December 6, 2004

In This eNewsletter:
• The Need For Change, By John Atkinson
• This Month's Strangest Audio URL, from Wes Phillips
• International News, By Ken Kessler
• Getting a Fix on the Good Stuff, By Wes Phillips
• Polk Audio XRt12 XM Satellite Radio tuner, By Wes Phillips
• Mix tapes and Money, By Wes Phillips

By John Atkinson

The more you'd like things to stay the same, the more you become aware of the need for change, I mused, as I took in Tony Bennett's concert at New York's new Jazz at Lincoln Center location last week. Aided by the Rose Theater's intimate acoustic and backed by a classic quartet of guitar, piano, double bass, and drums, the 78-year-old crooner effortlessly worked his way through almost two hours of standards.

There was nothing about the evening that could not have been duplicated a half-century ago, when Bennett began his recording career. Heck, when he asked the engineer to turn off the front-of-house sound so he could perform "unplugged," there was nothing that could not have been duplicated a century ago. Yet with his appearances on MTV, his continued best-selling albums, and his live performances with the likes of Paul McCartney, Neil Young, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bennett has surfed the waves of change with as little apparent effort as he performs. Bennett paid tribute to Frank Sinatra in his concert, yet unlike Bennett, Ol' Blue Eyes lost the ability to breathe life into a lyric long before he stopped performing.

Change is the only constant in today's world, which is why you're reading these words. In the past two decades, Stereophile magazine has expanded into Shows, recordings, a separate magazine devoted to home theater, Web publication, and now its own e-newsletter, which will arrive in your e-mail inbox the first Monday of each month. Veteran audio writers Ken Kessler and Wes Phillips will be offering you hot high-end news from around the world, the latest audio gossip, views on recordings and gear, interesting Weblinks—everything you need to know to complement the heavy-duty reviews and articles published in the print magazine and on


Mark Levinson
Mark Levinson, established in 1972, is a world-renowned manufacturer of the finest stereo and multi-channel electronics. Products range from awe-inspiring monaural power amplifiers to the industry benchmark CD processor. For more information on all Mark Levinson products, please visit
From Wes Phillips

By Ken Kessler

SOUTH AFRICA: Blue Angel Launches New Hand-Made Cartridge
With the analog revival showing no signs of flagging, the flood of new tonearms, cartridges, and turntables was to be expected. So how about a moving-coil (MC) cartridge from South Africa? Music lover André Hanekom, whose background is in watch distribution, says that, "Four years ago, I bought a Supex SD900 Super II and found that it was damaged upon arriving at home. Three months later, I managed to repair it myself, and this caused what may be termed an obsession to make my own moving-coil."

Hanekom acquired a metal-turning lathe and a milling machine and taught himself how to use them. He now makes "every single part" of the Blue Angel Mantis in his home workshop, except for the packaging and the Fritz Gyger fine-line FGII stylus and cantilever assemblies, which he imports from Switzerland. He also says that "I became fed up with trying to get an outside firm to anodize things for me. A special anodizing installation for small components had to be built, and I had to become proficient enough to do this job myself. Somehow, I will probably come to some arrangement with a local firm as, basically, I would prefer only to wind the armatures, assemble the components, and be involved with measurements." For the time being, however, every Blue Angel MC is still hand-made by the designer.

Inspired by the Supex and Koetsu cartridges, Hanekom stayed with a classic MC layout; his own contribution to the science (or art) of cartridge making is in the details. The Mantis' body is fashioned from a "special grade of aluminum" milled in two parts due to the difficulty of fine-finishing a single-piece chassis. The body was designed to be as light and rigid as possible, with straight sides and narrow dimensions to make setup as easy as possible. Also incorporated into the shape is a large mounting plate to ensure solid coupling to the headshell, with standard half-inch spacing. Hanekom supplies stainless-steel Allen screws. Because the desired quality "could not be bought ready to use," he modifies almost all of them.

Inside the metallic-blue chassis—the cartridge's total weight is only 5.5gm—is a plastic carrier for the neodymium magnet and cross-shaped armature structure, together with the tensioning mechanism. The carrier is a complicated, one-piece cylindrical milling made from a "special, resilient, low-moisture-absorbent engineering plastic." The armature and coils are close-coupled to the drilled and recessed magnet, thus eliminating separate poles.

Compliance is provided by a fine, strong, nine-strand material; damping is applied with a butyl derivative developed by a local firm to Hanekom's specification. The coils in the first cartridges are copper, but Hanekom is happy to experiment with other materials, as the customer wishes. He's already talking about releasing a version of the Mantis with a ruby cantilever instead of the hollow aluminum used so far.

Beautifully packaged, the Mantis gives off no hint of being hand-made in someone's home workshop. Its performance is thoroughbred, too, with ample output when fed into a 100 ohm load and tracking at 2gm. The only fly in the ointment is distribution. Hanekom hasn't even priced the Mantis yet, but expects it to sell for US $4000–$5000.

André J. Hanekom Blue Angel Analogue Audio S.A. P.O. Box 53100 Kenilworth 7745 Rep. of South Africa Fax: (27) 21 761 7692 Tel: (27) 21 762 2953 Email:

UK: Vintage Valve & Vinyl
They're calling it V3, or V-cubed, for Vintage Valve & Vinyl, the Canterbury Audio Jumble and Record Fair, which should pretty much cover the bulk of what's there. This is the name of a new audio flea market that its organizers hope will become an annual event, a proactive response to the lethargy of the audio scene.

Spurred by the sheer inconvenience of having to travel so much to serve their hobby of collecting old hi-fi equipment, audiophiles Jim Creed, Mark Webb, and Peter Roberts, along with record-collecting authority Tony Rees, decided that it was time they enjoyed a local vintage audio fair. They looked at the array of events sprinkled across the UK and saw that half were well-run, half weren't. They've decided it was high time audio and vinyl had the same caliber of flea market as antiques, military memorabilia and the rest. And they want it on their doorstep.

To be held on March 20, 2005, in Canterbury's Westgate Hall, V3 will offer up to 60 tables, with added attractions beyond the usual goods for sale. Nagra expert Bob Marriott has signed up to produce a display of the Swiss brand's products, including such ultra-rarities as a tiny amp for the SN micro recorder, while LS3/5a maven Paul Whatton will man a booth to answer inquiries about the legendary minimonitor. Whatton is so enthusiastic that he's even gotten involved in promoting the event; he's put up the website. Also committed (as of November 2004) are a number of top vintage audio vendors, a couple of tube suppliers, a Nakamichi specialist, and a pair of dealers specializing in used and new vinyl.

If you're in the UK in mid-March, add this to your calendar. Once you've exhausted the audio fair, there for the viewing is Canterbury itself—one of the UK's top five tourist attractions.

SWITZERLAND: Nagra's Pyramid Power
Nagra will begin shipping its PMA amplifier in early 2005, the new model having been seen so far at the Milan and London hi-fi shows held last September. PMA stands for Pyramid Monoblock Amplifier; the 22-lb, 200W solid-state component is housed in a pyramidal chassis with a 14.9"-square footprint. Built to Nagra's "professional equipment" standard, the PMA's two-piece enclosure is made of aluminum, the apex opening to reveal a large motherboard. Built into the design is Nagra's Power Factor Corrector (PFC), which acts as a power reserve to deliver pure DC voltages to the PMA while minimizing the effects of spikes, interference from other components, and mains-borne pollution. (The PFC is the subject of a patent application.) Power is provided by Exicon MOSFETs, and the PMA boasts sophisticated protection circuitry, auto-detect power-on when a signal is received at the input connectors, auto switch-off if no signal is detected for 20 minutes, and a choice of balanced XLR or single-ended RCA connection. A stereo version, the PSA, will also be offered, with 100Wpc output.

Nagra has also commenced shipping the ARES-BB, an additional model in its range of portable digital recorders. Using new software, as found in the updated ARES and RCX-220, the ARES-BB can record in FAT 16 mode onto memory cards, including CompactFlash and SD via PC card adapters, as well as IBM MicroDrives. Sampling-rate settings in PCM mode range from 16kHz to 48kHz. An extra battery—six AA cells instead of five—provides longer life when away from the AC, while a Li-Ion battery pack provides, typically, eight hours of recording. The unit measures 6" by 3" by 6.5", weighs 2 lbs, and features a ¼" headphone jack with rotary volume control and mono setting, XLR inputs and outputs, and a built-in speaker.

UK: REL's Perfect Storm
Subwoofer manufacturer REL has announced a new model to follow the successful Stampede and Strata 5. The Storm 5 is an ultracompact design in a sealed enclosure. Although containing only a single 10" driver, its in-room –3dB response is stated as 15Hz. The downward-firing woofer is mounted in a cast chassis and powered by a 200W MOSFET amplifier housed in its own enclosure. Other details include separate left and right low-level inputs, LFE in/out, and a high-level balanced input. A blue LED indicates power status, and operation is controlled by a wireless remote. The Storm 5's enclosure is made from 30mm-thick MDF and finished to REL's usual high standard in real-wood veneers of black ash, maple, light oak, walnut, cherry, and rosewood.

UK: Musical Fidelity's Next kW
Musical Fidelity's Antony Michaelson bristles slightly when asked if maybe, just maybe, his company has put out too many limited editions. "Actually, everything any company makes is a limited edition by virtue of all production being finite. But our editions' numbers are determined by the availability of the active devices we use, and by our knowledge of the size of the market. Frankly, I don't understand the furore. Ferrari produced 399 Enzos, a limited number of Stradales. Most high-end watches are severely limited editions, sometimes as few as 10 pieces. Nobody complains about that, ever. But I do understand consumers' disappointment."

With the kW monoblock selling out its run of 75 units so quickly and the kW 500 doing the same with its 500 units, Michaelson has announced a model in between. The kW 750, a stereo power amp rather than an integrated like the kW 500, is able to deliver peak currents of 200 amps. Power is 800W into 8 ohms, or "about 1225W into 4 ohms." Noise is down below 125dB. The kW 750 resembles a kW 500 without a volume control, and its chassis is made from aluminum extrusions, with black handles and finned sides. It should be available in February 2005. Unlike the other kW models, no limited production numbers have been stated, but 750 seems obvious. Who knows? Maybe this time you'll stand a chance of getting one.

Simaudio Ltd.
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By Wes Phillips

Getting a Fix on the Good Stuff
We audiophiles have special needs—and I don't just mean a way to print our own money, or, failing that, to get our dream systems for Sam's Club prices. Of course, we're always lusting after the good stuff, but most of us have accepted the fact that audio purchases rank among those pleasures where our eyes—and ears—will always be bigger than our pocketbooks. Music, on the other hand, is an area where every audiophile I've ever met is a greedy little sucker.

"Please, sir, I want some more."

But where do we get it? Yard sales, thrift shops, second-hand stores, and all the mega media marts provide LPs, CDs, and any other format we might feel passionate about. But that begs the big question: How do we discover what it is we want to buy?

Of course, we can read reviews. My living room and office are carpeted with copies of Stereophile, Mojo, Uncut, and their ilk (which says as much about my housekeeping as it does about my reading habits), but—and as a reviewer, I hate to admit this—reviews don't always tell you what you need to know.

If you're lucky, you get recommendations from friends. However, judging from the mail I get from audiophiles, a lot of us tend to be the friend who is making the recommendation.

John DeVore of DeVore Fidelity gave props to his fellow audiophiles. "Every audiophile I know in the New York hi-fi world has a cool new record he wants to share (obsessively, perhaps)." John also keeps his ears open: "When I hear something I like, I write it down. Periodically I have to go through great piles of paper scraps with notes jotted on them—napkin corners, ATM receipts, and Post-its that have lost their adhesive. Eventually most things make it to one of two notebooks, where they get little symbols next to them, indicating approximate genre, format (LP/CD/other), and how good I remember they were. It's not foolproof by any stretch—many little scraps never make it near a notebook before I trash 'em—but I know the limitations of my memory, and it's the best system I've come up with."

I asked John Atkinson what he does. "I read the reviews in Stereophile," he said, "especially our "Recording of the Month" and "Records to Die For" features—hardly a shock, coming from the man who once suggested that one of the primary pleasures of hardware reviews was the discovery of new music. "I talk to my writers and friends, surf the audio newsgroups and websites, and pore over the Acoustic Sounds mailer."

I bet he keeps his copy in the same room I keep mine in.'s webmaster, Jon Iverson, DJs at San Luis Obispo's KCBX 90.1 FM, which means he gets to prepare for his show with weekly search'n'destroy missions through the station's new-releases pile. He also browses Web radio, seeking stations with fresh playlists, and cruises the samples at "The samples at iTunes work better than the ones at—and I'm just listening to see if I like the music, not for sound quality."

Stereophile writer Barry Willis is an omnivore. "My antenna is always up for new tunes. I keep a notepad handy. Friends are a great resource, and I never hesitate to ask about the music I hear in cafes, restaurants, and stores. I'll buy stuff I like on impulse if I hear it when I'm in a record store."

But BW is over the top about Sirius Satellite Radio. "Especially channel 24, Sirius Disorder, and extra especially David Johansen's Mansion of Fun, on Friday afternoons. I haven't listened to commercial radio or used my car CD changer since I got Sirius."


Does it come from the sky above?
I'm going through a similar conversion now that Polk Audio has sent me a sample of its new XRt12 XM Satellite Radio tuner ($329). It has a feature that must have been designed with relentless music seekers like me in mind: the Memory button. If I hear something I like, all I have to do is press the XRt12's front-panel Memory button and it will retain the text scroll identifying the artist and song (10 songs total); later, I can access the Memory Recall function and get out my notepad.

Despite BW's advocacy of digital audio broadcasting (DAB), I wasn't sure I was going to "get" satellite radio. First, I wasn't wild about paying a monthly fee. Of course, on the television front, I became inured to that years ago—mostly because, if I wanted decent programming, there was no other choice. However, the current state of over-the-air (OTA) radio is even direr than OTA TV.

Besides, I'd dabbled with XM a while back, auditioning Sony's original car/home satellite receiver, a product whose mediocre sound quality was surpassed only by its phenomenally clunky user interface. But the Polk XRt12 was bruited as a horse of a different color.

For one thing, it wasn't a product scaled down to be slipped into a docking cradle in a dashboard or boombox—it was designed around a component-sized (17" wide) chassis and packed with a Burr-Brown DAC, a special power supply, a high-quality adjustable gain card, and a circuit topology that places the power supply, display, outputs, preamp, and tuner on discrete circuit boards in the quest for lower noise/minimized interference.

It also has something I've never seen on a satellite radio tuner: digital outs. The analog outputs sound surprisingly robust, with solid bass and timbre that were extremely natural compared to what I'd heard emanating from the Sony. Attach the XRt12 to a fancy-schmancy outboard DAC, however, such as the Musical Fidelity X-DACV3 I had on hand, and it gets even better.

Which is sort of shocking, when you consider the compression necessary to make XM work at all. JA and JI attended "Mastering for Low-Bit-Rate Perceptual Codecs," a workshop at the 117th AES Convention in November, which included Tony Masiello, XM's senior vice president of operations. According to his presentation, as reported by Stereophile's editor, a stereo channel on a DAB network has, at best, a bit budget of just 64kbps. (This is not a figure XM or Masiello gives out, but divide the overall satellite bandwidth by the number of program channels and that's what you get.) In order to encode music to fit that budget without sounding terrible, XM begins with the CD data—not an MP3 or reduced-data recording—and then the XM codecs do the hard labor at both ends of the process. The good news is that codecs evolve with incredible velocity.

If I say that my initial experience with XM is that the sound is better than the average FM station, that's faint praise. But I think it's better than that—at least through the Polk XRt12. If you're looking for deep, holographic soundstaging, you'll be disappointed—it simply isn't there. But, as does JI with Web radio and iTunes, I find that the real value of XM has been the amount of music I've heard that I want to explore further.

My first few days were spent exploring the usual suspects: the three classical channels, the folk channel, the five jazz and blues channels—even Deep Album Rock. In each case I heard a lot of music I already knew, as well as a lot I hadn't heard for a long time that I was delighted to rediscover. My real voyage of discovery began when I delved into channels featuring music I didn't already know I liked. New genres equal new experiences. D'oh!

The Unsigned Artists channel was a revelation, though it shouldn't have been. The record labels don't exactly have an unblemished record of discovering interesting new music, despite the fact that there's a lot of it out there. Much to my shock, I actually like The Voice of Music at Starbucks, which is programmed very intelligently—and I don't have to cruise endlessly for an empty table while clutching a cup of burnt coffee in order to hear it. Another shocker: Movie Soundtracks, which is an area where I never venture in the record store. I may have to reconsider.

By and large, I've been impressed with the DJs and music directors at XM. Jonathan Schwartz at Frank's Place is a national treasure, for example; Webb Wilder is the principal host at X Country—and Tom Petty is slated to do a show called Buried Treasure. That doesn't mean there aren't glaring gaps. I wish there was a place for the real jewel of the free-form radio movement, the theme show. If it exists anywhere on XM, I haven't found it yet.

And the classical programming could be fresher. Popular Classical is warhorses all the time, which has its place, I suppose, but seems pretty unadventurous to me—as does Traditional Classical, although it does play more serious stuff. Opera/Classical Vocal rounds out the highbrow offerings, and that's a genre that's almost completely absent from the airwaves these days.

But no channel of serious 20th-century music? That seems a deliberate snub to the 46 of us who listen to the stuff. And no early music? That seems like a gaping hole that really ought to be filled.

Stereophile's E-Newsletter to the rescue with a recommendation.

If you crave some new old music, pick up a copy of Telarc's new hybrid disc of Mozart's flute concertos and Symphony 41, "Jupiter," by flutist Jacques Zoon and the Boston Baroque under Martin Pearlman (Telarc CD/SACD-80624). As an audiophile, you've got to love the fact that it's available as a DSD SACD and a "Red Book" CD. Jack Renner, as usual, has done a fabulous job of capturing an acoustic ensemble in a real space (this is done especially subtly on the SACD surround mix), but for this disc he chose a slightly closer perspective than Telarc is usually noted for. I've never objected to Telarc's mid-hall take on things, because that's where I sit by choice (well, budget) when I attend concerts, but the closer perspective suits the musical forces on this disc.

On this recording Zoon plays a six-key classical flute (after a late-18th-century instrument by August Genser). It's tuned slightly lower than modern concert pitch, and its warm, earthy breathiness is very appealing—as are the stylish performances by Zoon, Boston Baroque, and Pearlman.

It's a recording that rebukes Holt's Law: "The Better the Sound, the Worse the Performance."

Mix Tapes & Money, By Wes Phillips
I'm surprised no one I surveyed mentioned mix tapes (mix CD, these days). We music-loving audiophiles are past masters of them. I cringed when I read Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, with its compulsive "best of" lists and its protagonist's love offerings of mix tapes. That's because I make them—and give them—all the time. In fact, I made one recently concerning money, honey.

I'm sooo envious of Ken Kessler, who got to raid the Ace vaults in 1994 to create a Hi-Fi News & Record Review CD. We don't have the bandwidth or the licensing for that here, so I'll just post my track listing:

Money: That's What I Want!
"Money (That's What I Want)" Barrett Strong
"Money" Pink Floyd
"Your Cash Ain't Nothin' But Trash" Steve Miller Band
"Don't Let Your Deal Go Down" Dave Alvin
"It's Money That I Love" Randy Newman
"Shake Your Money-Maker" Paul Butterfield Blues Band
"Loan Me a Dime" Boz Scaggs
"Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime?" Bing Crosby
"How Can a Poor Man Stand Times and Live?" Blind Alfred Reed
"Greenbacks" Ray Charles
"Fourteen Dollars in the Bank" The Paul Delay Band
"Badly Bent" The Tractors
"Dead Presidents" Willie Dixon
"Eisenhower Blues" J.B. Lenoir
"Funky Dollar Bill" Funkadelic
"Money Won't Change You" James Brown
"When Will We Be Paid (For the Work We've Done)?" The Staple Singers
"You Can't Lose What You Ain't Never Had" Muddy Waters
"God Bless the Child" Billie Holiday
"Money and Me" Barrett Strong
"Money" Cabaret: The New Broadway Cast Recording
"Can You Get to That" Funkadelic
"Money for Nothing" Dire Straits
"Money Talks" The Kinks
"First I Look at the Purse" The Contours
"Money Honey" The Drifters
"TCB/TYA" Bobby Patterson
"You Never Give Me Your Money" The Beatles
"Step Right Up" Tom Waits
"Nobody Knows You When You Are Down and Out" Louis Jordan
"Back Country Suite: Blues/Old Man Blues" Mose Allison
"Where's the Money?" Dan Hicks
"The Hold Up" David Bromberg
"Me and the IRS (Live)" Johnny Paycheck
"My Bank Account Is Gone" Jesse Ashlock

Comments? Suggestions? Mix tapes?

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