Monday, May 25, 2009

Jay Bennett

Click on the photo to see a Wilco studio outtake featuring Jay.

Sadly, last weekend saw the passing of former Wilco member, Jay Bennett. Bennett's tenure with the band saw a profound period of Wilco's evolution, and many fans largely attribute Wilco's rapid growth during this period, both musically and sonically, to his talents as an arranger, songwriter and engineer. His sound is most evident on Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot where his songwriting partnership with Wilco's frontman Jeff Tweedy was in full bloom, and his arrangements and presence behind the mixing console gave the songs a richly textured, yet incredibly sparse (and never overproduced) sonic splendor.

Apart from Wilco, Jay has released solo records and has also played as a studio musician for Sheryl Crow and produced Blues Traveler's 2005 album, ¡Bastardos!.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Why Cost-No-Object Speakers Are Good for Everyone

Without a doubt the audio component furthest away from perfection in our systems is the lowly loudspeaker. With distortion ratings left of the decimal place for nearly every transducer on the market (many in the double digits) there is a lot of work to be done. So cutting edge, no-holds barred, statement products not only improve the state of the art but also hold the promise of providing technology that can trickle down to improve performance for nearly everyone. Below is a picture of Kef's newest all out effort, "The Blade." Click on the picture to watch a short video outlining the basics of these beautifully, sculpted speakers.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Objectivist Rant

To All Subjectivists-

[sarcasm begins]
Cast off your subjectivist sins and all will be forgiven. Become an objectivist, it's cheaper and there's no need to pursue "happiness." Because so-called "happiness" can't be scientifically quantified surely it's just an illusion created by chemicals in the human brain.

When are you going to stop "listening" to music and realize the truest and purest way to "appreciate" it is via oscilloscope? It has the added benefit of being cheaper and the SAF* is much higher too.

You should also be enjoying your wine by testing it's chemical composition instead of wasting it by dumping it down your unscientific throats. This method has the added benefit of getting rid of the wines unfortunate side effect that many refer to as intoxication.

A painting should be evaluated by the number of colors per square inch and the size of the work rather than how it makes you FEEL.

I also advocate the testing of cars by seeing how fast they can make a piece of toast out of a slice of bread placed on the engine. There's no need to actually waste ones time test driving the damn thing. My 2001 Hyundai Accent does it just as fast as the top of the line BMW 5 series, therefore they must be just as good.
[sarcasm ends]

One of the things that I don't get about most objectivists when it comes to audio they deny anything that can't be measured as if it can't exist. Don't they realize that the first step to scientific understanding is many times anecdotal observation which is then followed to a new scientific understanding? The most eloquent word for this is serendipity. Penicillin was discovered because Sir Alexander Fleming had a runny nose that dripped onto some slides containing bacteria. Louis Pasteur once said, "In the fields of observation chance favors only the prepared mind." Just because we can't measure something doesn't mean it is non-existent, it just means we don't yet have a method to quantify it. Newton didn't discover gravity he only found a way to quantify and describe it. Gravity existed long before him.

Ken Ishiwata makes an excellent point in passing. Why are specs seen as so important when they are obtained using CONTINUOUS (or static) test tones and yet a piece of audio gear's purpose is to reproduce a constantly VARIABLE set of tones? The measurements are obtained in an entirely different manner than the product's intended use.

*SAF, or Spouse Acceptance Factor is the more politically correct
version of WAF (Wife Acceptance Factor.)

Saturday, May 09, 2009

The Furutech Furor

The Furutech deMag device has been causing controversy in high-end circles for some time now, Stephen Mejias' excellent blog entry reignited debate on the Stereophile forum. It's main purpose is to de-magnetize vinyl records although there are reports of people using it on interconnects, speaker cables, power cords, even CD's; all with positive results. According to the manufacturer while vinyl is not magnetic carbon black, the material used to make records black does exhibit some magnetic properties.

I'd like to thank Michael Fremer for posting the files for comparison sake. Not only does it let us look at (although in a flawed manner) what the Furtech demag device does or does not do, it also lets us all get a glimpse at how special Mickey's turntable is. The digital recordings were made using a Continuum Audio Labs Caliburn turntable, Cobra tonearm, Castellon stand and "probably Manley Steelhead, Lyra Titan i cartridge" as the analog front end according to Michael Fremer.

Right after the downloads were complete I listened to the two samples using the computer as the source through my Tivoli Model One table radio, just for fun. Even on the Model One after the first listen I thought I heard a difference. It was so small as to be indescribable, but "Step Right Up 2" was just a little more alive. From there I burned it to a CD-R and put it on my system.

There are two things that are important to mention. First, this is a digital conversion of an analog medium so some of the differences are bound to have gotten lost in that conversion. That seems obvious, but it's still worth mentioning none the less. Second, while my system is very, very good most likely it's not nearly as resolving as Michael Fremer's system.

Alright, on to my conclusions.

All comparisons were done over the course of a number of days. "Step Right Up 2" consistently bested "Step Right Up 1" in the following ways:
  1. The bass is more articulate and has a more complex tonal structure.
  2. The Scatting and the finger snaps at the beginning of the song are much more prominent.
  3. There is greater soundstaging depth and space in general.
  4. The sax sounds at once further back in the soundstage AND less veiled.
  5. The performance is more involving with a greater sense of micro dynamics, especially in the nuances of Tom Waits vocal delivery.
Were the differences HUGE? Not on my system but as previously mentioned the scale of those changes were probably reduced by the conversion process itself and the system that I'm using is several steps below the one that Michael is blessed with. However, I'm confident those differences are real. For someone with a ultra high end vinyl set up looking to add those last few drops of resolution the Furutech DeMag might just be the ticket.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Old Vinyl, New Life

I often tend to approach my hobbies with a collector's mentality. Unfortunately, this means I always have shelves overflowing with media, not to mention the never ending search for storage solutions. Still, the hook always comes in the form of those random, unexpected finds.

Once a week or so, I'll stop into a Goodwill which is situated between my house and where I work to check out their CDs and vinyl. Any vinyl collector knows the usual thrift store fare rarely consists of more than collections of religious hymns from the 1970s, Herb Alpert and records by the 101 Strings. However, I recently stumbled upon stacks of old Capitol and RCA Victor discs. This means a lot of Perry Como, recorded using RCA Victor's much-derided Dynagroove technology, Jackie Gleason Presents Music for Lovers Only, Harry Belafonte, and several records by Vera Lynn (one of which I almost bought just to hear the song referenced by Pink Floyd in their song, "Vera Lynn"). I might not have been interested in any of the records at all, but the $0.99 price tag encourages me be a little more adventurous. Besides, at that price, it isn't like I can't just roll the dice and donate them back if I don't like it.

I brought home two discs; Harry Belafonte Sings of the Caribbean (1957), a simple collection of gentrified calypso songs in mono, and Henry Mancini - Our Man in Hollywood (1963).

Our Man in Hollywood was part of RCA Victor's popular "Our Man in..." series, in which they "place" their recording artists in various locations and genres (e.g. Chet Atkins - Our Man in Nashville and Sonny Rollins - Our Man in Jazz ).

Our Man in Hollywood is a collection of movie and television themes arranged by the brilliant Henry Mancini, and was offered in mono and "LIVING STEREO." I was lucky enough to find the stereo version since it gives the already quirky arrangements an also quirky sense of stereo separation, which was very common in the 1960s, but doesn't detract from the arrangements at all. Instead, thanks to plenty of natural reverb and the skill of the recording engineer (see below), it gives the recordings an extraordinarily wide soundstage and tons of space and clarity. Not all of the tracks are exactly stellar, but the majority of them sound quite amazing. Especially "The Theme from The Wonderful World of The Brothers Grimm," "Too Little Time ('Love Theme from the Glenn Miller Story')," and an absolutely 'swingin' 60s' version of "Seventy Six Trombones" from 'The Music Man.'

Side 1:
Days of Wine and Roses
Walk On The Wild Side
The Theme From The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm
Love Song From Mutiny on the Bounty
Mr. Hobbs Theme
Seventy Six Trombones

Side 2:
Love Theme From Phaedra
Bachelor in Paradise
Too LIttle Time
Drink More Milk
The Wishing Star

It should be noted that the album was recorded by Al Schmitt, one of the all-time great recording engineers who has also recently worked with Diana Krall and Shelby Lynne on her wonderful sounding 2008 tribute to Dusty Springfield, Just a Little Lovin' (which was produced by Bacharach's old collaborator and the 1967 Casino Royale soundtrack engineer Phil Ramone).

All in all, I consider it 99 cents well-spent.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Simon Yorke

Below is a brief interview with Simon Yorke, designer and manufacturer of some of the worlds most highly regarded turntables. While I don't agree that digitally reproduced music is incapable of moving the soul I do share his concern that music is being treated more like a commodity than art.

Sunday, May 03, 2009


Hello, folks.

Audio Explorer has graciously invited me to contribute to this site, so I thought I'd provide a little background about myself. Basically, I love music. I love listening to it, I love collecting it and I even love (trying) to make my own. Listening to music can, at once, be one of the most therapeutic, relaxing and invigorating experiences we humans can have.

That is why, several years ago, I decided to set about building a stereo and entertainment system to finally do justice to the hundreds of CDs I had collected over the years. Being out of college, engaged to be married and (more or less) out of the red, financially, I began consulting Audio Explorer, or rather this blog's administrator, a very old and dear friend, and one who knows his shit when it comes to hi-fi, about which speakers I should listen to and which A/V receivers offered the most "bang for the buck." It had long been a goal to slowly begin putting together a system, but, as with a lot of "noobs," I was always kept away by astronomical price tags. Still, I knew enough not to just head out to Best Buy, bring home the Bose and call it a day.

I waited.

Eventually, after a lot of calls to Audio Explorer, I had a great system for music, movies, games and television. The Rotel RSX-1057 and Paradigm Studio 100s v.4 anchored a 5.1 system that really breathed new life into our living room entertainment. Along with a nice Sony XBR LCD, it all culminated to a substantial improvement over our hand-me-down mid-90's Pioneer stereo and CRT TV.

Now that my wife and I have moved, temporarily, to work in Canada, we've rented a house that has a small space in the basement for TV/movies/gaming and an empty living room upstairs in need of music. Again, I began researching some amps and associated gear to use my beloved Paradigms for a music-only system.

Here's what developed:

Here are the speakers and the Arcam FMJ A38 integrated amp and the matching CD17. I also added a Panamax power conditioner. Like many others, I have also been getting back into vinyl, so awhile back, I went with Pro-Ject's entry level Debut III turntable and Phono Box phono stage preamp. I intend to eventually order Arcam's on-board phono stage.

Nothing re-energizes collecting music as a hobby than a new stereo to listen to it on (or "on which to listen to it," for you English nerds). That's my intention with The Audio Explorer - to chronicle record hunting, discuss music and stereo-related topics and continue to discuss new ways to enjoy music.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back.

Sometimes I find it remarkable how much disrespect people can treat objects that are art. I was saddened to read earlier today that the pressing plant responsible for the pre-2006 albums of mainstay indie label, Matador had not only went bankrupt but had carelessly thrown away the vinyl master plates for those albums. If you want more of the gory details check out The Guardian article