We continue the search for the successor to Fried's Q loudspeaker of yore. Renaissance Audio is the former Morel USA, so they have a long track record in both OEM driver manufacture and making complete loudspeakers. As I mentioned in my June column, their MLP-403.5 loudspeaker is a two-cubic-foot, sealed-box three-way with a dome midrange driver, at the near-improbable price of $1090/pair (footnote 1).
In a moment, I will resume my ongoing quest to put together a music lover's stereo system for about half the cost of my last such effort (see my columns in the October and December 2005 issues): $3750 rather than $7500. But first I want to urge everyone who hasn't already done so to check out the results of the Five Great Art Songs of the Rock Era write-in competition announced in my February 2008 column. The winning entries are greatreally thought-provoking. Indeed, some of the lists, plus an unaccountably belated recollection, prompted me to put together my own alternate list. This list doesn't invalidate or replace my original one, but it benefited from the energy all the entrants (thanks, everyone) put into theirs. Here goes:
I've been chipping away for some time at the task of trying to put together a music lover's stereo system for about half the money of my last such effort: $2500 to $3750 now, vs around $7500 back in 2005. My timing was good: CD and DVD receivers are a hot product category, with several attractive new entries at various prices.
Back when there were bricks-and-mortar retail record stores to speak of in tenses other than past, I used to participate in new-release conferences. Retail-store buyersthe people who decided whether consumers would see your CDs as they browsed in the storeswould gather at a nice destination, such as Lake George, New York. The various labels would then make presentations about their upcoming new releases.
Ah me, another year gone by. The rest of my holiday-gift suggestions are at the end of this column, but I wanted to kick off with a hearty recommendation of Aja, a book by Don Breithaupt. You may recall Breithaupt as a co-author (with his brother, Jeff) of the survey Precious and Few: Pop Music in the Early '70s, which cracked me up in my October column.
Leben Hi-Fi Stereo Company is a very small company in Amagasaki City, Japan, that hand-builds an exquisite line of vacuum-tube audio electronics. I find it intriguing that Taku Hyodo, founder and main man of Leben, once worked for the comparatively huge Luxman firm. Years back, Luxman went through various corporate owners and spent some time wandering in the desert, before returning to its high-end audio heritage. Whether, as I suspect, Leben was founded during Luxman's years of ownership by car-stereo maker Alpine, or if Hyodo simply wanted to be the captain of his own destiny, I don't know.
Vivid speakers change the game. But first a great piano recording: Tributaries: Reflections on Tommy Flanagan (CD, IPO IPOC1004), from the late Sir Roland Hanna (his title was an honorary knighthood granted by Liberia). I missed this wonderfully crafted solo-piano recording when it first came out in 2003, and still would not have known about it today except that a publicist sent me an e-mail saying that he was cleaning out his shelves of leftover promotional copies. I quickly sent back a request, in large part because one of my Desert Island recordings is Jim Hall's Concierto, originally released in 1975 on the CTI label, and on which Hanna had played. Concierto has since been reissued in digital form many times, most successfully, as far as I can tell, by Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab on an SACD (UDSACD 2012) that includes new tracks, as well as alternate takes of tunes on the original release.
I've had Vivid Audio's Oval K1 loudspeaker here for several months. Over many years, the only other speaker brands I've written about as much as I have Vivid have been Wilson Benesch and Shahinian Acoustics, whose speakers I still revere and can recommend without reservationto the right listener. But Vivid's high-tech sorcery has raised the bar. The Vivids I've had here are among the best loudspeakers I've ever heard, and that's a consensus that seems headed in the direction of critical mass.
A particular audio interest of mine has long been cost-effective systems that work really well together. I think most of the audio sob stories I've heard can be traced to one or both of two things: mismatched equipment, and inadequate attention paid to room acoustics. I've previously written about systems that range in price from $7500 to under $1500. Here's as minimal and classy a high-performance system as you can ask for: one box for the electronics (including USB connectivity), and two stand-mounted, two-way loudspeakers. The total cost is just under $10,000, but I think the price is justified not only by swank looks, but by the sound.
In 1974, in England, Australian Reverse-Pommy pianist and recording engineer Billy Woodman founded the Acoustic Transducer Co. (ATC) as a maker of loudspeaker drive-units. That makes ATC a few years younger than Spendor (1969) and a few years older than Harbeth (1977). When I mentioned all that to a quick-witted audio buddy, he immediately came back with "Middle Child Syndrome!"
One day last year, my friend Larry and I were talking about our college-fraternity days and loudspeakers. Those were four of the best years of my life. Strong friendships were formed, and ever since, we've kept in touch with most of our fraternity's brothers-in-heart. Ours was not a jock house, nor was it the last bastion of rampant male sexuality—it was, after all, an MIT frat house. But it was full of music lovers who fell neatly into three camps: the California School owned JBL Decades, the New England School had Smaller Advents, and the Renegades boasted bootlegged Bose 901s (footnote 1).
Although Kentucky loudspeaker manufacturer Thiel has produced some standmounted models for home-theater use, all of their serious music speakers have been floorstanders. Enter the PCS: even though styled to match every Thiel speaker since the groundbreaking CS5 of 1989, the 19"-high PCS sits on a stand, not the floor.
Following my review of two high-performance minimonitors last November (footnote 1), I received a letter asking why I recommended a stand-mounted speaker at all when it was possible to buy a floorstanding design with more bass for the same amount of money. Furthermore, the correspondent went on, when you consider that the minimonitor sitting on its stand occupies as much floorspace as the floorstander, it's hard to see why a market for minimonitors exists at all.
The word totem is powerful in its own right. Totems have conscious and unconscious meanings, depicting powerful supernatural forces in nature and within us. Native Americans of the Northwest Coast tribes, starting with the Chippewa, or Ojibwa, used the term for the animals or birds associated with their clans. Tall wooden columns were carved with the clan totem, which could be a bird, fish, animal, or plant. Later, the Kwakiutls of the Pacific Northwest held feasts called Potlatches, during which poles carved with family and clan emblems were erected. Totems were also involved in worship and rites of passage. So elemental were the forces depicted by these symbols that Freud used totem to depict basic cultural laws, both spoken and unspoken, that guide daily behavior and proscribe what remains forbidden. It is fitting that the Totem loudspeaker reviewed here comes from Canada, the home of the enduring Kwakiutl Potlatch, where totems were so powerful.