November 7, 2006

In This eNewsletter:
New from Nagra, by Ken Kessler
You Shall Knows Us By Our Trail of Unfiled Discs, by Wes Phillips
This Month's Audio URL, from Wes Phillips

New from Nagra, by Ken Kessler

Habitual attendees of hi-fi shows know that secrets lurk within those halls, corridors, and bedrooms, in cupboards and under tables: not all of the new wares are on show for public consumption. Sometimes they're little more than a promise for the next event, of which dutiful reporters take note. At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last January, one behind-the-scenes treasure shown to a select few was an early version of Nagra's long-awaited CD player. A prototype was demonstrated at Home Entertainment 2006 last May by the Swiss company's US distributor, Tempo Sales & Marketing. Another version, this one only a smidgen away from production, appeared at Milan's TOP Audio show in September, and it was worth the nine-month wait.

I'm one of those who think of Nagra as the closest audio gets to producing its own equivalent of Leica, and what struck me and other Nagraphiles as curious was Nagra's decision to launch a CD player so close to the end of the format's glory days. CD won't go away for years, but it's being overshadowed by hard-drive storage and downloads. Nagra, however, immediately addressed CD's age with a preemptive riposte: "After 20 years, CD is a respected and mature format, it brings excellent performance, and discs are available from virtually infinite catalogs."

Can't argue with that. Even the most anti-digital audiophiles have reasonable CD libraries, while CD burning is very much a part of the download experience. But, with arch Swiss confidence, Nagra goes further: "Our ambition is to bring you the finest CD player so you can reproduce, at home, the originally recorded quality of a concert or studio recording, often made using a Nagra recorder—the absolute reference."

When you think about it, Nagra isn't doing anything risky or boastful. They're merely joining such brands as Audio Research, Pathos, Musical Fidelity, and others who have introduced $6000-plus players in the past year, all of which have enhanced the CD experience by a large margin. And Nagra's justification, beyond the need to push the envelope? At the very least, their CD player will complete an all-Nagra system (speakers not included). From the viewpoint of fans, a Nagra CD player is gonna be something to behold and to covet. And, oh, if the preproduction version is anything to go by...

What Nagra always brings to the table is their unique mix of unabashed professional presentation and audiophile-pleasing sound. The company has been careful to endow every single product in its domestic hi-fi range with the same build quality and attention to detail evident in its rugged professional gear. The machined-aluminum chassis for the PL-L and PL-P preamplifiers, for example, are just as robust as anything designed to house the works of a Nagra IV tape recorder. And that applies to the basic casework for the Nagra CD players.

Did I say players? Yup: Nagra has announced not one but three CD-spinning devices designed to meet specific needs and budgets. But don't expect any of them to sell for under five figures in US dollars: the UK distributor is anticipating a price range of £7000–£9000, while European prices will be ca €12,000. All three Nagra players share the same mechanical parts; only their electronics and front panels differ.

The line begins with the Nagra CD Transport, which one would anticipate to be a match for those who bought Nagra DACs. While I have no figures to confirm this, I get the impression that separate DACs and transports are no longer big sellers; consumers prefer single-box solutions. Thus, the CD Transport is there to serve Nagra's existing user base. Naturally, it's fitted with a complete array of digital outputs, including AES, S/PDIF, and TosLink. Compatibility includes "Red Book" CD, CD-R, and CD-RW.

Add a DAC and you get the middle model, the CDP, the Nagra line's "conventional" CD player. The CDP offers fixed-output volume and balance and is designed to be connected to a preamplifier such as the Nagra PL-P or PL-L. The front panel includes only the main functions; the CDP arrives, as do all three models, with a newly designed remote control that provides access to all principal functions as well as several features unavailable on the front panel. For the Nagra hard core, who will use the CDP in their complete Nagra systems, the new remote can control other Nagra components as well.

The star of the range is the CD Concept, or CDC. Nagra's all-in-one solution, the CDC adds to the CDP a full-function analog preamplifier with motorized potentiometers for volume and balance control. The CDC will provide a perfect feed for Nagra's own power amplifiers, but it features balanced and unbalanced outputs so you can connect it directly to any amp. For cultists, it also has a Nagra "modulometer" level indicator to precisely monitor the CD level, as well as a high-quality headphone amplifier.

A nice touch in Nagra's players is the control mechanism: Like those used in Nagra's open-reel tape recorders, it sports a chunky rotary selector to control the CD transport's modes of play, stop, and pause. And the smoothly opening drawer mechanism reeks of Swiss horological tradition.

As for the digital elements of the CDP and CDC, the D/A conversion is 24-bit, 8x oversampling. Other specs include a bandwidth of 20Hz –20kHz (–1dB), a signal/noise ratio of better than 108dB A-weighted, total harmonic distortion plus noise of less than 0.003%, and 90dB channel separation. Nagra includes its own Jitter Eliminator and, for practical purposes, the output level is selectable: 1V or 4V RMS.

What I heard of the Nagras at TOP Audio, even under show conditions, was exemplary. And, as I learned in the weeks following the show, there's already a waiting list for the first units, due any day now. Nagraphiles: you have been warned.

TOP Audio provided another scoop of great import, this time under the heading of "Verbal Notification." Straight from Sonus Faber's Cesare Bevilacqua, I have learned that the Italian company will release—probably in the first half of 2007—a smaller version of one of my all-time favorite loudspeakers, the Stradivari Homage. Physically, it will be about 30% smaller, but the heart-stopping news is that its price will be about half that of the Homage. Bevilacqua had no photos or drawings to show me, so I can only speculate, but I'd be willing to bet that the new baby will bear the same relation to the Stradivari as Quad's new ESL-2805 does to their ESL-2905.

2007 is gonna be a vintage year.

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You Shall Knows Us By Our Trail of Unfiled Discs, by Wes Phillips

If the eyes are the mirrors of the soul, I reckon the record collection is the mirror of the audiophile's soul.

Like many an example of T-shirt philosophy, that statement is so broad that it's bound to be true in at least some circumstances, so let me elucidate a few examples of its absolute profundity. (Feel free to supply examples of its idiocy.)

First and foremost, there's the general survey of a record collection seen for the first time. You know how, when you first visit another audiophile's listening room, you do a quick search of his collection? I almost said a "surreptitious search," but we audiophiles aren't always the most socially adept individuals—these examinations can be quite blatant.

First, you check the size of the collection (and, because we audiophiles are an overwhelmingly male cohort, the inevitable size comparison). Next, you take the general lay of the land: Is the collection balanced, or primarily devoted to a single musical genre? Either way, does the collection's composition mirror your own obsessions, or does it reveal "weirdness"— ie, anything you yourself are not sufficiently fond of?

Subtasks of this type of collection examination include the format check (LP, CD, or open-reel) and the most extreme form of scrutiny: checking an audiophile's LPs to see if he has "good" pressings.

And, of course, there's the whole question of organization. In my experience, how an audiophile organizes his collection can show how far his Audiophilia nervosa has progressed. Think of what follow as The Stages of Obsession.

At first, you have so few recordings that all you need is a place to put them. Eventually, your collection outgrows that space, and you move it and/or begin to make distinctions between one type of disc and another. A typical approach is to divide your collection into "Good-sounding" (kept near the player) and "Other." But as your collection grows, other organizational methods come into play—and that's where things get tricky, especially if you let anyone else play your records.

For many years, I lived alone and kept my growing collection of LPs in stacks leaning up against the walls of my room. By the time I had about 500 records, I'd also acquired a girlfriend and some furniture (in more or less that order), both of which necessitated that I get my albums up off the floor and into some kind of order.

That was the early 1970s, and my recollections of my first ordering rationale are not entirely unfogged. But I determined that, because this was my collection, its organization would reflect me, and so I arranged my discs as an emotional continuum running from mellow to extremely agitated (the latter represented by John Coltrane's Sunship, if I remember correctly). I'm sure you're ahead of me: The problem with that was that only I had the slightest idea how a particular recording made me feel or, for that matter, where to find it—or replace it, assuming they could locate it in the first place.

So I resulted to the old category approach. I had rock, jazz, and classical sections, each organized alphabetically. Conventional but workable—and, eventually, I had to abandon it.

As my collection neared 2000 LPs and I began to fill in some of the more obscure corners of my interests, I ran into small glitches in my system. Was the Mahavishnu Orchestra jazz or rock? Rock, I decided. What about Weather Report? There was no way Wayne Shorter played in a rock band, so Weather Report was jazz. What was the musical difference between Mahavishnu and Weather Report? I wasn't sure I could articulate it, but I knew it when I heard it.

Could a white man sing the blues? Could a blue man sing the whites? And just what the heck was it that Captain Beefheart did?

I decided to apply Occam's Razor to my collection and do away with all categories. From A to Z, everyone in the universal brotherhood of music would appear in my collection in alphabetical order. While I was at it, I did away with pseudonyms as well. Looking for Little Richard? Check Richard Penniman. Muddy Waters? Refer to McKinley Morganfield. And Bob Dylan? Why, Dylan, of course—I just couldn't bring myself to file Dylan under Z for Zimmerman.

In a fit of genius, I also decided that each artist's oeuvre would be filed by date of release.

Do I even need to mention that I was single? My brilliant archiving system lasted only until I moved in with my first and last wife.

"How do I find jazz?" she asked.

"Just think of an artist's last name and look alphabetically."

"How do I know what you have? What do I do if I want to listen to jazz and I don't know who I want to hear? How do I find the jazz?"

"I could file everything by how it makes me feel."

She gave me a look—if you're married, you know the one.

The next day, we were back to categories: rock, jazz, classical. Date of release? Fugeddaboudit! Which raises the possibility that what you see when you examine a fellow audiophile's collection isn't so much an indication of his obsession but of his marital status.

Here's what categories will tell you about a fellow audiophile: The more varied the collection, the more resolving the hi-fi.

Does that sound akin to a [ahem] stereotype? Perhaps, but in my experience, it's also true. When you listen primarily to a single type of music—it doesn't matter what it is—you can fall into the trap of building a system around that music's characteristics. Listen exclusively to, say, loud, amplified blues and you could end up with a system that emphasizes dynamics and SPLs over, say, imaging or inner voicing. On the other hand, listen to nothing but chamber music and you could end up with a system that can't deliver 20Hz—or do credit to an orchestral tutti, for that matter.

I'm not saying there's anything wrong with preferring a single type of music, or even of listening exclusively to a single genre. I reserve the right to listen to what I dang well please on my hi-fi, and I extend to you that same privilege. (Yeah, like it was mine to give. )

Still, consider diversity a positive sign. If you're lucky, it means your new hi-fi buddy has big ears, and maybe you can learn something. Maybe, just maybe, you're about to discover a whole world of music you haven't even begun to explore.

And that's the biggest thrill Audiophilia nervosa can offer.

From Wes Phillips

Love that technical explanation of why tubes sound better!

For more of Wes' amazing links, go to his blog at

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