Thursday, October 15, 2020

New vinyl catch up

As I've not been writing too often these recent months, I have not stopped listening. In fact, I've been steadily accumulating batches of new LPs as the releases of interest are coming thick and fast. Consider this a flying mention of the most notables - more to come.

Monk album cover

New Monk, who can resist? I confess, I had my doubts when news surfaced of a recently sourced old tape from a late Monk performance at a school in California, not helped by reports that it was recorded by the janitor. Well, all that might, and indeed likely is, true but this is no barrel scraping excuse to shake a few more shillings from jazz lovers' pockets. Nope, this is a fine production, replete with inner liner notes and copy of the original poster and program revealing the story of a schoolboy producer and a road hardened group who came together to play music one afternoon. The sound is really quite good, better than I expected, but the music is superb. The whole band is on form and it's hard to listen to this and not get swept up in the pleasure. The total production quality of this on LP is high and great value in an age of mega-buck reissues.  Monk, Palo Alto. Just get it. 


Deep Purple are still going, despite the pandemic temporarily (it seems) halting their end of the road world tour, and to the surprise of many they have released perhaps their strongest album in twenty years (and this for a band that's been going for over 50 now).  Bob Ezrin might be to blame, age might have mellowed the personalities, but the songwriting chops are maturing and this album makes a case for old guys continuing to rock on far stronger than anything I can think of from their contemporaries. As always, Paice on drums makes Purple swing where others pound, and the results are catchy, joyous, musical, progressive and yep, still identifiably Purple-esque. The vinyl comes in two thick slabs and sounds great. The highlights for me are Nothing at All, with an ear worm of a riff and a wonderful keyboard solo from Airey that marries Bach to Basie once Paice and Glover drive it along, and a version of the first-ever DP track, And the Address, which opened the Shades of Deep Purple album back in 1968.Are they telling us something?   Whoosh it is

Sunday, September 6, 2020

The Genius of Jazz

Charlie Parker's centennial seemed to pass with precious little mention in mainstream media, which I suppose should surprise neither jazz fans or followers of the current news channels. But here's a little something, not about Bird, but about the musical form as a melting pot that is worth enjoying. Grab a drink, sit down, and enjoy the history:



Wednesday, August 12, 2020

That USBe Perfect from Core Power Technologies

 

So, after sharing the press release on this little USB add-on, I was sent a sample to try. Thank you Mark and Walter at CorePower, that was a nice touch. The trouble for me at least is I am not a huge USB/computer user in my audio pursuits as I like to spin material objects rather than files.  That said, I do work at a desk with a decent set up for office duties: a MacBook Pro feeding an Audient ID4 that doubles as a guitar input, sending music to my current speakers, a pair of active Audioengine 5+. This rig actually gets more hours of use in these pandemic times than my main rig, so naturally the UBBe got slotted in there. 

So what does this little mysterious block of USB-ness do?  The manufacturers claim  it is designed to "minimize signal degradation effects such as crosstalk and inter-symbol interference (ISI) that limits the interconnect distance between two devices".  You will read there that "the differential outputs provide selectable de-emphasis to compensate for the anticipated distortion USB 3.0 signal experiences" (I have no idea what the selectable aspect refers to, this is a plug and play device).  The website give you graphs of input/output transmissions which mean little to me as presented so I can't offer any real commentary on what is doing at the signal level. So, I just put it in and listened, the most fundamental approach to answering the 'what does this do?' question. 

Let me keep this simple - you put it in, listen, you take it out, listen, you put it in again. It really is that simple. Many people will likely stop there.  Some people may even skip the 'take it out' middle step, being convinced on first listen, but I'm an empiricist. I put the connector between the Mac and Audient and thought, 'hum...that's better sounding'. I gave it a few days and took it out. It did not take me a further few days to put it back in again. I've done this a few times now, just to be sure...and yes, I'm pretty sure. I leave it in a lot more than I take it out. The music with the USBe Perfect in the chain always sounds better.

Ok, so is that a sufficient review? Well, in one sense it is. What more do you really need to know? I'm not shading the nuances, suggesting on some tracks it highlighted the cymbals, allowed me to better hear the breath of a singer, resolved the guitar line cleanly, smoothed the bass a little etc.  Sure -- it did ALL those things if you wanted to listen for them and dissect the changes.  More importantly, what this little add-on does in making the music flow better on everything does not require you to strain your ears to hear it. So if your real concern is 'will I hear a difference?' then the answer is likely 'yes'.   

I've been sampling the new Deep Purple album, Whoosh, that has garnered some unusual positive reviews for the old dinosaurs (21 albums in over 50 years as a band). On Spotify, it sounded a bit thick and compressed but even with this signal, the USBe Perfect cleaned things up.  I could tell within 10 seconds of listening to 'Throw my Bones' that I preferred the sound with the USBe in the chain than out of it. Better resolution, clearer instrumental lines, a greater sense of space and yes, a sense of swing that was otherwise lost, all came through.  

Push me and I'll tell you that I always thought this computer set up tended to smooth everything over a bit much for my ultimate taste. I used to think this is a characteristic of Audioengine speakers, a nice but occasionally overdone warmth in the mid-bass, with a softening of the upper frequencies.  However,  the addition of the USBe Perfect confirmed there's a very good desktop or even small room set up here just waiting to be enjoyed. Space, detail, clarity, and ultimately my enjoyment of the music,  all improved once I added this device to my set up. Overall, it  made me want to crank the music up, which I almost never do at my desktop, but on more than few evenings over the last month, as the working duties faded, I'd listen for pleasure rather than background and in such hours, the volume tended to increase in proportion to my enjoyment.

Ok, so much for a desktop set up. What about its ability in a more serious rig where for digital I play discs in a PS Audio PWT/ PWDII combo through my SMcAudio VRE1 pre feeding PS Audio BHK300 monos and Von Schweikert 5 Anniversary 2 speakers.  This rig sounds excellent. I've not doubt a Directstream DAC would be even better but I also don't have $4k to spare to make that move.  I have dabbled with computer audio on and off in this set up (mostly off, if truth be told), and remember well my disappointment with the sound of computer files playing through the PWD USB input, to the point that I sort of gave up and stuck with CDs.  I tested trial versions of Audiovarna Amarra and the like, and while I wrung slight improvements out of the set up, the results never sounded good enough for me to persist with any enthusiasm. Yes, I know everyone's gone Roon and Tidal but I'm just biding my time for when it all becomes simpler to set up or I can appreciate streams over material for my serious listening. For now, I still worship at the altar of grooves and pits.   Because questioning minds want to know,  I tried the USBe Perfect here,  taking a USB feed from a Mac to the PWD to see if it helps. 

With no special cable, and an external HD of AIFF tracks ripped from my own collection playing through iTunes on a MacAir, I conducted some A/B comparisons over a few evenings. I listened to Alabama by Ronnie Earl again and again, with the USBe and without, as this track is so familiar to me from my constant listening over 20 years.   Throw in some Towner and Peacock, a little Coltrane and even some Shostakovitch. Could I live with this?  Interestingly, while one can do some fairly rapid changes with the USBe Perfect, a Mac, and the PS Audio PWD in order to compare presentations closely,  the real differences are ones requiring a few minutes, preferably longer, to appreciate. In the desktop system I could distinguish faster; with the main rig it was slower, the differences less obvious in the immediate comparison but actually more impressive over a few hours. What changes? The bass. No doubt about it, the USBe Perfect cleaned it up and if you listen mainly to music where the bass is prominent, you will appreciate the improvements quickly.  So yes, the USBe does something. But more importantly, after getting the bass improved, you start to hear that other instruments are less cluttered, there's a little more detail across the range, the sound seems to breath a little more openly, making the reproduction a just a little more enjoyable all round. 

Let's put this in proportion. I am not convinced I could walk into the room, stone cold,  and know in a few seconds if the USBe Perfect was in or out of the main set up. But I am convinced that if I sat down to listen to familiar music, it would not take me very long to wish it were there if it were not. There's just something more relaxed and coherent, of a whole if you like,  about music when the USBe Perfect was connected. Towner's acoustic guitar was more resonant, notes decayed a little more cleanly. The bass line in Alabama offered clearer counterpoint to Earls licks and arpeggios. The small things that matter for musical enjoyment seemed a tad more present, more real, and more available with the USBe Perfect in the rig than not. I would characterize this as less of an  'of course I hear it' and more of  a 'I think this is better sounding' type of reaction.  So consider this a vote for The USBe's positive contribution to enjoyment,  one that you will likely appreciate more over time than perceive immediately it as a major shift in sonic presentation.

So, value for money? Interesting question. $500 is hardly chump change but I'm not sure what you can get for that price which will obviously improve an audio rig that is already enjoyable.Certainly I've heard less improvement from some higher priced add-ons and accessories. Could the USBe show even greater improvements if I had a better cable to connect it to the DAC than the cheap one I used? Am sure many people would say so and the good folks at Underwood have a recommended model for just this purpose, their Conduit series ($199 and up, with special pricing on combined packages).  Is the USBe worth that price for the improvement in my desktop set up? That is not a simple question, I suppose, as one could put that same money toward better speakers or an improved DAC but we're not all starting from scratch, and improving a carefully chosen existing set up is very different challenge than building from a blank slate.  However, if I were to commit to using a laptop in my main rig, where I do my serious listening,  I would not hesitate to add this permanently because I know I'd miss the musical benefits it provided in that system over the long term.  If you envisage USB interfaces forming some part of your system no matter the configuration going forward, then this little device would have value over the long-haul for you, which is something to keep in mind when thinking of cost.  In conclusion, while I don't think of it as perfect, the CorePower USBe is certainly good enough to warrant your attention. Give one a try and let me know.

For pricing and further details see: https://www.underwoodhifi.com/products/conduit 

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Thursday, July 23, 2020

SDSU receives great jazz collection as a donation

Bram Dijkstra, retired literature professor, is a jazz fanatic and has or had the record collection to prove it. He's just donated more than 25,000 LPs, among other items, to San Diego State University. You can read the full story here

The beauty of this is not only that he ensures a wonderful collection is made available to others, but in creating through this gift the John Coltrane Memorial Black Music Archive, he enables SDSU to become a major player in the world of special collections, which, in case you did not realize it, is the main way university libraries can distinguish themselves in a world of digital access and duplicated holdings. 

As Dr Dijkstra says in the article, hearing Coltrane changed his life and now he's passing the gift on. Now that's what I call music to my ears. 

Friday, June 19, 2020

Underwood/CorePower release USBe Perfect

Press release includes the following info:

Underwood Hifi and Core Power Tech A/V 

Introduces the USBe Perfect –

THE ANSWER to USB Signal Transmission



Walter Liederman, owner of Underwood Hifi and Core Power Tech A/V had these comments when asked about the USBe Perfect - 


" Now that USB has become the transmission medium of choice, we saw a need to create the absolute best connection for the Highest Fidelity result. 

Carefully designed and meticulously Alpha and Beta Tested, the results were unanimous. USBe Perfect improved every system it was placed in. We decided to bring this product to market with an Introductory Price of $299. This is a special offer during these difficult times – the actual retail price is 499 dollars. "


USBe Perfect Technical Highlights

The USBe Perfect is designed to minimize signal degradation effects such as crosstalk, jitter, and inter-symbol interference (ISI) that negatively affect audio quality. This is achieved with a comprehensive set of features that optimize the entire USB signal transmission chain:

    • Integrated Regeneration of the USB 5V power from the source. 
    • Input stage equalization. Each input channel re-equalizes the signal gain with transmission frequency to compensate for cable losses.  (assumed to be 1 to 3 meters)
    • Output stage matching. The outputs stage provides tailored de-emphasis to compensate for impedance mismatches at the signal termination.



More info:

https://www.corepowertechav.com/products/digital-cables

https://www.underwoodhifi.com/products/conduit

Contact Walter Liederman / 770.667.5633  underwoodwally@aol.com


Monday, June 15, 2020

25th anniversary of Rory G's death

And it was acknowledge in style yesterday with an online tribute show including various contemporary acts and a few show-ups from old band members. For now it's still available online, as is the Eagle Rock remastered presentation Taste-Live at the Isle of Wight, which is a cracking live performance of Rory and the boys when he was just 22 years old - recommended.


Saturday, June 13, 2020

Octave Records aims to support the artists





PS Audio announced the formation of a new record label, Octave Records, which they launched this week with the release of Don Grusin's album Out of Thin Air. This is an interesting development from an audiophile company known for it's digital gear primarily and I hope it works.  Pure DSD recording, dual layer release with SACD, and a DVD-A, it's already backordered but you can still buy for $29 plus shipping. The music is not exactly to my taste but you can sample some of it on site. Well done all. 

Thursday, June 4, 2020

And more pertinent to now

Experience Vinyl signed Burn edition

Do love the Burn album which I've played since I first got a copy by in the 70s, for me perhaps the best stuff Hughes and Coverdale did in their careers (sorry chaps). Was seduced by the idea of a souvenir signed copy that Experience Vinyl were issuing so plunked down the cash. I don't actually need a new copy of the LP, even on colored vinyl as my original sounds decent still, so the attraction was purely sentimental, a trip down memory lane, but more likely a gift for a Purple-loving friend who I know would be delighted. Yep, how easily we aging vinyl lovers are duped into buying the same stuff repeatedly.

Here's the sales site pic:














And here's what I received (below). Guess ol' Glenn was running out of steam near the end. Not quite the souvenir but at least Experience offered to take it back and sell on to others since it's sold out apparently. Am I too fussy? Maybe..

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Rogers High Fidelity now factory direct

Rogers announced they now are selling direct to customers, following PS Audio's earlier move in this direction. Hard to argue with this though it means even more challenges for audio dealers. In many ways, it's inevitable. Magazines constantly defend their reviews by telling readers to go hear for themselves before buying but it's becoming harder and harder to do so. I've remarked here before how even in an urban market, the availability of audiophile products is limited, even when a dealer apparently exists. Esoteric gear, and let's face it, all audiophile gear is esoteric to the masses, is not amenable to convenient audition. What this means for the long-term health of the industry is anyone's guess but I think manufacturers have little chance of growing their market by proceeding with business as usual.

Rogers also announced a factory-reconditioned listing space on site too, offering a chance to get a used item with some assurances, another nice touch.  So, never heard Rogers gear myself but their phono stages and integrated amps were always of interest. I hope this works for them.


Monday, May 18, 2020

Friday, May 1, 2020

The joys of a record collection

So much is said about the value of streaming services and how you can explore at will, lucking onto great music you might not have otherwise heard. I don't disagree. But there's also something about having your own material collection that is hard to quantify. Case in point - tonight I was just doing some record playing and for no particular reason, pulled out an old chestnut - the Cannonball Adderley Quintet in Chicago

I looked at the cover, thought that might be fun to spin, pulled it from the sleeve and knew I'd cleaned it so it was ready to go but looking at the label and the vinyl I expected a somewhat rough sound from this 60 year old slab of history. Well, what do you know? Sure, a couple of clicks and pops on the run in grooves but then the music kicked in, and I sat back with a nice drink and just listened. Phew...what a delight. Sax oozed from the left, drums from the right, and yes, that was a classic case of real stereo separation (maybe a little too much, if you know what I mean) but what fun. 

A couple of tracks in, I'm reaching for the sleeve. Yep, Cannonball for sure but what else do I see....Coltrane, Kelly on piano, Chambers on bass, Cobb on drums. A small note underneath saying 'this session was cut while all the above were sidemen working with Miles Davis at the Sutherland Hotel in 1959!'. Oh now you're talking. Absolutely glorious sonics in a sort of 'to hell with frequency extension and detail, this is the pulse of a band playing in front of you'.  Then, in the lower right corner, a note entitled 'HiFi Information'

"This epochal jazz session was recorded in Feb 1959 at Universal Recording Studio B, Chicago, with Bernie Clapper, president of the firm, at the audio controls. In order to achieve the spitome in cohesive sound and coordiantion, the group was set up very tight, the way they worked in personal engagements,. Microphone sets were worked out to make for the most possible directivity of sound with very little crossover, because this is fundamentally a session which featured solos by these outstanding progressive jazzmen. Mike (sic) pickups included: Solo Reed Telefunken U-47;  Reed accent mike-RCA 44BX; Bass-Telefunken U-47; Piano-Telefunken U-47; Drums-Telefunken U-47; Rhythm accent mike-Telefunken U-47. The entire session was recorded at 15 inches per second on Ampex 350-2 modified tape recorders."

And the kicker -- the sleeve notes about the musicians has the following, written in 1959: 

"Cannonball Adderley looks forward to the future of jazz with great enthusiasm. He expresses justified confidence that his co-worker and prominent tenorman, John Coltrane will have much to do with the opening of new horizons"

Time travel indeed -  a small capsule of music, history and perspective, sitting on my shelf just waiting for the moment to remind me of what it all means. Try that Spotify!

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Art Dudley - you are missed already

I was horribly surprised by the news today that Art Dudley, audio columnist for Stereophile and former chief of the Listener has died from cancer. In a small way it makes no sense that a stranger with whom my only interactions were as passive recipient of his monthly articles should have such an  effect on me but tonight I cannot help mourn the loss. Many audio writers are dull, a few are entertaining, fewer still are also informative. Stereophile in recent years seems to have cornered the market on the subset who provide fun with insight, but even still, Art was in another league.

I don't quite know if it was the turn of phrase, which undoubtedly was delightful, or if it was the love he communicated for great music and great design, regardless of fashion, time, or supposed relevance that made him feel like a friend, a couple of drinks in, telling you what he really felt about life, art and why the two matter. His was the column I both turned to first and yet put off reading immediately so that I could savor it at leisure. And many of his writings I've read more than once because the strength of his work ensured that it warranted and rewarded multiple engagements. I've sold old copies of Absolute Sound, but I keep back issues of the Listener and Stereophile largely because of him. An edited collection of his work would not be out of place.  And yes, even this week as I considered the value in refreshing my old Naim Nait, it was Art's piece from a few years back that I referred to when weighing the cost. Was his presence felt in those final days?

I never imagined the death of an audio writer would reduce me to tears but this evening, when I read the news while I worried if my stereo was sounding as good as it should, my breath stopped for a second and I genuinely felt a deep loss. To his wife and family I send my deepest sympathies, but to all of us, the world is a little dimmer now that Art is no longer among us. A name was rarely more appropriate, he was indeed Art.

Lots of comments and videos out there - this is one of my favorites as it's the nearest we'll all get to sitting down with him to listen.

Monday, February 10, 2020

How an LP is made

Lots of confusion I suspect about how the Apollo Masters fire will impact record production. It's not about pressing plants, it's the actual supply of the nitrocellulose lacquers that is disrupted. Seems the industry was super-reliant on this one plant and developing a new supplier or hoping Apollo can make a quick comeback ignores many of the issues involved in manufacturing this stuff now.

The following video might be helpful: