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.
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.
I first heard the Totem Acoustic Tabù loudspeakers at HI-FI '96, Stereophile's Home Theater & Specialty Audio Show at the Waldorf=Astoria in New York City last June. A startlingly realistic vocal recording drew me to Totem's sixth-floor demo room. Vincent Bruzzese, the speaker's designer, was playing Michael Jonasz singing "Si si si le ciel" from la fabuleuse histoire de Mister Swing (WEA 2292-42338-2, imported by May Audio Marketing). The small, two-way Tabù cast a holographic, palpable musical image with clear highs and sizzling dynamic pace. I was bitten, and set things in motion for this review. And two other things drew me to the Tabù: its capacitor-less crossover and its similarity to Totem's Model 1.
The two-way, biwirable, rear-ported Dreamcatcher is designed and manufactured in Canada; its drive-units are designed by Totem, but made and assembled in Europe. The 1" titanium-dome tweeter, manufactured by German Acoustik, is mated to a 4" Scan-Speak woofer. Totem founder Vince Bruzzese feels very strongly about sourcing his drivers in the West. In the past, he got his small woofers from Peerless in Denmark, but switched to Scan-Speak when Peerless started manufacturing in China. Bruzzese also pointed out that the tweeter used in the Dreamcatcher costs him 16, more than 15 times as much as most similar Asian-made tweeters.
Triad Speakers has been designing and manufacturing three-piece (woofer and two satellites) loudspeaker systems since 1982. The company was formed that year by designer Larry Pexton and has enjoyed steady growth in their market niche. Their original three-piece loudspeaker was a collaboration with Edward M. Long, of "Time-Align" fame, and Ron Wickersham. It was felt that the ideal loudspeaker would have the least cabinet interference, thus the design decision to keep the woofer separate and the midrange/tweeter enclosure small. Triad speakers were selected for inclusion in the Consumer Electronics Show's Innovations 1990 Design and Engineering Showcase, the sixth time the company's products have been selected for this award.
The first reference I saw to the Count of Saint Germain was in Foucault's Pendulum, Umberto Eco's dense novel about a man whose paranoid delusions become so overpoweringly real that, by the end of the book, the reader is left wondering whether the protagonist's enemies actually exist. That their number should include Saint Germain was a nice touch: Part cabalist, part confidence man, the real-life Count was thought by some to be immortal (in Pendulum he's pushing 300), and while Casanova wrote vividly of meeting Saint Germain at a dinner party in 1757, so did the English writer and pederast C.W. Leadbetter—in 1926. Like Aleister Crowley, the Count of Saint Germain can be seen peering over the shoulders of countless parlor (but not parleur, or even haut-parleur) occultists: He keeps popping up all over the place.
When I attended the 2006 GuangZhou Hi-Fi Show in China, it seemed as though most of the Asian-built loudspeakers I saw were huge, astonishingly efficient, and had horns. When I walked into Usher Audio Technology's room, however, Paul Chen was making music happen with the Usher S-520s ($500/pair).