January 4, 2005

In This eNewsletter:
• The Turn of the Year, By John Atkinson
• This Month's Strangest Audio URLs, from Wes Phillips
• International News, By Ken Kessler
• Chesky Sessions Live, By Wes Phillips
• The New York AES Meet'n'Greet, By Wes Phillips
• More Money, By Wes Phillips

By John Atkinson

I write these words on New Year's Eve and, as is natural at this time of year, have been reflecting about past events and how emerging trends will affect both Stereophile and the world of high-end audio.

One of the highlights of this month was celebrating the seven years of www.stereophile.com, which went live on December 1, 1997. The creation of the multi-talented Jon Iverson, who continues as webmaster, our website now reaches more than 370,000 unique visitors each month, and there are more than 3,100 reviews and articles in our free online archives. Every "Recording of the Month" is available, for example, going back to the very first one, the late Igor Kipnis reviewing Keith Jarrett's performance of Shostakovich's 24 Preludes & Fugues in December 1992. In fact, as I write these words, I have just finished preparing some archive files that will mean that virtually every "As We See It" essay, from December 1997 to the current issue, will be available online, as well as almost every equipment review from that date, and plenty more, going all the way back to the launch of the magazine in fall 1962.

By New Year's Day 2006, we should have another 10 years' worth of reviews available online. E-mail me to let me know which reviews from before 1997 you'd like to see.

Another anniversary on my mind this evening is the fifth anniversary of the US launch of Super Audio CD and DVD-Audio, the two competing high-resolution media that were intended to replace the Compact Disc as the primary carrier of prerecorded music. (The practical launch of DVD-A was delayed by the de-CSS brouhaha, of course.) We covered the launch of both media in depth in Stereophile, and a browse of the "As We See It" archives will bring up plenty of hits on these subjects. But for any number of reasons, neither format has yet developed much in the way of market traction. I regret this—having made all of my Stereophile recordings in hi-rez PCM for the past seven years, I am convinced of these media's potential for improved sound quality.

Of course, the potential for better sound quality doesn't guarantee it in practice. To a much greater extent with DVD-A and SACD, and with rock rather compared with jazz or classical recordings, the content is too often compromised with respect to resolution and dynamic range, which renders moot the advantages of the new formats. (You can find a recent case study in John Marks' column, "The Fifth Element.") Which is perhaps one reason deliveries to retailers were less than those of the venerable LP. (Admittedly, the RIAA's statistics appear to omit hybrid SACDs, which are racked in record stores as regular CDs.) And despite the appeal to some listeners of the media's multichannel content, the public is voting with their wallets (when the record industry can persuade them to part with cold cash) for downloadable, data-compressed, two-channel music files.

Predicting what is going to happen with these media in the next year is thus no task for the faint of heart. Sony and Philips will presumably continue with their stealth marketing strategy, hoping that, once enough hybrid SACDs are in customers' hands, that will be enough to trigger a surge both of SACD player sales and of interest in high-quality multichannel playback. The DVD Forum has changed horses and is now betting the farm on DualDisc, which resembles the hybrid SACD in featuring DVD-Video or -Audio content on one side and CD content on the other.

But SACD was designed from the outset to be a hybrid medium; DualDisc is a kludge. While a DualDisc will always play on DVD players, it might not play on all CD players, especially those with slot-loading mechanisms. (I was told by an industry insider that there is no technical problem to manufacturing a hybrid DVD-A that would be an exact equivalent of a hybrid SACD. The problem is that only a small number of the millions of DVD players sold since 1996 would recognize the CD layer on such a disc; the firmware in their transport mechanisms has not been programmed to expect to find a "Red Book" CD layer under the semitransparent DVD layer.)

We shall see what happens. Of more immediate concern to audiophiles in 2005 will be the effect on the audio industry of the Bush administration's fiscal policy. Please note that while what I say here can be construed as a political statement, it is not a partisan one. Nevertheless, the government's willingness to tolerate a large budgetary deficit results in a dollar that is becoming increasingly weak against major foreign currencies. In turn, this inevitably has an effect on imported audio components. I was recently told that, despite manufacturers and distributors reducing their operating margins, many foreign brands will suffer price increases in the US following this week's Consumer Electronics Show.

Perhaps naively, I had assumed that this would be balanced by the fact that the low dollar will help domestic audio manufacturers by making their dollar-priced products more competitive in European and Far Eastern markets. However, on reflection I realize that this is not a given, as many of the parts US companies buy—for example, wood and veneer for enclosures, loudspeaker drive-units, tubes—must be paid for in expensively purchased foreign currencies.

High-end audio is already a marginalized activity. I fear that price increases will do it further damage.—John Atkinson

Simaudio Ltd.
Simaudio Ltd., celebrating 25 years of excellence, manufactures state-of-the-art components for both 2-channel and home-theater systems. Maintaining a world-class reputation, we continually push the performance envelope to the next level with each new product. Visit us at www.simaudio.com.
From Wes Phillips

Two contenders this month: King of Audio/Goodman System's www.amica.co.jp/arakihiroshi/kingofaudio.html or The triOde's www.goldster-audio.com/concertino/product.en.html.

By Ken Kessler

UK: The Pink Funk
Out of the past, a voice: "Ken, this is Arthur." Now, I don't know that many Arthurs, so it took only a second to realize that the caller was the long-defunct Pink Triangle's Arthur Khoubesserian-MIA for many years, as far as audio's been concerned. "I'm back."

Gevalt! was all I could think, remembering that turntable maker Pink Triangle was never less than controversial. But Khoubesserian swears he's matured. "I am still in the process of filing patent applications, and so immediate global release of both technical and visual information would not be in the products' or my best interest." But AK has allowed us to reveal this much:

Tentatively called The Funk Firm, Khoubesserian's new company will manufacture turntables boasting the benefits of four new patent applications. These include a new bearing design, a drive system, a new lid system, and a new achromatic platter/mat interface material that is an improvement over his original acrylic platter-which, he reminded me, is "Now so common in all turntables." The range of new products will commence with The Funk, a budget turntable belt-driven by a DC motor employing a current-feedback servo. "Unusually for such a cost-effective product, the bearing is a proprietary jeweled design and thus returns a very high performance indeed," says Khoubesserian. The Funk range will include the Funky, Funkier, and Funkiest models, each upgradeable to the Funkiest spec.

The Funk's platter will be the new Achromat, which AK claims is better than the original Pink Triangle acrylic platter, "which matched records to 94%. [The] Achromat, patent pending, now not only goes all the way in providing a 100% impedance match to records, it also has progressive internal damping to further eliminate any internal resonances. [The] Achromat will also be available as a standalone accessory for other turntables."

The Funk sits on energy-absorbing Sorbothane feet, and all Funk models come with a Rega tonearm as standard; upgrades and a new, dedicated arm will be available later in 2005. AK is particularly proud of the new dustcover design, which has been especially designed to reduce coloration resulting from resonances. Furthermore, the cover complements The Funk's appearance, and will serve as the template for a range of covers to be made available as accessories for 'tables made by other manufacturers.

The Pink Triangle Tarantella is being made available again in Mk.III guise, and Funk Firm may re-launch the Anniversary as well. More important, AK will try to supply service and some spare parts for the original Pink Triangle turntables, and may make upgrades to Anniversary status available to owners of Pink Triangle PT1, PT Too, and Export turntables.

Along with the upgrades for existing Pink Triangle 'tables, Funk will also do hot-rod mods of other turntables. Information will be made available in due course; a website, currently under construction, will carry all the details. For the time being, Arthur Khoubesserian can be e-mailed at service_pinkt@mac.com.

US: A Mac Attack
McIntosh Laboratories will unveil an early prototype of company president Charles Randall's dream system at this week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Details are sketchy—the engineering team is still burning the midnight oil these last days before CES—but we can tell you the following:

The system will be based on a pair of solid-state monoblocks, each channel requiring three chassis; the output will be 2kW per amplifier. Feeding the amps will be a two- or three-box stereo preamplifier consisting of a power supply and the choice of a solid-state or tube preamp section. A user who assembles a system with the solid-state and tube sections will have access to 16 or 18 inputs.

Accepting the signal will be a new floorstanding speaker using a line array of tweeters flanked by small midrange cones, the mid/treble assembly fixed in front of a tower of woofers. Only a few inches wide, the vertical array will not affect the woofers' dispersion or output, effectively creating the line-source equivalent of a coaxial speaker. The speakers can be triwired and triamped, the latter suggesting the need for housing a frightening 18 chassis just for the power amps. The model names are yet to be finalized; the price will be somewhere north of $100,000&$150;$125,000 for preamp, two monoblocks, and a pair of speakers.

STOP PRESS! Audiolab Returns
It's official: IAG will relaunch the Audiolab brand at the Consumer Electronics Show. IAG's David Patching tells Stereophile that "The new range will be a return to the values that made Audiolab's customers so fiercely loyal." The new range will include affordable integrated amplifiers; pre/power separates are also envisioned.

Corrections & Additions
Since Issue 1 of Stereophile's eNewsletter appeared in December, phono-cartridge manufacturer Blue Angel Audio has changed its e-mail address to listen@blueangelaudio.com. A website, www.blueangelaudio.com, is under construction.

New From Mirage!
Mirage has become recognized as one of the leading manufacturers of high performance loudspeakers for today's lifestyles. Mirage recently introduced a variety of innovative products, such as the UNI-Theater, an OMNIPOLAR speaker solution that integrates the 3 front speakers into one simple enclosure, again proving Mirage's position at the top of the audio industry. www.miragespeakers.com
By Wes Phillips

Chesky Sessions Live
December is always a great month for music in New York. This year, it was also a great month for audio events. David Chesky decided to throw what he called a "boogie-woogie piano festival," and invited an audience of about 75 to hear it go down on tape at 52nd Street's AC Pianocraft, purveyor of fine pianos. Scheduled to appear were Bud Seeley, Johnny O'Neal, Mark Braun, and Monty Alexander.

When we arrived at AC Pianocraft, Chesky was so hyperactive he was nearly levitating—which, if you know him, is not exactly unusual. A few minutes later, audio writer Steve Guttenburg gave us the inside scoop. "David sent the Chesky Soundfield microphone out to be refurbed, and one of the [four] capsules was wired out of phase. Because of the way the Soundfield works, that meant that only some of the information was affected, and it took almost the whole day to figure out what was making some music sound so weird. David had to borrow another Soundfield mike, and he only got it a few hours ago."

Under the circumstances, Chesky was actually radiating an amazing level of calm, which can probably be attributed to the support of unflappable engineers Nick Prout and Rick Eckerle, who manned the recording end of things.

The concert began on time, each pianist performing two solo songs on the piano of his choice: a 9' Steinway or a 9' Baldwin. Bud Seeley played the Baldwin; everyone else was drawn to the Steinway.

Seeley established the format, offering a rip-snorting "St. Louis Blues" followed by "Amazing Grace," played New Orleans funeral style—slow to the graveyard, then double-time to the bar. Johnny O'Neal must have been channeling both Thelonious Monk and Fats Waller, because he played absolutely brilliantly faceted compositions that evoked both: a version of "Happy Days Are Here Again" that liberally quoted from "Jitterbug Waltz," and a medley of hymns, "Glory Glory Hallelujah." Mark Braun, founder of the Ann Arbor Boogie-Woogie Piano Festival, chimed in with "Pinetop's Boogie-Woogie" and an original hymn. Monty Alexander contributed a brisk set of changes on "Green Onions" and an absolutely brilliant improvisation in sonata-allegro form that twinned "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" with Bob Marley's "No Woman, No Cry." Then David Chesky announced a special guest, Eric Reed, who continued in the gospel vein with a medley of "Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross," "Power of the Blood," and "Saved by the Lamb."

And that was just the first half.

The second session was all duets—and it was so good that I stopped taking notes. Fortunately, David, Nick, and Rick got it all on tape. The disc should be out in spring 2005.

I spotted Steve Guttenburg at an open meeting of the Audio Engineering Society's New York section a few days later and we talked about the concert. "I wonder how much of that energy will make it to the CD," I said. Steve looked at me as though I was slow. "All of it. David doesn't edit that stuff. What you heard, for better or for worse, is what you're going to get."

That's a gratifying thought. It was a special evening. You should have been there. Maybe you will be.

The New York AES Meet'n'Greet
Three days after the Chesky session, I hied me down to Manhattan retailer Innovative Audio, where the New York chapter of the Audio Engineering Society was holding its annual meet'n'greet. The event is mostly an excuse to eat cookies and schmooze, but since the schmoozers included Steve Rosenthal and Jerry Bruck, I knew it would be an interesting evening.

Rosenthal, owner of The Magic Shop Recording Studio and The Living Room, an intimate performance space in downtown Manhattan, didn't mince words as he spoke about his experiences in hi-rez and multichannel mastering. "I love high-resolution playback formats—they let you take home tracks that come awfully close to what's on the master tape. But we've been kidding ourselves that the battle was between SACD and DVD-A[udio]. It was between both of them and MP3—and MP3 kicked their butts. I hope we get another chance at a high-resolution playback format, but it won't happen in the near future. The public has spoken."

Rosenthal also played several of his multichannel remasterings of classic rock'n'roll recordings. I was sitting in the back, near one of the rear speakers, so that was pretty much all I heard, but Rosenthal was adamant about his preference for putting information all around the listener. I wasn't convinced by his mix of the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil," which had the congas and "whoo-hoos" cranked up pretty loud in the rears. Rosenthal cited Jean-Luc Godard's footage of the recording session in his film One Plus One (1970, aka Sympathy for the Devil) as his inspiration for that maneuver.

The job he did on Sam Cooke at the Copa, on the other hand, was very convincing. Again, he used a film for guidance. "Amazingly, no one could tell us what the dimensions of the Copa were. It was a large room, it was a small room—no two sources agreed. People couldn't even agree on whether or not they served food! But Martin Scorsese filmed the nightclub scene in GoodFellas in the old Copa space, so we watched the DVD about a million times, trying to work out the dimensions of the room."

Was it true to life? I have no idea, but it was convincing.

Less audio verité but nonetheless thrilling was Rosenthal's work on his unreleased (as yet) multichannel version of Mike Bloomfield, Al Kooper, and Steve Stills' Super Session. "Season of the Witch" had those rear channels pumping again, but a late-night jam session is one of the few situations in which I can actually believe an audio perspective that's "in the middle of the musicians." And the recording was spectacular. Get this puppy out there, Columbia/Legacy!

Posthorn Productions' Jerry Bruck presided over a discussion of the differences between recording a CD and a DVD-Video of the same performance. The performance in question was Mahler's Symphony 3, with Glen Cortese and the Manhattan School of Music Symphony Orchestra at New York's Riverside Church. It's available on CD as Titanic Ti-252, on DVD as What the Universe Tells Me (Video Arts International DVD 4267). (The CD of Mahler's Symphony 6 from the same forces, Titanic Ti-257, was Stereophile's "Recording of the Month" for August 2000.)

Bruck first played the two-channel CD to illustrate how convincing an illusion stereo can provide. The recording had spread and depth and dynamics aplenty. He then astounded the assembled engineers by revealing that he'd used but a single pair of microphones in a modified ORTF configuration. You could hear jaws drop to the floor at the very thought.

He then played portions of the DVD, which was visually a bit too busy for my tastes—lots of pan shots and suchlike. Bruck was candid about the reasons for that, telling us that audio editing on video was dependent on video frame rate. "You can cover a tremendous number of audio edits with a few judicious shots away from the musicians playing. You don't have to worry so much about syncing the sound to the video that way."

He then again astounded the audience by pointing out that, although we could all see spot mikes located throughout the orchestra, he'd mixed everything down to two channels on the fly. There was no center channel and no surrounds—all the space and solidity were the result of two-channel stereophonic sound.

Heh-heh-heh. I laugh my evil laugh (to quote Stereophile's Sam Tellig).

Mo' Money
We got a nice response to the "Money: That's What I Want!" CD playlist last time out—including one order for it (not that it was for sale). Paul Graber asked, "Wasn't Randy Newman's song called 'It's Money That Matters,' with a blinding guitar solo by Mark Knopfler?" Well, yes, Newman did record a song called that on Land of Dreams, but I was thinking of his other song on the subject, "It's Money That I Love," from Born Again. I guess I could invoke the one-song-per-artist rule that Rhino uses for its survey compilations—if I hadn't already included two songs by Barrett Strong. So yeah, let's add that one.

Producer (Miles Davis) Gordon Melzer said, "Nice list, but you forgot the best one of all: 'Money Changes Everything,' popularized in the 1980s by Cyndi Lauper. Got heavy rotation on MTV back then too, and was covered by Carlene Carter and Manfred Mann, and written by Tom Gray of The Brains." Ouch! How could I have missed that one?

Tom Katz was stunned that I overlooked Merle Haggard's "Working Man Can't Get Nowhere These Days." Me too, now that he mentions it.

Steven Ford said he "loved Wes Phillips' article with the homage to Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, but how could he possibly have missed 'All the Money's Gone' by Greg Brown and 'Busted' by Ray Charles?" I've never heard the Greg Brown, but now I have to go find it—on his In the Dark with You (CD, Red House RHR CD08). As for "Busted," how indeed could I have overlooked it?

Let's do this again. Send in your CD-mix theme suggestions to STLetters@Primediamags.com so we can all put our heads together and come up with "ultimate compilations" for the really good themes. I was thinking it would be interesting to compile a collection on the subject of impotence, but I can come up with only one song: "Gone Dead Train." Well, one and a half, if you count "A Wedding in Cherokee County." (She laughed at my mighty sword / Why does everybody laugh at my mighty sword?) Both are by Randy Newman, proving that it's not just money that matters—er, that he loves.

Mark Levinson
Mark Levinson, established in 1972, is a world-renowned manufacturer of the finest stereo and multi-channel electronics. Products range from awe-inspiring monaural power amplifiers to the industry benchmark CD processor. For more information on all Mark Levinson products, please visit www.marklevinson.com.
SubscribeUnsubscribeStereophile Home Page
Print & Web Media KitPrivacyContact Us
Subscribe to Stereophile Magazine
Copyright © Primedia Magazines, Inc. All rights reserved.