The Entry Level #22
Still, I resisted. Because I'm lazy, and can be painfully stubborn even against my own desires, I tried to force the idea from my mind. I'm done with the Tannoy review. I'm supposed to be getting to know the Parasound Zcd CD player. It's going to be a pain in the ass to unpack the speakers. It's hot!
But resistance was futile. There was only one way to bring this struggle to an end. I knew it, the speakers knew it, the CD player knew it. Most of all, the music knew it. It was probably "Nightfall Pieces I" that finally sent me over the edge. George Marge's tender alto flute spun gray-blue ribbons round Bill Dixon's troubled, disconsolate trumpet, and it was just too much to take. Was this classical? Jazz? Noise? Pop? The blues? Goddammit.
I got up and unpacked the box I'd just packed up, moved the PSBs aside, and set up the Tannoys. I cleared a spot on my cluttered orange couch, started Intents and Purposes from the beginning, and listened again. I guess I wasn't ready to move on, after all.
A few points
Just after I'd submitted my review of the Mercury V1, Tannoy's marketing manager, Jen Kavanagh, sent me some interesting information about the speaker's development and design. A few points are worth mentioning here.
The V1 is the fifth iteration of the Mercury, which was originally released in the 1980s. As I've said before, I really like it when things stick around for a while. I like constancy and consistency. Especially in these unsettled days, when technological advances relentlessly alter the ways in which we interact with one another, and how we experience art, music, food, clothingeverythingI think it's important to celebrate things that last, whether they be horseshoe crabs, paisleys, friendships, or loudspeakers. (See Art Dudley's "List of the Month" in this issue's "Listening.")
In hi-fi, as in music and other forms of great art, the most distinct and memorable pieces of work are often those born from a single, determined vision. I like that, too. It means that when you're listening to a CD player or an amplifier or a pair of speakers, you're also listening to a point of viewyou're listening to a person. As I mentioned last month, the person behind the PSB sound is Paul Barton. In the case of Tannoy, that person is Paul Mills, the company's director of research and engineering. Mills joined Tannoy in 1987 as a senior engineer. Today, he's responsible for the acoustic design of all Tannoy residential loudspeakers, from the modest Mercury V1 to the stately Westminster Royal SE. It's fun to think that something of the $12,000/pair Westminster can be heard and enjoyed in the $320/pair Mercury V1. I love the fact that there are talented engineers who are willing to produce truly affordable, high-quality designs as well as cost-no-object flagship models. And while I understand and appreciate that some designers can't or won't make certain compromises (moving production to China, for instance) to reach a lower price point, I can't help wondering what the Magicos, MBLs, Wilsons, Vivids, and YGs of the hi-fi world might come up with if they chose to design a speaker that would retail for $300/pair.
Every design, even the most expensive and ambitious, is made with compromises. Last month I noted the Tannoy Mercury V1's old-fashioned appearance, all straight lines and right angles. Many other speakers have contoured baffles, tapered edges, and/or rounded sidewalls, to reduce vibrations and cabinet resonances. How does the boxy Mercury V1 overcome those obstacles? Jen Kavanagh passed my question along to Jim Stewart, Tannoy's director of operations, who explained that the speaker's overall appearance was compromised in order to achieve the best possible sound quality. I guess it's ironic, then, that I find the Mercury V1 to be so physically uncompromisedbeautiful, in fact. But that's me. I like it when speakers look like speakers, rather than seashells, aliens, eyeballs, or vulvas.
According to Stewart, a square, rigid cabinet will offer significantly better performance than a curved, thin-walled cabinet with plastic trim pieces. For the Mercury V1, Tannoy concentrated on building a substantial, thick-walled cabinet with an internal volume that would deliver well-controlled bass. The cabinet was kept as narrow as possible, to reduce any harmful effects of its sharp edges; the desired internal volume was attained by making the cabinet deeper. Furthermore, limiting the Mercury V1 to just two vinyl finishes (Dark Walnut and Sugar Maple, both lovely) enabled Tannoy to produce large quantities of those two variants, thereby keeping the speaker's price low and offering greater value to the customer.
But as I listened again to Bill Dixon's Intents and Purposes, none of this entered my mind.
With the relevant amount of fidelity
Intents and Purposes was originally released by RCA Victor in 1967, and, with the exception of marginal reissues in Japan (1972) and France (1976), was soon out of printand stayed that way until last year. We have to thank International Phonograph's Jonathan Horwich for making it readily available to a new generation of music lovers. I bought my copy at Other Music, in New York City, but I've seen the album available, at criminally low prices, from Amazon and eBay.
Housed in a glossy, heavy-stock, mini-gatefold sleeve that beautifully replicates the original LP's art, this is a Compact Disc that even I can love. As Horwich's liner notes make clear, Dixon had strong feelings regarding a potential reissue. He quotes Dixon from June 1999: "I worked like the devil on [Intents and Purposes] and, as a consequence, I'm incredibly sensitive about it being displayed for listeners in any format other than the one I conceived. I have wanted to purchase the masters myself, but that has come to naught. I would rather it never be reissued if it can't be done with the relevant amount of fidelity to the philosophy of its initiation."
Horwich's reissue was accomplished with Dixon's blessing, so you know it's good. The original two-track masters were provided by Sony Entertainment and converted to 24-bit/96kHz digital by Mark Wilder (Battery Studios, New York) and Horwich. Steve Marlow handled the final mixing and mastering. Horwich's International Phonograph label has also reissued Julius Hemphill's Dogon A.D. and the Clare Fischer Orchestra's Extension (see our reviews in May and September, respectively). Upcoming Phonograph International titles will include other neglected treasures: Jeremy Steig's Flute Fever and John Carter's Flight for Four and Self-Determination Music. While Horwich is currently dedicated to releasing CDs of long-out-of-print recordings, he says he'd be happy to release them on LP as well, but only if the demand exists. I'm crossing my fingers for a big, beautiful vinyl version of Intents and Purposes. For now, I'm delighted to have the CD.
The album comprises four piecestwo long, two shortdeveloped by Dixon and his creative partner, dancer-choreographer Judith Dunn. Much like John Cage, who had a long and productive relationship with choreographer Merce Cunningham, Dixon was interested in and inspired by dance; while the four pieces on Intents and Purposes certainly live on their own, it's fun (and enriching, I think) to consider them as being inextricably tied to the work of the Cunningham-trained Dunn. So, as I listened again, I saw the drama unfold: nightfall, rainfall, whisper, weep, and wail. Many-voiced, mercurialsometimes furious, sometimes languid, by turns romantic, soft, sorrowful, sexythe music leapt into my listening room, danced into my life, and made me feel happy to be who I am, happy to have undeniable urges. And it was that qualitythe graceful, weightless dance of it allthat the Tannoy Mercury V1s captured best.
Parasound Zcd CD player
If you're going to listen to great CDs, you'll need a worthwhile CD player, and Parasound's new Zcd ($400) is an interesting option. Like all of Parasound's Z products, the basic-black Zcd measures 9.5" wide by 2" high by 10" deep, and has front-panel rack-mounting holes. I've also seen a stylish, silver option that forgoes the holes for an appearance more at home in the listening room than in the recording studio. Difficult as I am, I'd prefer black without holes. For more on the Z products' physical design, see my review of the ZphonoUSB phono preamplifier in our March issue.