The Fifth Element #50

In a moment, I will resume my ongoing quest to put together a music lover's stereo system for about half the cost of my last such effort (see my columns in the October and December 2005 issues): $3750 rather than $7500. But first I want to urge everyone who hasn't already done so to check out the results of the Five Great Art Songs of the Rock Era write-in competition announced in my February 2008 column. The winning entries are great—really thought-provoking. Indeed, some of the lists, plus an unaccountably belated recollection, prompted me to put together my own alternate list. This list doesn't invalidate or replace my original one, but it benefited from the energy all the entrants (thanks, everyone) put into theirs. Here goes:

1) "The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress," Jimmy Webb (1974). "See her how she flies / Golden sails across the sky." Webb remains the only musician to win Grammys in the Music, Lyrics, and Orchestration categories. Joan Baez, Glen Campbell, Joe Cocker, Judy Collins, Renée Fleming, and Linda Ronstadt have all recorded "The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress," but the late Radka Toneff's version is my favorite.

2) "At Seventeen," Janis Ian (1975). "A brown-eyed girl in hand-me-downs / Whose name I never could pronounce." The arresting incongruity between the song's pensive delivery and gentle samba beat and the miniaturized cruelties described by the lyrics marks "At Seventeen" as the first song of the rock era worthy of being sung by Billie Holiday. You may disagree.

3) "Night Moves," Bob Seger (1976). "[P]oints all her own sitting way up high / Way up firm and high." The examples of Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee" and Bruce Springsteen's "Jungleland" challenged Seger to bring cinemagraphic sweep to his tale of summer passion recollected as fall closes in.

4) "Sultans of Swing," Mark Knopfler (1978). "They don't give a damn about any trumpet-playing band / It ain't what they call rock and roll." This song artfully uses words and music to tell a story about people the song makes you care about—exactly what I had in mind when I thought up this competition.

5) "The Nightfly," Donald Fagen (1982). "You'd never believe it / But once there was a time / When love was in my life." While Fagen wasn't looking, they changed the street sign from "New Frontier" to "Boulevard of Broken Dreams."

Thanks again to all. The next competition will be . . . not soon.

Meridian F80 CD receiver system
Wes Phillips reviewed this $3000 Ferrari-branded complete home entertainment system in April 2008. I don't disagree with any of his specific observations—I requested a review sample only on the off chance that it might turn out to be a silver-bullet solution to the problem of a music lover seeking the best way to spend no more than $2500–$3500 for music playback in the home.

The positive aspects first: absolutely world-class packaging, presentation, design, build quality, and owner's manual. Open the box and take out the cloth-bagged F80, and there's little question that lots of talent and money went into making the whole thing work. My guess is that Meridian was not aiming at the gestalt typically projected by high-end audio components, but rather at products from Apple. You could slap an Apple logo on this thing and no one would bat an eyelash—the look and feel are that good.

Setup was a breeze, and the ergonomics are better than I'd hoped for. Hearty thanks to whoever decided to make the volume control a rotary knob at the bottom of the right side—it's intuitive and quick to operate. All controls operated crisply but smoothly, and disc-access times, even for DVDs, were not excessive. The remote control is tiny but usable.

I cued up John Atkinson's excellent recording of Attention Screen's Live at Merkin Hall (CD, Stereophile STPH018-2). The bass was amazing—real impact—and the overall dynamics at the end of "Mansour's Gift" were excellent. A variety of other discs from disparate genres rewarded close listening. Vocal harmonies on Jesse Colin Young's Light Shine (CD, Edsel EDCD 452) were clearly rendered. There's no question that the F80 could deliver an emotionally engaging, even engrossing, musical experience—as Wes P. reported in April.

The F80 had amazing bass and excellent treble, but its midrange was a trifle lackluster in comparison. There were some recordings for which the F80's bass was a bit much—and I spent a fair amount of time futzing not only with the basic tone control, but also with the setup menu that tailors the output, depending on whether the F80 is freestanding or on a shelf, etc. I also found myself micromanaging the treble a lot, something I don't think you'd do if you were just listening to Grover Washington, Jr. on the deck at cocktail time. The F80 created a surprising sense of soundfield depth but not much soundstage width—regardless of how I set the Width control.

The Great Divide, both in audio equipment and in recording or format quality, is the use to which the music is to be put: Is it to be the focus, and enjoyed in and of itself? Or is it to accompany other activities, whether brunch, cocktails, reading, or knitting? I think the F80 is a valid solution to a problem different from the one I am trying to solve. It would be just dandy as a music system for a kitchen or family room, or out on a deck, but I think there are better ways to spend $3000 on one's sole serious stereo. Bottom line: I can't recommend the F80 to a music lover with $3000 to spend on his or her sole serious stereo.

Music Hall Trio CD receiver
Sam Tellig covered the Music Hall Trio CD receiver (or CDeiver) in his October 2007 column. He was not overwhelmed. I don't disagree, and that's a bit of a bummer for me—I was rooting for the Trio. I loved its price ($999), and preferred its design and ergonomics to that of the Arcam Solo Music. This, despite the fact that the Solo is "smarter." For example, when you power down the Trio with its disc drawer open, that's what you get; the Solo knows enough to close its disc drawer on its own, then shut itself off. Same for hitting Play when these models are powered down: The Trio remains off; the Solo turns itself on.