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.
When US audiophiles think of the oldest firms still making high-performance audio equipment, they usually think of McIntosh Labs, founded in 1948. The UK's Quad traces its corporate origins back to 1936. Japan's Luxman, however, has them both beat: Luxman began making transformers and switches for radio sets in 1925. This is to the good; the company obviously has a sense of history. The iffy part is that Luxman's product line, which blends modern and heritage products, is a bit quirkily confusing. Luxman is by no means alone in having a product line that does not make intuitive sense to the uninitiated. A prime example is Harbeth's having two loudspeakers both costing $5000/pair, the Monitor 30 and the Super HL5.
I discussed Luxman's DU-50 near-universal player ($4990, it plays SACDs, DVD-As, DVD-Vs, and CDs, but not Blu-ray discs) in no fewer than five columns in 2009 (February, April, June, August, October).
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.
There is something about the performance of music that is in the nature of a spectator sport. By this I do not mean big-arena stagecraft and lights and fireworks and dance routines. I mean the actual making of the music.
To see Eric Johnson's fingers flying over his Fender Stratocaster as he hits "Cliffs of Dover" out of the park one more time is to enjoy something that is every bit as much an athletic performance and a spectator sport as baseball is. There is a thrill to watching people do difficult things exceptionally well, things that most of us can only take random sidelong swipes at.
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.
Otto von Bismarck (18151898), the Prime Minister of Prussia who brought about the unification of Germany, was not a nice man. But he was no dummy, either. One of his most prophetic remarks was in response to a journalist's question about what Bismarck thought to be the single most decisive factor in modern history: "The fact that the North Americans speak English."