pay to have it, even as audiophiles, explain our hobby to someone who feels an iPhone is all the musical excellence one should ever req uire? How do you explain the driving experience of a Ferrari to a person who feels a scooter is all one needs to get around? 

Over the years, I’ve had any number of non-audiophiles in my audio room. I try to explain what they first see, most notably the acoustical panels on the walls. In all honesty, the correct answer to “what do all these things hanging on the walls do?” is steeped in physics. Providing an accurate answer relies on discussing the conversion of sonic energy to heat and the resultant reduction of harmful reflected sound waves. 

When asked that particular question, however, I usually stumble around with some sort of answer like “oh, they help make music sound better.” No one, not one single person has ever asked me “how?” I seriously doubt anyone is substantively interested in the laws of thermal dynamics and using kinetic energy to convert sound energy to heat, thus nulling reflected sound and improving sonics. 

Less still do non audiophiles seem to be even remotely informed about the various components in my audio rack. “What is that thing with the blue light?” When I answer “that’s a DAC” I typically see an eyebrow bending and quizzical look on their face. “What on Earth is a DAC?” comes the reply. I sometimes feel compelled to answer, “why not ask Alexa?” 

Most people who find their way to my audio room are polite enough to not ask the daring question about how much things cost. Because in the real world, revealing to a non-audiophile the cost of our hobby can be markedly overwhelming. When a big box system may be bought for somewhere around a thousand dollars, and Alexa and a music subscription may be purchased for less than a $100.00, an audio system investment of five or six figures, let alone more, will usually impart an attitude best summed up by “seriously?” “Just to play a song?” 

A dealer friend of mine has a neighbor who loves golf. Adores it. Plays nearly every weekend and during the week if possible. He has thousands of dollars invested in the latest technology in woods (which is a misnomer as drivers, 3 and 5 woods are seldom made from wood anymore), irons, putters, bags and shoes. Who knows how much he has invested in golf clubs. A Scotty Cameron putter is about $400.00 or thereabouts. Add in the rest of the bag and thousands of dollars is very realistic. 

My dealer friend’s neighbor does not stop there, however. He takes trips to world class golf venues, stays in magnificent resorts and spends incredible amounts of money sufficing the effort of hitting a ball into a hole in the ground. Now don’t misunderstand me, I love golf. I don’t play anymore, but I have visited, and played some of the most hallowed golf venues in the country. I am not criticizing golf by any stretch. I am merely using it as an example of how any of us can choose to use our spare time – and the resultant cost in the effort. Should it be different for an audio system? 

And for some reason I cannot seem to fathom or understand, other hobbies costing considerable disposable income seem perfectly acceptable to most folks. Audio, on the other hand, yields quizzical looks with that “what” expression on their face. If I have six figures in my audio system, how is that worse than a guy who spends an equal amount of money on a sports car – and then drives it only when the weather is nice and never to a destination, just out of the garage, around for a while and back? 

Admit it, we audiophiles face a difficult road in trying to make those who have yet to drink the Kool Aid understand. We have these machines to play a song that cost a fortune, need all these ancillary things to help them out, demand precise adjustment, and are owned by seldom satisfied people who are always looking for something better. 

In the end, we may best find a workaround by inviting that non-audiophile to sit in the listening chair, play a brilliantly well recorded song and allow the listener to hear a previously unknown experience. Proofs in the pudding. And in this case, listening is all the explanation one should ever need. 

Original Resource is Audiophile Review

Are Dealers High End’s Ultimate Salvation?

In many ways, luxury audio dealers have been forced to change with the times. In the 1950’s and 60’s, it was very simple – audio dealers were located in cities and town all across the USA, they mostly sold to a local customer base, and rare was the instance manufacturers sold direct. In fact, back then, they basically didn’t. Ever. 

As times changed the audio hobby changed as well. When the iPod was introduced, how music was reproduced, stored, and what was important produced profound and dramatic changes to our little industry. 

Portable devices, then and pretty much now, had one predominate goal – storage capacity. What started as a 1000 song capacity evolved into holding orders of magnitude more music. Sonics? Who cares? As long as someone could recognize the music and sing along with the words, things like clarity, accuracy and dynamics didn’t matter one whit. 

Turntables and vinyl very nearly went the way of poodle skirts and rolling a pack of cigs up in your T-shirt sleeve. Digital audio, born in the early 80’s became the de facto standard for recorded music. Cassettes became harder to find than free beer and reel to reel, which was never a major force, continued not to be. 

What really transformed the high performance audio business was the Internet. Now buying gear was no longer relegated to the guy on the corner whose shop you had visited a million times. Now you could buy from anywhere in the country with a web site. Manufacturers enacted territories arbitrarily and, always desperate to make a sale, willingly ignored them for a large enough potential purchase. 

Dealers, under constant pressure to remain profitable, started closing. It is certainly possible the age of the owner, or their willingness to keep fighting the fight precipitated the numbers of dealers who closed. Maybe they couldn’t survive on the profits generated by a traditional business model. 

Maybe it is time to change the business model. 

It is very easy to blame the Internet for not making a sale. Some guy 2000 miles away sold it for less. Whoopee. But why the sale, and its resultant profits were lost in the first place might have been avoided if the selling process was more than about how much something cost. Maybe while not selling only a pair of speakers the customer who had called fifty places for a price, perhaps the better move is selling cables and other ancillary devices the customer may have never considered. Maybe the term “value added” might be practiced. Maybe it is time to learn a different way to sell. 

There are a number of dealers who have changed their business model in novel ways. Some dealers didn’t even start out as a dealer – they started as a music store and then began carrying one or two used pieces of something. That grew until they also began marketing new gear. And if a customer was reluctant to buy a pair of speakers, maybe they picked up a used receiver for their kid and a handful of CDs and LPs for their own system. More importantly, when they wanted something new, very often they came back. 

I’ve talked with dealers who have developed a relationship with a local school or college. They go into the classroom and actually talk to students about how music is made. The work with the students on understanding why things like resolution and dynamics are important – and how most handheld audio fails in the effort. They try to imbue upon the local youth the indominable difference between a cheap portable device and an entry level system that probably is not all that much more expensive. 

Maybe it might also be an interesting idea to host a live musical event, coupled along with listening to an actual system. Show how remarkable a recording can sound if done correctly. 

Consider audio shows. Remember them? 2019 seems like a lifetime ago. When you look at the participants in these shows, manufacturers predictably come first to mind. It might, therefore, come as a surprise that over the last few years, the number of dealers with rooms at shows has expanded enormously. They can meet more potential customers in three days than they will all year. Most importantly, they have far greater opportunity to make a sale. 

Personally, I would like to see a greater number of smaller, more regional shows. Living in the Southeast finds me in one of the more populated areas of the country. Yet to my knowledge, the closest audio show to Charlotte is either in Florida or Maryland, neither of which I consider to be local. What is wrong with a show in Altana? It would make it easier and less expensive for dealers to participate and connect with their prime market – audiophiles. 

Audio dealers have a distinct advantage over a manufacturer selling direct. One, they can get to know their customers preferences and make recommendations that fulfill their goals. Two, they are knowledgeable about a wider variety of equipment and, most importantly, how well or adversely different manufacturers equipment will interact. And three, dealers are a local source and can come to the customer’s home if there is a problem. They can be a trusted partner in working to provide the best system possible given pricing constraints and the mandates of other family members – something with which many, many audiophiles can identify. 

All it takes is the right dealer with a sharp focus on the future. 

My crystal ball is no clearer on the future of audio than anyone else’s. I can make predictions with not a glimmer of expectation any of them will come true. However, I do feel our hobby is not destined for obscurity because a bunch of gray-haired old men got too old to listen to music. I see our hobby as being at a crossroads of sorts. Do we make changes, perhaps seismic changes to preserve our future, or do we continue stumbling down a darkened path because “that’s how it’s always been done?” 

We’ll have to wait to find out. 

Original Resource is Audiophile Review

Why Experimenting With Your System System Is A Good Thing

As an audiophile, I suspect I am one of a brood of enthusiasts who like to tinker with their systems. I find it somewhere between enlightening and confusing that while I find my system glorious today, tomorrow may well be quite a different story. And so, the “experimenting” begins. 

There is, perhaps, no greater portion of our audio systems that are repositioned, toed in, toed out, moved around, supplemented with something, and basically casting the perpetual feeling things could be better than speakers. Floor standing or bookshelf, it matters not. It is surprisingly simple to question the system’s sonics because of an indubitable belief that only a few millimeters “this way” will yield dramatic improvements. 

When we do more of a deep dive on speaker positioning, it becomes abundantly clear not all audio rooms are the same and these “all encompassing” speaker set up methods are not all they’re cracked up to be. Most will use a mathematical formula of some type to divide and subdivide the room into quadrants where speakers may be placed.

Do an Internet search for “how to set up floorstanding speaker in an audio room.” My search took 0.87 seconds and yielded 4,990,000 results. And guess what? All of them have little chance of being the actual correct position of my speakers. At best, they are a good starting point. A place from which actual fine tuning of the speakers in the room may take place. Basically, a final speaker position requires experimentation to get the sonics locked into an overall enjoyable position. Why? 

Because no two room are alike. Because builders do not build rooms with perfect dimensions. Because builders essentially do not build rooms for a two-channel audio system (unless the room is designed as such). Because there is no guarantee walls and ceilings will be consistent in terms of parallel, plumb, straight, and flat. Because no two rooms will be furnished the same – not to mention the deleterious effect furniture, windows and mirrors have on imaging. Because different speaker designs have varying placement methodologies. Because we may not fully understand the physics of how sound is propagated in an enclosed space. Because, because, because…

The list goes on and on. 

How do we then get speakers to their optimal position? Simple, we experiment. We tinker. We move a few millimeters one way and when that proves unsatisfactory, we move them a different way. Even if we hire a professional to position our speakers for us, they are employing these same techniques. They are simply charging for their experience, their set up acumen and their history of doing so many times before in all manner of situations. In the end, getting speakers right requires fine tuning. AKA – experimenting. 

What of the system itself? While many may feel there is little one can do to an amp, preamp, streaming device, music server or phonostage, I would tell you there are quite a few things that might be tried for better sonics. 

One, “experiment” using vibration control products. These products, depending on the type and level of protection, can have a remarkable impact on a system’s sonic greatness. In fact, every piece of equipment in my system, from sources, to amplification to speakers to subs to even cables and interconnects have some type of vibrational control product. While some work better than others individually, the cumulative effect is astounding. 

And how do I know this? Because one day, out of sheer curiosity, I removed every single footer, platform, cone, rubber grommet, whatever, and discovered, to my great surprise, just what a remarkable improvement these devices collectively provide. When I heard adverse sonics without, I halted playback and put them all back where they had originally been placed. And all was right in the universe. Tell the truth, it was an enlightening way to spend an afternoon. 

That makes the hobby more interesting, right? When I talk with my audiophile buddies, I can tell them what I did and the resultant negative effects, and also how I put everything back. I certainly can’t speak for anyone else, but I like to make the hobby more about the singular practice of listening to a song. I like to investigate; I like to learn. I like to better understand the physics of how sound is propagated in an enclosed space. For me, it is all part of the audiophile hobby. 

Not all experiments will be fruitful. Well, that seems obvious. So, it is also important to record where things are and were so if the need to restore a previous position occurs, it will be easy to do so. When I move a speaker, I take measurements to the side and front walls and record them on a sketch of the speakers in the room. Each change is recorded. If I go too far with a speaker placement, I will need to know where it was before so the better sounding position may be restored. 

When I find a position that really speaks to me, I record, and keep it along with several other placement schematics in my audio room. And if six months down the road I become convinced the current placement suddenly no longer works, I can recall an earlier position. Maybe I replicate that position, maybe not. At least I’ll know a starting point that previously worked.  Because, six months later when I may possibly go through this nonsense again, I’ll do so from a known entity. I do this because at my core, I like to tinker. 

Don’t be reluctant to experiment with speaker placement, however radical. They can always be put back where they were. Don’t discount some the more well-established ancillary devices like footers and platforms. And well, why not, if not overtly expensive, give some the more obtuse tweaks a try, if only for fun. 

Experimenting with your audio system can be a great way to spend an afternoon. It can yield remarkable improvements or confirm what is already in place. So if the music just “ain’t gettin it” one day, try shaking things up a bit. Who knows, you might like what you hear! 

Original Resource is Audiophile Review

Are New Trends Replacing Sonics With Convenience?

Audiophiles. Gotta love ‘em, right? We commonly agree to disagree on any number of subjects, theories, sources, sonic presentations, you name it. Why we do so is plainly obvious – ours is an individual pastime. We all enjoy doing things our own way, forging our own path and to a certain extent, at least from our own perspective and viewpoints, differences from our own are simply wrong. Well, for the most part. 

While many of us prefer digital, there are also that dedicated enclave who prefer vinyl. Some feel tubes sound more magical than solid state while others still feel quite the opposite. We all like what we like, be it equipment, musical genres, shoot, even how and where a system is housed. 

While these are debates with a lot of mileage, there is one with a newer focus. One perhaps best termed a new arrival. One, who not surprisingly, has roots in the longstanding analog / digital fuss. The question being, is audiophilia replacing sonics with convenience?

Ask me which I prefer, vinyl or digital and my answer is simple, I like them both and from a sonic standpoint, equally. Both have their own merit. I have scores of spectacular sounding LPs. I’ve bought several Mobile Fidelity UltraDisc One Step LPs which sound much better than any other LP in my library.

Conversely, I have an original 1974 release of Rick Wakeman’s Journey To The Center of the Earth, an album for whatever reason I’ve always enjoyed. I played it recently, after a year or more absence, and was shocked at how utterly remarkable it sounded. Unbelievable soundstage. I also have the CD copied to my server and when the inclination struck to hear Rick and his keyboard pageantry, I typically went digital. As such, I have not heard the LP in a while. Playing that 47-year-old record left me in wide-eyed disbelief at what I have been missing by disregarding vinyl.

I see the salient question being why I have consistently chosen the digital version of this artist’s work, or any music where I have both digital and vinyl, as opposed to an analog version? The answer is not really all that surprising – convenience. 

For me to play an LP, and agree or not this is my process, I first clean the LP in an ultra-sonic record cleaner. That takes a total of five minutes, clean and dry. Then I place the LP on the platter and install the record clamp and outer periphery ring. I then use an AudioQuest Super Conductive Anti-Static Brush, then clean the stylus. Only then do I lower the tonearm. Frustratingly enough, I am only comfortably seated in the listening chair for about 20 minutes before getting up to change sides. Or a different LP, which means going through this whole process again. 

To be honest, when I really look forward to playing an LP, none of this matters all that much. Of course, my listening sessions are typically shorter for vinyl than digital. And what of digital? How does it compare? Well, selections take only a few short seconds – pick up iPad, open Roon, choose music, press play. Short of having to get up for some personal reason, I can, if I so choose, easily remain comfortably seated in the listening chair all day – just as happy as a clam. 

Think I’m the only one who feels similarly? Not by a long shot. Manufacturers recognize the ease and convenience of digital and are going to almost epic lengths to raise the bar for digital convenience. My question is, are we, as audiophiles, ceding way to convenience for convenience’s sake and moving towards foregoing our sonic principals, or are we remaining dedicated to sonics?  

Looking at the totality of high performance audio it becomes clear a huge emphasis is being placed on more budget friendly systems with purported better sonics. Call it the all things to all audiophiles principal. Half million-dollar systems are not necessarily required because this $5K system sounds good enough. Some may buy into that position; others will think it absurd. For those who do not question such a notion, how do you roll? Are you giving way to convenience and foregoing sonics? It depends on your level of acceptance of good enough

Another important question would be is this really a condition at all? Are manufacturers placing sonics in second place behind feature laden components which also champion affordability? Does this condition even exist, to any extent? 

I have always been humorously curious why, or so it sometimes seems to me, as the price of components goes up, features go down. How many audiophiles have looked at $30K, $50K or more preamps whose features extend little beyond changing sources and volume? At the same time, a $2K preamp does almost everything except wash the dinner dishes. 

Here’s another question – which one would you think has the more likely chance of producing better sonics? If your answer is “well, the $2K preamp is good enough”— are you then part of some presumed wave of those placing sonics behind pretty much everything else? 

Is it also possible the more expensive preamp is designed for those who can afford and demand sonic superiority above all else and the lesser expensive option not? Are the lower cost version’s attributes principally designed for something other than sonics – like maybe convenience? 

In the real world, hyper expensive equipment is not going away. Probably ever. Likewise, manufacturers are not anytime soon going to stop searching for better features combined with lower cost. I have always pretty much figured that sales of budget equipment helped fund research and development of high-rise priced luxury equipment. One is an expedient means to the other. 

My question is this – in the future, if you want superior sonics, will you be forced to open wide the checkbook? If you instead want numerous features and low cost, and are not especially concerned about how magnificent something sounds, will foregoing sonics in favor of abundant options be an acceptable fallback position? In short, are we replacing sonics with convenience? 

I view the answer as one simple thing – sonic acceptance. 

Original Resource is Audiophile Review

Have You Ever Experienced Audio System Withdrawal?

Depending on the context, withdrawal ranges in meaning from removal of something, to trying to kick a drug habit, to emotional detachment. Needless to say, the addiction meaning is quite serious. “Withdrawing” from the dining room to the great room is much less ominous. Like so many words in our vocabulary, different meanings are denoted based on how the word is used – whether written or in speech. 

I was talking with an audiophile friend recently who was telling me his tubed preamp developed some problems which necessitated return for repair. This is, of course, the irritating side of the audiophile hobby. Regardless how much any component may cost, irrespective of superior excellence in the component’s design and manufacture, regardless of how glorious it may sound, sometimes things break. There are times, for some unknown, inexplicable reason, something just stops working. When it happens, our level of frustration grows exponentially. 

We have all experienced this in some form or fashion. Maybe the software for the music server abruptly started acting crazy. Maybe the streaming device suddenly became unable to connect to the Wi-Fi network. Maybe the speakers precipitously, and without any easily definable reason, started making some weird noise. Worst of all, the system was absolutely perfect and sounded magnificent just minutes before. Now, “poof,” some idiotic problem. 

We all must succumb to the irascible tendencies our systems have to malfunction without warning and at the worst of all possible times. When these problems do occur, and if we are unable to get things back on track, and if we have exhausted everything we know to make things right, it becomes a sad and unenviable realization we must do the most dreaded and despised thing of all – send the component back to be repaired. 

This was the position in which my friend found himself on the day we spoke. He summarized things pretty much this way – “I had to send my preamp back to be repaired. I hated to do so but I had no choice. I’ve been without music for several weeks now. And I’m going through system withdrawal.” 

There it is. Withdrawal. In audiophile parlance it means not being able to listen to your audio system. Why and how is basically irrelevant. About the only factor that matters at all is when – when will my system be back up and running? I want to listen to music!

Withdrawal is borne by not only system malfunction but also absence – the inability to actually get into the audio room and play a song. My last trip to Europe lasted just over two weeks and during the return flight, I honestly did not think the plane would ever arrive in the US so I could go home. Such was the anxiety brewing in me over the Atlantic Ocean and my desire to sit in my listening chair, dim the lights, close my eyes and become enraptured by music. 

However we are separated from our audio systems with the resultant condition being no music, we tend to develop a certain sense of withdrawal, do we not? That feeling of anxiety and longing for our trusted friend. System enjoyment comes in different forms. For some of us, the satisfaction of singing along with our favorite song. For others, attempting to rectify that gnawing feeling the speakers are only a “few millimeters” from their ideal position. It doesn’t really matter exactly how we enjoy our systems, only that we can on our own terms – not a time frame imbued upon us by some unseen, unknown entity. 

I know this firsthand as in November of 2019 my amp went into overload protection and refused to reset itself. I first turned it off, waited a few seconds and turned it back on. That didn’t work. I unplugged it from the AC power and plugged it back in. Nope. And in what I was quite certain would fix the problem for sure, I began screaming and cursing at it – which also failed – imagine that. It took a full three months for the amp to be sent to the California service center, wait for circuit boards to be manufactured, installed, tested, and the amp returned. I nearly went crazy. Because nothing I did was an acceptable substitute for my main system. 

That is also a problem, right? The stupid thing breaks, we have to send something back for repair, and any and all “plan B” endeavors to play music basically fall woefully short. Because at the end of the day, plan B orchestrations simply do not rise to the compatible level of enjoyment of the main system. 

Eventually, my friend got his preamp back and once again resumed listening to music. Eventually, I got my amp back and the three months my audio room was dark and silent slipped from memory. Getting to the other side of audio withdrawal eventually happens. We get over it because the whatever got fixed, got returned and now operates normally. And musical bliss occurs once again. 

But as any of us who have been through this knows only too well – being without your beloved system, in and of itself, is the audio way to experience withdrawal. 

Original Resource is Audiophile Review

New Music Friday

Vinnie Riccitelli Octet – “For The Record Self-Released

Born in 1926 in Yonkers, NY, Vinnie Riccitelli has literally spent a lifetime playing the saxophone. He started at age 11, and by 15 was playing professionally. After serving in the Navy during WWII, he was accepted by the highly regarded Julliard School of Music as one of the first three musicians ever chosen to study the alto sax. Upon completion of his studies, he resumed his professional career. All in all, his career spans an incredible 77 years. Retiring in 2018, Riccitelli has continued to make music, only he has done so for fun from home. “For The Record” is an examination of some of his earlier releases and was recorded from November 2019 through January 2020. None of the seventeen tracks sound improvised. Rather, they come across as skillfully arranged and expertly executed. Riccitelli did not actually re-record these tracks for this release, however, he was on hand to oversee their recording. Despite being a re-release of prior recordings, it is a firm example of the skill Riccitelli possessed when he was playing professionally. All in all, this is a great example of traditional jazz by a 95-year-old musician with 77 years of experience in figuring out how to make exceptional music. 

Overall: 8.5

Sonics: 8

Melbreeze – “I Love Paris Blue Canoe Records

Turkish born, LA resident Melbreeze has released 10 covers of standard songs all done in a rather unique jazz, improvisational style. All of these covers tell a good story, from “Sentimental Journey” to “Killing Me Softly With His Songs.” Some songs have a measure of the spoken word. In fact, track 6, “I Love Paris” has a vocal story told during the song itself. All in all, her voice is both compelling and beguiling. She enthralls the listener, enticing them to become absorbed in the music. As I listened, and if I closed my eyes, I kept getting the feeling I was in a Paris nightclub on the Champs de Lycée in the company of a marvelous performer. Each song is its own interpretation and a relaxing journey of melodic, traditional jazz – oriented in a mix of both standard and pop related genres.

Overall: 8

Sonics: 8

Sue Maskaleris – “Love Is The Key Jazilian Records

McCoy Tyner once said she had “a touch like Bill.” He was referring to Bill Evans. She began playing piano at age 4 and by adulthood had developed a love for Brazilian styled music. I reviewed a previous work of hers in November 2013. All eleven tracks have, to one degree or another, a ting of Latin inspired sound to them. Sue’s piano work is nothing less than spectacular, and perfectly instep with the overall compositions. Mostly, the pace is rather slow and purposeful. Her musical tone is more toward the melodic side. Her voice is also excellent, and she never gives the slightest hint she is overreaching her vocal abilities. Like her previous work I reviewed, “Love” is a Latin themed work of vocal driven traditional Jazz that is exceptionally composed, arranged and performed by an artist known for doing just that. 

Overall: 8

Sonics: 8

David Larsen – “The Mulligan Chronicles David Larsen Productions

To say that the latest release from David Larsen is a cover of the music of Gerry Mulligan is a complete understatement. Already possessing multiple degrees, Larsen is currently pursuing a PhD from Washington State University where he is specifically studying Mulligan’s music. In preparation of beginning this work, Larsen visited the Library of Congress to study and examine handwritten musical scores and other information contained in the Library’s archives. Mulligan’s own work was varied and ranged from symphonic to big band, to film to small bands. Done in a traditional jazz style, Larsen’s efforts in paying tribute to someone he obviously and greatly admires is very well served. All thirteen tracks are traditional jazz and arranged in a way that they just flow along. They are not hurried, nor do they lack movement. The music just happens. Anyone who is a fan or devotee of Gerry Mulligan will, I feel sure, really enjoy the latest work from David Larsen. 

Overall: 8

Sonics: 8

Lyle Workman – “Uncommon Measures Blue Canoe Records

While he might not be widely known by name, Lyle Workman has composed soundtracks for hit movies who in total have grossed over a billion dollars. He has been a career in demand session player. Now, he brings together all his worlds in his latest release, “Uncommon Measures.”  This release is uncharacteristic in several ways. One, I could not really define it by a single genre. It has hints of jazz, rock, orchestra, I mean you almost name it. I also kept getting the feeling this work harkened back to his days producing movie soundtracks. Several songs sounded like they would be right at home in a 1970’s big budget movie with an intense car chase, one terrorizing the streets of some large city. Another surprising fact is that this release was recorded totally live. And by live, I mean at famed Abbey Road Studios in London. By no less than a 63-piece orchestra. I suppose his association with a wide and varied list of artists as a session player influenced his own orchestrations. Because while I did not feel compelled to classify “Uncommon Measures” by any one definable genre, what I can say is that it was a stunning, absolutely, positively remarkable collections of songs – all expertly crafted, orchestrated and performed. 

Overall: 9.5

Sonics: 8

Bill Toms & Hard Rain – “Keep Moving On” Terraplane Records

The latest release by Bill Toms is notable in several ways. One, it was, quite literally, a virtual recording. Because of the pandemic, none of the musicians were in the studio at the same time. Given the horn sections, that is all the more difficult. Then there is the issue of having all the instruments recorded from home being able to cohesively form a worthwhile song. His bass player, for instance, was in Italy at the time of recording. In this, Tom’s tenth studio recording, a cohesive release of rock and roll is exactly what happens. Set for an April 30, 2021 release date “Moving On” is a testament to doing just that. Call it his way of putting Covid behind us and celebrating hope and faith. In my December 15, 2017 review, I wrote that Tom’s music had hints of the Jersey Shore and Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. And nothing has changed. This is, for the most part, “higher” octane, horn, guitar, bass and drum styled vocal tracks done in a rock and even blues style. My toe was tapping the whole time. In fact, anytime I basically forget I’m conducting a music review and just get into what I’m hearing it is a good thing. As with his previous work, that’s exactly what happened with this release as well. I don’t think I could have enjoyed “Keep Movin’ On” more than I did. Absolutely wonderful. 

Overall: 10

Sonics: 8

Original Resource is Audiophile Review

Why Reviews Are Important

In the early years of high performance audio, the hobby, predominately, was most aptly characterized as local. Dealers were in almost every city of any notable size and in most smaller ones as well. It was not uncommon for buyers to routinely visit their friendly dealer up the street to see what new gear awaited. They spent time hanging around the dealership and became friendly with the staff. It was almost an outing. 

As years passed, the hobby changed. Gear got better and most would perhaps agree more expensive. Although I would submit our hobby has always been a little on the expensive side relative to median income – regardless of the time frame or year. 

As prices increased, dealers, always under constant pressure, in many ways felt caught in the middle. They needed to make a profit to remain in business and make a living. Yet at the same time, they wanted to move product out the door and that required making concessions. One was irrevocably intertwined with the other. 

Today, the dealer business model ranges from very successful to almost a polar opposite. Consumers, who predictably are looking to save money, have turned to other creative methods to purchase gear. We know that sales outlet as the Internet. 

I enjoy talking to dealers and if there is one universal, incontrovertible gripe they all have it is the customer who comes into the dealership, plays with and listens to components, spends inordinate amounts of time asking questions, gets quotes and then buys online. Is it legal? Yes. Is it ethical? Dealers will universally tell you it is not. No way. Consumers may feel differently. In car parlance they are called “tire kickers.” Audio dealers are helpless because they never know who will buy online or become a paying customer. 

Regardless of how one secures a new purchase, it goes without saying it has become a process. Many feel a long and arduous process. For others, it is no more difficult than placing the order and writing the check. However any audiophile may end up with new gear, the first step of the process usually begins with research. 

It has been said a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. While buying a new audio toy is not, for most anyway, a journey of a thousand miles, it does invoke a certain amount of trepidation and hopeful expectations of sonic acceptance. For quite a few of us, step one is reading a review. 

Typically, if we have in mind a particular product, we are naturally curious about how it will perform. So, let’s be clear, there is no better substitute than demoing a perspective product in your home, on your system, playing your music. None. As true as that may be, it is not always an easy thing to accomplish. Dealers may not be conveniently located. They may not have the product in question. While all that is known and understood, it does not relieve the indecision in buying a new and untested product. 

Reviewers bring a measure of reassurance to the buying process. Most reviewers, particularly the more well-known ones, are in many ways like a trusted expert. Many have remarkable systems and have had years of practice learning how to diagnose and dissect exactly what a song is doing on an audio system. 

It is quite common for a reviewer to have multiple speakers, amps, turntables – whatever the case may be – the main function being variety in order to facilitate well rounded guidance to curious readers. Some systems will be very much on the budget side, some will be hyper expensive. What these systems provide the reviewer is a platform for reasoned, technical observations along with listening experience. 

Reviewers, however, are not infallible. It should be understood that to a certain extent, what is reported is based on personal preferences. I’ve read reviews about speakers, for instance, and based on my own experience I would disagree completely and absolutely with their findings. I’ve also read reviews with which I agreed completely and absolutely. 

It should also be understood that not all products will be reviewed. Maybe that new digital device you are all hot about is not on the radar for review. If not, what do you do then? Most commonly, search for something in the same family or something else by that same manufacturer. Maybe some insight may be gleaned, incomplete though it may be. 

Perhaps the most important service reviewers bring to high performance audio is a valued starting point. If someone reads a review about a speaker and the review was highly positive, the buyer should realistically add that speaker to their short list – and of course, make plans to hear the speaker for themselves. 

If, after reading an exceedingly glowing review on something, you hear the component and are completely dismayed, it might be natural to wonder what the reviewer was thinking. How could he like this awful sounding thing? 

It is important to remember that ours is a hobby of wildly divergent tastes and levels of enjoyment. What appeals to one may not to all. Not everyone likes Brussels Sprouts. Just because you disagreed with a review after hearing that particular component for yourself does not make the reviewer wrong. It’s as simple as their opinion differed from yours. 

Reviews are not an easy thing to do. Most reviewers live with a component for several months. They must haul these heavy things around, fenagle them into their audio rack, store the boxes somewhere, and once the review has been completed, pack it up and ship it back. All in all, a lot of work. 

This difficult task is most often done without complaint because at their core, reviewers, generally speaking, enjoy the review process. They are a valuable part of the buying practice. Information about any particular audio product, done under controlled conditions, with known music and with likewise quality associated equipment brings a valuable resource to what is otherwise a difficult part of the audio process – the part where a purchase decision is made. 

Original Resource is Audiophile Review

Do Looks Matter as Much as Sonics?

When I first saw the KEF Blade on the cover of The Absolute Sound, I almost started laughing. “What is this crazy looking thing” I asked myself. I so completely dismissed it from any new speaker system consideration that even reading the review was a waste of my time. 

A year or so later I happened to walk into the KEF room at RMAF. The ever affable Johann Coorg, Brand Manager for KEF, was talking about the merits of this new speaker system. To say I was disinterested would be very accurate. I didn’t even care about this speaker system; I was never going to buy a pair so why have any concern about what they can do? Why am I wasting my time in this room?

About eight months later I owed a pair. 

What happened to me that day at an audio show was transformational. I was at the show because I wanted to narrow down my choices for a new speaker system. The KEF Blade was not on my short list. Why? Because of how they looked. I did pretty much the same thing I do with food. If it doesn’t look appetizing, it will taste bad. If it doesn’t look good, it will sound bad. Narrowminded thinking, I’ll admit. 

I was so captivated by the sound of the Blade that day in Denver I spent the rest of the audio show holding it as a benchmark against the other contenders on my list. None of those contenders really measured up. After the show, I visited a dealer to hear them again and ultimately bought a pair. Perhaps most strange, their look was suddenly “cool.” I even gave serious consideration to a bright orange color. How such a total transformational viewpoint occurred still mystifies me. 

This underscores a part of our audio choices, does it not? Our obvious first choice is how something sounds. I have always felt each of us has an intrinsic mechanism telling us when something sounds pleasing, accurate, dynamic, like live music, or any other requirement we may have. We are all looking for that certain sound. Asked to describe this mythical sound and we very likely cannot. However, we will know when we hear it played. 

When considering how much an audio system can easily cost, do we not also want attractiveness as a feature and benefit? Who among us audiophiles do not think those iconic blue meters on almost everything McIntosh is way cool? It is so easy to imagine being in a magnificent audio room, lights down low, music at 85 dB, favorite beverage in hand, and not only listening, but also looking at that soft blue glow in the semi darkness. I know of what I speak as I’ve owned McIntosh gear in the past. It can almost be hypnotic. 

Who among us audiophiles would pay thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars for something friends and contemporaries would ask “where’d you get that ugly thing?” Not a question I ever want to field. 

Where then, do we draw the line between what we think looks attractive, what we think everyone else will see as good looking, and what offers sonic captivation? Do we forego any pretense of visual acuity in favor of sonic acuity? Or do we need both? 

Speakers are perhaps the one component with “different” looking designs. Well, let’s be honest. Sometimes they just look flat out weird. Horn speakers can be particularly out there in gaga land when it comes to how they look.  There is another factor at work here, however. 

Is it not also likely the shape of the cabinet aims to improve sonics? That is exactly the case with the Blade. It was designed that way on purpose, and that purpose being meeting certain sonic goals. Looks were not the overriding objective, how it sounded was. One was an engineered means to the other. 

If we like the way something sounds, particularly a speaker system, can we get past the fact it looks crazy or just flat out ugly? When we listen in low light, something I am certain each of us has done at some time or another, do we see music or that crazy looking speaker? Or amp? Or whatever? 

Face it, we have to temper our viewpoints with a certain disconnect of the visual from the auditory. I fell in love with the KEF Blade because I heard it, not because I saw it. Had I not heard it, I seriously doubt I would have ever owned a pair. Auditory, not visual. 

Still, the fact remains, many of us need the speaker, component, or whatever the case may be to look as good as it sounds. Manufacturers try to accommodate our wishes when they can. Sonics will always win out. But looks also matter. Such is the reason we have things with nice soft blue lights, beautiful woods, and visual splendor intended to make anyone who looks it go “wow.” 

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Yes, that’s a well-worn phrase. In audiophile parlance, it means primarily how it sounds, but to a certain extent, also how it looks. Where the line is drawn between the two is an individualistic, debatable choice we all must make. We may view sonics as our purchase choice barometer. Visuals may enter into the picture as well. In the end, I suspect sonics win. It seems inevitably likely we will have as a continuing design feature the different, the outlander, the obscure when it comes to how something looks. How it sounds, ah, that’s the thing. We really can’t get past sonics. 

Original Resource is Audiophile Review