A Fresh Look at Classical Music

When I write “classical music,” you probably think Bach, Mozart or Beethoven, or maybe Chopin, Brahms, or Tchaikovsky. Bach died in 1750, Mozart in 1791, Beethoven in 1827, Chopin in 1849, Brahms in 1893, and Tchaikovsky in 1897. If you think in more modern terms, there’s Igor Stravinsky (d. 1971), and two musical buddies, Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein (both d. 1990). Will we ever see another famous classical composer? Or is all of this old news, overtaken by the expense of orchestras, the greying (whiting?) of the audience, the popularity of crossover music or orchestras playing Star Wars in concert, or the popularity of song-based (as opposed to album-based) streaming services?9780520283152

Yes. But. Classical music has been dying for centuries. If you’re seeking the new Beethoven, you’re on the wrong path. If you’re wondering how new ideas and new technologies have energized and blurred the definition of classical music, I’ve got a book for you. It was recommended by Alex Ross, whose own book, The Rest Is Noise, is probably the best book about 20th century music. Tim Rutherford-Johnson is a journalist, formerly the contemporary music editor at both Grove Music Online and The Oxford Dictionary of Music, so his background is solid.Tim begins After the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture Since 1989 before the breaking of the 21st century, and manages to place music in the micro-context of the times: this is a history book filled with very recent history, covering just short of thirty years.

Some of the contemporary composers’ names may be familiar. John Adams writes instrumental music and operas; you may be familiar with Shaker Loops, or Nixon in China. John Luther Adams has become quite famous for Become Ocean. (I am curious about his music, and will likely devote a full article to his work next year.) Thomas Adès is a British composer who has become quite popular. John Corigliano is both a popular conductor and a composer, perhaps best known for his post-2001 tribute, Of Rage and Remembrance. Philip Glass and Steve Reich pioneered a new approach to classical music in the second half of the 20th century. Reich’s experimentation with combinations of sounds and music influenced lots of 21st century musicians (his influence is so widespread, and so much a part of contemporary culture, many modern musicians don’t quite realize that their music ties back to his work). These legendary 20th century  innovators are roughly the same age–an astonishing 81/82 years old.

Henryk Gòrecki passed in 2010, but his Symphony 3, recorded by David Zinman and the London Sinfonietta, with vocals by Dawn Upshaw, has been a tremendous commercial success. Its appeal overlaps the work of Arvo Pärt, also in his eighties, whose contemplative recordings with ECM New Series, and other labels, resulted in the Vice article, “How a 78-Year-Old Estonian Composer Became the Hottest Thing in Music.” This past weekend, The New York Times published a somewhat similar article about György Kurtág from Romania, who is now 92. He finally finished his first opera, based upon the Samuel Beckett play, Endgame.

Add John Tavener (d. 2013) to the list, too.

Obvious question: are all of the new classical composers dead, or in their 80s or 90s? Nah, they’re just the ones who have enjoyed the last gasps of the recorded compact disc format. And there isn’t an easy way to promote a streaming thing, so you’re going to need to look beyond records to learn about the next-gen classical music. Or read the good advice provided by Tim Rutherford-Johnson. For example…

Kronos photographed in San Francisco, CA March 26, 2013©Jay Blakesberg

Kronos photographed in San Francisco, CA March 26, 2013©Jay Blakesberg

There’s the Kronos Quartet, a popular group that has long experimented with modern classical compositions, often in combination with music from many different parts of the world. In 2015, they released One Earth, One People, One Love: Kronos Plays Terry Riley (another contemporary classical composer from the 20th century), but their catalog includes work with or by Franghiz Ali-Zadeh (Azerbaijan), Sigur Rós (Iceland), Osvaldo Golijov (Argentina), Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen (Denmark), Witold Lutoslawski (Poland), the familiar Henryk Gòrecki (Poland–they play on several of his most popular recordings), and also Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and Thelonius Monk.

There’s Mark Turnage, who wrote a provocative, but accessible, opera called Anna Nicole (Smith–a former Playboy model “equally notorious for her surgically enhanced body and her marriage to a a billionaire sixty-three years her senior”). According to Tim, Turnage is “a brash yet accessible talent.” It debuted at London’s Covent Garden with Led Zepellin’s John Paul Jones in the band.

We are just beginning Tim’s tour. As music becomes less place-based, in part due to technology and in part due to a desire to perform in new ways, he considers The Silk Road Ensemble’s concerts which “blend Western and non-Western, art and vernacular” as the musicians play traditional (native) and nontraditional instruments– it is “built on the principles of cultural exchange, learning and understanding… more like a jazz group than an orchestra).

Messing with the expected is central to new ways of thinking about music. For example,, “(Brian) Ferneyhough’s more recent music disrupts the pathways of memory, overloading, thwarting, or redirecting them. Incipits [1996], for violin and small ensemble, for example, is composed of several separate “beginnings,” which draw the listener into a set of expectations they must keep having to drop and reboot [a musical parallel to Italo Calvino’s novel, If one a winter’s night a traveler). Memory here is activated, only to wiped clean.”

I found the two sections about “Loss” and “Recovery” especially interesting. Loss introduces the work of John Luther Adams in connection with “evocations of the landscape, the English and Latin names of birds and plants, poems in two Native American languages…Adams has sought to render aspects of the Alaskan wildness, drawing attention to specific places and their need for protection.” (The work is a “quasi-opera” called Earth and the Great Weather.) In Recovery, he describes the work of Azerbaijani composer Franghiz Ali-Zadeh which “identifies a space between past and present, traditional and contemporary, and Asian and Western…Because it exists in gaps–deliberately not fixed to anything, the music of Ali-Zadeh, Kanchelli, and other composers of the former Soviet Union proved able to slip between stylistic boundaries…”

Of course, I could go on, but my curiosity is now well ahead of my listening experience. I need to catch up, to slide away from emails and websites so I can spend more time attending to the music that is being made all around me. This is made somewhat more complicated by my current (and growing) interest in music that precedes Bach, Beethoven and the rest–as I begin an exploration of a remarkable early music group from England called The Sixteen, whose CDs should arrive any day now.

As I look forward, I also look back. Inevitably, I stumble into strong connections between the present, the future and the deep past. That’s what I love about music discovery.

And it is endless.

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The Fun Begins in York

When times were rotten, New York City was nicknamed “Fun City”–a dark commentary on the nightmare of garbage strikes, teacher walkouts, and a financial meltdown. Even in its most hopeless years, New York’s challenges pale in comparison with York, a far smaller and far older place that provided Fun City with its formal name.

The fun begins in York about 10,000 years ago. The Romans showed up about 2,000 years ago–certainly by 71 AD–and you can walk the Roman wall that once guarded the city today. It’s a very pleasant walk on a summer’s day, complete with engaging city views, small cafes, and pretty places to take selfies (admittedly, only parts are original; some are newer, circa 1200 or so, and others, newer still circa 1800-1900). By 875 AD, York was a Viking stronghold–a very large cache of Viking goodies from as far off as Afghanistan can now be found in the British Museum, the result of a York excavation for a new shopping area. Here, we find the roots of York’s current name–the Vikings called their kingdom Jorvik, since corrupted to provide both York and New York their Danish-rooted names.

After the Vikings, York weathered a less distinguished period. One of the worst episodes: the burning of Jews supposedly under government protection in the 1100s–an old castle is still on the site. By 1300, York was both an important government and trading center for England, and remained so until the 1500s. You can walk the streets and see medieval buildings–not unlike walking the world of Harry Potter (celebrated by several souvenir shops).

All of this (except Potter, of course) took place well before anybody even considered the idea of New Amsterdam (founded 1625), or New York (renamed 1664). To celebrate the old days, I visited York with the sole expectation of attending a really excellent Early Music Festival, now held annually each July.

This year’s featured players included The Sixteen (arguably the finest early music vocal group in the world today), and the majestic Gallicantus (a vocal group) in concert with the Rose Consort of Viols (an instrumental group). The latter two performed in an old parish church called St Michael le Belfrey Church (circa 1525) with marvelous acoustics and an equally appealing visual character. The music of Gallicantus celebrated Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656) and William Lawes (1602-1643), but I was most taken by a contemporary work in the old style by Judith Bingham (b. 1952) called “A Requiem for Mr. William Lawes.” Like so much early music (the term more or less refers to music preceding Bach, Vivaldi, etc.), this is vocal music that reaches directly into the soul, with astonishing countertenors (here David Allsopp and Mark Chambers) singing music that would later become the job of women. The sheer joy of listening to these wonderful musicians would have been sufficient, but the addition of a viol consort–not violins, not violas, as the musicians explained in a private interview, but viols that come up through a different strand of music history and were reproduced from paintings and other scant visual history).

Equally impressive: a Saturday afternoon concert called Revolting Women! featuring music composed by what was likely a small population of female composers from the era. The best was composed by a woman now recalled only by her pseudonym, Mrs Philharmonica, presumably from about 1715. Other names, bound to be unfamiliar, but worth researching, include Isabella Leonarda (1665-1729) and Elisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre (1665-1729). Their work was much enriched by the formidable professor, historian and superior violinist, Lucy Russell, whose name may be familiar from her work with the extraordinary Fitzwilliam String Quarter (which is known for more traditional classical repertoire).

Much as I adore good concerts in old churches, a warm summer day in York offers far too much fun to remain indoors for long. I was disappointed because my schedule would not allow me to attend Richard III at, of all things, a 1000-seat pop-up Shakespeare Rose Theater in the center of town (complete with a shopping and food arcade contemporary to the era). I also had limited time to fully explore Bloom!, a flower festival staged at what seemed to be a hundred places around town. Good used bookstores captured my attention, along with long walks along the river, and the inevitable Betty’s, a 1919 tea shop with wonderful food and spectacular pastries to enjoy along with fine tea service. (In fact, I escaped to nearby Harrogate, where I enjoyed both a lunch at Betty’s and also a walk around the RHS (Royal Horticultural Society) Harlow Carr gardens, an easy local train ride from classic York train station). Given more time, I would have explored the interior of York Minster, a large and delightfully old cathedral as well–but the lines were long, the schedule a bit restrictive for my 48-hour visit. Including the nearby countryside (moors, Jane Austen, etc.), I would certainly allow at least 72 hours to explore the area, and you’d likely find plenty to do for even four or five days in the York and Yorkshire area (mostly easily reached by train, certainly easily reached by car or even day bus tours).

What have I missed? The quiet pub where the World Cup semi-final victory for England was celebrated in a most dignified manner. The streets outside where everyone’s cheeks (probably both kinds) were painted with tiny English soccer flags, where people sang, loudly with with tremendous dancing exuberance, about how the Cup was “coming home.” Nearly every pub in town was pounding with energy and music–including, inexplicably, “Take Me Home Country Roads” and other boisterous (?) John Denver tunes to which every Brit seemed to know every word; the medley ended with the British (?) classic, “Cotton-Eyed Joe.” All great fun!

Food: very nice classy seafood to be found in Loch Fyne, which is not far from the old church headquarters of National Centre for Early Music (where many concerts are staged throughout the year). Just outside the city walls and down a few blocks, I stayed at the Mount Royal, a good old-style British hotel, perhaps more like an expanded inn, with a very nice outdoor garden and very comfortable rooms with ample space to stretch out. Good respite, very accommodating staff, and lovely to be able to take breakfast (and other meals) outside at leisure before re-entering, well, what turned out to be fun city in the truest sense of the words.

Do take the time to visit York. It’s just a few hours from London. It’s an easy train ride from Manchester, Liverpool and other cities in England, all worth visiting. And the next time I manage a visit, I want to wander the countryside (note to self: allow lots more time to explore this part of the world because it is beautiful, richly historic, and crazy fun).

 

 

The Other Sam (The Record Man)

For many years, the very best place on planet earth to shop for LPs (or, if you prefer, records), was Yonge Street in Toronto, Canada. As it happens, Yonge (pronounced “Young”) is one of the world’s longest streets, but that’s not why I visited as often as possible. There were two very large record stores on Yonge Street around Gould and Dundas Streets — A&A Records, and my multi-floor, multi-building favorite, the flagship store for what became a 140-store chain, Sam the Record Man. The stores are long gone. And that’s why I was so surprised to see an advertisement on the mobile phone provided by my hotel in Hong Kong–an advertisement that encouraged me to visit–who else?–Sam the Record Man in Hong Kong. My curiosity got the better of me, so I devoted an afternoon abroad to unravel the mystery.

I found Sam’s place in the Causeway Bay neighborhood, a few blocks from the very large and modern Times Square mall (which, of course, has nothing whatsoever to do with NYC’s Times Square). But this version of Sam’s was not a giant record store at all. It wasn’t even a storefront. It was located on the fifth floor of a nondescript old office building, and Sam is not Sam at all. His name is James Tang. And he is a very smart guy who cares a lot about recorded music. That’s why he opened what may be the world’s first record museum.

And no, I didn’t understand what that means, either. Briefly, here’s the theory. Just as the original version of, say, Leonardo DaVinci’s Mona Lisa, or Vincent Van Gogh’s The Starry Night are available for public inspection at museums, so too should be the original versions of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, or Carlos Kleiber’s recordings of Beethoven’s Symphonies 5 and 7 with the Vienna Philharmonic (which many critics include on their top ten list of all time best). But these master tapes are not available to the general public–decades after they were created, they are locked away in the vaults of large corporations. Sam/James believes that’s the wrong thing to do. But that’s the just the beginning.

After some tea and conversation, he asked me if I’d like to listen to some music. I never say no to that type of offer. So we begin to listen to “Strawberry Fields Forever” and it sounds just wonderful. Better than any recording of the song I have ever heard, and not by a small margin. He explains that I am listening to a studio master tape. Voices are alive, instruments sound instinctively right, the mix holds each sound in its own distinctive space. In short, I feel as though I am in the studio with The Beatles.

He then asks me to listen to another rendition of the same recording. This time, I’m listening to a very clean vinyl copy, but it doesn’t sound nearly as good as the first recording. We go through various renditions, one on reel-to-reel tape, another on cassette tape, and more. We keep returning to the master tape, and there is no question that these renditions sound very different from one another. Then, we try some classical music, some jazz, and other pieces. The effect is more and less pronounced, but the pattern is clear, and I am absolutely certain that the differences are profound. But why?

He offers what I believe to be a very good explanation. First, he explains why the tape recordings sound better than the records or CDs. James shows me the first of several charts.

From the start, James explains that the ratings are completely subjective, but the more I listen, the more I respect both his ability to appreciate sound quality and his ability to place a reasonable numerical rating to describe the experience. Pegging the master at 100 percent, the reel-to-reel version sounded excellent, but the master sounded better. I experienced something similar when listening to the ultra-high-end systems, powered by the best professional reel-to-reel recorders with second generation master tapes (the original are in a private vault) at VPI, maker of superior turntables. And, despite my misgivings, I had to agree that cassette tapes really did sound a lot better than the CDs (he rates them at 50-55% vs. 30%; I cannot rate my experiences with this level of precision, but the difference was profound).

Where does vinyl fit into the matrix? Yeah, there’s a problem with vinyl. You see, vinyl is not struck from a master tape. Instead, the master tape goes through several steps before a consumer LP becomes available.

The process begins with the master tape, but the metal stamper used to make the vinyl record is already second generation (“grandson” to the master tape), and the first pressing of the consumer record is the third generation, or great grandson. To James’s ears, you’re hearing less than half of the sound, and sound quality, that you would hear on the master tape. And that’s with a first pressing, under ideal conditions, listening to product from a record label that took the time and spent the money to get things right. Of course, most record companies don’t, or did not, lavish so much attention, which is why even the best used vinyl recordings from the golden age (say, 1960s and early 1970s before the oil crisis) don’t score much more than a 40 percent.

How about newer vinyl? You know, 180 gram special pressings worth $30 or $40 or more? To James’s thinking–and I keep hearing this from others I respect–you are better off buying a used version of the original record. Or, much better, tracking down a collectible first pressing from one of the labels that did lavish the necessary attention (say, Japan Toshiba’s Red Vinyl line from 1958-1974), and you may be very pleased with what you hear (on a very good two-channel stereo system).

James does sell the very highest quality collectibles in his shop, and for some people, that’s just plain heaven. For the rest of us, James initially sounds like he has taken an interesting theory a bit too far, but then, you listen. First you listen to the music, then you listen to James, then you listen to the music again and begin to realize that what he says makes a whole lot of sense. And then you realize that two or three hours of your time in Hong Kong isn’t nearly enough because he is so hospitable, so passionate, and so much the believer that you become one, too.

I have not stopped wondering whether, somehow, it would be possible to listen to the master tapes of the recordings I love. Sure, I’m happy with my growing collection of vinyl (typically used, typically in very good shape, typically $4 or so per disc, typically pressed in the UK or Germany under the good to very conditions), but James insists that there is more enjoyment on those master tapes, and I am fairly certain that he’s right.

The question, which is, for him, a quest, is how to gain the opportunity to listen to those master tapes. He is one man fighting the good fight, but he’s not doing to do it alone.

If you visit Hong Kong, do contact James Tang and ask for a tour of his museum and a demonstration of what I heard. I believe you, too, will become a believer.

There is lots and lots and lots more on his website.

 

The Respect She Deserves

Perhaps it was just a whimsical idea that takes shape on vacation, when the mind is free, the ocean breeze is blowing, and a violin shop appears out of nowhere. Or maybe I really will learn to play the violin. Without any musical experience or proper knowledge, I wandered into the shop and asked a few silly questions about buying a proper violin and learning to play. The shopkeeper, who also fixes violins and other stringed instruments in a workshop above the store, was patient with me, and suggested that I read a book to learn more. He recommended a book. I bought it, read it, and found myself not much smarter than before. I put the thought of a violin aside, then focused on where we might eat dinner that night.

Exhausted from far too much driving, we completed the next day’s drive with a visit to a favorite bookstore. And there, nearly forgotten on a bottom shelf, was hardcover book with an illustration of a violin on the cover. It was not a how-to-play or how-to-buy book, but some sort of story that combined music, science, and biography. It was late, I was toting a basketful of books, and tossed American Luthier onto the pile. (And recalled that a luthier made guitars, but I was not so sure they also made violins. They do.) The subtitle was appealing: “The Art & Science of the Violin”–this was more the book I had in mind. The author is Quincy Whitney, formerly of the Boston Globe. The subject of the book: the extraordinary work of Carleen Hutchins, an extraordinary scientist and craftsperson who did nothing less than reinvent the violin (and, along the way, a family of eight violin-like instruments, including one of the coolest upright string basses the world has ever known).

From the start, it’s clear that Ms. Hutchins is an extraordinary human being. She begins as a most curious child, then a teen who can build all sorts of things, then finds her way first into science as the kind of teacher who keeps a menagerie and a small farm in her classroom, then meets the right person at the right time and begins to play the viola, then decides she’ll build one. (Her whole life is like that.)

Well, the violins we know, the ones that are played by nearly all classical violinists and nearly all contemporary fiddlers, are all based upon designs developed in the 1550s by Andrea Amati. Two generations later, grandson Niccolo Amati continued the family tradition, but lost his kin in the plague. He taught two apprentices whose work continues to define the contemporary design of violins. Both are revered: Guarneri and, of course, Stradivari. When the latter died in 1727, the art, science and craftsmanship associated with Cremona violin-making was nearly lost, but two hundred years later, a new violin-making school was begun, apparently initiated in a fit of nationalism by Benito Mussolini in 1937. Stradivari made over a thousand violins, and half of them survive.

For hundreds of years, the violin has been a standard instrument for classical musicians, and, of course, for chamber groups, chamber orchestras and symphony orchestras. The past is revered, the classic instruments are revered, and the tradition is revered. But Carleen Hutchins asked the obvious question: was it possible to improve upon a design that was five hundred years old? Working initially as a craftsperson–always in her kitchen (her home in Montclair, NJ was always her workshop)–she developed a deep understanding of the science of acoustics and surrounded herself with friends who played in chamber groups. She learned to solve problems by testing (her basement was elaborately soundproofed to allow for extremely careful measurement in the wee hours when traffic and other sounds in her suburban neighborhood were least obtrusive), then by tinkering, making the tiniest adjustments by reshaping the fine contours of the plates, sound post, and other component parts. What began with an improved viola became a family of eight violins, each one sensibly placed within a range that would be familiar as soprano, alto, tenor, contrabass, etc. What began as a personal curiosity found itself on the cover of Scientific American magazine (1962, 1981), and also, the cover of the New Yorker (1989).

A violin is not invented or perfected in a moment. It must be played, enjoyed, improved, adjusted, and sometimes, rebuilt, often over years, decades or centuries. In fact, many high quality violins are antiques that been rebuilt and rebuilt so often that little of their original material remains. Still, this is the way the culture has evolved. And that culture is not especially welcoming to an inventor with a better mousetrap. That’s why so many of Hutchins’ instruments ended up in musical instrument museums, and so few have been heard on stage in performance. Happily, there is the Hutchins Consort, and they perform on Dr. Hutchins’ instruments. You can also watch some video, however limited, including part of a documentary in progress called Second Fiddle.

For the moment, my interest in the art and science of violin is sated. Author Quincy Whitney did a terrific job in telling a complicated story about art, science, music, social trends–I devoured the book in less than 36 hours. Will my path lead to learning the violin? For the moment, I’m curious but undecided, but much smarter than I was on Saturday afternoon before the book found me.

 

Two-Channel Stereo (Part 11: Turntables)

For more than twenty years, I listened to LPs on what turns out to be a reasonably well-respected turntable. It’s a Rotel RP900, and in 1993, it sold for $500 (about $850 in today’s dollars). Apparently, some or all of the turntable was made by the British company Rega, now among the best-known turntable makers. Through the years, I used several phono cartridges, most recently the Shure V15Vx, a discontinued item I found on Audio Shark for over $500 in today’s dllars. So, for working purposes, I’ll assume my “analog front end” cost about $1,500—including a $200 phono pre-amp.

As I’ve been listening to more and more vinyl, I wondered whether a greater investment would significantly improve the experience of listening to records. As I wondered, I found myself spending $20-30 in record shops specializing in vinyl—not buying the new pristine artisan pressings that seem to cost $25-40, but used copies that cost a tenth as much (so $30 bucks buys 8-10 LPs in surprisingly good condition).

I poked around the web, trying to understand whether I ought to upgrade my phono pre-amp (a.k.a. phono stage), my cartridge, my turntable, or some combination of the three. I found several retail stores willing to help me answer the question, but it was unreasonable for me to ask the small business to spend hours with me as I swapped out various combinations of the three analog components. I started by experimenting with a better phono stage pre-amp, the Sutherland Insight, and I was very pleased with the improvement. Then, I upgraded the phono cartridge to the Dynavector DV-20X2L, and once again, the listening experience was much better than before. Would a replacement turntable take me much further? Or would the step-up offer only incremental improvement—at a high price? (Audiophiles are forever pondering these questions.)

To organize my thinking, and frame the appropriate questions, I rely upon Robert Harley’s book, The Complete Guide to High-End Audio, now in its fifth edition. Chapter 9 explains “Turntables, Tonearms and Cartridges: The LP Playback System” (thank goodness, for it is among very few reference sources that provide a comprehensive overview). For the serious listener, Harley recommends an investment in the “analog front end” of about forty percent of the total investment in a two-channel stereo system. Practical guidance: “A mid-level turntable and arm cost $800 to $1,500,” often including the cartridge. He goes on: “There are roughly three levels of quality and price above $2000. The first is occupied by a wide selection of turntables and arms costing between $3,000 and $6,000. In this range, you can achieve outstanding performance. Plan to spend at least $1,000 for the phono cartridge appropriate for these turntables.”

Without reading his bible too literally, I was now able to understand the jump from the Rotel turntable would require an investment of at least $1,500 and probably $2,000—plus the cost of the cartridge. That’s a lot of money (not for an audiophile, perhaps, but for the rest of us)—or so it seemed until a friend pointed out that my current turntable, still in service, was easily twenty years old. Is it worth spending the equivalent of $100 per year to own a proper turntable that could “achieve outstanding performance?” Perhaps.

Facing “a wide selection of turntables,” how do you choose the right one? I spoke with any expert who would engage in conversation, but I also spent a lot of time reading articles from what I consider to be the better online publications specializing in high-end audio. Here’s a terrific list called Daily Audiophile, a useful starting point from the uniformly excellent Analog Planet blog, more from TONEAudio’s Analogaholic, one of The Absolute Sound’s helpful Buyer’s Guides (BTW: Mr. Harley runs the editorial side of TAS), and perhaps best of all (and sometimes controversial), Stereophile’s descriptions of Recommended Components, soon to be updated with the Spring, 2017 selection.

Armed with too many notes, I entered the fray of online retail sites, previously described in an earlier article. Utter confusion! Some products still current, others being closed out, some demos with and without cartridges. Unfortunately, visiting each manufacturer’s website was not as helpful as I would have hoped. I was intrigued by the Rega RP6 ($1,495) but I couldn’t figure out why it cost half as much as the Rega RP8 ($2,995), or why the physical base of the more expensive model was shaped like a butterfly, not like a rectangle. It was very difficult to find a meaningful comparison between the RP6 and the RP8 on the web—here and there, an amateur YouTube video, only marginally helpful because (of course) I could not actually hear the turntables properly. And even if I could hear the turntables, I was unclear how to listen to the turntable without being largely affected by every other piece of equipment as well as the sonics of the listening room itself.

A snapshot from one of the five Rega Research tour videos on Analog Planet.

One of the voices of sanity in the analog jungle is a writer/editor named Michael Fremer. And he showed up with help—just in the nick of time. Michael visited the Rega factory, and recorded a very detailed video tour (over two hours, presented in five parts), complete with interviews and clear explanations of every part of the turntable manufacturing process. For the first time, I understood how a cartridge is made (at an impossibly tiny scale), why certain strategies are used to design and build the base of each turntable model, why tone arm manufacturer is such an art, the importance of motors and belts, and so on. If you are considering—or dreaming about—a better turntable, this feature-length presentation is well worth your time.

Linn-Sondek’s flagship Klimax LP12 turntable.

Feeling more comfortable with the whole idea of shopping for a turntable, I began to explore more specific options. One dealer was very pleased with turntables from Thorens and Teac, but others were less enthusiastic, and there wasn’t much press attention paid to these two companies. Linn-Sondek, which offers its classic LP12 in a variety of mix-and-match parts, but I didn’t find much energy in the community for current offerings. Everyone seemed to love SME, but prices started around $7,000, more than I could or would spend. Similarly, Music Hall turntables were well-reviewed, but their best turntable was below my threshold, so I moved on. I was intrigued Clearaudio’s Concept and Performance turntables, but never found enough information to seriously consider either one. I was curious about vaguely familiar company called VPI Industries, but there were so many models available online, I just about gave up trying to understand what was available (apparently, the various Classic models—there are several—are still available from online retailers but they are discontinued). Mostly, I had been curious about a model called the Scout, but finding my way through the various Scoutmaster, Scout 1.1, Scout 2 other models required far too much time and effort.

What I really needed to do was listen. I wanted to listen to a series of promising turntables, each connected to same high-quality stereo system, each with the same cartridge, same cabling, same everything—by limiting the variables, perhaps I could make some sort of reasonable decision. That would be best achieved through engagement in the local audiophile community—Saturday listening sessions are not uncommon, but require some research.

Available for about $30 in 180g vinyl (new), or $3 used (source: Discogs).

I was able to sit on a comfortable couch and listen to a good clean recording of “Sometimes in Winter,” an ideal test track on Child Is Father to the Man on the very first album by Blood Sweat and Tears. We started with the newly-redesigned VPI Scout ($2,199), which sounded similar (but better) than my current Rotel turntable. The sound was clear, present, and strong, but the vocals were not front and center, the horns were not as nuanced, and the sense of space could be better. All of this made for a very pleasant listening experience, but I was ready to move up the line to the similar-looking but heftier VPI Prime ($3,999). In just a moment, I heard the difference—the horns were crisp and full, the vocalist had stepped up and was now center stage well-separated from the background, and the overall soundstage was not only larger, but considerably more detailed. Why? Better materials, better components in the turntable, a better motor, a better base—and all of these add up to better sound. At that point, I had, more or less, made my decision, but, of course, I was curious how much more I would hear when I listened to the VPI Prime Signature ($5,999). Of course, the more expensive turntable sounded better—but here, we get into the incremental jumps. The sound was undoubtedly heftier, more substantial, even more clear with improved presence, and an even greater sense of accurately reproduced instrument sounds, especially among the brass instruments. I wanted to remember what I had heard, so I walked away without listening to VPI’s highest quality turntables—the three models of VPI Avenger, or the completely awesome (and very large) VPI Titan.

The VPI Scout, VPI Prime, and VPI Prime Signature. Note the heft of each successful platter and base, the sophistication of the feet, the size of the motors, and in the first two, the thickness of the turntable platter.

Of course, listening in a well-appointed professional listening room is not much like listening at home. I decided to give the VPI Prime a try. We added the Dynavector DV-20X2L that sounded so good on the Rotel turntable, and connected it to the Sutherland Insight pre-amp, also a wonderful friend for the Rotel. And off we go with a DG recording of Emil Gilels performing Brahms’s first piano concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic—with its bombastic opening, now so clearly rendered with absolute distinction between the instruments, and minimal (if any) congestion in the extreme sequences with what sounds like tons of instruments all blasting their hearts out. Shift to the quieter string and wind sequences, and everything is sweet, present, energetic, really wonderful.

But I must be careful. The tonearm (3D printed, by the way, which is very nifty and apparently a great contributor to the quiet of the turntable operation) is balanced on what appears to be (and turns out to be) the polished point of a dart. The adjustments for proper operation require extraordinary care (but they can be learned by the average person, perhaps one less thumb-clumsy than me). The turntable’s aluminum platter weighs twenty pounds, but spins seemingly without any friction at all. The rigidity of the base matters a lot—and there are a lot of theories about both the construction of the base and the necessary weight of the platter—but here, there’s an 11 gauge steel plate holding fast to the MDF base. Overall, the VPI Prime feels very strong and well-made, but the tone arm assembly, with its exposed rear cable and its various knobs and dials, feels as though I’ve entered an unfamiliar technology realm.

And yet, none of that matters. Not when Emil Gilels is playing the piano, and I’m litening to a turntable, a cartridge and a phono stage that were, five months ago, a completely theoretical idea. Now, the sound feels so natural, so effortless, so entirely pleasant, so exhilarating, that I wonder why I waited so long to improve the “analog front end” of an otherwise terrific stereo system.

After a few weeks of listening, I’m back in the record stores, happily rediscovering favorite rock, jazz, Broadway and blues albums from long ago, and grabbing high-quality classical antiques (yes, antiques—$3.99 each) made by Deutsche Grammophon, Melodiya, Angel, Columbia, Philips, Decca, and other labels that will, in time, be lost to a world dominated by Spotify and iTunes. Me, I’ve found something far more satisfying. And fun!

BTW: This article is part of series.

A closer look at the VPI Prime turntable, with a closer look at the tone arm base below.

 

 

Two-Channel Stereo (Part 10: Phono Cartridge)

It’s an old, silly riddle: how many grooves on a record? Of course, the answer is just one on each side—but that groove is usually about 1,500 feet long, or about 1/3 of a mile. If Wikipedia is correct, the record player’s needle, or, correctly, the stylus, runs that distance at an average speed of about 1 mph (but travels faster on the outside edge of the record, more slowly on the inside). According to GZ Vinyl—the world’s largest producer of vinyl records—the average width of the groove is 0.04 – 0.08 mm, or 40 to 80 microns (micrometers), roughly the width of human hair, or about 1/10 the size of a grain of sand. And if the groove is that wide, the tip of the stylus must be small enough to fit  comfortably inside that groove. A conical stylus (there are several shapes) is about half the width of the groove. The various bumps, ridges and other material inside the groove, the physical manifestation of sound on the record—are smaller still. A particle of dust may be larger than the stylus itself (think in terms of a bulldozer pushing a boulder of equal size), which why serious vinyl listeners are so fastidious about keeping record surfaces clean (even washing them with machines costing over $1,000).

The LP was introduced in 1948, with stereo recordings available about a decade later. Seventy years later, the technology is still in use—and still astonishing. From 1960 until  1987, the LP was the dominant recorded music format. After 25 years of just-hanging-in, the LP is making a comeback, this time hailed as the second-best consumer format (reel-to-reel might be first, but that’s another story). Nowadays, listening to records can involve a very sophisticated technology journey, hence this and several other articles on Digital Insider.

bhcghea5Usually made from a diamond, the stylus is the sensitive tip of a thin pipe called a cantilever, which extends downward, at an angle, from the inch-long box called a phono cartridge, which is, in turn, mounted to the end of the turntable’s tone arm. In the words of Robert Harley, author of The Complete Guide to High-End Audio, “The phono cartridge has the job of converting the modulations in record groove into an electrical signal…The stylus is moved back and forth and up and down by modulations in the record groove.” (Inside the cartridge), magnets and (incredibly small) coils (of wire) work together as an electrical generator to create output voltage…(also known as the) audio signal.” In a moving magnet (“MM”) cartridge design, the magnets move to induce the output and the coils remain stationary; in a moving coil design (“MC”), the magnets remain stationery and the coils move.

Regardless of the type of cartridge, the resulting audio signal is very modest, and requires substantial amplification in order to be heard and enjoyed. I found it difficult to calculate the amount of amplification, but I’m guessing the sound you’re hearing from the loudspeakers is easily a hundred times the volume of the sound you’re hearing if you listen really closely to the stylus making contact with the surface of the LP. (Engineers, please comment and correct.)

riaaBefore we move on to specific types of equipment, consider this: the tiny stylus is likely to pick up not only the sound from the grooves in the record (and the inevitable scratches, clicks and pops), but also the sound of the turntable’s motor, the resonance of the tonearm, and any other sounds in the room, including conversations, dog barks, and other disturbances. For cartridge, tone arm, and turnable manufacturers, playing the design game requires tremendous attention to mitigation and near-elimination of vibration, resonance, and other unwanted sounds. At the same time, a properly-designed cartridge must make the very best of the available (physical) information inside the grooves of every record. Fortunately, every record is made in accordance with very precise manufacturing standards (in the U.S., RIAA standards were established in 1963). Unfortunately, record pressings (the actual physical manufacture of each vinyl record) vary in quality. (I’ll write a separate article about record pressing and how to choose the best records.)

So: we’re now going to shop for a product that we can neither see nor touch, which must be mounted on turntable, which is in turn connected to several types of amplifier (phono stage pre-amplifier, pre-amplifier, power amplifier), and then to a pair of loudspeakers—each connected by a pair of cables that affect the quality of the sound, mounted on tables and stands with varying degrees of sound isolation and vibration, connected to AC power which often introduces its own issues, in listening rooms whose acoustic design and loudspeaker placement greatly affects fidelity. And through this process, we’re hoping to evaluate the microscopic interaction between a tiny diamond stylus tip, a cartridge, and a record whose pressing may or may not be up to snuff. Some audio dealers are patient with listeners who are trying to making the right decision; others have seen too many customers come and go, and then buy online, so these dealer’s lack of patience is a rational response to a nearly-nonsensical marketplace.

product_118025Fortunately, there are a fair number of audiophiles who listen to all sorts of equipment, and share their opinions. Chad Stelly, who works at Acoustic Sounds, is one of the best in the business, but I probably spoke with, or emailed, or read opinions from twenty or thirty knowledgeable people. Generally, they thought my current choice of a Shure V15vx was more than suitable for my Rotel RP900 turntable, a combination that kept me happy for several years. Now that I wanted more, everyone asked whether I would keep a very solid (apparently Rega-built) turntable, or upgrade. Assuming an upgrade, I wanted something that would take me to a new level of enjoyment. Seeking any meaningful consensus, I listened, read, and studied online reviews (well-respected audiophile publications can publish only so many cartridge reviews, so I filled-in with message board comments).

Grado was the first recommendation. In particular, several advisors suggested the Grado Sonata2 ($600), but several reviews pointed up the line to the Reference Master2 ($1,000). These cartridges are made from a particular type of rare Australian wood, presumably adding warmth to the sound, but several dealers told me that Grado cartridges were wonderful in the mid-range, but there would be better options for the more extreme highs and lows. In my informal surveys, Grado was always among the top recommendations—but never the top recommendation because of the potential for hum and noise—but only under particular circumstances (how could I test this in a store—not easily, it turned out, because dealers don’t like to open and swap out cartridges that destroy the original packaging). In the future, I plan to spend serious time experimenting with these and other Grado cartridges and developing my own opinion.

webcarmen-rev-1I learned about Soundsmith, and in particular, the Carmen ($800) and the Boheme ($1,200), but I never found them in any store—though everyone talked about how great Soundsmith might be for my situation. I learned about matching a particular cartridge to a particular phono pre-amp (“Hmmm… the Boheme might sound a little bright with the Sutherland Insight phono stage…”) One person suggested a Hana EL or EH elliptical ($475). Several friends told me they liked Ortofon cartridges—but there are fifty different models. Through too much time spent online and in more conversations, we narrowed the Ortofon search to the Quintet Black S ($999) and Bronze ($839).

Unable to even find most of the cartridges connected to a turntable at a local dealer, I just kept reading online reviews and talking to anybody who seemed knowledgeable. That’s how I found my way to Dynavector. I listen to opera, choral music, classical, jazz, blues, rock and pop, bluegrass—the connection between them seems to be emphasis on voice and acoustic over electric or highly produced recordings. When I began to ask about the Dynavector DV20x20, people started telling me that this was the right cartridge for me, especially if I intended to upgrade the turntable in the future.

s-l300So l started listening. Or, first, I paid a local audio dealer to mount to cartridge properly—this is not an easy thing to do properly—and then I started listening to the DV20x20 on my Rotel RB900 turntable. I started with a favorite orchestral performance that I’ve written about before: Karl Goldmark’s Rustic Symphony conducted by Leonard Bernstein. I like the recording, in part, because it’s well-organized for critical listening: double basses and cellos, then violins and violas, then the winds, and so on. I was impressed by the difference that I could hear when I replaced my 20-year old, $200 phono stage with a significantly better Sutherland Insight phono stage pre-amp. Now, I hoped to hear a substantial improvement by replacing the Shure V15vx phono cartridge with the Dynavector DV20x20. Sure enough, I heard what I hoped to hear—immediately! The low strings were even more clearly defined, distinct from one another, with greater body, more luxurious fluidity, and a greater sense of presence, and, looking for a word here…snap! Moving to the higher strings, they gained a sense of reality, smoothness, and again, presence. The winds can tend to be a bit screechy on this recording, but they were nicely managed by this cartridge. I tried a few chamber recordings, some solo female voices, and found myself completely charmed by Linda Ronstadt’s wonderful voice on Canciones de mi Padre, her 1987 album of Mexican songs that I bought for $3 in wonderful condition from a used record store.

mps_oscar-peterson_vol-1-1When I’m listening to a new piece of equipment—something I don’t do very often, to be honest, because I make my decisions with such care—one subjective test is how often I swap records. If I find myself sitting and listening, often to a whole side of an LP, I know that I’ve found a winner. So now I’m spending hours listening, and rediscovering discs that I know pretty well—and finding new joy because there is more detail, punch, clarity, and sense of being there with so many LPs. I’m very impressed by the Dynavector DV20x20, and I’ll attempt to close out with the reasons why. On classical recordings, I find the overall presence most appealing, closely followed by the punch and sweep of the more exciting passages, and increased refinement of solo violins, female voice, clarinets, oboes, and flutes. On jazz recordings, it’s undoubtedly the crispness of the drum kit—so precise, with just the right sense of attack and decay—though I do love what happens when I listen to Oscar Peterson playing piano, and I know that because I now find it difficult to listen to him as background music. I pay more attention to the music! On rock LPs, it’s the bass and the percussion that gets me, but also the higher tinkering on an electric or pedal steel guitar. When I listen to a singer, I hear nuances that I’m not sure I heard, or paid attention to, before. In short, this tiny component—a phono cartridge half the size of my pinky—is providing a whole lot of enjoyment.

And although I won’t disclose everything in this article, I will say that I’m on the second day of listening to the same Sutherland Insight phono stage, and the same cartridge but now on a much-improved turntable. So far, I’m very happy, but I’ll tell you more after some in-depth listening. With a VPI Prime turntable.

This article is part of a series.

A Clever New Way to Play Records

3c8017d58837b3a633a260de50c535e5_originalYou’re looking at a very clever approach to playing LPs. No turntable required. Just place the LP on a flat surface, and the RokBlock will drive itself along the grooves. Totally busts any expectation about what a record player ought to be. Use it anywhere!

So here’s the deal. This is an active Kickstarter campaign–they have already met their goal. The RokBlock contains amplification and loudspeakers, so this is all you need. Of course, you can use the built-in Bluetooth to send the sound over to any Bluetooth device–a headphone, a better wireless speaker, even your high-end stereo system.

No, this won’t sound anything as good as a proper sound system, but most people don’t want / cannot afford / could care less about being an audio phone. Most people just want to have some fun and listen to some music. Anywhere. And now there’s a way to do that.

If you want one, the best available KickStarter deal costs $79–that’s still 20% off of the expected $99 retail price. But you, like anyone who orders, will have to wait until September 2017 before the box arrives.

There’s a rechargeable battery that lasts about 4 hours. You can play 33 and 45 rpm records (but not 78s rpm).

It’s a cute gimmick, a clever example of creative thinking in action. Without one in my hands, it’s tough to imagine the sound quality. I’m sure it’s no worse than an old record player, and my guess is that this will sound better than those early devices.

The Only Thing Better Than Hairspray…

The rats on the street all dance round my feet
They seem to say, “Tracy, it’s up to you”
So, oh, oh don’t hold me back
‘Cause today all my dreams will come true

Good morning Baltimore!…
There’s the flasher who lives next door
There’s the bum on his bar room stool
They wish me luck on my way to school

A solid opening number for a solid Broadway musical. Oversized girl with a big heart is ready to take on the world. Unfortunately, the mechanical mice at her feet were too small, the flasher traded his dignity for a silly dance, and the bum overplayed his tiny scene.

Hstairspray Live cast

Hstairspray Live cast

The big show–more than 50 cameras–was in some trouble when it began. Then, Corny Collins showed up with a very snappy dance number, well-staged and glittery, and there was good reason for optimism. When Kristen Chenoweth, Harvey Fierstein, and Ariana Grande shared the stage with three lesser-knowns on “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now,” I started thinking, this is going to be fun! Maddie Baillio–Hairspray Live’s Tracy–was credible singing “I Can Hear the Bells,” but the staging (fake Christmas bells) was not appropriately cheesy–the tone of the design was off by a noticeable degree, as if the creative directors did not quite get the kind of humor that John Waters, Harvey Fierstein and others on the core team intended. Ms. Baillio looked the part, sang reasonably well, and danced well enough, but I found myself longing for the spark in Nikki Blonsky’s eyes, the sense of humor and absurdity in every word she sang in the movie version of this special musical. The subversive lines lift “Hairspray” from just another musical into something vaguely sinister. Still, Ms. Baillio did competent work on “Welcome to the Sixties”–perhaps without some of the sass, but with Harvey Fierstein nearby, I was satisfied.

The “Miss Baltimore Crabs” number has never been a favorite, and although I believe in the magic of Kristen Chenoweth, the number continued to leave me wondering why it wasn’t cut or replaced years ago. The “crabs” joke is funny, and she used her hands to suggest an absurd crab in a reasonably skillful manner, but I sure wish she had more raw material.

Oh–time for a commercial. How about a bunch of commercials? How about every song or two? No better way to enjoy a full live presentation of a musical theater show than to watch as many commercial breaks as possible. How to make that worse? How about some insipid commentary by an overenthusiastic and utterly unnecessary commentator telling us how the performers are getting on a tram, or explaining that the people we’re seeing on the screen are enhancing the home audience experience via tweeting. Ugh. NBC, how about stepping up and doing what you did before. Limited commercial interruption. This is theater, not a football game.

Ah, but Harvey Fierstein! If anybody understands the twisted humor and social activism agenda, it’s the man who so expertly performed Tracy’s mom, Edna. After suffering through John Travolta’s mugging and occasional creative success in the movie version, Mr. Fierstein changed the game for me. I finally understood the role, and he managed to clearly articulate every one of his funny little lines, asides, grimaces, body moves, and other silliness. Given the director’s overeagerness for rapid cutting, and the crew’s tendency to miss lighting and audio cues, and the overall sense that cutaways needed to be fast regardless of what the performer was doing at the time, Mr. Fierstein got every move onto the TV screen. He was uniformly terrific–so good, in fact, that I left the TV screen for a bit to check out the very limited video of him performing Tevye in Broadway’s “Fiddler on the Roof.” Gosh, he’s great. And he wrote a lot of “Hairspray” in its various versions.

I’m not much of a Martin Short fan because he often overdoes it–too much style, even for satire–but he, too, was excellent in this production. Watching Mr. Fierstein and Mr. Short perform “You’re Timeless to Me” was just about the best part of the evening. It was simple: two people on stage, singing and dancing, and sometimes, doing lines. It felt like a Broadway musical–straightforward, relying upon sheer talent and excellent material (not a gigantic cheering crowd). Producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan are old hands at staging Broadway musicals for television–and I wonder how they felt when they experienced this bit of Broadway magic sandwiched in-between, well, a dozen more commercials, and, perhaps, a longing to bring these productions back to the New York City area where, at least to my eyes, the whole company and crew treated past productions (“The Sound of Music,” “Peter Pan”) with respect and wonder. In L.A., this just felt like another bloated TV show.

But then, there’s Jennifer Hudson belting out “Big, Blonde and Beautiful” and later, “I Know Where I’ve Been,” and there’s the magic again. The dancers are excellent. The sense of social change in the racial integration scenes worked, but it lacked the energy and authenticity that the movie version captured so well. I can’t help but wonder how much time it took to rehearse more than fifty cameras, and how much of that time might have been better used in sharpening the characterizations (many of the “negro” characters were rendered in two dimensions–even the knife scene fell flat) and the staging.

Worst staging goes to the jailhouse scene which was badly designed, badly lit, and badly directed–a trifecta of high school theater style in what should have been a turning point. Many dramatic moments fell flat.

But–oh wait, time for a bunch more commercials and insipid cheering from sideline crowds–okay, we’ll be back in a moment.

(Deep breath).

Give ’em a great closing and they’ll forgive you for anything. The show’s signature song, “You Can’t Stop the Beat” became a gigantic dance party, lots of fun, very messy staging, difficult to hear some of the lines, but heck, it was terrific anyway.

Except: remember Ariana Grande? Brilliant performer. Lovely actress. Great sense of style. Small, though. Small girl in a big show. Often cut out of frame, or suffering from those fast cutaways that the directing team favored. If you get the opportunity to watch this program again, keep an eye on her. She played her role with subtlety and brilliance–and I wish we had been able to see more of her. Unfortunately, her final scene (over curtain calls and credits), singing alongside Jennifer Hudson, was poorly engineered and perhaps poorly selected for her voice. Lots of unused potential here.

In closing, some notes to NBC and to the producers:

1. Cut down the number of cameras and big sets. Nobody cares.

2. Focus on performance, not spectacle.

3. More close-ups! So often, we saw a good dance number that would have been a great dance number if you added closeups. More than 50 cameras–you should have been able to get the close-up job done! (More reaction shots, too–but you need allow lots of rehearsal time to get them right.)

4. The next time you hire Kristen Chenoweth, give her a great song to sing. The next time you hire Ariana Grande, make sure we see her on camera a lot.

5. Move the production back to New York.

6. One commercial break at the beginning, one during intermission, one at the end.

7. No big sideline crowd. No extra host. Completely unnecessary.Put the money into extra rehearsal time.

8. Think twice about doing “Bye Bye Birdie” next year. The teen dancing is fun, but a show built upon the craziness of a new Elvis appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show might not possess the appeal that you imagine.

THANKS for doing this. Sorry for a review that’s not entirely positive, but given the enormity of your enterprise, we all offer congratulations for all that you did so well. And the fact that you’ve done this at all is a kind of a miracle.

Hey Netflix? Time to step up.

Two-Channel Stereo Articles – Published and Coming Soon

This series is quickly becoming popular, and there are more articles in the works. If you’ve been following along, you’ve probably noticed that I’m moving from reasonably inexpensive approaches to two channel stereo on our way up to high-end audio. Prices are higher, but I believe the experience of listening to music is worth the investment.

Articles published so far in the “Reintroduction of Two-Channel Stereo” series:
1 – General Introduction, emphasis on turntables
2 – Basic Loudspeakers
3 – Integrated Amplifiers
4 – Pre-Amplifiers
5 – Amplifiers
6 – Listening Room
7 – Where to Buy
8 – Listening to Beethoven / Do LPs Sound Better than CDs?
9 – Phono Stage / Phono Pre-Amp
10 = Phono Cartridges
11 = Turntables

As I wait for review equipment from several manufacturers, here’s a list of articles to come in the near future:

– Cables – Interconnects and Loudspeaker
– The Importance of Excellent Power
– Racks and Other Vital Accessories
– Clever Inventions That Solve Specific Problems

The process of writing these articles involves a lot of listening. To music. And to experts who have devoted their careers to home audio. Imagine that–people whose primary interest is to make certain that I have a good time when I listen to records. It’s an interesting mix of extreme obsession with technology and a complete surrender to the subjective factors that control every listening experience. My ears and your ears do not hear the same sounds in the same ways, and, of course, every recording is unique. Add that to the sometimes reasonable, sometimes inexplicable result of combining this turntable on that turntable stand with this tone arm, that phono cartridge, this amplifier, that carpeting, these wall treatments–AND YET… And yet there is a kind of listener’s consensus that leads people who listen carefully to certain loudspeakers, certain turntables with certain cartridges, and so on. Should I pay more attention to the music I hear through my own ears, or should I attend to the collective wisdom of those who design, build, market, and loving compare equipment over decades? Of course, I should, we should listen to the music first–but I sure do welcome the guidance that working professionals and serious amateurs in this industry provide.

To everyone involved in this series–thanks for all of the help!

HB

A Re-Introduction to Two-Channel Stereo (Part 6: The Listening Room)

What’s the most important component in your two-channel stereo system? Hands down, it’s the listening room. For casual listeners, this may seem to be a dubious argument, but time after time, I’ve experienced a tremendous difference in sound quality, and personal enjoyment, as a result of paying proper attention to the listening space.

This diagram comes from a useful article from the well-respected audio component manufacturer, Cambridge Audio. For more, click on the image.

This diagram comes from a useful article from the well-respected audio component manufacturer, Cambridge Audio. For more, click on the image.

Mostly, this article is about the placement of your loudspeakers, and the ways ways in which the sounds coming out of those loudspeakers interacts with the floor, furniture, walls, ceiling, and with one another. It’s astonishing: even a shift of a quarter-inch can dramatically affect the positions of the instruments on the imaginary soundstage, the reproduction of bass and percussion instruments, and the clarity of the entire sonic presentation. There’s more useful info here.

First up—and not always popular in rooms occupied by more than one person—is the placement of the speakers AWAY FROM ALL OF THE WALLS. For smaller speakers, not less than two feet in every direction, for larger ones, as much as four feet. Your primary listening position should form a precise equilateral triangle with the center of each of the speakers. (Get out the measuring tape or the laser measure. No kidding.) I prefer that each leg of the triangle be about eight feet, but some rooms will allow only about six feet, and others will allow for ten or even twelve feet (not ideal for smaller speakers). The face of each speaker should face forward—not be “tipped-in.” The cables should be of equal length, which means the electronic components should be placed in-between the loudspeakers (preferably in a sturdy rack made for that purpose—more on that in another article). Placing the rack behind the line between the speakers is fine, too.

Which means: “bookshelf” speakers should not placed in a wall unit or a bookcase. Speakers should not be attached to the wall, or placed next to the wall. They should not be placed snugly in the room corners (doubling the problem of placing a speaker against a wall, now you’re dealing with two walls for each speaker).

Unless you’re amazingly fortunate, the sounds coming from those speakers will reflect off the floor, walls, furniture or ceiling. Let’s take those one at a time.

Floor: a bare stone or hard tile floor is the worst because it’s completely reflective (sound waves will be bouncing all over the room, reaching your ears at different times, sacrificing clarity, tonality, presence, and soundstage), but you can correct much of the situation with one or several thick throw rugs (inside and outside the triangle).

You may recognize Sonex panels from sound recording studios. A four pack of junior sized (2 foot by 2 foot) panels can be stragically placed on your walls to minimize reflection. They really work--but you may not love the addition to your room decor. Fortunately, many solutions are available--but these panels are among the best.

You may recognize Sonex panels from sound recording studios. A four pack of junior sized (2 foot by 2 foot) panels can be stragically placed on your walls to minimize reflection. They really work–but you may not love the addition to your room decor. Fortunately, many solutions are available–but these panels are among the best.

Walls: if your side walls are parallel, then sound waves will bounce between them (causing somewhat similar problems). This is tricky: you need a combination of reflection, absorption, and diffusion. In other words, you will need to experiment, and you probably ought to ask your local audio retailer to provide some acoustic treatment (many available products to mitigate these problems). Sometimes, bookcases help, and sometimes, pictures on the wall help (but be careful about large glass surfaces because they are very reflective).

Big cushy couches and chairs may be very comfortable, but they absorb sound in a big way, and you will lose bass. This, too, is tricky, and you may need to choose between cushions and fidelity. Furniture without soft surfaces can make life complicated, too. A mix of hard and soft is usually best.

Ceilings: a very low ceiling may be reflective (treatments available), and a very high ceiling could cause some echoes (depends upon height). A room with an angled ceiling is better—and sometimes, challenging. A room with walls that are not parallel—same deal.
Other tips:

If you want more bass, try placing your loudspeakers a bit closer to the back wall.

If you raise or lower your listening position (or the loudspeaker), you may hear a difference in the amount and/or clarity of the high or low ranges. This is because your ear is even in height with the tweeter (highs) or woofer (lows).

The Sanus Steel Foundation Mark IV Speaker Stand available from Audio Advisor for about $130-150.

The Sanus Steel Foundation Mark IV Speaker Stand available from Audio Advisor for about $130-150.

Bookshelf speakers should not be placed on bookshelves–too close to the wall! Instead, they should be placed on speaker stands made for that purpose.

Boomy bass is a problem for everyone in the house, and it can be difficult to control. Often, it’s the result of choosing the wrong combination of loudspeaker and power amplifier for the room setting—one good reason to ask the dealer or other expert to help you to select and setup the equipment. Once the system is in place, this can be a challenging problem to solve.

img_0909Fine adjustments matter a lot. When I was first setting up my reference stereo system, I moved each speaker perhaps 1/8 of an inch toward or away from one another, and I routinely heard meaningful changes in the female vocalist’s timbre, the highs and lows in her voice, and the clarity (in this case, the vocalist was most often opera singer Dawn Upshaw on an album entitled I Wish It So (the song was most often “There Won’t Be Trumpets”), but I found the same indisputable improvement listening to Ella Fitzgerald, Linda Ronstadt, Rhiannon Gibbons, and then, on solo piano by Brad Mehldau and Mitsuko Uchida, and then, on the Derek and the Dominoes’ first album, and so the list goes on. I know that this seems to be an extremely geeky way to listen to music, but believe me, the extreme attention to proper setup has paid off for more than twenty years—I have never moved the speakers again.

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