darTZeel NHB-458 monoblock amplifier Page 2
The first listen in my system made one thing clear: The NHB-458s delivered "never heard before" high-frequency cleanness and transparency combined with as perfect a high-frequency transient response as I've heard from any amplifier, all emerging from velvety-black backdrops. The attack was neither slightly soft nor a bit too fast or tight, the latter of which can produce a hard, wiry sound that never lets you forget that you're listening to electronics, not live music.
Months later, that's still what I'm hearing as I listen to Mel Tormé and Friends: Recorded Live at Marty's, New York City (2 LPs, Finesse W2X37484), which I first heard at a long-ago Consumer Electronics Show through a pair of Apogee speakers in the room of their late co-designer, Jason Bloom. Tormé's friends here include Gerry Mulligan and Janis Ian; the master tape has gone missing, so I pick up every clean copy I see, including the latest, a 1A pressing purchased on last April's Record Store Day for $9. This sonically superb set was recorded by Dale Ashby and Big John Laberdie; played back at the right volume, it's transporting. Even the audience applause seems carefully miked, but it's Tormé's voice that's especially well recorded, appearing between the speakers as if you're listening from in front of Tormé in Marty's on that night.
In his liner note, Rex Reed writes: "Being there, with the patina of an artist's bravado rubbing off on the ringsiders, is one thing. But 'in person' albums sometimes make the listener uncomfortable, like walking in the snow and knowing there's a warm, festive party going on down the block in which you're not invited. That doesn't happen here." I'll say!
The NHB-458's transparency and "just right" attack begins at the very bottom of the audioband and extends to the very top. If the Soulution 710 was so fast and clean that I wished it might slow down a bit and reveal more texture, and the MBL 9011 was top-to-bottom coherent but I kept wishing it would tighten and speed up a bit, the NHB-458 was, to my ears, like Goldilocks' favored porridge: just right. The NHB-458s produced exceptionally clean and transparent high frequencies that combined the speed and fine image size of the best solid-state gear with the textural and transient delicacy and generous harmonic instrumental structures of the best tubed components.
The very first thing that startled was the way the darTZeels reproduced drums. I just keep playing Larry Young's Unity (two 45rpm LPs, Blue Note/Music Matters MMBST-84221)and with the organist backed by tenor sax man Joe Henderson, trumpeter Woody Shaw, and drummer Elvin Jones, no wonder! It's among engineer Rudy Van Gelder's best drum recordings, and was one of the first records I played through the NHB-458s. Record after record, my response was "Best drum sound I've ever heard."
But less important than such superlatives was why it was the best, and after months of listening to what's still the best drum sound I've ever heard, from cymbals to kick drum and, especially, what's in between, I finally figured it out: the NHB-458's combination of high, instantaneous power, absolutely spot-on attack speed, ideal sustain, and graceful, extended decay. The darTZeel wasn't the only amp I've heard that made drums "pop," but it followed that up with stunning textural authority in the sustain, then equally fast and symmetrical decay.
Recently, a Blue Note record producer brought over some test pressings of Norah Jones's catalog, now being reissued on vinyl by Acoustic Sounds. I think what he heard those LPs sound like took him by surprisein a good way. Turned out he's also a fan of Larry Young, so I played the first track of Unity. His reaction to first hearing that very familiar track through the NHB-458s was the same as mine had been: astonishment.
Over time, it became apparent that the same qualities that produced the ideal drum sound brought a clarity and believability to piano recordings. The more crowded the soundstage, the more distant the miking, and the more reverberant the backdrop, the more the NHB-458s were able to lay out that first transient without overwhelming the textural sustain and decay. It's what you hear in a great concert halleven Avery Fisher.
Consider, for instance, a reissue of Brahms's Piano Concerto 1 with pianist Clifford Curzon, and George Szell conducting the London Symphony (LP, Decca SXL 6023/London CS 6329/ORG 103), recorded by Kenneth Wilkinson at Kingsway Hall in spring 1962. The recording was simply miked, which produces eerily lifelike imaging and palpable physical presences of instruments, enveloped by the hall's acoustic. Like most Wilkinson recordings, it sounds great through just about any system. The absence of spot mikes means that the piano appears honestly sized in the mix, which means its physical presence can easily get overwhelmed on recordsomething that doesn't happen live, even if you're seated well back in the hall. The NHB-458s managed a particularly believable, properly proportioned apparition of the piano, with an ideal balance between the hammer attack, the soundboard sustain, and the decay into the hall acoustic. A harder-sounding amp would accentuate the attack and probably shortchange the contribution of the soundboard; a softer-sounding amp would communicate the soundboard's warmth, but miss the piano's percussive qualities.