The Fifth Element #47 Page 2

I had never heard of Annar Follesø. The liner notes say he studied at Bloomington, Indiana. The cover photo does him no favors; he looks deranged. I was apprehensive that I was in for some scenery chewing before I consigned the SACD to the "donate" pile, but I was wrong.

Follesø's traversal of Bartók's technically and musically daunting Sonata for Solo Violin is entirely musicianly. Follesø is poised and confident but not cocky. There is no showing off, no exaggerated gestures. He plays the work as though it belongs to the great tradition that predated and encompassed Bach, while giving due weight to its folkloric strains. Very quietly, Follesø makes the technical challenges go away. I am impressed. Some might find his tempos a bit on the measured or careful side; I prefer to think he is avoiding coming off as rushed or frantic.

Follesø plays a different violin for each work on this SACD, the other compositions being a very fine Sonata 2 for Violin and Piano and, you guessed it, Contrasts for Clarinet, Violin, and Piano, in a spirited performance. None of the violins is a top-shelf choice; the solo sonata was performed on a 1921 Paolo de Barbieri, the sonata with piano and most of Contrasts on a ca 1870 Rocca, and the scordatura section of Contrasts on a 1919 Blazek. Follesø makes them all sound major-league.

As does the recording, at Oslo's Sofienberg Church. A photo in the booklet suggests that for Contrasts, the violinist and clarinetist stood on risers on either side of the piano, a Bösendorfer whose lid had been removed. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, that's a temptation I've never had the courage to give in to. But listening to the recording before I noticed that, I heard nothing amiss.

To sum up: We have a hybrid SACD/CD, the master tape of which was higher-rez but not DSD-rez, let alone DXD-rez, of comparatively unknown musicians playing repertoire for which there is no shortage of world-class competition, the violinist playing not even a "name-brand" violin—yet the result is an engrossing and completely artistically successful chamber-music program. Most highly recommended.

Relaxe—se com uma cerveja
If the foregoing has been a little too highfalutin for you, relief is at hand. Perhaps not in the form of a relaxing cold beer, but maybe the next-best thing: a very mellow CD of (mostly) Brazilian bossa nova played on classical guitar. The collection, Deve ser Amor (It Must Be Love), features guitarist Michael Andriaccio (Fleur de Son FDSJ 57977). Pieces are from the pens of Baden Powell, Astor Piazzolla, Antonio Carlos Jobim, and Luiz Bonfá—what could there be not to like? Bonfá's "Manha de Carnival," the famous "Theme from Black Orpheus," is here—of course.

This is a very nice, low-intensity program—no glimpses of the cosmos, no holy-this or holy-that moments of virtuosity-induced stupefaction. Andriaccio has a very pleasant way with this music on classical guitar. Is his playing on the same level of technical accomplishment as, say, Göran Söllscher's? Nope. Is the audio engineering up to the level Deutsche Grammophon has provided for Söllscher? Double nope.

I found the sound somewhat lacking in sparkle and hall ambience, and even in the solidity of the center image. But the music was so agreeable, I refused to let Audiophilia nervosa get in my way. Next time around, though, the engineer might want to try an M-S mike array, perhaps with figure-8 ribbons such as can be had from Crowley and Tripp. Perhaps in a livelier hall.

But don't let my quibbles stop you from picking up this CD. It might be just the ticket if you're a fan of classical guitar or bossa nova, or simply want some mellow music to zone out to. Beer from Brazil is optional. A nice little album.

Barking up the wrong tree
I'll soon return to the project of assembling systems based on one-box CD receivers, but I first want to vent a bit about some of the more enthusiastic denizens of AudioLand. I had heard several hymns of praise sung to the notion of using a first-generation Sony PlayStation (SCPH-1001) as a CD player. Okay, I bit. Hope sprang eternal that if the PlayStation proved a giant-killer, I could then recommend an alternate system, cutting a couple hundred dollars or more off the price.

I looked on eBay, where people were repeating the shibboleth that what they were offering was "as good as $6000 audiophile CD players." I ended up paying $25 in person at my local Salvation Army for a PlayStation, one controller, a power cord, and a multi-output cord set. Within a few hours of setting it up, I was asking myself:

What planet are these people from? Remulac????

I admit that the PS1 didn't sound at all bad playing CDs through its RCA analog outs. Rather good, in fact. Compared directly to the CD section of the Music Hall Trio CD receiver ($999), and using Cardas Neutral Reference interconnects ($525/meter pair) to carry the PS1's output to the Trio's Aux input, I found the sound using the PS1 and the Cardas cable to be noticeably more extended, open, and agile, and at the same time slightly more rich in the midrange, with a greater sense of hall sound. No question: definitely more to my tastes, but no revelation—just a welcome upgrade.

Substituting a molded cable set grabbed from my personal Graveyard of the Giveaway Cables, there was less of a difference. The not-quite all-important but nonetheless hugely important midrange was a tad threadbare via the giveaway cables, compared with the Cardases; the treble was a trifle thin, too. In short, and considering only sound: With the Cardas cables, the PS1's audio improvement compared with the Trio's stock CD section was worthwhile (and must be taken into account in one's estimation of the Trio on the whole); but with the molded generic cables, the PS1 just wasn't worth messing with.

So, based on several days' on-and-off listening, I am in no position to say that you don't get at least $25 worth of sound quality from a Sal's Boutique PlayStation One—assuming you hook it up with excellent and somewhat expensive interconnects. The drawbacks: everything else, starting with:

The PS1 has a power switch. When you power up the unit, it outputs a loud "trademark sound" that I call the Buunnggg sound (that's what it sounds like). I have never before dealt with a CD player that made its presence known that way. And, let's not forget, there's a pushbutton to activate the top-cover disc-access mechanism. Nothing else, except a Reset button you'll never use to play CDs.

All the other controls are on the controller, which is hardwired to the box. And which assumes that the box is connected to a TV. I can imagine that someone could learn to navigate the PS1 by trial and error, then remember which controller button does what. I figured out track forward, but not track back. But there's no display on the PS1 that tells you what track you're on—or anything else, for that matter. No conventional controls and no conventional display are pretty much deal-killers for me.

However, I didn't even have to get that far. The PS1's architecture has a cutout on the top panel for the disc mechanism. Like the first Magnavox CD player, the PS1's lid toggles open to allow you to press the CD onto the transport spindle, which has little catches to hold the disc tightly. Problem was, on my unit at least, the spinning of the disc and the functioning of the tracking servo could be heard—subliminally with most music, I admit, but once I was keyed in to the sound, I could hear it between tracks: a slight whirring, augmented on many discs by a subtle tick-tick-tick. Perhaps not quite as dementia-inducing as the offending organ in Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart," but not nuttin', neither.

Now, I am the first to admit that perhaps my unit had had a hard life. Perhaps, with the luck of the draw, I could find a PS1 that makes no more disc-spinning noise than my old Magnavox did, about 25 years ago. But it's a path I choose not to tread. Oh, by the way, no S/PDIF output.

So, this one will go on eBay, and most likely has been and gone by the time you read this. I'm not going to try to discourage anyone from playing with a PlayStation. For $25, it sounds wonderful. Any given person may prefer its flavor of ice cream to something costing more, but only up to a point—I am totally unsold on the claim of "as good as $6000 audiophile CD players." But for all the non-sound reasons, I just can't recommend it as part of a real-world solution for a music lover.

Work on sizing up the modern successor to Fried's Model Q speaker was delayed by some shipping damage one new contender suffered, my barking up the PS1 tree, and some unforeseen and uncontrollable circumstances. I'll rejoin that quest next time. In the meantime, check out all this great music!

Questions or comments.

Footnote 1: There was an LP too, but I never snagged it. I bought my CD from Hart Huschens of Audio Advancements. Perhaps he has some CDs, or perhaps even LPs, salted away.