The Fifth Element #28 Page 2
Buy It If You Can
Playback honors for Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's SACD fell to the Esoteric X-01, an SACD/CD player that supports multichannel playback but no video-based formats. As I mentioned in my November 2004 column, it surpasses even Esoteric's D/70-P/70 digital separates, at least as far as CD playback goes. The $13,000 X-01 seems to be both a refinement and a simplification of the $14,000 D/70-P/70 combination, the processor of which made it into Class A+ of Stereophile's "Recommended Components" list.
The X-01 is a refinement in that it uses a new generation of Esoteric's VRDS disc-clamping transport and supports SACD playback. It is a simplification in that it is a one- rather than a two-chassis solution, and does not have selectable upsampling or filtering options. Esoteric's design team apparently decided that, this time around, simpler was better.
Construction quality is excellent; the X-01 weighs about 55 lbs and rests on the same hardened-steel feet with captive spikes as did the D/70's and P/70's chassis. Industrial design is top-flight: restrained, and very classy all the way. In silver with a blue display, and with blue-lit peripheries around its front-panel function buttons, the X-01 is one of the most handsome pieces of gear out there. As I wrote before, just take everything I said about the D/70-P/70's CD playback and intensify it just a bit. This is the most musically satisfying CD playback I have ever heard. And yes, I am going to send this thing along so John Atkinson can assign a full review. But it won't be easy.
I can't come to as conclusive a judgment of the X-01's ultimate SACD playback capabilities (except that the music obviously sounds wonderful), because I have not yet heard the competing units from EMM and dCS . I will point out that the X-01 does incorporate bass management for multichannel playback, and that necessarily involves a DSD-to-PCM conversion (apparently, regardless of whether bass management is engaged). I'm not phobic about PCM, as long as the sampling rate is high enough, the operation is mathematical, and no brick-wall filter is used on playback.
Given that there's a lot more great music on CD than on SACD, and will be for some time, I advise not letting rigid ideology or PCM phobia keep you from auditioning the X-01, if you're in the market for a digital playback solution in the $10,000+ range. If I had the money, I'd buy it.
Trust Me: Just Buy It, Part II
If you're not ready to make the leap of faith and get Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's Handel arias SACD, here's one that should be more of a no-brainer for a lot more people: Concierto, Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs' SACD remastering of jazz guitarist Jim Hall and colleagues' super-smooth reworking of the slow movement of Joaquin Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez for classical guitar (UDSACD 2012, hybrid, stereo only).
Here's an SACD reissue where all involved did everything right. The original recording sessions were produced by Creed Taylor (footnote 2) and recorded by Rudy Van Gelder, at Van Gelder's studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. The 1975-vintage analog master tapes were transferred to DSD by MFSL's Shawn R. Britton. The liner notes state that the CD layer was downconverted from the DSD transfer. The liner notes include the original essay by Leonard Feather, as well as a new reappraisal of the music by Fareed Haque.
The original release of Concierto included Cole Porter's "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To" and two originals: one by Jim Hall, and one by Hall and his wife. However, the center of gravity of the album always was arranger Don Sebesky's adaptation of the slow movement of Rodrigo's famous guitar concerto.
Not incidentally, there's a wonderful website commemorating Rodrigo's life and work. The site opens with a video clip of the composer playing the guitar concerto's slow movement on the piano. Many pages I visited were graced by one or another of his pithy epigrams, such as: "How would I like to die? Under no circumstances." Rodrigo, by the way, was blind from the age of three, and wrote all his compositions in Braille. To mark Rodrigo's 90th birthday (in 1991), King Juan Carlos of Spain raised him to the dignity of the "Marquis de los jardines de Aranjuez." Just and fitting, that was.
But for my money, the most compelling reasons to buy this recording are the contributions of trumpeter Chet Baker and alto sax player Paul Desmond. Both take extended solos that are models of understated but totally committed grace. Each solo is all the more poignant, given that Desmond would soon lose his battle with cancer, and Baker's career would once again fall prey to his drug addiction. That is not to diminish Jim Hall's tasteful work on both electric and overdubbed classical guitars, or the important contributions of pianist Roland Hanna, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Steve Gadd. But Baker and Desmond steal the show.
Even if you already have a digital version of Concierto, the SACD is worth obtaining—assuming you own an SACD player. It is indisputably more textured and nuanced than previous CD releases. It also includes two additional tracks from the sessions that were left off the LP and the original CD, as well as three alternate takes. The sound is simply luscious, although audio purists may sniff that it is a multimiked and panpotted recording rather than a minimally miked one. I also recognize that members of the jazz hard core may turn up their noses at Hall's essential musical conservatism. That's their loss.
More Wilson Benesch
Wilson Benesch is one of my favorite loudspeaker builders. To rebut any inference of monomania, I want to remind readers that I also greatly admire speakers from Aerial (20T), DALI (Megaline), ESP (Concert Grand), Harbeth (all), Peak Consult (InCognito), Spendor (S5e), and Shahinian (Obelisk, Diapason). I have had experience with all Wilson Benesch speakers except the new Curve. Not being able to restrain my curiosity, I briefly waylaid a pair of them on their way to Sam Tellig's house.
The Curve has the same driver complement as the ACT, which I wrote about in September, but in a less complex and lighter (yet still carbon-fiber composite) cabinet. The Curve weighs about 54 lbs, while the welded-steel inner structure of the ACT pushes its weight up close to 100 lbs. The ACT has a suggested retail price of $12,000/pair, the Curve $7300/pair.
The Curve's sound has a strong family resemblance to that of the ACT: clean, coherent, uncolored, and musically involving. That said, I still think that the ACT is cost-justified (if you can afford a pair), because, in a word, they just have more finesse. The difference is not anything you have to strain to hear—all that fancy engineering does make a musical difference. But if the ACT is out of your price range, you should hear the Curve. It and the radical-looking Discovery, which I wrote up in January 2002 (Vol.25 No.1), are both extremely good.
Footnote 2: Creed Taylor was one of the most important producers of the golden age of stereo jazz recordings. In the early 1960s, he was recruited from a small label to lead A&R efforts at ABC/Paramount's new jazz imprint, Impulse!. At Impulse! he supervised, among others, the recording careers of John Coltrane, Ray Charles, and Gil Evans. From there he was recruited to revitalize Verve, and later, for several years in the 1970s, he ran his own label, CTI, which was distinguished by first-class sound and lavish production values, especially the album packaging. Unfortunately, CTI's artistic results were mixed. Jazz was in a period of eroding market share, and not all the efforts at winning it back were successful. But Concierto was a winner.