The Fifth Element #42 Page 3

Oppo DV-970HD universal player
A few quick words about this inexpensive universal digital player ($149), which punches far above its weight class. At the time of writing, I had no idea what Wes Phillips said about it, but his full review was published in the May issue. Judging only by its two-channel audio performance, the Oppo DV-970HD is a very respectable player. Taking its price into account, it is an exceptional bargain.

Oppo thoughtfully includes an Audio Only function on the remote control, which disables the player's video functions. However, I could hear no difference, even through the Oppo's analog outputs. Audio Only, by the way, disables itself when the DV-970HD is placed in standby, which is probably a smart thing. Otherwise, if the player were to be part of a home-theater system, a non-audiophile trying to play a DVD might become very frustrated, getting sound but no picture.

Using the far more expensive Grace m902's input switch to compare the Oppo's analog outs to its digital out feeding the Grace's DAC and listening through the Grace's headphone jacks (which allowed for quick comparisons), I preferred the sound using the Grace's DACs, but, it was not a night-and-day difference.

The only things that keep me from making the DV-970HD a "no-brainer" budget recommendation are that it requires the use of a video monitor to set up all its functions for optimal two-channel listening, and, unless you're playing a recording from the beginning and straight through, the controls you'll need are available only on the remote control, not the front panel.

Updated ribbon mikes
Stereophile isn't really a pro-audio journal, so these will be capsule reports. (Ouch. Unintended pun.)

Soundwave Research's Crowley and Tripp Proscenium ribbon microphone ($1795) uses modern technology and manufacturing methods to lessen the traditional drawbacks (fragility, low output) of ribbon microphones while preserving their sonic attractions (smoothness, warmth). Stronger magnets and modern manufacturing tolerances are key. When I visited Soundwave's microphone-assembly room, they were using a pair of surgical tweezers to drop a QC-rejected ribbon into my outstretched palm. I couldn't feel it—it weighed less than an equivalent length of human hair.

Crowley and Tripp mikes are beautifully made—a class act from start to finish. The pair of Prosceniums I borrowed came in elegant hardwood storage cases (like something out of Fine Woodworking), designed to ensure that the mikes would travel. The supplied stand clamps were very "grippy," ably coping with the mikes' substantial weight.

In use, the Proscenium ribbons' sound was simply gorgeous, with a high "relaxation factor," and with ribbon mikes' signature luscious midrange. However, seeing that independent measurements made on Soundwave's behalf show the Proscenium's frequency response to be 14dB down at 10Hz and 12kHz, it won't be the mike for every application. But for the right application, it's gorgeous. I found the tracks recorded using the Prosceniums to be the most "listenable" of all on the organ-survey CD. Organist Andrew Galuska agrees.

A classic Neumann mike revisited
Cable guru George Cardas is not content to rest on his laurels. Long dissatisfied with the way his voice sounded as recorded by available microphones, he has created an outstanding instrument: the Cardas variable-pattern, large-diaphragm, condenser tube mike. The Cardas mike begins life as an exacting modern copy of the 1950s Neumann-Telefunken M49. If you've seen photos of Miles Davis during the recording sessions for Kind of Blue, you've seen pictures of a M49.

The Soundelux company markets their own updating of the M49. George Cardas hot-rods the Soundelux e49 with a new diaphragm set that is a complex ellipsoid, rather than the conventional circular shape. This, plus the fact that the ratio of the ellipsoid's length to width happens to be the Golden Ratio, is claimed to lessen the diaphragm's internal resonances. The only drawbacks to these phenomenal microphones are that they are, for all intents and purposes, custom-made to order, and that the price is $4800/pair.

I used Cardas Golden Ellipsoid microphones to record my daughter singing one of Canteloube's Songs of the Auvergne. On hearing the playback, she commented that this was the first time she did not hate the recorded sound of her own voice.

I then used the Cardas mikes to record a 1960s Aeolian-Skinner organ at Central Congregational Church, in Providence, Rhode Island. Especially in native DSD, those recordings sound simply glorious. I lent a DVDR of the DSD tracks to Ray Kimber, who played them at his exhibit at the 2007 Consumer Electronics Show. Ray then asked George Cardas to make him a matched quartet of the mikes.

I lent the mikes themselves to Jerry Bruck, who was presenting a microphone "petting zoo" to the New York City chapter of the Audio Engineering Society. At that event, mastering engineer Alan Silverman buttonholed Jerry about the Cardas mikes, with the upshot that Silverman borrowed them (footnote 1). Intrigued, and made enthusiastic by his own vocal-tracking tests with some rock singers, Silverman suggested that Walter Sear of Sear Sound host one of his occasional gear shoot-outs at his famed New York studio, where Eric Clapton, Norah Jones, and others have recorded.

Learning that the shoot-out was in the works, I suggested that almost-unknown but magnificent young American operatic tenor Brian Cheney (pronounced CHEE-nee) volunteer as a sound source. I couldn't attend the event, but sent JA as my designate. His photos of the event appeared soon thereafter on the Gallery page of Stereophile's website.

Producer-engineer Andrew Lipinski recorded and Alan Silverman mastered. When this column goes up on Stereophile's website, I will ask that simultaneously recorded tracks of Puccini's "Che gelida manina," identical except for the microphones, be posted as MP3 files: one with Walter Sear's only-two-in-the-world pre-WWII RTF microphones (music example 1), and one with a pair of Cardas Golden Ellipsoids (music example 2). Great singing, fascinating differences between the mikes. (Unfortunately, none of the organ compositions I recorded with the Crowley and Tripps, Cardas, or Pearl mikes are in the public domain.)

A Pearl from Sweden
For my final recordings for the organ project, I borrowed a TL-44 dual-capsule rectangular-diaphragm condenser mike ($2664) from Independent Audio, of Portland, Maine, US representative for Swedish microphone maker Pearl. In retrospect, one of Pearl's dedicated M-S mikes probably would have been a better choice, but the layout of the organ and church (S. Stephen in Providence, Rhode Island) gave me a break. The organ is in an internal corner of the cruciform floor plan, with one facade on each adjoining wall. So the TL-44's back-to-back capsule layout didn't result in a hole in the middle of the stereo image.

The Pearl mike had smooth timbres and wonderful bass and dynamics, and yielded two more very musically satisfying tracks: Cook's Fanfare and Howells' elegiac Master Tallis's Testament. I regret that I didn't have time to try the TL-44 on anything else, and also that it just did not photograph well.

Next time: Ars Sonum's Dynaco ST-70 homage, stand-mounted, two-way monitor speakers, and some great Compline recordings.


Footnote 1: Each and every handoff of microphones was approved in writing, and well in advance, by George Cardas. At all times, Cardas had complete contact information for all involved.