The Entry Level #22

The Tannoy Mercury V1 loudspeakers ($320/pair; see last month's column) were already carefully packed in their box, pushed into a corner of my messy kitchen, ready to go to John Atkinson for a Follow-Up—but I couldn't stop thinking about them. Their delicate, graceful highs and tight, properly balanced bass had entranced me, and, now, as I listened over and over to a recent reissue of Bill Dixon's amazing Intents and Purposes (CD, International Phonograph LSP-3844), I felt a strange urge to unpack the Tannoys and return them to my listening room. I had to know how Intents and Purposes would sound through the Tannoys. I was being transported by the album's many rich, vibrant colors, its elegant twists and turns, and I couldn't shake the feeling that the Tannoys would extract even more meaning from the music, something that my faithful PSB Alpha B1s had missed.

Still, I resisted. Because I'm lazy, and can be painfully stubborn even against my own desires, I tried to force the idea from my mind. I'm done with the Tannoy review. I'm supposed to be getting to know the Parasound Zcd CD player. It's going to be a pain in the ass to unpack the speakers. It's hot!

But resistance was futile. There was only one way to bring this struggle to an end. I knew it, the speakers knew it, the CD player knew it. Most of all, the music knew it. It was probably "Nightfall Pieces I" that finally sent me over the edge. George Marge's tender alto flute spun gray-blue ribbons round Bill Dixon's troubled, disconsolate trumpet, and it was just too much to take. Was this classical? Jazz? Noise? Pop? The blues? Goddammit.

I got up and unpacked the box I'd just packed up, moved the PSBs aside, and set up the Tannoys. I cleared a spot on my cluttered orange couch, started Intents and Purposes from the beginning, and listened again. I guess I wasn't ready to move on, after all.

A few points
Just after I'd submitted my review of the Mercury V1, Tannoy's marketing manager, Jen Kavanagh, sent me some interesting information about the speaker's development and design. A few points are worth mentioning here.

The V1 is the fifth iteration of the Mercury, which was originally released in the 1980s. As I've said before, I really like it when things stick around for a while. I like constancy and consistency. Especially in these unsettled days, when technological advances relentlessly alter the ways in which we interact with one another, and how we experience art, music, food, clothing—everything—I think it's important to celebrate things that last, whether they be horseshoe crabs, paisleys, friendships, or loudspeakers. (See Art Dudley's "List of the Month" in this issue's "Listening.")

In hi-fi, as in music and other forms of great art, the most distinct and memorable pieces of work are often those born from a single, determined vision. I like that, too. It means that when you're listening to a CD player or an amplifier or a pair of speakers, you're also listening to a point of view—you're listening to a person. As I mentioned last month, the person behind the PSB sound is Paul Barton. In the case of Tannoy, that person is Paul Mills, the company's director of research and engineering. Mills joined Tannoy in 1987 as a senior engineer. Today, he's responsible for the acoustic design of all Tannoy residential loudspeakers, from the modest Mercury V1 to the stately Westminster Royal SE. It's fun to think that something of the $12,000/pair Westminster can be heard and enjoyed in the $320/pair Mercury V1. I love the fact that there are talented engineers who are willing to produce truly affordable, high-quality designs as well as cost-no-object flagship models. And while I understand and appreciate that some designers can't or won't make certain compromises (moving production to China, for instance) to reach a lower price point, I can't help wondering what the Magicos, MBLs, Wilsons, Vivids, and YGs of the hi-fi world might come up with if they chose to design a speaker that would retail for $300/pair.

Every design, even the most expensive and ambitious, is made with compromises. Last month I noted the Tannoy Mercury V1's old-fashioned appearance, all straight lines and right angles. Many other speakers have contoured baffles, tapered edges, and/or rounded sidewalls, to reduce vibrations and cabinet resonances. How does the boxy Mercury V1 overcome those obstacles? Jen Kavanagh passed my question along to Jim Stewart, Tannoy's director of operations, who explained that the speaker's overall appearance was compromised in order to achieve the best possible sound quality. I guess it's ironic, then, that I find the Mercury V1 to be so physically uncompromised—beautiful, in fact. But that's me. I like it when speakers look like speakers, rather than seashells, aliens, eyeballs, or vulvas.

According to Stewart, a square, rigid cabinet will offer significantly better performance than a curved, thin-walled cabinet with plastic trim pieces. For the Mercury V1, Tannoy concentrated on building a substantial, thick-walled cabinet with an internal volume that would deliver well-controlled bass. The cabinet was kept as narrow as possible, to reduce any harmful effects of its sharp edges; the desired internal volume was attained by making the cabinet deeper. Furthermore, limiting the Mercury V1 to just two vinyl finishes (Dark Walnut and Sugar Maple, both lovely) enabled Tannoy to produce large quantities of those two variants, thereby keeping the speaker's price low and offering greater value to the customer.

But as I listened again to Bill Dixon's Intents and Purposes, none of this entered my mind.

With the relevant amount of fidelity
Intents and Purposes was originally released by RCA Victor in 1967, and, with the exception of marginal reissues in Japan (1972) and France (1976), was soon out of print—and stayed that way until last year. We have to thank International Phonograph's Jonathan Horwich for making it readily available to a new generation of music lovers. I bought my copy at Other Music, in New York City, but I've seen the album available, at criminally low prices, from Amazon and eBay.

Housed in a glossy, heavy-stock, mini-gatefold sleeve that beautifully replicates the original LP's art, this is a Compact Disc that even I can love. As Horwich's liner notes make clear, Dixon had strong feelings regarding a potential reissue. He quotes Dixon from June 1999: "I worked like the devil on [Intents and Purposes] and, as a consequence, I'm incredibly sensitive about it being displayed for listeners in any format other than the one I conceived. I have wanted to purchase the masters myself, but that has come to naught. I would rather it never be reissued if it can't be done with the relevant amount of fidelity to the philosophy of its initiation."

Horwich's reissue was accomplished with Dixon's blessing, so you know it's good. The original two-track masters were provided by Sony Entertainment and converted to 24-bit/96kHz digital by Mark Wilder (Battery Studios, New York) and Horwich. Steve Marlow handled the final mixing and mastering. Horwich's International Phonograph label has also reissued Julius Hemphill's Dogon A.D. and the Clare Fischer Orchestra's Extension (see our reviews in May and September, respectively). Upcoming Phonograph International titles will include other neglected treasures: Jeremy Steig's Flute Fever and John Carter's Flight for Four and Self-Determination Music. While Horwich is currently dedicated to releasing CDs of long-out-of-print recordings, he says he'd be happy to release them on LP as well, but only if the demand exists. I'm crossing my fingers for a big, beautiful vinyl version of Intents and Purposes. For now, I'm delighted to have the CD.

The album comprises four pieces—two long, two short—developed by Dixon and his creative partner, dancer-choreographer Judith Dunn. Much like John Cage, who had a long and productive relationship with choreographer Merce Cunningham, Dixon was interested in and inspired by dance; while the four pieces on Intents and Purposes certainly live on their own, it's fun (and enriching, I think) to consider them as being inextricably tied to the work of the Cunningham-trained Dunn. So, as I listened again, I saw the drama unfold: nightfall, rainfall, whisper, weep, and wail. Many-voiced, mercurial—sometimes furious, sometimes languid, by turns romantic, soft, sorrowful, sexy—the music leapt into my listening room, danced into my life, and made me feel happy to be who I am, happy to have undeniable urges. And it was that quality—the graceful, weightless dance of it all—that the Tannoy Mercury V1s captured best.

Parasound Zcd CD player
If you're going to listen to great CDs, you'll need a worthwhile CD player, and Parasound's new Zcd ($400) is an interesting option. Like all of Parasound's Z products, the basic-black Zcd measures 9.5" wide by 2" high by 10" deep, and has front-panel rack-mounting holes. I've also seen a stylish, silver option that forgoes the holes for an appearance more at home in the listening room than in the recording studio. Difficult as I am, I'd prefer black without holes. For more on the Z products' physical design, see my review of the Zphono•USB phono preamplifier in our March issue.


JRT's picture

What decade are you living in?

Including a new ~$400 standalone CD player as part of an "entry level system", in comparison to other current options, would be a poor allocation of precious resources.

I would agree that Redbook compatible CD audio is far from obsolete, as there will be trade in used CDs long after the publishing of new releases has slowed to a trickle.

But the $400 wasted on that CD player is more than enough to buy a SqueezeBox Touch ($250), an inexpensive external USB HDD (under $100), and a powered USB hub (under $50). Extract digital audio from the CDs using EAC, Exact Audio Copy software (free download), transcode the WAV files to FLAC, Free Lossless Audio CODEC, save them to the external USB HDD, and attach that to the SB Touch. Control it from its touch screen, or at a distance with its handheld remote, or with an application running on your Android tablet/smartphone, etc.

The notion of entry level should include some thought to upgrade paths, improvements to the system.

On the upstream side, the networked digital audio side, the SqueezeBox system is easilly expanded. You can attach the SqueezeBox Touch to a network and put the files on a server, making them available to other devices on the network, including addition of more SqueezeBox players elsewhere in the home. For a server, you can buy a suitable inexpensive NAS, or repurpose an obsolete PC with free software. That is in sharp contrast to the CDP, which is not something you would later attatch to a network.

Likewise on the downstream side, that SB Touch is a better foundation to build upon.

With either the CDP or the SB Touch, someone might later add an external DAC attatched to the S/PDIF coaxial digital audio output port. But unlike the CDP, the SB Touch can also use an asynchronous USB DAC, such as the ~$250 AudioQuest Dragonfly (requires the enabling application and the use of a powered USB hub).

Better yet, one could later attach the SqueezeBox Touch to the new ~$1200 Oppo BDP-105 multi-format optical disk player, which adds SACD, DVD-A, and BluRay compatibility while also having an excellent DAC. The Oppo BDP-105 is not just an optical disk player, but also has digital inputs including asynchronous USB, coaxial S/PDIF, and optical Toslink, allowing it to be used as an external DAC for other devices.

Standalone CDPs are dinosaurs whose time has already passed, though many (myself included) still have them in playback setups, those are quickly becoming far less usual, going toward novelty, like mini disc players, digital compact cassettes, cassette decks, etc. Buying a new one now is a waste of resources better spent elsewhere.

Timbo in Oz's picture

I actually like looking for CDs, LPs and cassettes, and long-play audio VCR tapes made from live concerts from FM in the shelves in the auido-room / lounge. I find other stuff on the way, too!  I am slowly building up a library of live (2-mike ORTF array) recordings made for broadcast converted from DATs - or from HD or Soild-state memory. - on CD.

What you are proposing would require many of us to invest many, many hours in transfering our hundreds or thousands of CDs' data to the server (or whatever else you might call it).

This would apply even at high speeds from my PC's two high-speed DVD record/play drives where I'm not convinced the final quality of CD's copied that way is good enough, anyway.

Although I am retired I am not interested in putting that amount of time in. I would much rather: - read, garden, have sex, surf the web, tour guide at our War Memorial, train my Community Fire Unit, record live concerts and attend others, and so on, and on. Bearing in mind that I can always find a CD / LP / etc anyway, to put on.

I also listen to FM almost all day. One good national network - - no compression, no processing, no Eq, and lots of live concerts.

I also suspect that most of the built-in music library software will be driven by pop-genre data structures of the type we used to find in most music data-base packages, which make cataloguing, let alone managing a mostly classical music recording library effectively impossible.

If I listened to 'tracks' almost all the time then I might consider the path you mention.

But I don't much at all - prefering whole 'albums' - for pop anyway, and although I'm a baby-boomer and pop genres USED to matter a LOT to me they never were among the reasons I got into high-fidelity about 40 years ago and still aren't. " Fidelity to what" being the issue there.

The idea that CDP's are dinosaurs is thus not true for all potential buyers and is therefore not true.

Try not to wave your equipment about, okay? ;-)!










toopoorforwilsons's picture

Have to agree with Timbo on this one - there are still Cds being made and distributed and I can´t understand why all of a sudden CDPs are such a bad choice. I can either get up, reach for a CD and play it or find the track on a streamer/computer with a remote control but - apart from the expanded network capabilities - what is so much better with the second method? I also started ripping my CD collecion years ago and am not finished yet, the actual ripping process isn´t too bad but correcting all the faults and sorting out cover art etc afterwards takes such a long time, like Timbo said it´s more work with a classical collection. I could rearrange the shelves in less than half an hour and have everything sorted beautifully there instead if i wanted to.

Listened to some Bill Dixon after reading this enthusiastic article. Quite unique sounding stuff, I might not buy the album but always good to experience some new sounds. Going to look into some other things recommended by Mr. Mejias.