27 March, 2020
New York Diary (20-8): Audio in Time of Cholera (Corona)
During these trying times most audiophiles, usually a group with some spare money, likely of higher social-economic status (and so can work from home), have it better than a lot of people, and that is our blessing. I wish you all well. As a retired health professional, believe me when I tell you it is in your interest and your duty to practice social distancing. It is also time to appreciate all the people who face higher risks in order to serve us. Hospital personnel go without saying, but all the people doing delivery and manning stores, like supermarkets and pharmacies, that are vital to our lives. I appreciate the liquor stores staying open and I appreciate the doormen and staff in my building. Take Manhattan as an example, a lot of people doing these jobs cannot afford to live in Manhattan, instead living in the outer boroughs and have to brave the subway everyday.
I'd like to brief our regular readers as to what is happening here. It has been pretty quiet for good reasons. A few days ago, I got too smart for my own good. Thinking it was a malware I deleted something and irreparably crippled the browser of my 2012 Macbook Pro. I don't like to do things on my phone (iPhone 5S) and so resurrected an ancient Dell laptop that is now running on Windows XP as I type. Yes, vintage computing. This won't last long. I am borrowing a better computer soon and am investigating how to go on. As for mrgoodsound, he is working feverishly from home. At the behest of Andy, my friends and I have long suspended home visits so there is little to report.
During these times I watch quite a bit of news, including the daily live briefing of governor Cuomo. I only have free TV, and there is not that much else to choose from, but there are some nice programs. The Movies TV Channel (5.2 in NYC) only plays old movies, which suits me just fine. I just finished watching the 1956 Giant, and what a magnificent film it is! Despite its considerable length, control of the narrative is absolute. And what a cast! In the supporting roles is one of my favorite actresses, Carroll Baker, and you will also find a very young Dennis Hopper. Highly recommended. And then everyday at 3 and 4 pm, I watch two episodes of one of my favorite TV series, Cold Case, on Start TV (2.2 in NYC). This old CBS series had great production value, and superb acting. I particularly love the episodes that feature cold cases from the 40's and 50's. Vintage, you bet, but great stuff.
The news the other day featured the blues singer Keb' Mo', who is familiar to audiophiles, singing America the Beautiful. The youtube below is from a 2016 performance at the White House.
19 March, 2020
Click pics to enlarge. Below Pic: L, Caridad Amaran; R, Georgina Wong. The two Cuban Chinese Opera Divas were donned in Warrior Costumes. Note that the flags worn at the back symbolize the armies behind these generals. The Two Feathers, which the warriors manipulate and point like swords, symbolize Ferocity and Virility - they are likely derived from influence from all the foreign tribes that waged war against China. L, Caridad Amaran as a Female Warrior; R, Georgina Wong as a Male Warrior.
New York Diary (20-8): The Chinese Diaspora in Cuba, Forgotten History, Opera, Comidas Chinas y Criollas, Charity and Bigotry.
This is an article long on history and with some discussion of exotic music (to most of you readers) and food, but little on audio. You have been warned.
How this Article Came About Ever since I left Hong Kong I have maintained the habit of reading two HK Newspapers online. One is the English South China Morning Post (SCMP), where I recently read This Article on the History of the Chinese in Cuba. This is how this article came about. With my immigrant roots and having lived a long time in NYC, I have long been a student of the history of the Chinese Diaspora everywhere in the world. Mind you, the Jamaican doorwoman in my building has a Chinese ancestor, and one of my Chinese classmates at Engineering School (pre-med) was from somewhere in South America. But there are more reasons which I shall lay out.
Chinese Opera (wiki) This is a lumpy term. Given the huge divide between the many Chinese dialects (I am sure it's the same in, say, India and Indonesia, two countries rich in music history), opera from one region will not be quite intelligible to people from another. Add to this the natural unintelligibility of the lyrics (true for any opera as words are subjugated to music), the drama and music take centerfold on grabbing the audience's attention. In my humble opinion, Chinese Opera is more successful on this count than western ones. The orchestra is basic, highly percussive and stirring, the costumes and set highly stylized and streamlined (watch some of the youtube's I include if interested). The opera troupes of old travelled light everywhere with their wardrobes and instruments, yet were able to entertain everyone, something the current opera cannot. Now, so-called "high art" (which I do love) has lost touch with the people. If you want to know more, read the wiki entry (which is very limited still). One thing I'd like to add is that for a very long time, in Chinese opera male roles can be sung by women and vice versa. This has nothing to do with sexual orientation, but surely you can imagine many LBGTQ are fascinated with it. Chinese Opera is now mainly represented by Beijing Opera, sung in Mandarin but in places like Hong Kong Cantonese opera rules, and so it was in Cuba. It should be noted Chinese opera is a much older art form than western opera, which started only around the time of Monterverdi (wiki).
My Chinese Opera Roots Although he did not do it for a profession, my Father was a famous Beijing Opera Singer and Teacher. One of his students was the actor John Lone (The Last Emperor; see this wiki entry). Father was what the Chinese would call a 通天老倌, which means one who can do every role. But my father went further than that; he was a genius, and knew by heart every role in every popular opera. Father was an Chinese opera film buff too, and took me to see various Chinese opera films (from many regions). My father also played the erhu, one of the pivotal string instruments. The word hu actually indicates old foreign tribes (lumpy again, commonly taken to mean Tartars or Mongols) that once ravaged China. In the 80's, When I travelled in the Middle East or North Africa, I actually saw an instrument quite like it played by either an Arab or a Berber nomad (I cannot remember). For as long as I can remember, I have watched Beijing opera. As a kid, I was bored by the length but after learning what all the stylization mean it became much more interesting. Western opera came later, but I still prefer Beijing Opera.
The Chinese in Cuba (wiki) The wiki entry is good, but this comment on a blog entry I shall cite later is also a good read:
"...I had Juan Perez de la Riva as a teacher in Havana University and he was a captivating figure. He never prepared classes and his spontaneous lectures would rivet us to our seats trying to catch every word he uttered during the full two hour period. I remember vividly the lecture he dedicated to the Chinese presence in Cuba. He described how the Spanish agent sent to Canton to recruit Chinese indentured servants was unable to obtain a single one during the first few months he remained there. And how to solve the problem he offered the Chinese governor a commission (bribe) of one ounce of gold for every indentured servant he helped him recruit. The Chinese governor went to the prisons where thousands of rebels from the Taiping Rebellion were being held until they were processed in batches to get their heads cut off and announced to the prisoners that his Imperial Higness was merciful and would give them a choice between being decapitated and going to Cuba. Naturally the thousands of prisoners opted to go to Cuba. That is why when Castro sent us city dwellers to work in the rural areas we would say that we were going “in a voluntary manner like the Chinese”.
But the Spanish agent made a mistake and brought the “creme de la creme” of the Chinese revolutionaries to Cuba. For that reason when the first Cuban War of Independence occurred in 1868 all the Chinese Indentured servants revolted and fought on the Cuban side gaining recognition for their loyalty and heroism during its ten year duration and reaching high ranks in the Cuban Liberation Army. A grey column monument to the Chinese mambises in Linea Avenue proclaims to the world “Not a single Chinese was a traitor. Not a single chinese was a deserter!” Thus the Chinese earned the right to be considered as an integral part of the Cuban nation where their descendants make up around 1% of the population.
With time Chinese emigration to Cuba continued but its political composition shifted to the right. In 1902 when Cuba became independent thousands of apolitical working class Chinese came to the island. Later in 1949 with the triumph of the Chinese Communist Revolution the island was flooded with thousands of right wing refugees fleeing from Mao Tze Tung. When Castro came to power in 1959 and established close relations with Red China, Chinese Communist activists tried unsuccessfully to get these right wing Chinese to join the Cuba- China Friendship Society. Having no takers they used a successful stimuli, promising all the Chinese that joined the society that they would be allowed to travel to China and get wives. In the early years of the sixties, thousands of Cuban Chinese travelled to China on Cuban ships carrying sugar with Cuban political commissars for a three month stay in which they returned to their native villages found their girl friends got married and took a boat back to Cuba with their wives. These nuptial expeditions replenished Havana’s Chinatown.
However in 1968, in preparation for the 1970 ten million tons of sugar goal, Castro nationalized all private businesses in the island and all the small Chinese restaurants and laundries were taken over and given Cuban managers. However since all the accounting and business correspondence was in Chinese and the managers were not given any assistance by the sullen original owners and their Chinese workers, the businesses were shut down very soon and all the Chinese owners and workers were retired. Shortly afterwards you could see in the streets of Havana very young Chinese walking about telling the surprised Cuban population that they had been retired.
The problem was solved when the US government, thanks to the change in US immigration laws and to the fact that these chinese had had their property taken over by the Cuban government, allowed many of them to apply for permanent entry visas to the US. They came to New York and founded the Chinese Cuban restaurants that your blog writes about. I think that the best Cuban food in New York can be found in them and visit them frequently. When I do so, I always remember my dear teacher, Juan Perez de la Riva, Cuba’s most prominent demographer!
The Chinese Cubans are an integral part of our nationality and of our culture. Cuba would not be Cuba without them! Cuba suffered a great loss when so many of them came to New York but their presence here at least brings to the many other compatriots living here not only excellent Cuban food but also a nostalgic remembrance of past life in our island..."I appreciate this kind of humanistic view from a Cuban American! Contrast this with the ugly Anti-Chinese vitriol regularly dished out by two prominent politicians of Cuban origin, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. Perhaps they don't know Cuban history.
Comida China y Criolla This is also part of NYC history. Chinese Cubans who came to NYC opened many restaurants that served Chinese and Cuban/Spanish dishes (the Chinese waiters all spoke Spanish). In the 70's and 80's these were common, and I often ate in them. Sometimes even after a meal elsewhere I'd go in for a flan and cafe con leche. One restaurant that I had visited is still in Manhattan (La Caridad). But, as there are no new Cuban Chinese immigrants, these restaurants are dropping off like flies, soon to be relegated to history.
Note on the Two Divas: Caridad Amaran has no Chinese blood but had a Chinese stepfather who taught her Chinese and opera, hence her diction (I also speak Cantonese) was good in these footages. BTW, Caridad is a beautiful name, Charity in Spanish. On the other hand, Georgina Wong, despite having Chinese blood, knew not Chinese, and sang via transliteration. Naturally, her diction can come across as a little odd.
Below is a youtube by the Chinese American photographer, highly recommended.
I also enclose below a youtube of a famous passage from the Cantonese Opera
This is popular with HK audiophiles, and the original LPs
are worth a fortune (see Ebay)
10 March, 2020
On Headphone Listening Pt. III The Finale! Jupiter Audio Research HD600 abbasaudio OTL Amp (also Schiit Valhalla 2, Eddie Current Dana Deux)
On Headphone Listening, Part III The Finale! JAR HD600 abbasaudio OTL Amp
Part I, Part II
This article will be part three of a series on headphone listening, and for now, a finale. I have received my heavily modified HD600 headphones, and output transformerless amplifier, both of which have been on order since late 2019 and will be the main subjects of this article. After living with both for several weeks, I am ready to share my thoughts and feelings on them.
In some ways, the findings in this article and my current headphone system have been a work-in-progress for 5 years. As I mentioned in part one, I began my journey in audio with headphones and have been chasing a sound that only existed as a concept in my head. Until now I had never quite gotten there, despite many hours and dollars spent. Like all good stories this one has a beginning, middle, and end.
In the beginning
|Schiit Valhalla 2|
This amplifier was still a superior match to virtually all transistorized and hybrid options I had tried, but unfortunately, these compromises meant that the Valhalla 2 had a dryness and grain to its middle to high frequencies which caused fatigue after several albums worth of listening. This could be alleviated to a degree with a warmer or laid-back source, but given that I wanted to listen for more than 1-2 hours at a time this ear irritation became the reason I started to look for upgrades to the Valhalla in 2017.
In the middle
|Original Zana Deux, credit 6moons.com|
At first I thought the matter was related to impedance, as most audio transformers are specified with secondaries of 4/8/16 ohms, but then a later experiment with an output winding specifically optimized for ideal damping factor into a 300 ohm load proved disappointing, so I ruled this out.
I decided to return to OTL amplifiers, and settled on trying one model in particular, the Eddie Current Zana Deux. This model has been around since 2005 and is well-known in Head-Fi circles. It had a certain mystique about it and a very flattering review on 6moons. Unfortunately this experiment would further detour me from the ideal path. The amplifier was extremely colored and musically unsatisfying. I again attribute this to its design compromises: a copious amount of negative feedback and giant capacitors to output couple the giant 6C33C triodes, ruining any chance of musical integrity. I did own the latest version, the 'Super', and as I understand the original would've better suited me.
Discouraged and apparently frustrated after these experiences, I took several months hiatus from headphone listening and tinkered with stereo equipment instead. It wasn't until I exchanged PMs with an audio acquaintance from Denmark that I learned of the manufacturer Abbas Audio, and saw that he had an OTL amplifier in his catalog of products. I took quite a large gamble to order this amplifier unheard, and it is the subject of today's review.
Jupiter Audio Research HD600 Mod
|My JAR HD600s|
impedance headphones to use with my new amplifier. I heard about
The mod is fantastic! All the positive elements of the stock sound are retained but a much higher technical level is achieved. The sound possesses more clarity and cleanliness at all frequencies, transients become sharper and less smeared, and a pervasive softness present in stock form is replaced with a sense of solidity and previously unheard composure. The character of the headphones does not change, and the limits of the driver can still be heard, but I highly recommend it to anyone who is already a serious fan of the HD600 or HD650.
In the end: abbasaudio OTL amplifier
This amplifier has transformed my headphone listening experience. It is no longer possible to listen to music via headphones as background noise. Unfortunately many of the technical design details are not available in English, so I will speak only to what I can. The 6080 triode was chosen for the output lamp based on its exceptionally low plate resistance, making it a natural for a design without transformer loading. The passive parts and wiring are largely vintage. Of note are the 'bumblebee' paper-mylar coupling capacitors typically found in American-made electronics of the 1960s.
|My headphone listening station|
Above all else, the emotion of music is transmitted intact, regardless of genre or source. I am nearly always subject to involuntary physical movements and reactions when listening to music through this system. I have been moved to tears, on multiple occasions, with both popular and symphonic music! This is absolutely unprecedented for me. If only I could achieve such emotional compulsion as consistently and thoroughly through my speaker system, though I am convinced I will get there eventually. I tried to listen through this system while writing parts of this article, and was unable to. The music takes attention, whether I am listening to FLAC, MP3, a streaming service, YouTube or 78 RPM shellac rips.
|The guts of the Abbas OTL amplifier|
To temper myself after writing the above paragraphs, I went back to listen multiple times and try to hone in on deficiencies in the sound. The input stage of the amplifier using the EC88 lamp is based on a SRPP scheme, which is known for having a heightened sense of dynamism or speed. Indeed, the amplifier is intense, and perhaps slightly more so than what peaks in recordings of large scale music call for. However, given that the aesthetics of the musical performance are not disturbed, and a vividness is given to headphone listening that otherwise would not be there, I hesitate to call this a shortcoming.
For the JAR600, the Sennheiser driver has its limitations. It cannot resolve high frequency (>7kHz) transient information very well. There is a ceiling to its ability to portray subtle contrasts and intonations in music. Its frequency linearity and presence may be too monitor-like for those preferring euphony, and there is nothing wrong with that. However, anything that I would consider a true upgrade is very far away from its price point.
I consider this to be an audiophile victory of the highest degree, and well deserved in terms of the investment made to get to this point. The abbas OTL amplifier cost just over $1,000. It is also capable of serving as a pre-amplifier or buffer with simple modification, which I will attempt later.
Unfortunately, it is not clear if he is still offering it as a serial product. I loathe to heap so much praise onto a product that may very well not be available for purchase anymore, but such is life, and it is not too different from raving about a vintage amp you can't reasonably find anymore. What is equally exciting and daunting is that for the first time since 2016 I feel the HD600s are the weakest link in my headphone chain. Possible candidates for upgrades are the ZMF Verite and MySphere 3.2, although considering both these models cost well over $2,500 I do not think I will be experiencing them anytime soon.
I will conclude with some practical recommendations. For lovers of music who want to put together a headphone system without breaking the bank, I recommend the Sennheiser HD600/HD650 models. Be mindful that Sennheiser has recently switched production from Ireland to Eastern Europe and compromised quality control. I would recommend sourcing a made in Ireland pair, which shouldn't be too hard. You may modify them yourself at a later date or send them to Jupiter Audio to be modified.
For amplifiers, either the Schiit Valhalla 2 or Bottlehead Crack will satisfy on a budget. The latter is sold as a kit but is so popular several well-built examples are always available on the second-hand market. I believe this will serve most peoples needs, unless you are married to synthetic electronic music with deep bass content, in which case you may consider any number of planar magnetic models and an inexpensive transistor amp such as the Schiit Magni. Some have also reported success with using a small subwoofer playing in parallel with headphones.
08 March, 2020
Talk Vinyl: Buying Classical Records, a Beginner's Guide, Part IV
Labels: ABC, Accent, Allegro, Arabesque, Balkanton, BIS, Calliope, Candide, Chandos, Command, Concert Hall, Connoisseur Society, Decca Gold, Erato, Eterna, Eurodisc
Attention: I have created a blog label Classical Music - Buying Records. Just click and all posts so far in the series shall appear. The blog label is also in the sidebar (roll down).
Staring from this installment I shall attempt a more or less alphabetical order. I am sure there will be many omissions, which I shall constantly update.
ABC Basically ABC is a pop company that re-issued some classical discs after they acquired Command and Westminster. ABC is later absorbed into MCA. The re-issues were not of good quality. Pass.
Accent One doesn't come across this relatively short-lived Early Music label too often, but it is very high in production quality. It features many Dutch pioneers in the early music movement. Best artists in the stable are the Kuijken brothers, in particular the violinist (Sigiswald) and cellist (Wieland). Their excellent band, La Petite Bande, went from here to record a lot of baroque music for other labels.
Allegro Occasionally seen. The records are Vox derived and of poor quality. Ignore.
Arabesque This is a label that can mostly be ignored. It made some original recordings, like pianist Joao Carlos Martins in Bach, and the Portland Quartet but soon turned to re-issuing many recordings, particularly of EMI origin, but since you can come across these in older Angels and EMIs these are not of particular value.
Balkanton Not often seen, and sometimes indecipherable. Beside Bulgarian music they issued some useful Eastern European artists. But only for the specialist.
BIS This is a label that started with mostly Scandinavian artists, and the engineering excellence was soon prized by audiophiles. The label had a heavy emphasis on neglected Scandinavian composers and obscure music, which the beginner should not worry about. Two most famous discs for the audiophile are: 1) La Spagna (the same team also had some audiophile favorites on Harmonia Mundi). I love this album of mainly re-constructed music; 2) The Kroumata Percussion Ensemble made several recordings; pictured is the first one which every audiophile was playing at the time. I think they just love the WARNING! I still remember hearing it on a pair of Mirage (can't remember whether it was the M1 or M3), quite impressive.
Calliope This small French label recorded some fringe French work and lesser known artists, including organ works of Messiaen. Two of my favorites: pianist Annie D'Arco (also some on Erato and L'Oiseau Lyre). And the excellent Czech ensemble, the Talich Quartet, whose Beethoven cycle has long been a reference point. I heard them live at the 92 Street Y decades ago and it was divine!
Candide This is a subsidiary label of Vox, but produced at a higher level, with nice sleeves and better quality vinyl. Sound is usually exemplary. It specialized in less known music, especially by lesser romantics (like Hubay) and early modernist composers (like Messiaen, Lutoslawski). The very good Aaron Rosand recorded many less known violin concertos. I particularly like the label's recordings of works of Satie, Jean Francaix and Jean Martin. Beginners can skip this label unless you want to explore modernist composers.
Chandos This UK company started at the tail end of the analog age and issued LPs well into the digital age. The LPs were of very high quality (even the digitally recorded ones). Chandos now has a large catalogue but back then most of the orchestral works were not competitive. But it has one of my favorite chamber music groups, the Canadian based Borodin Trio. Violinist Rotislav Dubinsky was leader of the celebrated Soviet Borodin Quartet. Pianist Luba Edlina was his wife, and the cellist was Yuri Turovsky (whose wife Eleonora Turovsky is also an excellent violinist). They were all AWESOME musicians, and all of their records (and CDs) are highly recommended. Turovsky was also leader of his own chamber orchestra, the wonderful I Musici de Montreal, whose recordings are also treasures.
Concert Hall This is a European label not widely available in America, but it is one of my favorite labels (many mono). The recordings predate the availability in the US of direct European major label imports (like Philips, DG). Mostly European performers not found often on the major labels. The orchestras used were "second-tier" European orchestras, but they were under very good conductors, like Carl Schuricht, Josef Krips. Many interesting soloists recorded for them, including Vlado Perlemuter, Nikita Magaloff, Lili Kraus, Rudolf Firkusny, Richardo Odnoposoff, Shura Cherkassky etc. This is a label for the more advanced collector. This label also re-issues some American recordings in Europe.
Connoisseur Society (wiki) This is one of my favorite labels because of certain artists. Not commonly seen these days, these were well produced. The pianists Ivan Moravec (also for Supraphon) and Bruno Leonardo-Gelber (recordings of European EMI origin) are personal favorites. Even more so is the under-rated (even forgotten) violinist Wanda Wilkomirska (part bio and discography). I grab her recordings whenever I see one (not often). The pictured Kreisler I got only last year and it is the best Kreisler album that I have, bar none. For a while, they also issued high quality CDs, worth getting for these artists too.
Decca (US) Also the classical's are mostly called Decca Gold (corresponding to labels 3A to D). This is not to be confused with UK Decca/London. It belonged to UK Decca before (but no longer after) the war (wiki). Despite the name, it did not issue any Decca recordings. Rather, before DG was imported into the US, many of its mono recordings, and a few stereo ones, were issued by Decca Gold. Artists such as Ferenc Fricsay, Wilhelm Kempff and Wolfgang Schneiderhan, were worthwhile. Early pressings were pretty good, but most of these items were later re-issued by DG and the Germany pressings are preferred. It also recorded some American artists but the catalogue can be mostly ignored except for one artist, the great guitarist Andre Segovia. Most of these are in mono, but it hardly matters for the guitar. For audiophiles, the most famous Decca Gold is likely Ruggiero Ricci's The Glory of Cremona, where he played 15 violins. This album is popular in Asia but I find it musically not on the highest level. My copy from the dollar bin only has the 12" and is missing the "comparison" 7" record. But, frankly, I don't like this record, which some people pay good money for - power of the media.
Erato This is an important French label with a long history. However, when I browse discogs I see a lot of older issues that I have never seen in decades os hunting. I think this means Erato was not imported (or popular) before the late 60's early 70's. It had some excellent French instrumentalists: the cellist Paul Tortelier (later on EMI) and pianist Monique Haas (before Erato she was a DG artist) and under-rated Gyorgy Sebok (who partnered famous cellists like Navarra and later Janos Starker; later he also recorded with Joanna Martzy and Arthur Grumiaux). It is too bad their discs are not often seen. Organist Marie-Claire Alain almost recorded the entire Bach oeuvre. By the 70's Erato mostly churned out early music, relying on, first, Karl Ristenpart and his Saar orchestra, then Jean-Francois Paillard (with his own orchestra), Michel Corboz (his Lausanne ensemble) and I Solisti Veneti/Claudio Scimone. All of them were pretty good for their time (before historical performing practices transformed early music), certainly better than Philips' I Musici. And they have star soloists like flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal (still the best for me), trumpeter Maurice Andre (again, also the best in my book) and harpist Lily Laskine. Large orchestra recordings were mostly dismissible, but there is good stuff like Messiaen works (with his inimitable wife Yvonne Loriod on the Ondes Martenot), the early Charles Dutoit in Honegger and Roussel, and Rostropovich's Prokofiev cycle). Erato licensed a lot of their earlier stuff to Nonesuch (like all of the Ristenpart stuff) and Musical Heritage Society, and later some of the early music stuff to RCA, who popularized Paillard's Pachebel Kanon. So, the beginner will not get too many Erato albums, except for some in the dollar bin.
Eterna This former East Germany label and its largely neglected roster of excellent artists were an unfortunate casualty of the Cold War. It is not often seen here in the US. Everyone now knows the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (under Andris Nelsons now) and Dresden Staatskapelle (under Christian Thielemann), even the Staatskapelle Berlin (under Barenboim). These great and characterful orchestras, as well as even less known but still very good orchestras like the Dresdner Philharmonie (now under Marek Janowski), Berlin Radio Symphony (now under Vladimir Jurowski) and Leipzig Radio Orchestra (now called MDR), made a huge number of excellent recordings for Eterna, under conductors such as Franz Konwitchsny (I love his Beethoven set), Heinz Rogner (fantastic Bruckner), Otmar Suitner (good in almost everything), Herbert Kegel, Heinz Bongartz, Kurt Sanderling (great Sibelius and Shostakovich), Kurt Masur and many more. Most of the recordings are desirable, and in excellent sound. Eterna has less depth in soloists; one that stands out is pianist Peter Rosel (all recordings good). I got to know their catalogue through the vast CD re-issues of Berlin Classics (Edel), and in HK I got a few of their LPs (quality is good). Eterna also issues some DG and Melodiya recordings for their market. Were the LPs seen more often!
Eurodisc This company issued a lot of operas and operettas. In terms of orchestral and other works, they are all over the place. Many recordings were licensed from other companies such as Eterna and Melodiya, and should be considered in their respective entries. They did limited recordings with orchestras such as the very good Bamberger Symphoniker and Wiener Symphoniker. I recommend Kurt Sanderling's Brahms symphonies with the Dresden Staatskapelle, Kurt Masur's Bruckner cycle with his Leipzig Gewandhaus, and anything by Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels. Eurodisc also had quadraphonic LPs, which muddle up the sound - avoid.
05 March, 2020
Left: Great pic from NYT. I love that almost Rococo feel.
New York Diary (20-7) Sonny Rollins, Jazz and the Audiophile
I just read this past week's Sunday New York Times, in which there is a short but interesting interview of Sonny Rollins, a spiritual fellow who now cannot play because of pulmonary fibrosis. I am writing this short blip because every audiophile knows Sonny Rollins (they usually play his Saxophone Colossus or Way Out West, both good choices), and I shall use this opportunity to write again on how many audiophiles listen to "jazz".
Jazz is perfectly suited for the audiophile. In a cut, say 5 minutes, one gets intense exposure to a few instruments. The sax (trumpet) and percussion provide the jump factor and surely can be used to see if the system's treble is too hot (it often is, especially at dealers and shows); the bass tests, well, the bass response (usually one-note and bad too)! If a piano is present, it is often ignored. I am going to reprint here what I previously wrote (while testing a Decca cartridge) on one of the most popular audiophile jazz albums, Dave Brubeck's Time Out.
A Little Time Out The first LP I played was the mono Time Out. It only took a few notes for me to recognize the Decca's well known qualities: Clean leading edge and fast transients. Morello was most obviously showcased - the drums were tight and tuneful; the cymbals positively shimmered, with great harmonic faithfulness. Even Brubeck's piano, which I have never found well-recorded or tonally alluring, came through clearer than usual. But the Decca is not just about speed; it effortlessly unearthed a myriad of details and rhythmic felicities.
Like many others, I have long used the Take Five track as a test (search this blog for Take Five and you will see many mentions). Morello's long drum solo serves as a most accurate means of assessing a system's transient response, microdynamics and rhythmic exactitude. But this is also one of the tracks that I morbidly fear on home visits.
Me, the long suffering audiophile Given the popularity of this track, you can imagine the uncountable number of times I had to suffer through it on home visits in HK. More often than not, particularly in the case of tube users (especially vintage types), when the saxophone cuts out and the spotlight is on the percussion, the proceedings become so lethargic that each round just drags me further into that audiophile quicksand known as boredom. And in HK, audiophiles are in general not sensitive to rhythm and pace. They simply don't get the intricacies of the drum solo, instead patiently waiting for the saxophone's return; by then it is too late for me, all energy drained out of my body, too weak to go on and time for, yes, time out! Yes, home visits can be hell when Take Five is played.
For me, a successful replay of this track must reveal how Morello varies his beat, his touch: the varying force of each strike and the speed of withdrawal that the drummer uses to color his playing. Now, this is not the most coloristic of compositions, but whatever color there is must be revealed for the whole to have rhythmic finesse, to draw one into the music. What I previously wrote on the YBA DAC's plaback of this track also sums it up: "...All of a sudden, you can hear all the stressed beats effortlessly. This kind of replay enlivens a track like Take Five from Brubeck's Time Out. Focusing on Morello's drums, the bad CD player can make the strong beats only that little louder than the weak ones; the average CD player gives you an approximation of the playing; but the truly outstanding player, like the YBA (or an old Naim, say the CD2), makes you aware of the infinite dynamic shading and brings out the full flow. Whatever the CD, the YBA delivers the music in spades..."
And, oh, the other day I was in a record store and overheard one man saying to the manager: "...and I don't understand why Paul Desmond is well regarded...he just plays the same thing over and over..." I cannot agree more based on what I know of Brubeck's albums (there is a reason why the other ones are much less known). Well, Sonny Rollins is definitely not like that! Neither would be John Coltrane, though audiophiles usually find his flights much harder to take (they prefer the Coal Train instead). But of course, the mellower sounds of Coleman Hawkins, Johnny Hodges and Ben Webster have even more followers among audiophiles, for good reasons.
All that is good jazz, but what passes for jazz now is frightening. Put a lady with a girlish voice who can barely sing, not to mention have a way with the lyrics, together with some session men playing "bossa nova" and it is suddenly a hit with the audiophiles!
And now, a cut for you.
Basic Repertoire: Allegri's Miserere (wiki)
I am not usually into choral or renaissance music, but this piece holds a special place in my heart. One evening in 1980, I was browsing in Tower Records, and all of sudden I heard a track that stopped me dead in my tracks by giving me goosebumps. It was this piece, as performed by the Tallis Scholars, on Gimell, and I just had to buy it that night (expensive) to listen to it again. It became a personal favorite. Mind you, the Tallis Scholars re-recorded the piece later (with a different cover), but I only know this one. Also, as you can see from the review, not everyone thinks this is the greatest piece but check it out for yourself. I think it is, and never tire of it. While searching for the youtube, I discovered a later actual performance video (lower one), which gives much insight into the highly effective antiphonal (even multi-channel if heard live) placement of singers.
02 March, 2020
|Tom's reference system with K402 horns atop Peavy FH-1 Bass Bins!|
Home Visit: Custom Klipsch/Peavey Horn System Klipsch La Scala Triode Labs 2A3 Amplifier
I strongly believe that visiting other hobbyists and listening to their systems, and thereby digesting their personal approach to audio, is one of the most vital and important things ANY audiophile can do. In the digital age, it is very easy to get caught up entirely with the writings of usergroups and forums and base your entire perspective or outlook on any one subject on the biases of others. This can be said for any topic, but when so many people are basing purchase decisions of upwards of thousands of dollars on the opinions and advice of strangers on the internet, it becomes concerning! I would say about 90% of what is written on audio forums is complete bullshit and noise. I will up this to 95% concerning vintage audio equipment, as it is often completely unclear if said component was even in proper working order when auditioned and written about, even if the author claims the unit was 'restored'. Just search for a topic such as 'Garrard vs Thorens vs Lenco' to read definitive opinions from people who have listened to these tables with dried up bearings and worn out idler wheels.
I digress. I would consider myself an introvert but will never pass up an opportunity to hear someone else's system in person. Not only do such human interactions and connections with fellow hobbyists ('kindred souls' as John likes to say) keep us alive and mentally well, but they can often open new doors we didn't even know existed, or accelerate the audiophile's journey by leaps and bounds. I have been fortunate enough to make friends with several local audio enthusiasts who have helped me in various ways.
Klipsch La Scala's - A Chance Encounter
The subject of today's home visit was the La Scala. In my quest for more efficient speakers, I became interested in the La Scala's as a turnkey fully horn-loaded system with excellent efficiency. Doctorjohn's previous experiences with the La Scala here and here were extremely encouraging and I started to hunt for a pair locally. I randomly decided to check the Klipsch Community forum, where I found a member named Tom who was local to me and owned a pair. I quickly messaged him to explain my situation and ask if he would be willing to let me listen. To my surprise, he was not only welcoming to the idea, but within walking distance of my house!
DAC: Musical Paradise MP-D2
Preamp: Wyred4Sound STP-SE
Amps: Triode Labs 2A3 Integrated, Classe CA-200 (bi-amping)
Loudspeakers: Klipsch La Scala; also DIY Klipsch K402/Peavey FH1 horn system
Tom's pair were 1982 production with ceramic drivers and more than a bit beat up cosmetically, but he got them for a song and will be re-finishing them by himself eventually. I did not get a picture of the La Scala as we moved them from his second room (no small task) to in front of the big horn system pictured above for a listening session. From the very first few notes I knew these speakers were very competent, and I became convinced of my quest to obtain my own pair. Though Tom's system is set up for bi-amping, I specifically asked to hear them driven from his 2A3 amplifier, full-range. His listening space was well-treated with furniture and strategically placed panels, but not over-damped. The sound was satisfying, with all the hallmarks of a good horn system, without any trace of shout or squawk. Through Tom's digital front-end I played piano, vocals, Russian stage music, Led Zeppelin and more at volumes both reasonably loud and soft. I was left wanting for very little, though I kept returning to Glenn Gould piano works to hear them with the immediacy and fullness of the La Scala. I have to get a pair!
DIY two-way system with Klipsch K402 horn and Peavey FH-1 bass bins
As is usually the case with such meetings, more time was spent chatting than actually listening. Although the purpose of my visit was to sample the La Scala, I asked Tom if he would hook up his main rig for me to try. Tom's system is at what I would call the 'developed' stage. He has a very clear idea of his own preference and has assembled something really formidable to match it. Component changes are made infrequently and in isolation. Congratulations are in order for him, this is where everyone would like to be some day!
With the subwoofer engaged (though it was not necessary for my taste), this is a truly impressive and full-range, fully horn-loaded system. Compared to the La Scalas playing on their own, the sound gained greatly in terms of scale and openness. Aural images became lifelike in size. The amount of 'breath' the music was afforded without compression or strain was previously not experienced for me. The low frequencies had the articulation and pitch of an open box but with the attack and presence that only a horn could provide. With the subwoofer engaged, the depth was seemingly limitless and provided a foundation to the entire sound.
If I could nitpick any one thing, it's that the image height was a little too tall, though Tom & I agreed this would be rectified if the K402s were placed directly on top of the bass bins. Though the system was 'only' digital, I cannot fault that as with the 'complications' of multi-amping, additional boxes for a phono source could quickly prove a headache. Beyond that, even modest digital sources like budget CD players can still truly impress with a carefully tuned, full-range loudspeaker system like this.
I thank Tom for his hospitality and the opportunity to experience his awesome system. Cheers!
|An older Triode Labs 2A3 amplifier using James OPTs|
However, there was a period of time where Triode Labs was using really superb James transformers from Taiwan, as is the case with Tom's model. James is now unfortunately defunct and their products no longer available, but these models still pop up on the second-hand market for reasonable prices. I have heard 2A3-based Triode Labs amps using James transformers on three occasions now, they always manage to sound decent. Their amplifiers are always well assembled and generally sport professional automotive paint finishes on the chassis. I just think there is better bang for buck to be had from independent builders, but would not discourage anyone from trying these amps out.
29 February, 2020
For audiophiles, likely the most famous RCA ever. Don't think about finding this in the bins. Some of my favorites are pictured below.
Talk Vinyl: Buying Classical Records, a Beginner's Guide, Part III
Labels: RCA, Mercury
Attention: I have created a blog label Classical Music - Buying Records. Just click and all posts so far in the series shall appear. The blog label is also in the sidebar (roll down).
RCA (wiki) US recording giant RCA was a great rival of Columbia. Make sure you read the wiki entry for the rich history. And, of course, should you ever be in NYC, make sure you visit the resplendent RCA building in Rockefeller Center. And then you owe it to yourself to go to the nearby Radio City Music Hall where, during the Holiday Season, you can catch the Rockettes kicking their legs much like the cover album (my personal RCA favorite). Forget about fine arts, there is nothing better than that. :-)
- Living Stereo It can safely be said that no respectable audiophile would be without one of these (unlike Columbia, shunned by many). The long running series contain many gems but these were by a few artists, and forgettable items outnumber them. I just found out there is a website devoted to it, where you can browse all the great covers. Now, a Living Stereo recording is most often marked by the iconic black strip running across the top of the cover, but as you can see from the website, some have smaller and less pronounced captions. The Living Stereo series was, and still is, the bread and butter of RCA; so many titles were in continual production even into Red Seals days, so it is important to look at the inner label. Stereo/Mono are coded (for classical's) LSC/LM. Make sure you check. the term Living Stereo lasted well into the Red Seals age, and they are not as desirable. In general, judge by the inner labels.
- Recording and Halls The excellence of the recordings were in no doubt from the start. the producer/engineer team of Richard Mohr/Lewis Layton, like EMI's 2 Christophers, always delivered. While the Boston Symphony Hall is acoustically world renowned, the Chicago Orchestral Hall is more problematic. It is testament to the team that the recordings were so consistently good.
- Inner Labels As RCA pressings declined in quality later, it is important to identify earlier pressings. However, many of the famous ones have been over-used and traded thrice over, so paying good money is a risky proposal. Shaded Dog refers to the earliest and most coveted pressings (in the vinylbeat link provided it is label 2I; the dog and phonograph are shadowed, hence the name). White Dog Later the shadow disappeared (4A), and these are still very good pressings. Dynagroove (4D) Even later on, RCA introduced the Dynagroove. These have a "bad" audiophile reputation, but most of the ones that I have sounded quite good! More info here too.
- Soria (wiki) This is an odd series, supposedly deluxe, and they are not often seen. The most famous issue is the Royal Ballet pictured above (Ansermet actually recorded everything in that album with his own Swiss orchestra, in performances and Decca sound just as splendid, that are worth nothing; just figure). It should be noted that quite a few of Soria's offerings (like VPO, Karajan, Monteux) actually originated from Decca, and they were later reclaimed by Decca/London and re-issued in the STS budget series. Not for the Royal Ballet though. :-( So, no need to fuss over this series otherwise.
- Red Seal Then RCA entered the Red Seal era (label like 6E), and the pressings (and quality of artists) rapidly declined. Later on, pressings were wafer thin and problematic in terms of noise, even tracking. In the 70's and 80's I mostly avoided buying RCA for these reasons.
- Victrola Stereo/Mono are coded VICS/VIC, so beware. Like Odyssey and Seraphim, this long-running budget label of RCA cannot be neglected. Many of the best Living Stereos were re-issued in this budget label, and you are going to come across tens of these (many in dollar bins) before seeing a Shaded/White Dog. In fact, Reiner's earlier However, more than their counterparts at Columbia and Angel, their quality declined even more rapidly, and it is important to pick and choose. Basically, stick with the earlier maroon label (5B). Later pressings are in light pink (like 6A) and the earlier of these are still thick and sturdy, whereas very soon they turned thin and floppy. The sleeves of the later iterations, unlike the elegant early duo-tone with drawings, have horrible graphics. Avoid the latter.
- Gold Seal (label like 7) This latter day budget/mid-priced label attempted to improve things but I don't like them. Some of these have been remastered and they simply sound different. Pressing quality is highly variable, and I had worse luck than my friend Andy. Cover art is lousy. Given the abundance of Victrola's etc, I'd pass.
- Camden Lousy quality and totally forgettable.
- Artists Early On Like Columbia, RCA started out recording mostly American artists, but later on they were barely competitive in my opinion. Early On was the Golden Age. Orchestral Music Here, the Chicago Symphony under Fritz Reiner made many excellent records (essential Strauss, Bartok, and surprisingly, Mahler, French and Spanish music) that most audiophiles have at least read about. Keep in mind that, aside from the sonic blockbusters, Reiner's recordings of the regular repertoire (Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, etc) are not held in high esteem. Jean Martinon, the unlucky successor, also made some excellent records, mostly French music, but also a good Nielsen 4th (also excellent Prokofiev with French orchestra). The other orchestra was the Boston Symphony, which made many good records under two conductors. Claude Monteux is a giant, not showy but always good. If you see his records (whether on RCA, Decca or Philips), just grab them. Although on RCA, the Monteux recordings with the London Symphony and Vienna Philharmonic (all excellent) originated from Decca, and equivalent high quality LPs could be more cheaply obtained in the later London STS issues. The other is Charles Munch, who was the opposite, fiery, flamboyant. Munch could be exciting (essential Berlioz and Saint Saens), but sometimes the playing could be a little coarse due to his urgency. Get a few of his on Victrola and see if you like him as much as I do (for me, he's never boring, even in German repertoire; one day I should read this lengthy and dry scholarly discography). Later on, BSO was headed by Eric Leinsdorf, a kappemeister who is reliable but seldom inspiring; I'd avoid the many recordings of his. RCA also recorded 2 essential albums of Russian favorites with the excellent Kiril Kondrashin (one pictured above, the other being Capriccio Italien/Espanol). And let us not forget another audiophile fav, Leopold Stokowski's Rhapsodies. I'd forget Morton Gould's recordings. Pianists The field is totally dominated by Arthur Rubinstein, whose recordings during this period are almost all excellent (unlike his later remakes; the Saint Saens Concerto No. 2 is a must). In concerto recordings, he also had excellent support. And then the excellent Byron Janis made some wonderful recordings (essential Rachmaninov). Although Van Cliburn caused a sensation by winning the Tchaikovsky Competition at the heights of the Cold War, his many recordings are just serviceable, and none provide any real insight - avoid. Rather, a few others pianists recorded one- or two-off gems: Sviatoslav Richter (essential Brahms Concerto No.2 and Beethoven Concerto No.1); Malcolm Frager (essential Prokofiev Concerto No.2, rare) and Emil Gilels (anything of his is essential). John Browning also made quite a few records, and he is usually good. Violinists Here the domination of Jascha Heifetz is total and deserved, and there is no need to dwell on this legend. But I'd like to bring your attention to another fiddler, the great Henryk Szeryng, whose Lalo Symphonie Espagnol and Brahms Violin Sonatas (with Rubinstein) are still definitive. Cellist The late recordings of the great Gregory Piatigorsky are still worthwhile. Chamber Music Aside those made by the star soloists with others, the Festival Quartet, though austere, is collectible. The early Juilliard Quartet recordings tend to be over-shadowed by their extensive Columbia discography.
- Artists Later On After the Golden Age, by the time of Red Seal, RCA really lost steam. Orchestral Music Slim picking. In Chicago, they recorded a few good albums with young Seiji Ozawa (an early Messiaen Turangalila stands out), but by the time of Solti lost the CSO to Decca. And, after the lackluster Leinsdorf, by the time Ozawa assumed leadership of the BSO, lost it to DG. RCA recorded a bit of Andre Previn with LSO (very good Vaughn Williams cycle, Walton symphonies) but later lost them too to EMI. Without an orchestra of their own, they poached Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia from Columbia, and needlessly re-recorded a lot of what Columbia had recorded before. Problem is, Ormandy by this time was getting old and jaded, and smooth sound became lax. None of his RCA recordings are better than the earlier Columbia equivalents, so avoid. Then came young James Levine, who recorded, among other things, a good Mahler cycle with various orchestras (sonically less so). Pianists Rubinstein, by the Red Seal age, was pretty old, but RCA kept on re-recording many concertos, usually partnered by Ormandy - NONE of them are better than his earlier efforts on Living Stereo, so avoid. RCA also recorded Horowitz, now in his late age; given his extensive Columbia catalogue, there is really nothing new. Peter Serkin, son of Rudolf, was an excellent pianist and he recorded some interesting material (more in chamber music). And RCA also recorded John Ogdon in some off-beat repertoire. In the age of the LP, I cannot recall any other pianist of unusual merit. Violinists No one could follow in the footstep of Heifetz, whose recordings remained best-sellers forever, not his disciple Erik Friedman (though his Sarasate/Chausson/Ravel album has become a Chinese audiophile favorite), nor the likes of Eugene Fodor. Cellist Lynn Harrell made a few records, but I always find him too smooth. Chamber Music Here RCA did better. The Guarneri Quartet recorded just about everything over their long career. The Cleveland Quartet was younger and more ardent (later they recorded for Telarc). Both were quite accomplished but of course face vast competition in this field. Try a few. Then there is the unusual formation of TASHI (a super lineup of pianist Peter Serkin; clarinetist Richard Stoltzman; violinist Ida Kavafian and cellist Fred Sherry) who recorded innovative programs (including Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time), and they are recommended.
My personal favorite, not even classical. But the popular arrangements of folk music like Troika and Midnight in Moscow will melt any heart. Try it out by streaming!
Mercury (wiki) No record label inspires more awe (and headaches) in the audiophile. Awe, because the audio press fuss endlessly over the re-issues, be them CDs, SACDs or LPs. Of course, they were also popularized by HP's List. Headaches, because most audiophiles fail to play back most Mercury's to their satisfaction (usually too shrill). All this is moot. It is not often that one spots a good Mercury LP, not to mention one with a good price. When I started buying LPs in the late 70's, Mercury was already over, so it is embarrassing for me to write this capsule, as my few copies were all acquired later. However, I did own most of the worthwhile Mercury CD re-issues, so I can rate the musical performances.
- Mercury Living Presence We are only talking about Living Presence. The cover art is basically divided into 3 types: a broad red "Stereo" stripe across the top; a smaller red ribbon diagonally strapped to the left upper corner; and the most iconic, a broad film tape across the top, indicating magnetic film tape recording (brought over from Everest). It has to be said the cover art is usually excellent.
- Recordings Even more than RCA and Decca, Mercury used minimal miking (see the links), but the results are perhaps more fabled than real (heresy!). More than RCA and Decca, the top tends to be quite dry and hot, and the earlier the recording, the more so. Usually, the Minneapolis recordings are quite dry. The Detroit Symphony ones fare better. And the London recordings all sound very good - I tend to think, like for RCA, these were done by Decca engineers (I could well be wrong, as many of these bear the magnetic tape stripe).
- Inner Labels Read this excellent Label Guide. Mercury's pressings deteriorated rapidly. The Maroon labels were good, but even the so-called "lighter maroon" (more like light raspberry) can be noisy, but some are still acceptable.
- Wing This is Mercury's latter-day budget re-issue label. They are generally horrid! Avoid! Quite a few are electronically re-channeled too.
- Artists Given the short span of Mercury, this is the easiest task I have had so far in this series. Orchestral Music The most interesting thing is, although Mercury lacked "star power" in terms of both orchestras and conductors, they did amazingly well. Detroit Symphony/Paul Paray Even now, they are totally under-rated. Paray not only recorded the French repertoire exceedingly well, he excelled in almost everything he did, whether it was Sibelius or Schumann. IMHO, he is no less great a conductor than Munch, Monteux and Ansermet, not yet given his due. Antal Dorati/London Symphony Down to the last one, these were great recordings, the most famous of which being likely Stravinsky's Firebird. But I like him in just about everything, from Brahms to Dvorak and the second Viennese school. Great conductor. Now, he recorded profusely earlier with the Minneapolis Orchestra but, as mentioned, those were often sonically challenged. And then there was Howard Hanson, whose own compositions and recordings with the ok Rochester Symphony were by now surpassed. Wind Band One of the most prolific recording artists was Frederick Fennell, but I am not a fan of this kind of music, and pass. Soloists In piano, Mercury had the great Byron Janis, recordings of which duplicated his own RCA recordings (but I give the edge to RCA). In Violin, I treasure those recordings by Henryk Szeryng. And in Cello, all of the Janos Starker's recordings are desirable (cool, but excellent).
- Philips Golden Import After Mercury was acquired by Philips, their recordings appeared under this label, covered in my Philips survey (Part II).