Getting on two years ago, in an effort to identify the best bargains for music lovers on a budget, I wrote a series of columns exploring the field of affordable loudspeakers and CD receivers. I hadn't planned to revisiting that topic so soon, but two developments have convinced me to: first, my encounter with one of the most idiosyncratic budget loudspeakers ever to grace my listening space, and in some ways is a new benchmark for performance vs price, especially for classical-music fans; and second, the advent of a new product category: Affordable Internet-Radio-Capable CD Receivers with Built-in WiFi and USB Connectivity.
But now that I have your attention, I'll first tell you about some great recordings you should check out. Then come the loudspeakers and, in my next column, the new CD receivers.
This month I am writing about the Loudness Wars! But first a DVD, They Came to Play. The quest, or the hero's journey, has been a major theme of literature for as long as there has been literature. From the epic of Gilgamesh to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to Moby-Dick to The Lord of the Rings, the quest's plot trajectory has remained pretty much consistent: be confronted by a challenge; leave home; bond with a new friend; survive climactic showdown; discover true self.
That last one is the payoff. Great literature allows us to benefit vicariously from the hero's hard-won self-knowledge. But without question, the thrills and chills and the cliff-hanging moments are what have put the fannies in the theater seats, from ancient Athens to your local megaplex.
I was of two minds about requesting the loan of the B-1s. First, at $15,000/pair, they're above my usual price range. More important, I was concerned that, given the greater complexity of a three-way crossover, the larger speaker, with tweeter, midrange, and woofers front and rear would not sound as beguilingly coherent as the two-way V-1.5, with its simpler crossover. I am delighted to report that I was quite wrong, and in more than one respect.
Of course, the Latinists among my readers (all three of them) already know that the ancient Romans would have carved this column's title "PUERNATUSEST." (Not that the Romans gave a fig about that particular puer until much later . . . ) All in capital letters, because lower-case (ie, minuscule) letters were not invented until scribes in the Middle Ages wanted to write faster by not having to lift their pens so often between strokes. Spaces between words also came after Roman times.
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.
The phrase "the mystic chords of memory" comes from Abraham Lincoln's First Inaugural Address. Of course, larger issues than those addressed in this column occupied most peoples' minds just then. But it is nonetheless worthwhile for us to spend a moment or two thinking about how differently people experienced music in 1861, compared to how things are today.
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.
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.
February is traditionally the month for music features, so I start this column with some recordings you really should hear. This year I had a greater-than-usual number of worthy candidates for "Records To Die For." Which discs got named as R2D4s and which got column coverage was, to quote the Iron Duke, a near-run thing.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I had no idea, back when I set out to put together a music lover's stereo system in the $2500$3750 range, that while I was beavering away the stock market would tank and credit markets would freeze upor that the federal government would print money to bail out overextended investment banks, take equity interests in commercial banks, and become the lender of only resort for GM, Chrysler, and Ford. I usually avoid even the hint of political commentary in my audio writing, but I can't resist passing along a quip I'm very proud of: I told all my friends that, if they voted for John Kerry, within four years we'd have socialism, and I was right (footnote 1).
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.