Friday, May 30, 2008


Jim Thiel is one of the most innovative speaker designers of all time. He bases all of his designs on common sense and hard science, not marketing. Instead of coming out with a new line of speakers every three years or so, Thiel chooses to wait longer and release speakers that are revolutionary as apposed to evolutionary. The dizzying number of finish options are all well done and allow those who worry about aesthetics to have a large number of choices. They even go as far as to offer custom matching of existing wood work. Does the wife have an 18th centaury armoire that she insists be matched? No problem. Send the nice folks in Lexington Kentucky a sample and in about a week or two they will send back three samples with pricing for each.

Thiel’s newest speakers, the CS3.7 is a masterstroke. For a company whose speakers have always been very seamless owing to their time and phase coherent design the 3.7 takes it to the next level. The vanishing act that these speakers pull off is quite startling. Like all Thiel speakers they do take quite some time to break in. Many believe that the extended break in time required is related to the metal drivers and the solid core wiring used through out the line.

The new 3.7 is significantly more efficient than it’s predecessor, providing twice the output from a given amount of input power. The most technologically innovative aspect of the 3.7 is it’s midrange driver which has response all the way up to 20kHz. The traditional tweeter that lies at the center of the midrange driver is there mostly to improve dispersion. The new midrange driver’s ripples also are unique and add a great amount of structural strength, which reduces distortion. Below is an interview with Jim Thiel conducted by Ken Dawkins. He discusses many of the facets that make his new speaker a technological tour de force. Click on the picture to view the video.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Compromise worthy of a politician

It seems that there is no end in sight when it comes to the battle of which sounds better, the CD or the record. There are those who feel that CD’s will never be able to sound like a record. There are others who ask why would anyone want them to. Then there’s Aleks Kolkowski, with an idea worthy of a politician. He offered attendees of Manchester Futuresonic 2008 Festival a 45 rpm single that was cut onto a useless CD or DVD. Even going as far as to offer people the chance to bring a WAV file of their choice. Now if only useless old laserdiscs could enjoy the same “treatment” we could have some 33 1/3s as well. Many vinylphiles will enjoy the irony, yet cringe at the thought of what playing one of these would do to an expensive phono cartridge.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Rough Mix

The ability of music to instantly and powerfully remind us of a very specific time in our life is one of its most magical qualities. For me “Rough Mix” will always be inextricably linked to a drive between Indianapolis and Lexington Kentucky with my friend and former boss Duke. There’s nothing like a road trip with good tunes to get to know someone. He brought the album along as an evaluation tool when we were visiting the manufacturing facility of Thiel Audio. When we got back into town he lent it to me. I enjoyed it, returned it then promptly forgot all about it. Until a saw it again 8 years later, I just had to buy it.

The story began when Ronnie Lane of “The Faces” approached his friend Pete Townshend of “The Who” for a loan. Townshend declined but offers to work with Ronnie on an album instead. Initially Ronnie thought that he would produce a solo album for him but Pete had little interest in sitting behind the console. Mr. Townshend offered to do a joint album (stop your snickering DAMN IT!) and recommends Glyn Johns to produce.

Rough Mix is anything but! There are lots of layers, a virtual tapestry with everything perfectly in it’s place. For the most part it’s an intimate album with hushed, almost confessional vocals. It’s an album of quieter moments. Choosing to whisper the truth instead of scream nonsense. This is all the more surprising when one considers the number of guest musicians. None of whom try to call attention to themselves, instead they chose to contribute tastefully. Special guests include Charlie Watts of “The Rolling Stones”, Eric Clapton, John Entwistle of “The Who”, Ian Stewart sort of from “The Rolling Stones (see foot note*)”, and future Who member John “Rabbit” Bundrick.

The Pete Townshend contributions are universally strong. “My Baby Gives It Away” is mid-tempo rocker. “Misunderstood” can be said without a trace of irony to have the perfect amount of cowbell. It also contains other nice percussion touches. The harmonica also adds a nice counter point to his vocals, and what’s not to love about the chorus (“coolwalkingsmoothtalkingstraightsmokingfirestoking.”) “Street in the City” is a nice little song about the goings on during the day on an average street with a nice little string arrangement. “Heart to Hang on to” has some nice moments of vocal interplay between the pair and a nice brass interlude. “Till The Rivers All Run Dry” is just beautiful and is a great example of a cover so perfectly chosen and performed that the artist really makes it their own.

I find the Ronnie Lane contributions less moving. The sole songwriting collaboration between Lane and Townshend is an instrumental called “Rough Mix” where Eric Clapton singularly fails to do anything interesting and John “Rabbit” Bundrick upstages everyone with his performance on the organ. “Annie” has a nice sad Irish drinking ballad feel to it, which is added to by the accordion and violin. For whatever reason his song “Catmelody” sounds like an outtake from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” intended for Meat Loaf, the sax solo really seals it too. I would add “in a bad way” to the previous sentence but I feel that it goes without saying since we‘re talking about Meat Loaf. “April Fool” really benefits from Clapton’s Dobro playing, which is a nice touch. The bonus tracks, while not essential are nice to have too. All three of the outtakes have a loose audio-vérité feel that adds to their charm.

The sound of acoustic guitars are not just strings, but the body behinds the strings and the pick against those strings. The album also has quick accurate bass, and extended shimmering cymbals. While the dynamics are not overly compressed, if they were a little more open this album would go from great for a Rock recording to exceptional for a Rock recording. The newest version of the disc is a Dual Disc that in addition to it‘s DVD-Audio layer (The DVD-A is 24/48 for surround and 24/96 for stereo. In addition it has Dolby Digital stereo and surround for backwards compatibility.) also features a short documentary. The default on the DVD-A side is multi-channel, unforgivable from the two-channel audiophile without a monitor perspective.

*He was kicked out for not being cool enough though he continued to record with them and play with them live. Maybe Mick didn’t want to split the money six ways. Sorry but I simply never pass up a chance to take a shot at Mick Jagger, even a cheap unfounded one.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Knowing your roots

Originally written December 6, 2006, now with pictures!

Recently I was afforded the opportunity to visit the Pavek Museum of Broadcasting in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. The museum began life as the private collection of Joseph R. Pavek. A traveling salesman that made it a regular habit to stop into every small town barber shop for a quick trim and to ask the same question, "Do you know anyone with an old radio they don’t want?"In Mr. Pavek’s day the barber knew everyone in towns business.

There were a plethora of interesting exhibits. The first that springs to mind was a musical performance that was recorded simultaneously for acoustic 78RPM record (A horn captured the sound which was then cut directly into the master. No electricity was necessary) and electrical 78RPM record (Microphones and something approaching modern recording technics.) flipping between them was a snap. Of course the electrically recorded version had much better bass response, a more transparent midrange, and more a more accurate presentation of brass instruments. The gentleman guiding the tour briefly mentioned that when electrical recordings made their debut felt that they were markedly inferior to the old acoustical recordings. Thus was born Audio Luddism.
The next exhibit that inspired my imagination was when our tour guide was nice enough to play a Bing Crosby recording on an early Ampex ¼” reel to reel tape deck using a Marantz 5B tube amp and a huge pair of Western Electric horn speakers that were originally designed for movie theater use (I would estimate that the mouth of these horns was roughly 5’ by 7’, yes I meant feet!) The sound was stunning and immediate! Apparently, Mr. Crosby was an early investor in Ampex, supporting an American GI that had brought back some German machines after World War II. He used the Ampex machines to record his radio show so that he could complete it on his schedule, not allowing himself to be a slave to the time slot.

Perhaps the most amazing item on display was a Philco radio from 1939 It featured six AM presets and a wireless RF remote, that used a rotary dial similar to what was used on telephones. The range, an astonishing 200 feet! Something that would have been amazing had it been working was a 78RPM record changer that would play one side of the disc, then flip it to play the other side automatically. Unfortunately it had malfunctioned the previous day snapping a shellac in two, just my luck.

In one of the earliest examples of decorators trying to hide audio systems as to not ruin the décor of a room was a 78RPM turntable disguised as a lamp. The shade hid the turntable, and the body of the lamp was a brass horn that emitted the music. It was also a working lamp. The sound, well let’s just say that it was the Bose of it’s time. Feel free to draw your own conclusions.

Also on display was an original Theremin utilizing all tube electronics. I was even granted permission to "play" it. That was a very cool experience. I’m no Jimmy Page, let me tell you. Another interesting tidbit was a Mechanical Television with a resolution of 48 lines (If I remember correctly.) It consisted of a spinning disc drilled with holes and an eye piece that the view looked through. Broadcasts were over AM radio frequencies and most viewers built their own "televisions."

If anyone is in the St. Louis Park, Minnesota area a visit is mandatory. My tour was courtesy of Tom Mittelstaedt who was obviously equal parts passionate and knowledgeable. The Pavek is located at 3515 Raleigh Avenue in Saint Louis Park, just east of Highway 100, off the West 36th Street exit. They are open to the public five days a week and are also available for special tours and evening meetings. Call the Museum at (952) 926-8198 to make reservations for group tours or just stop in for a visit. Their website is It’s not to be missed.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

As it should be

Paul McCartney-”Unplugged (The Official Bootleg.)" Unfortunately it was never released in the US so you will have to buy it as an import. It's worth it, I promise. It is not a bootleg, that’s just a tongue in cheek title. It was recorded during an MTV unplugged appearance, and released by Parlophone. The entire album is what unplugged is supposed to be, all acoustic instruments! The album preserves the witty between song banter, re-tuning of instruments, moving of microphones, etc. It’s easy to hear that everyone involved is having a great time, including the band. The audience is very respectful, yet excited. One of the most natural and engaging live albums that I have ever heard. The sound quality is extremely high. There is a minimum of compression and great sound staging depth. As Paul turns around to direct comments to the band or steps away from the mic the tonality of his voice changes. Also when he messes up the lyrics of an old Beatles song the frustration in his voice is apparent, as he apologizes to the audience. Geoff Emerick did a great job in the engineering and mixing department. The material is a mixture of old rockabilly, Beatles material, and early McCartney solo work. This album is priceless.