In sixth grade, I was given a Victorinox Swiss Army knife. I loved it. An avid camper and erstwhile Boy Scout, I was amazed at how many things I could do with this well-made, pocket-size wonder. I used its tweezers to remove splinters and ticks, its scissors to cut thread, its can opener to prize open tins of baked beans, and its knife blade to whittle, occasionally cut myself, and generally wreak teenage mayhem.
As I grew older, I discovered that using specialized tools for a given job was generally easier, faster, and more pleasurable than using my Swiss Army knife's utilities. Though I could cut a tent's ground cloth with my knife's scissors, a plain-Jane pair of Fiskars worked much better, an OXO can opener got me into those baked beans much faster than my Victorinox could, and even my Swiss Army knife blade didn't stay as sharp or fit in my hand as well as a simple Buck knife. Still, there was no doubt that my Swiss Army knife was a great tool and a good value, even if it was never the best tool for a specific task. To put it another way: The value of my Swiss Army knife was broad but shallow, while the value of something like my OXO can opener was narrow but deep.
Winter has returned to Cherry Valley, New York, and I'm reminded of a bad habit that I used to conceal: On cold mornings I started my car well before driving off, then actually weighted down the accelerator pedalwith the heavy socket tray from my toolboxin an effort to keep the idle high, and thus more quickly warm the windshield and the interior. Whether my lazy trick had the desired effect is a matter of some debate, but I wish now that I hadn't been so wasteful and so casually fouled the air.
With the Music Player, T+A also sent along the Power Plant integrated amplifier ($2700). The Power Plant (PP) looks almost identical to the MP, and the two comprise a handsome, fully functional audio system in a single modest stack. To make this even easier, you connect the two at their rear panels with a supplied RJ-12 cable (T+A calls this the E Link), which coordinates their functions and allows the MP and PP to be operated with a single remote control.
In the mornings, just before I leave for work, I power up the system, turn the volume down low, and set the CD player to Repeat. I like to think that if I play calm, soothing music while Ms. Little and I are away, the cats will feel less alone and more relaxed. It's also nice, on returning home from work, to walk into a room filled with music. One evening a few weeks ago, I stepped into the apartment, dropped my bags to the floor, settled down into the couch with my iPhone, and began scrolling through text messages. I'd been seated for only a moment before I had to turn my attention entirely to the sound of the system, which, even at a very low volume, sounded warm, detailed, and unusually goodunbelievably, almost unbearably engaging.
Around midnight, Natalie decided to move the party from her and Nicole's apartment (see last month's column) to our favorite local dive, Lucky 7, just a few blocks away on the corner of Second and Coles, in Jersey City. We threw wide the old red door and stepped into the stench of stale beer, the sound of cheap speaker cones tearing at the seams. I love Lucky's as much as anyone, but the music there on a Saturday night is always too goddamned loud.
Were I trying to make a living by giving piano recitals, David Stanhope's new CD, A Virtuoso Recital (Tall Poppies TP184), just might tempt me to wash down a fistful of pills with a bottle of Scotch. The saving grace being that Stanhope seems to have enough things to occupy himself with in his native Australia. The risk of his showing up in New York City and playing a recital, thereby giving a lot of people existential crises and sleepless nights, seems remote.
Ars-Sonum is a Spanish audio company that, as far as I can tell, makes only one product—but it's a doozy (footnote 1). The Filarmonía SE is a tube integrated amplifier that is, in many ways, an homage to Dynaco's iconic Stereo 70 power amplifier of 1959, but the Filarmonía is by no means a slavish copy. Get down to specifics, and it's actually more of a clean-sheet-of-paper design.
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.
When I was a kid, I saw the Marlon Brando remake of Mutiny on the Bounty. I'm sure you know the storylots of bad-guy/good-guy tension between Captain Bligh and Fletcher Christian. There's also an overlay of class conflict, but with a twist: The up-and-comer is the sadist, while it's the aristocrat who is nature's nobleman.
There have been lots of great, and even some fabulous books of music criticism or reportage, and I've recommended several in these pages. So far, however, only one has made me chuckle, chortle, or laugh out loud, time and time again.
There's a fantastic new two-SACD/CD set of a demonstration-quality live recording of a rather obscure work you really should get to know, not only for its own merits, but also for what I believe is its underappreciated but major influence on music and on popular culture. The piece is by 20th-century composer Arnold Schoenberg, but trust meit's more than "listenable." It (or, at least, the music on the first disc) is beyond engaging; it is compellinga revelation, even. The work is Gurrelieder (Songs of Gurre), Gurre being a castle in medieval Denmark that was the setting of a real-life doomed love triangle, the story of which has since loomed large in the moodily brooding artistic consciousness of Danes. The 19th-century Danish poet Jens Peter Jacobsen wrote a collection of poems based on medieval legends, including this one, and a German translation by Robert Franz Arnold provided Schoenberg's dramatic texts.
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.
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.
Since its founding just over ten years ago, Mission Electronics has grown to become one of the largest "real" hi-fi companies in the UK. Although their product line originally consisted of three relatively conventional loudspeakers, it rapidly grew to encompass high-end pre- and power amplifiers, cartridges, tonearms, and turntables, and, in the mid 1980s, a system concept based on CD replay and relatively inexpensive electronics: the Cyrus amplifiers and tuner.