Benchmark DAC2 HGC
peteraczel | 20 August, 2013 15:49
PCM and DSD D/A Converter with Line-Level Preamp and More
Benchmark Media Systems, Inc., 203 East Hampton Place, Suite 2, Syracuse, NY 13206-1633. Voice: (800) 262-4675 and (315) 437-6300. Fax: (315) 437-8119. E-mail: email@example.com. Web: www.benchmarkmedia.com. DAC2 HGC stereo preamplifier with PCM and DSD D/A converter, headphone amp, and asynchronous USB, $1995.00. Tested sample on loan from manufacturer.
[For better pictures than I can reproduce here, please go to the website indicated above.]
The super D-to-A converter with line-level preamp capabilities is a relatively recent format, although scattered examples of it have been around for a number of years, such as the Benchmark DAC1 HDR (reviewed here in July 2009). Lately a number of high-end boutique companies have seen an opening and announced some insanely overdesigned models at astronomical prices. I haven’t had my hands on any of these (and never will), but it baffles me what they can do that the new Benchmark DAC2 HGC, at a fraction of their price, can’t. The latter has such a complete set of features and capabilities, and such amazing specifications, that I can’t see how any outrageously costly unit could trump it.
What is required to design a super DAC/preamp in the second decade of the 21st century is no mystery. You start with the best DAC chip that money can buy, the world champion ESS Sabre³² Reference 32-bit 8-channel audio DAC, and use all 8 channels for stereo, 4 per side. In that deployment, the digital noise reduction spec is 133 dB and the total harmonic distortion (THD) is –120 dB (0.0001%). You can’t do any better; that’s what Benchmark has in the DAC2 HGC, and that’s what the megabuck high-enders have in their models, also. As for the analog section, you go with the Texas Instruments (formerly National Semiconductors) LME49860 operational amplifier, which has a specified voltage noise density of 2.7nV/√Hz and a THD of 0.00003% (–130.5 dB). Low enough for you?
Once you build your device around electronic components with numbers like that and keep the construction quality high, as Benchmark does, there isn’t much headroom for improvement, nor much reason for a higher price than $1,995.00. And that’s just for starters; the DAC2 HGC goes well beyond the DAC1 HDR (which is still an “A-team” contender) with a large number of new features, such as native DSD conversion and a hybrid gain control (HGC). The latter is capable of active analog, 32-bit digital, and passive analog attenuation, thus ending all debates about tradeoffs. I am not willing to list and explain all these new technicalities because you can go to http://www.benchmarkmedia.com/dac/dac2-hgc and read all about them in full detail. (Have you noticed that about 50% of the usual equipment review consists of a restatement of the manufacturer’s information? In the age of the Web?) You can even download the 68-page instruction manual from http://www.benchmarkmedia.com/sites/default/files/documents/DAC2%20HGC%20Manual%20-%20REV%20D.pdf and pretend you already own the DAC2 HGC. Since I have no doubt about the state-of-the-art status of the unit’s electronic signal paths, I’ll only discuss matters that Benchmark does not.
For example: Despite 16 LED status indicators on the unit’s front panel, you can’t tell whether the DAC2 HGC is in standby mode or totally shut off. Yes, when you first put it in standby mode, the red Dim/Mute LED keeps flashing for a while, as does the blue LED of the muted input, but they stop after a short while, and the panel then looks the same as in power-off mode—no lights at all. This is a bit annoying when you want to listen to something and don’t remember whether the unit should be unmuted or powered up. It’s best to leave it in standby mode at all times when not in use, especially since powering it off sends a 0.15-volt dc pulse through the audio chain, which can result in a serious pop from the loudspeakers if the power amplifier is still on.
These minor annoyances don’t in any way constitute a deal breaker for the prospective purchaser but merely illustrate the learning curve necessitated by the unit’s control functions. The latter are not intuitive; the remote control’s buttons are not quite the same as those on the front panel, and there are quite a few press-twice and press-two-together protocols to activate certain functions. I am sure there are geeks who will relish these secret handshakes, but I would have preferred a brilliantly engineered state-of-the-art device to have beautifully simple controls. In case that’s not doable, my total endorsement remains unchanged (actually, I am a little geeky myself).
If your interest has been stimulated to the point where you actually downloaded the instruction manual from the link indicated above, you will have found, in the back of the manual, sixteen Audio Precision graphs illustrating the incredible perfection of the DAC2 HGC’s electrical response. I have no reason to question, or try to verify, the accuracy of these graphs, especially since I no longer have on extended loan the same instrument they were produced with, the Audio Precision SYS-2722. If I still had it, I would have obtained the same results. Yes, some manufacturers “cook the books,” but Benchmark does not. The measurements are basically what you would expect in view of the specifications of the ESS Sabre³² Reference and the TI LME49860—state of the art. (There are no mysteries in electronics, only in the minds of certain tweako audio reviewers.)
There is, however, an issue that needs to be cleared up. The measurements of the DAC1 HDR are almost equally perfect, lagging only by a dB here and a couple of dB there—not enough to make a difference in real-world performance. I am not talking about the DAC2 HGC’s many additional features but actual differences in the basic audio signal path and the perceived sound. As I have repeatedly proclaimed in The Audio Critic, there is no such thing as an effect without a cause, and I see nothing in the two designs to cause them to sound different. The human ear is not as sensitive as the Audio Precision SYS-2722, which shows only tiny differences between the two, and my 87-year-old ears are certainly not as sensitive. Of course, some subjective reviewers have already heard huge differences, but anyone can assert that without objective proof, such as an ABX double-blind test. Fortunately, there is now a fairly new objective test, which is not only less laborious and time-consuming (not to mention controversial) than the ABX but also even more sensitive and more specifically targeted. I’m talking about the Audio DiffMaker by Liberty Instruments.
The Audio DiffMaker is definitely a sound comparison test, but not in the conventional sense. Instead of listening to sounds A and B, and trying to determine if there is a difference, you listen only to B minus A, which is the objective and unquestionable difference between the two. If B–A is silence, there is obviously no difference between A and B, since silence can be objectively ascertained. This is of course an oversimplified explanation of a very sophisticated test, the brainchild of a clever technologist named Bill Waslo, but you can see why it is necessarily more sensitive than ABX; even if there is a small audible difference signal, you may not be able to hear it listening to full-blown A and B, but if the difference is silence, that’s ironclad proof that A and B are sonically identical. For more details, see http://www.libinst.com/Audio%20DiffMaker.htm.
Unfortunately, the DiffMaker program has a rather steep learning curve. There are many, many settings and adjustments to achieve optimum results, and the interface with various soundcards is quite problematic. As a novice user, I was able to extract a difference signal between the DAC1 HDR and the DAC2 HGC, but I don’t think that difference signal was at the lowest level obtainable with more sophisticated manipulation of the software. The level I was able to get was –47 dB (0.45%) with respect to the reference level, and that’s faintly audible when the difference signal is listened to by itself. Interestingly enough, the faintly audible signal was music, not noise or distortion products, indicating that I was unable to null the two DAC signals accurately because of tiny amplitude or phase differences. Even so, assuming that –47 dB is actually an accurate reading, that’s low enough to be completely masked by normally loud music levels in an ABX comparison. I don’t think I would have heard a difference even with my 20-year old ears (retrieved by time machine). As I said, the DiffMaker is the most sensitive and objective A/B test known to me—although I suspect it was primarily intended to debunk “differences” that don’t exist, such as coloring the edge of a CD with a green felt pen, in which case the difference signal would be silence.
The Benchmark DAC2 HGC represents a new reference standard in the category of “DAC with line-level preamp” (excluding mysterious megabuck products designed to meet voodoo criteria). I refer you again to the links above if you wish to explore the unit’s awesome feature set, with any and all digital or analog signal sources, be they audio components or computer. Its sound is what any non-voodoo reviewer would expect on the basis of the Audio Precision measurements: the exact sound of the signal source, nothing more and nothing less. Yes, the user interface is not as intuitive as it perhaps could be, but even that I can’t say with certainty given the complexity of the design. And yes, in my own main system, I am switching from the DAC1 HDR (even though it sounds the same) to the DAC2 HGC!
Latest DIY Orion Mod
peteraczel | 08 January, 2013 11:32
Powered 3-Way Dipole Loudspeaker
The Final Mod: Orion 3.3.1SN
(All information regarding the standard Orion versions is obtainable at www.linkwitzlab.com.)
My Love Affair with the Orion
It takes a special jolt these days to interrupt my geriatric hibernation and prompt
My obsession with the Orion over the years is due not so much to its specific
And that’s my point—it’s the concept. No box, just a frame. A dipole, almost
Now Siegfried Linkwitz has come up with the somewhat similar but still rather
The Don Barringer Connection
Don Barringer has been Siegfried Linkwitz’s associate and “second pair of ears”
Don was never entirely happy with the circuit values in the incredibly complex
Don believed that further fine-tuning of those values could result in even greater
The remarkable thing is that, with one exception, all the nonstandard and ±0%
The Sound of the 3.3.1SN
I have always maintained that the big sonic breakthrough was the original Orion of
It must be added that all of the above takes on less importance if SL’s new LX521
peteraczel | 23 November, 2011 15:16
USB Powered Computer Loudspeaker System
Olasonic Co., Ltd., 1100 Hatcher Avenue, Suite B, City of Industry, CA 91748 (USA customer service). Phone: 1-800-928-4840. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Web: WWW.olasonic.us. TW-S7 computer loudspeaker system, USB powered, $129.99 (choice of white or black). Tested samples on loan from manufacturer.
(This is only the first installment of the complete review because my loudspeaker measurement system is in a transitory stage of changeover. The measurements will be separately written up in a second installment.)
As I have said before, I am no longer interested in conventional, me-too loudspeaker designs. The Olasonic TW-S7 is something different. Computer speakers, whether built-in or outboard, are generally a sorry-ass bunch, not even on speaking terms with the concept of high fidelity. The Olasonic is a genuine hi-fi speaker on a drastically reduced scale. It is shaped like a somewhat pointy egg measuring only 5.6 inches on its long axis. It incorporates a 2.4-inch full-range driver, a 2.4-inch passive radiator, and some highly unorthodox electronics. For what it is, it sounds totally satisfactory to audiophile ears; in fact, it is the only computer speaker I have found acceptable since David Clark’s Monsoon MM-1000, which is no longer made and had a tendency to go on the fritz.
Rather than connecting the Olasonic to the output of the soundcard in your computer, you plug it into a USB port. That is its most distinguishing feature. Nothing to plug into the wall, no power cord, no clutter of wires on or behind your computer desk. That alone puts it one up against the Monsoon. The USB port provides only a maximum of 2½ + 2½ watts output, but the Olasonic increases that to 10 + 10 watts on peaks with a proprietary circuit called the Super Charged Drive System (SCDS). The SCDS stores USB power as an electrical charge in a high-capacity condenser during low-level outputs and releases the power on dynamic peaks. This enables the digitally amplified speaker to produce surprising volume out of that diminutive package.
The egg shape is another signature feature. I am reminded of John Ötvös, now no longer on the audio scene, who years ago dreamed of making his next speaker, after his reference-quality Waveform Mach 17, a giant egg. That’s the ideal shape for a speaker enclosure to minimize diffraction and reduce standing waves. The engineering is certainly easier in Olasonic size but no less desirable.
The expanded-urethane passive radiator in the rear is also unexpected in a speaker of this size and does the job. I’m not going to say that you can feel the Telarc bass drum in your chest, but there is certainly more bass than you can get out of the typical thin-sounding computer speaker. In fact, the entire sonic output of the Olasonic, from top to bottom, is an amazingly good imitation of a grown-up high-quality loudspeaker’s sound, just a bit miniaturized. Occasionally I am able to forget that I am listening to a computer speaker. (Please don’t expect from me quasi-pornographic descriptions of front-to-back depth, airiness of the highs, etc., etc. I leave that to reviewers of $65,000 loudspeakers.) I also like the silicone insulator on which the Olasonic’s round bottom must be placed because there is no limit to the ways you can angle the speaker for best listening position. It’s an impressive little package.
Olasonic is a Japanese company with representation in California. I understand that the TW-S7 has already started to build a reputation and following in Asia; in this country it is new but not obscure for long, in this reviewer’s opinion.
(Part 2 with measurements to follow, as noted above.)
New Orion Versions
peteraczel | 12 July, 2011 11:53
Powered 3-Way Dipole Loudspeaker SystemsLinkwitz Lab "Orion 3.3" and "Orion 4"
Designer: Linkwitz Lab, 15 Prospect Lane, Corte Madera, CA 94925. E-mail: email@example.com. Web: www.linkwitzlab.com. Constructor: Wood Artistry, L.L.C., 408 Moore Lane, Healdsburg, CA 95448. Voice: (707) 473-0593. Fax: (707) 473-0653. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Web: www.woodartistry.com. Orion 3.3 loudspeaker system, latest small revision, at this point available only as a DIY project. Orion 4 loudspeaker system, available soon, $14,750 custom-built, with electronic crossover/equalizer (necessary cables and power amplification extra). Tested samples of Orion 3.3 owned by The Audio Critic.
Advancements on the cutting edge of loudspeaker design are very small and very subtle at this stage of the game. The resolution of free-field acoustical measurements, whether outdoors or in anechoic chamber, is almost certainly no better than 0.2 dB. The changes in the last few iterations of the Orion crossover/equalizer are smaller than that (remember, electronic signal paths are measurable with nearly infinite resolution). I know from years of experience that we can hear differences not much larger than 0.1 dB in the electronic signal path. We seem to have reached the point where the audible benefits of tiny changes in equalization upstream from the loudspeaker can only be ascertained by listening. (Before the voodoo audio subjectivists rejoice, let me remind them that this does not apply to larger, but still very small, changes that are measurable with a microphone.)
Siegfried Linkwitz, a man of science if there ever was one, is understandably not very happy about the not-quite-perfect alignment of theoretical, measurable, and audible information. Still, unlike some other engineers, he refuses to let abstract desiderata trump the reality in front of his nose. That reality, once again, is that small crossover and equalization changes to version 3.2.1 (see my December 4, 2010 posting for a review of that version) result in small but audible improvements in the sound of version 3.3. The entire presentation is a bit smoother, more solid, more relaxed, more real. Imprecise words, but without the availability of the older version after the changes were made, that’s the best I can do. Needless to say, I can’t guarantee that this is it, no more changes. The history of the Orion 3 revisions seems to indicate the contrary. In any case, the conversion of the crossover/equalizer from 3.2.1 to 3.3 is strictly a DIY project; the Linkwitz/Wood Artistry connection is not available for it. Go to http://www.linkwitzlab.com/orion-rev3.htm and http://www.linkwitzlab.com/orion-support.htm for the details.
It should be pointed out that this kind of endless massaging of the crossover/equalizer would not be necessary with powered loudspeakers that are less sophisticated than the Orion. Siegfried Linkwitz has repeatedly said that he would not have believed before he designed the Orion that tiny adjustments in the electronics could make such a significant sonic difference. It flies in the face of all previous experience. The original Orion, no suffix, was a bit more tolerant in this respect; the rearward-firing tweeter in the Orion+ and subsequent versions, resulting in completely symmetrical dipole radiation, made it more critical.
The crossover and equalization changes that resulted in the Orion 3.3 were actually inspired by the new but not yet available Orion 4, at this writing still in advanced prototype form. The Orion 4 is basically an Orion 3 with a different woofer configuration. The tweeters are the same, the midrange driver is the same, but the old Peerless woofers have been replaced by a new long-throw SEAS model, which is not yet in full production. The new woofers are mounted in an upward- and downward-firing position, instead of forward- and backward-firing. This allows the woofers to operate in force-canceling opposition, eliminating the slight rocking or vibrating tendency of the older model’s frame, which could resonate wooden floors (not the floor of my listening room, which is concrete covered by industrial carpeting). Since the Orion 4 is still a full-range dipole, open in front and back, the different woofer mounting requires a new and more complicated frame, called a “W frame.” (The older Orions have an “H frame.”) The crossover frequencies and equalization of the Orion 4 are also slightly different, and extensive listening to the prototype led Siegfried Linkwitz and Don Barringer to the realization that the electronics of the Orion 3.2.1 should also be changed accordingly. I have to repeat that these changes are very small and subtle.
For pictures showing the redesigned woofer configuration of the Orion 4, go to http://www.linkwitzlab.com/orion-rev4.htm.
I had a chance to audition the Orion 4 at the AXPONA show in New York, in the slick preproduction format that Don Naples of Wood Artistry will manufacture and market for $14, 750 (with crossover/equalizer but no amplifier and no cables!). To me it sounded very much like the Orion 3.3 (because it is very much like the Orion 3.3), and the theoretical superiority of the SEAS bass (excursion, power handling, distortion) was partly masked by the low-frequency characteristics of the smallish hotel room. That it is one of the world’s greatest loudspeakers was quite evident. That’s all I can say about it at this time.
Siegfried Linkwitz says that his next project is the Orion 3.4, which will adapt the new SEAS woofers to the H frame. That will undoubtedly necessitate further small changes to the crossover/equalizer, after which the bass performance should be equal to that of the Orion 4, minus the vibration benefits. Early deliveries of the SEAS woofers will obviously go into the first production run of the Orion 4, so I am not holding my breath. Eventually, I expect to go for the 3.4 revision myself, the Orion 4 being too rich for my blood.
Ah, to think how happy I was with the original Orion, no suffix, back in 2005…
Latest Orion Revision
peteraczel | 04 December, 2010 16:42
Powered 3-Way Dipole Loudspeaker System
Designer: Linkwitz Lab, 15 Prospect Lane, Corte Madera, CA 94925. E-mail: email@example.com. Web: www.linkwitzlab.com. Constructor: Wood Artistry, L.L.C., 408 Moore Lane, Healdsburg, CA 95448. Voice: (707) 473-0593. Fax: (707) 473-0653. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Web: www.woodartistry.com. Orion 3.2.1 loudspeaker system (latest revision), $9200 and up for two complete channels (custom-built, with electronic crossover/equalizer, all necessary cables, and ATI AT6012 twelve-channel power amplifier). Kit versions available in various stages of completion at lower prices. Tested samples owned by The Audio Critic.
Yes, another Orion revision, even though no one dislikes revisions more than Siegfried Linkwitz. (“There comes a time to shoot the designer” is one of his witticisms, originating from his Hewlett-Packard days.) The trouble is, the man is too honest. Equalized electrodynamic dipoles are still relatively virgin territory, and there are always new insights, generally small, which he could shrug off, but his conscience won’t let him. He remains the only loudspeaker designer known to me with (1) the highest technological qualifications and (2) an ear that really knows the sound of live, unamplified music. That being the case, we must live with his urge to fine-tune his products and his penchant to think out loud on his website before the fine-tuning is complete, creating major waves of anxiety among owners of his designs. Between the Orion+ of three years ago and the present Orion 3.2.1, there were three agonizing temporary versions. I know because I went through the agony. Such is the price of perfectionism. (For the moment, version 3.2.1 appears to be final, thank goodness.)
I must quickly add that, even though the Orion+ was a definite advancement and now the Orion 3.2.1 is a further important improvement, nothing compares to the breakthrough represented by the original suffixless Orion. Switching to that speaker from even the best conventional box speaker (“monkey coffin”) was night and day. The Orion+ merely provided more daylight and the Orion 3.2.1 still more.
I have written a great deal about the Orion, so here I’ll discuss only what is new. The Orion 3.2.1 is physically no different from the Orion+; all the changes are in the electronics, but they are significant. The EQ in the crossover/equalizer has undergone serious readjustments in both the midrange and the treble. Linkwitz has long suspected that the acoustic output of the midrange driver wasn’t quite as flat as it could be, but his computer modeling of the complex interactions of the various EQ curves and notch filters didn’t quite jell until very recently. The result was (temporary) version 3.0, an undeniable improvement in the midrange.
Then came another eureka moment, after Linkwitz had read Acoustics and Hearing, a new book by Dr. Peter Damaske, a German scientist summarizing a whole lifetime of studies. Among other things, Damaske shows how “surround sound” can be obtained out of two channels (but Orion owners already know that!); what Linkwitz was looking for, and found, was scientific evidence of something else that he already knew by subjective experience—that a pair of anechoically flat loudspeakers must have their treble response attenuated when brought into a normal, reverberant listening room. (He is never satisfied knowing something intuitively without a scientific theory to back it up.) How much attenuation is needed, and starting at what frequency, required a bit of experimentation, hence those in-between versions that we could have been spared.
Mind you, all these changes are fairly subtle and very difficult to measure quasi-anechoically with my somewhat crude MLS technique. I’d just as soon not publish any curves and refer you to www.linkwitzlab.com instead. Of course, if the changes weren’t subtle, the unchanged previous versions wouldn’t have sounded as great as they did. But they definitely didn’t sound as good as version 3.2.1.There are also some minor changes in the 3.2.1 that are unrelated to the audio upgrade. The switchable subsonic filter is now 30-Hz highpass instead of 50-Hz highpass to let more bass content through when switched in, while still remaining effective as a rumble filter. The trim pots are much larger and easier to turn with a screwdriver. The tweeter trim pot has a narrower plus/minus range than before because of the critical contour of the new high-frequency shelving. And, by the way, you can without too much difficulty make all the 3.2.1 circuit changes on the motherboard yourself, provided you aren’t quite as ham-fisted with a soldering iron as I am.
So, what exactly is the sound of the 3.2.1? Even the original, suffixless Orion produced a uniquely three-dimensional soundstage, and the Orion+ with its additional rearward-firing tweeter added still more realism. Version 3.2.1 has now brought everything into perfect balance. The 3-D effect is considerably more precise, with left, right, middle, front, back, height, etc., more palpable than before. The trumpet is right there, the timpani are over here, the space between them is about this much, the clarinet is just left of center, the hall is not very big, and so on. Earlier versions of the Orion did not focus quite as sharply. Also (and this is important), the highs are more relaxed and natural, as well as richer and rounder. Just greater realism all around. It is quite a bit easier with version 3.2.1 to close your eyes and imagine a living audio scene in front of you.
All of this is, of course, quite subjective. The changes in the crossover/equalizer are easy to measure, the resulting acoustical changes not so easy, but the audible quality changes are entirely a matter of opinion. All opinions known to me so far, however, are in favor of the changes. The Orion 3.2.1 lives in the overlapping regions between scientific audio engineering and psychoacoustics. Among the domestic loudspeaker systems I am familiar with, it is the most highly refined and the easiest virtual transportation to the original live audio event.
* * *
One more thing. As far as the need for subwoofers is concerned, what I have written about the Orion+ remains unchanged. The Linkwitz “Thor” woofers can be added, or not, to the Orion 3.2.1 as before. As I indicated, in the majority of cases that will not be necessary.
peteraczel | 18 November, 2009 16:43
Reissues of classic performances conducted by Leonard Bernstein, new recordings of music composed by him—they keep coming. I have never been a Lenny worshipper; his personality always rubbed me the wrong way, at least a little bit; but all this discographic pressure is getting to me. Is it possible that I overlooked something? Maybe I was wrong? Maybe he was as great as they say?
Joseph Haydn: The 6 Paris Symphonies; the 12 London Symphonies; the 4 Masses; Die Schöpfung (The Creation). New York Philharmonic (except one disc w/London Symphony Orchestra), Leonard Bernstein, conductor. Sony Classical 88697/480452 (12 CDs, recorded 1958–1979, released as a boxed set 2009).
Gustav Mahler: Symphonies No. 1 through No. 9; Symphony No. 10, Adagio; Das Lied von der Erde. New York Philharmonic (except No. 8 w/London Symphony Orchestra and Das Lied w/Israel Philharmonic Orchestra), Leonard Bernstein, conductor, various vocal soloists. Sony Classical 88697/453692 (12 CDs, recorded 1960–1975, remixed/remastered and released as a boxed set 2009).
Leonard Bernstein: Mass. Randall Scarlata (baritone), Company of Music, Tölzer Knabenchor, Chorus Sine Nomine, Absolute Ensemble, Tonkünstler-Orchester Niederösterreich, Kristjan Järvi, conductor. Chandos CHSA 5070(2) (2 SACDs, recorded 2006, released 2009).
Leonard Bernstein: Mass. Jubilant Sykes (baritone), Morgan State University Choir, Peabody Children’s Chorus, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop, conductor. Naxos 8.559622-23 (2 CDs, recorded 2008, released 2009).
Leonard Bernstein: Dybbuk – Ballet (1974); Fancy Free – Ballet (1944). Mel Ulrich, baritone; Mark Risinger, bass; Nashville Symphony, Andrew Mogrelia, conductor. Naxos 8.559280 (1 CD, recorded 2005/2006, released 2006).
The key to understanding Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990) is to realize that his spring was wound tighter at birth than yours or mine. He was on the verge of spontaneous combustion at all times, like a Jack Russell terrier pup. That’s why he couldn’t settle down to one thing; his compulsive energies drove him to be all things—conductor, pianist, classical composer, Broadway composer, poet, teacher, broadcaster, political activist, and more. Some think he would have been a greater conductor, or a greater composer, if he had chosen to do that one thing only; this is questionable and unprovable. He was what he was, not what anyone else would have wanted him to be.
His explosive activism, his unceasing interventionism defined both his musical and social personality. To me he was something of a turnoff for many years; I could not relate to his orgiastic dancing on the conductor’s podium nor to his lovefest with the Black Panthers at that notorious 1960s party. There was a documentary film of Lenny in his family circle in the late ’60s or early ’70s, and I remember being struck by his speech mannerisms and body language, which were those of a cheesy Las Vegas celebrity. Today I realize that all that was irrelevant—or maybe relevant only to the extent that it was consistent with his music-making, which is all that remains and all that matters. His interpretations of other composers as well as his own compositions were exuberant, untrammeled, extroverted, high-energy, sometimes verging on vulgarity—just like the man.
His conducting of Mahler is a prime example. I recently saw a film clip of Bernstein in rehearsal, desperately pleading with the Vienna Philharmonic (in horrible German) that they must go to extremes in Mahler, otherwise it isn’t Mahler. After listening to the reissues in the Sony boxed set, I have to agree. This is music of extreme contrasts; its corners, spikes, and ridges shouldn’t be smoothed out but emphasized; and that’s what Bernstein does, while still maintaining the shapeliness of the music, its structure and continuity. He is the supreme music teacher (old-timers will recall those fabulous TV programs); he seems to say, “see, kids, this is the way this phrase goes, can’t you hear it?”—and the calisthenics and contortions on the podium visually illustrate his emphatic scanning of the phrase. It all makes sense to me now. I must confess that after Bernstein other conductors’ Mahler sounds a little bland to me. That’s a reversal of previous judgments.
One must also remember that these 1960s recordings launched the new era in which Mahler became mainstream; previous recordings by Mengelberg, Walter, Mitropoulos, etc., had been regarded as specialties. Bernstein emerged as the new baseline then, not something extreme as later became the conventional view. To me he is again the baseline, from which other performances deviate desirably or undesirably. That perspective is greatly facilitated by the 2009 remixing/remastering, which is quite remarkable. The audio quality of these rejuvenated early stereo recordings is almost on the level of the best current practice. The treble is perhaps less fine-grained and a tiny bit more aggressive; there is a little less air around he instruments; but the dynamic range is wide, the instrumental colors vivid, the bass powerful and well-delineated, the overall realism splendid. Fidelity is no longer the issue in comparison with more recent recordings. What a collection!
The same observations, in somewhat simpler terms, can be applied to the Haydn set. Haydn’s music is also about contrasts and surprises, which are more convincing when vigorously emphasized, as they are by Bernstein. You wouldn’t expect the great Mahler interpreter to be also a Haydn specialist, but he is—and for the same reasons. His didactic scanning of Haydn’s contrasting phrases reveals the metrical structure of the music more clearly than any Karajanesque smoothing possibly could. The symphonies emerge fresher, more original, more powerful (when apropos) under his baton than in other interpretations. I’m not saying that his way with Haydn takes precedence over all others in my judgment; a case can be made for a more rococo approach; but while I’m listening his way is utterly persuasive. Haydn meets Mahler under the eurhythmic teaching umbrella of Lenny. This is the way the phrase goes, kids…crouch…leap…slash… What an instructor!
It must be added that there is not a trace of “period practice” in these performances. No reduced forces, no early instruments, no squeaky nasal strings. The audio quality is not quite on the level of the Mahler set; these recordings have been simply reissued rather than remixed and remastered. The string sound is occasionally a little pinched; there is less air around the instruments; the dynamic range is sometimes a bit strained; but overall the sound is still quite acceptable and enjoyable even in comparison with present-day recordings. Let’s face it, would you rather listen to an ultrahigh-fidelity recording of some vibrato-less “authentic” 18th-century-style bore-fest?
When it comes to his own compositions, Bernstein’s “multiple personality” really asserts itself. They’re all over the place—classical, pop, concert hall, Broadway, dead serious, completely frivolous, strictly formal, loosey-goosey, long, short, restrained, over-the-top, you name it. A few of his show tunes, such as “New York, New York” and “Tonight” are on their way to immortality; whether his serious music will remain in the permanent repertory remains to be seen.
The earliest work in the collection listed above is the 1944 ballet Fancy Free, composed by the 25-year old Lenny and rather derivative in style—Petrouchka meets the blues, with faint echoes of early Copland (whose Billy the Kid and Rodeo were composed just a few years earlier). Overall, it’s a bracing, upbeat piece of music, easy listening and lots of fun. Dybbuk on the other hand, composed 30 years later, is much more serious, darker, more heavy-handed, and rather a bore, at least to my ears. The Nashville recording, which I should have reviewed when it came out, is very well played and idiomatic in style, although the orchestra is not quite world-class. The audio quality is excellent, wide in dynamic range, with considerable immediacy and three-dimensionality.
The Mass is again something totally different, an indescribable hodgepodge of styles ranging from high classical to lowbrow pop, from solemn to comical, from tasteful to vulgar, all of it high-energy and highly committed—like Lenny. It’s a mass in name only; it’s more of a sociopolitical diatribe. Only an enormously talented composer could have created it, and only someone with Lenny’s flaws could have made it so flawed. Some critics consider it a masterpiece, others merely embarrassing. Of the two recordings, the Naxos with Marin Alsop and the Baltimore band is unquestionably superior. The strengths of the Chandos recording are Randall Scarlata as the Celebrant and the boys’ choir of Bad Tölz, but the Celebrant in the Naxos version, Jubilant Sykes, is even better, and Bernstein protégée Marin Alsop has a more idiomatic grasp of the score, especially of the American pop parts, than Kristjan Järvi (Paavo’s brother). All in all, I can’t imagine a more resplendent performance than the Alsop/Baltimore, and the audio is also state-of-the art, with tremendous dynamic range, majestic bass, great transparency, and wonderful three-dimensionality. By comparison, the Chandos sound, SACD and all, is unimpressive and not always appropriate to the music.
To sum up…
So—how great was Lenny, everything considered? I think that as a didactic conductor, as a musical explainer, he had no equal. Admittedly, that’s only one kind of conducting, so the special niches of Toscanini, Furtwängler, Reiner, Karajan, etc., remain unaffected. As a composer, you can call Bernstein interesting, brilliant, lovable, pick your own adjective—but not great. Greatness is very hard to define but easy to experience. I haven’t experienced it when listening to Bernstein’s music. But that’s just one music lover’s opinion.
peteraczel | 31 October, 2009 12:13
Blu-ray Disc Player & DLP High-Definition TV
OPPO Digital, Inc., 2629 Terminal Boulevard, Suite B, Mountain View, CA 94043. Voice: (650) 961-1118. Fax: (650) 961-1119. E-mail: email@example.com. Web: www.oppodigital.com. BDP-83 Blu-ray Disc Player, $499.00 (direct from manufacturer). Review sample originally on loan from manufacturer, later acquired by The Audio Critic.
Mitsubishi Digital Electronics America, Inc., 9351 Jeronimo Road, Irvine, CA 92618-1904. Voice: (800) 332-2119. E-mail: MDEAservice@mdea.com. Web: www.mitsubishi-tv.com. Diamond WD-73835 DLP high-definition 73-inch TV, $4699.00 (original list price—large retail discounts available). Review sample originally on loan from manufacturer, later acquired by The Audio Critic.
High-definition video has become an inevitable sequel and companion to high-quality audio. It is impossible to be heavily involved with the latter without being at least somewhat involved with the former. To me, as a reviewer, that presents a problem. I am equipped to review audio components objectively, with measurements, but when it comes to TV I am basically in the same boat with all the subjective reviewers I want to distance myself from. I have no laboratory instruments for measuring video, just a few test discs for the visual evaluation of test patterns, color bars, etc. These can’t separate the performance of the disc player and of the TV monitor; the two must be connected and viewed as a single unit. I simply can’t compete with the likes of Joe Kane (he’s Mr. Video himself, the techno guru of Joe Kane Productions), but I would still like to report my experiences with an unusually high-quality and cost-effective video setup I recently acquired. Call me a closet subjectivist if you think I have betrayed my objectivist principles. It’s only TV, after all.
The Blu-ray Player
The BDP-83 is obtainable directly from the OPPO Digital company, without the in-between step of a retail outlet. If that were not the case, the price would probably be around $1000 instead of $499, and even that would be a bargain. I really don’t know what one of those multithousand-dollar players can do that the BDP-83 can’t. In circuitry and construction, the BDP-83 is a high-end product, regardless of its price. You don’t ask what features it has; it’s much simpler to ask what it doesn’t: no HD DVD playback (they’re history, in any case)—and that’s it. This is about as “universal” as a disc player can get. For a detailed list of its stupefying range of features and capabilities, go to http://www.oppodigital.com/blu-ray-bdp-83/; I see no reason to repeat what is available with a click of the mouse. It takes a 74-page user manual to cover all the bells and whistles, so don’t expect an exegesis here.
I did not measure the audio output of the BDP-83, even though I have the instrumentation to do it. The DACs and op-amps in the current generation of digital audio products are good enough to make it a meaningless exercise, except perhaps at the junk level. Minuscule differences in measured performance are strictly academic as far as sound quality is concerned. I was really interested only in video performance, where fairly large differences still exist.
The 73-Inch DLP Television
I cut through the maze of claims for the various competing HD video technologies—DLP, LCD, plasma, LED, etc.—by applying the following criterion: which of them would allow me to have a huge screen at a less than exorbitant price? The answer: only DLP. I want to watch baseball and football on the largest screen available, because it’s more like being there; a 73-incher is about the minimum that satisfies me. I actually switched to the 73-inch DLP from a 100-inch projection screen and an LCD projector; the small loss in screen area was more than made up for by the vastly brighter picture.
DLP is a projection technology (in this case rear projection) that uses an optical semiconductor chip containing an array of millions of microscopic mirrors. You’ve seen the TV commercial; a young girl with a nasal New York accent (maybe she’s the client’s niece) exclaims: “It’s amazing! It’s the mirrors!” I’m not saying DLP is either superior or inferior to all the competing technologies. It’s just that the Diamond Series WD-73835 happened to be Mitsubishi’s top-of-the-line DLP rear-projection set when I acquired it, and it was more affordable than the largest plasma or LCD sets. You can buy it these days for around $2000 from many of the standard Internet sources. It’s not nearly as flat as the plasma and LCD sets; the projection mechanism bulges out in the rear; but I had no intention to mount it on the wall in any case.
Again I refer you to http://www.mitsubishi-tv.com/pdf/WD73835_specsheet.pdf for the technical details; no need to be redundant. The owner’s guide is 88 pages long; it’s also downloadable from mitsubishi-tv.com if you really want to get involved (I didn’t think so…). The point is that there are more features, settings, adjustments, bells and whistles than can be even briefly summarized here.
The Video Experience
This is really the only reason I am posting this review—to tell audio people who don’t pay too much attention to video that there is extreme high-fidelity TV available at a price well below the insanity level.
The picture I am getting with this equipment is incredibly lifelike. The resolution is 1080i on HD channels via Verizon FiOS (not available everywhere but the best provider where it is) and 1080p with Blu-ray DVDs played on the OPPO BDP-83 through its HDMI output into the TV’s HDMI input. I cannot say that 1080p is vastly superior to 1080i because even the latter is breathtakingly real when the transmission is faultless. You can count each hair in the stubble on the pitcher’s chin; you can see the threads in the buttons on somebody’s suit. The colors are extremely vivid but still quite natural in the default mode, and best of all the picture remains very bright in a well-lit room. With Blu-ray at 1080p turn the same observations up a notch; the small details aren’t really crisper, just more fine-grained, more natural; indeed, the whole presentation is more natural, more film-like, more convincing in the gradations of color. It’s a truly beautiful picture. Visitors who haven’t been exposed to really good high-definition TV totally flip out when they see it. One has to remember that the same total number of pixels fill the 73-inch screen as would fill a smaller screen, but the coarsening magnification isn’t great enough to affect the perceived resolution from a normal viewing distance.
Just for the hell of it, I inserted a test DVD in the BDP-83. It was the “Spears & Munsil High-Definition Benchmark, Blu-ray Edition.” I had no intention to do any serious tweaking because I was deliriously happy with the default settings. The color adjustments were so numerous to begin with as to be overwhelming—forget about it—but the geometrical test patterns were meaningful. Sheer perfection—I’ve never seen such circular circles, such square squares, such absolutely straight lines, such 90° right angles. If something had been askew, I wouldn’t have known whether to blame the disc player or the TV, but everything was right on. It was my only deviation from a 100% subjective review, just to save face.
So there you are, audiophiles. Superspecial HD video for around $2500, total. I need to add that the built-in audio of the Mitsubishi is quite mediocre. An external audio system is recommended. As for the OPPO, its 5.1 and 7.1 audio capabilities are as good as the power amplification and loudspeakers you end up using with it. The line-level audio processing is not the issue, as I’ve already said.
peteraczel | 22 July, 2009 15:54
Powered Micro Loudspeaker
Soundmatters International, Inc., Reno, NV, USA. Voice: (775) 981-1460. Fax: (775) 981-1465. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Web: www.soundmatters.com. “foxL” powered stereo loudspeaker, $199.00. Tested sample on loan from manufacturer.
It’s the size of a Baby Ruth candy bar, maybe just a little bit thicker. It’s stereo. It’s self-powered—there are amplifiers in it. It’s a full-range high-fidelity loudspeaker system, for crying out loud!
Who would want a loudspeaker that small, designed to be listened to at a distance of 20 inches or so? Let’s go to the source, designer Dr. Godehard Guenther, physicist and former NASA engineer:
“Music is a big part of my life, yet so is travel. There weren’t any really small hi-fi-quality portable loudspeakers—so, utilizing a number of our patented and proprietary technologies, I developed one myself. A true labor of love, I named it after Fox, my first grandson.” So it’s for travelers, frequent fliers, joggers, hikers, bicyclists, anyone on the move who doesn’t like those earbuds in his ears (and I can’t blame them). Yes, it will play louder when plugged into the wall than in its portable mode, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The “foxL” is a small slab of metal, 5.6 by 2 by 1.2 inches in size (that’s 142 by 51 by 31 millimeters). It houses the following components: (a) for the left and right channels, two 25-millimeter dual-voice-coil full-range drivers, called “Twofers” because they tweet and woof; (b) for both channels, a so-called BassBattery that is both a rechargeable lithium battery and an acoustic bass radiator (clever!); (c) four digital amplifiers with a total specified power-output capability of 8 watts at <0.1% THD; (d) on/off switch, volume control, various input jacks, etc. One of those jacks is actually for an optional powered subwoofer (Soundmatters offers one named SUBstage) to extend the range of the foxL below the BassBattery’s specified low-frequency limit of 80 Hz—but then of course the system is no longer very portable.
The portability factor has to be further qualified by the power supply options. The wall wart that comes with the foxL and is used to recharge the lithium battery delivers 5 volts to the digital amplifiers. When it’s plugged in, the maximum SPL of the speaker is considerably higher than in its portable mode on battery. The battery’s output is only 3.6 volts. Setting a sufficiently loud listening level is a little bit tricky with the foxL because of the interaction of the power supply, the listening distance, the setting of the volume control, and the input level. With everything trimmed in, the unit can produce a sound level totally disproportionate to its size. Dr. Guenther apparently knows something that others don’t.
Soundmatters also offers the foxL with Bluetooth option for wireless streaming, at $249.00. I haven’t tried that one.
The most interesting measurement in this case seems to be the maximum obtainable SPL. The published specifications claim 95 dB at a distance of 50 centimeters (19.7 inches) with the AC adapter plugged in and delivering 5 volts. I found the limit to be just short of 90 dB with the most favorable frequencies, the SPL being highly frequency-dependent. At shorter distances it’s possible to hit 95 dB. On battery, with 3.6 volts, the SPL limit is proportionately less. I don’t want to make too much of an issue about the discrepancy between the specs and my results because Soundmatters doesn’t specify the exact physical and electronic conditions of the SPL test. Maybe I didn’t do it their way.
Frequency response is the other major question when it comes to a micro loudspeaker, and it’s reasonable to measure it in the nearfield because that’s where the listening takes place. Quasi-anechoic (MLS) measurements at 1 meter or 2 meters are not really relevant here. Fig. 1 shows the small-signal nearfield response of the right-hand Twoofer (which is a somewhat smoother version of a very similar response obtained when trying to sum the nearfield output of both Twoofers). Between 200 Hz and 5 kHz the response is reasonably flat, ±2.5 dB; then it rolls off slightly, and quite smoothly, to 15 kHz; the small 18 kHz resonance is normal. Fig. 1 is not valid below 200 Hz; you have to go to Fig. 2, which shows the small-signal nearfield response of the BassBattery. The curve indicates strong response down to 80 Hz and useful response down to 60 Hz, a profile similar to that of a typical minimonitor (just scaled down). The published full-range spec of 80 Hz to 20 kHz is not very meaningful because no ±dB range is given, only an obscure (possibly incorrect) DIN number. Overall, I would call the frequency response of the foxL remarkably good, considering the extreme miniaturization and special purpose of the design.
Fig. 1: Small-signal nearfield response of right-hand 25-mm driver.
Fig. 2: Small-signal nearfield response of the BassBattery.
I thought I heard some low-frequency distortion in my SPL tests, so I ran a not particularly challenging harmonic distortion test of a 150 Hz tone, with the microphone measuring the BassBattery at a 50-centimeter SPL of 80 dB. (I couldn’t make it any louder without buzzing.) Fig. 3 shows the result. The FFT indicates 2nd harmonic distortion of –23 dB (7.1%), 3rd harmonic distortion of –28.5 dB (3.8%), 4th harmonic distortion of –41 dB (0.9%)—shall I go on? Those are pretty awful numbers for a far from stringent test, even allowing the possibility of somewhat better results if the test had been structured differently. At the end of the day, it appears that the foxL is a very clever little gadget rather than a full-fledged high-fidelity device. There are no miracles.
Fig. 3: Nearfield spectrum of a 150 Hz tone reproduced by the BassBattery, at a 0.5-meter SPL of 80 dB.
This is obviously one of those quirky electroacoustic components that stand or fall on the perceived quality of their sound, regardless of measurements. I approached the listening evaluation with skepticism and I was rather pleasantly surprised. The foxL has sufficient range and dynamics to produce a surprisingly lifelike sound. If your face is close enough to it, it sounds like a grownup loudspeaker, not like an amplified candy bar. To be sure, the sound is a little bit thin and pinched as the music gets louder, and there is audible bass distortion from time to time (depending on the program material), but the overall impression is one of realism rather than sonic miniaturization. The stereo effect is minimal; there is no “air” around the sound; but what do you expect, with the left- and right-channel drivers 4 inches apart? Also, strangely enough, I sometimes heard more distortion with the AC adapter connected than on battery power, but the effect wasn’t consistent. I could start speculating about the cause of this anomaly but I won’t. When all is said and done, the foxL is somewhere near the edge of the category famously characterized by the great Samuel Johnson: “[It] is like a dog’s walking on his hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”
peteraczel | 07 July, 2009 15:41
Stereo Front End with Preamp, DAC, Remote Control & More
Benchmark Media Systems, Inc., 203 East Hampton Place, Suite 2, Syracuse, NY 13206-1633. Voice: (315) 437-6300. Fax: (315) 437-8119. E-mail: email@example.com. Web: www.benchmarkmedia.com. DAC1 HDR stereo preamplifier with remote control, digital-to-analog converter, headphone amplifier, and computer audio interface, $1895.00. Tested sample on loan from manufacturer.
As I pointed out in the original review, more expensive DACs than the Benchmark give you absolutely nothing more in performance—you can’t outperform perfection. Benchmark audio equipment is made by professionals for professionals. Their aim is to achieve the ultimate in measurements. That leaves the “pride of ownership” of five-figure audio jewelry to the orthopedic surgeons, hedge-fund managers, and drug dealers to whom the dollar sign is an index of listening quality. I can just repeat the same statements when it comes to the DAC1 HDR. It isn’t cheap—almost twice the price of the DAC1—but it doesn’t use inflated price as a marketing tool and is exactly as good as it needs to be: a totally transparent conduit for audio signals.
The HDR is no bigger than the original DAC1; it is built on the same 8-inch square chassis in the style of the increasingly popular half-size audio components. The additional complexity and parts density of the design result in a slightly higher operating temperature; the difference isn’t significant, since neither model runs very cool. The DAC circuitry is the same as before; the additional analog circuitry is implemented with National Semiconductor LM4562 op-amps. The LM4562 is a very advanced, low-distortion dual unit; its THD specification is 0.00003%, which translates to –130.5 dB! Not that anyone can measure –130 dB directly with any standard test instrument; that spec must be based on some sort of indirect calculation. (The only comparable op-amp known to me is the Analog Devices AD797, which is a single-channel unit; a pair of them constitute the heart of the Morrison E.L.A.D. line-level preamp, which I have been using since 1998 because there is nothing better at any price. I’ve had recent discussions with Don Morrison, who still prefers the AD797 to the LM4562 but admits that the latter is the competition.)
The volume control of the DAC1 HDR is based on a motorized Alps potentiometer custom-made for this model and remotely controllable. Its gain circuit is designed to maintain the full dynamic range of the unit’s audio signal path, unlike digital volume controls that limit the dynamic range at various settings. This is the feature that sells me most decisively on this preamp/DAC. It consolidates and refines an ultrasophisticated nerve center for a stereo system on a single tiny chassis. Everything you need is there. Another design feature I particularly like is the choice of two headphone amplifier output jacks, one of which mutes the main analog outputs and the other one doesn’t. That makes a lot of sense—sometimes you just want to listen to your headphones and sometimes you want to compare the headphone sound with the loudspeaker sound. USB audio is yet another important feature, which I haven’t tried yet; using a laptop for my main program source will be the next step in my technological evolution. The USB input is plug-and-play, compatible with all current operating systems, and it supports sampling rates up to 96 kHz and word lengths up to 24 bits. The instruction manual devotes 23 pages to the description and features of the DAC1 HDR; I have merely scratched the surface here. The unit is a high-tech feast. Go to the Benchmark website for more details.
To my great surprise, the 14 pages of Audio Precision performance graphs in the DAC1 HDR instruction manual are all about the original DAC1 and are all dated 2002. The assumption is that, since the original DAC1 is incorporated unchanged in the HDR, the digital-in-analog-out performance measurements remain the same. Very well then, let us accept the validity of that assumption—but where are the new analog-in-analog-out data? The original DAC1 did not have an analog input, nor a motorized potentiometer through which the analog signals passed. I found this omission to be astonishing and necessarily started my measurements with analog in and out.
Fig. 1 shows the graph that basically gives you the total picture, THD+N versus frequency. You don’t really need anything else. As it turns out, Benchmark could afford to omit this measurement because it resembles that of a straight wire. Both channels hug the line at –105 dB (0.00056%) distortion at just under 2 volts output, where the distortion appears to bottom out. That equals the performance of the Morrison preamp mentioned above, which has been the THD champion for the past 11 years (at least in my experience). Those LM4562’s are certainly doing the job. What’s more, the true measurements for the Benchmark are probably even better by a couple of dB because I measured it with the Audio Precision ATS-2, which has a THD+N floor a few dB higher than the state-of-the-art SYS-2722 I used to have but no longer do.
Fig. 1: Distortion across the audio spectrum, analog input, just under 2 volts output, both channels.
To check the effect of the Alps potentiometer on the channel separation, I measured the crosstalk with analog input at 1 volt out. Fig. 2 shows a classic declining response starting at –65/–72 dB at the highest frequencies and dropping to –125/–133 dB at the lowest. You can’t ask for better. (If you go to Archives, March 2005, and check out the crosstalk of the original DAC1 with digital input, you’ll see even better figures, but that is partly because of the much higher output with 0 dBFS input.)
Fig. 2: Channel separation, analog input, 1 volt output, both channels.
As I said, I’m willing to believe that the D-to-A part of the HDR is identical to the original DAC1, so I just spot-checked a few performance results. Again, I refer you back to Archives, March 2005, for the comparison. THD+N versus frequency with –3 dBFS input (Fig. 3) is worse by an average of 2.5 dB, but that is easily explained by the difference between the Audio Precision ATS-2 and SYS-2722. Gain linearity and deviation from linearity (Fig. 4) are exactly the same, and intermodulation distortion at full scale (Fig. 5) is only microscopically different, if at all. I would say that Benchmark is, in the final analysis, justified in using DAC1 data for the digital specs of the DAC1 HDR.
Fig. 3: Distortion across the audio spectrum, digital input at –3 dBFS, both channels.
Fig. 4: Gain linearity (blue) and deviation from linearity (red) in one channel.
Fig. 5: Intermodulation distortion, digital input at 0 dBFS, 19 kHz + 20 kHz, in one channel.
I could have made many more measurements but I am (1) getting lazy in my old age and (2) reluctant, as always, to belabor the obvious. The Benchmark DAC1 HDR is state-of-the-art.
I am adding this paragraph strictly for the sake of my newer readers. The old regulars know exactly my position regarding the stupidity of ascribing a “character” to the sound of an utterly neutral signal path. Oohing and aahing over the vast improvement in soundstaging, front-to-back depth, bass delineation, or treble sweetness obtainable with this or that electronic component may sell high-end magazines but is totally unscientific and delusional. What the Benchmark DAC1 HDR adds to or subtracts from its input signal is borderline unmeasurable, so the sonic character of its output is obviously the sonic character of its input. It’s as simple as that. It has no sound of its own. Furthermore, its measurements could be 20 or 30 dB worse and it would still sound the same. I have convinced myself of that over and over again in double-blind listening comparisons of all sorts of electronic components at matched levels. The 100% purity of the DAC1 HDR is of benefit mainly in professional systems, where the integrity of the equipment chain needs to be verified and guaranteed. To audiophiles it’s a somewhat abstract luxury—but not an excessively costly one.
All in all, the Benchmark DAC1 HDR is damn close to a perfect piece of equipment. Neither its digital performance nor its analog performance could be meaningfully improved. That’s really all that needs to be said. If I could change anything at all about it, it would be to add a couple more analog inputs. I realize that there is no room for that, so I use a small input switch box that sits on top of it. Most users won’t need it. There exist DACs and preamps at ten times the price of the Benchmark, but they aren’t any better. Let the high-end police come and take me away in handcuffs.
A Unique and Unexpected Audio Experience
peteraczel | 27 April, 2009 16:23
I am an unregenerate and unrepentant Wagnerian, so I try to keep abreast of all new Wagner releases on CD. When I requested the 2-CD Profil (Günter Hänssler) DCD PH07048 set from Naxos, the distributor, I expected nothing more than some scratchy old archival tracks from Germany, with perhaps some decent singing by forgotten old-timers. I was in for a big surprise.
The set is subtitled Edition Staatskapelle Dresden, Vol. 23, obviously part of a series. The tracks that amazed me were recorded on September 21, 1944, in the acoustically marvelous State Opera House (Semperoper) of Dresden, which was pulverized, along with the rest of the city, in the much-debated air raid the following February.
To give you more of an idea of the timeline in Nazi Germany as of September 1944, that was one month after Adolf Eichmann reported from Hungary to Heinrich Himmler that approximately 4 million Jews had died in death camps and that an estimated 2 million had been killed by mobile units. At the very moment of the recording, Eichmann was still transporting thousands more Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz; the Allied forces were rapidly advancing in Western Europe; the Russians were on the border of Hungary in the east; the war was clearly lost by the Nazis; further fighting was national suicide; but to a crazed Führer the Final Solution was obviously even more important than winning the war.
In this roiling cauldron of evil and self-destruction, the Semperoper was an incongruous bubble of high culture, where a world-class performance of Die Walküre was being recorded by artists who were apparently nonpolitical enough (i.e., not very Nazi) to have successful international careers after the war. The most prominent of them was Max Lorenz, 43, one of the 20th century’s outstanding Heldentenors, who sang Siegmund. Sieglinde was the soprano Margarete Teschemacher, 41; Hunding was the great bass Kurt Böhme, 36; Wotan was the baritone Josef Herrmann, 41; the conductor of the superb Staatskapelle Dresden was Karl Elmendorff, 52, a Bayreuth and La Scala veteran. I indicate their ages at the time of the recording to show that they must have been at or near the zenith of their powers, not just leftover has-beens for wartime use.
The performance is by and large up to the highest international standards, as I’ve already stated; Kurt Böhme is possibly the scariest Hunding I’ve ever heard; Josef Herrmann sings Wotan’s farewell beautifully; and Karl Elmendorff’s conducting is dynamic, unmannered, thoroughly idiomatic—but those are not the reasons I was excited. What is extraordinary is the 1944 recording—on magnetic tape, at 77.2 centimeters (30.4 inches) per second!
Sophisticated tape recording technology was unknown at the time to anyone in the Allied countries; the Germans had developed it and kept it secret until the equipment was discovered by the occupation forces after the end of the war. Even the latest and greatest recording projects of RCA Victor, Columbia, NBC radio, and other major American companies were on 16-inch 331/3-rpm acetate masters in 1944. The difference was night and day. The German magnetic tape recordings with high-frequency bias, moving past the heads at the high speed of 30 ips, were basically equal, or at least comparable, to some of today’s best recordings in frequency range, distortion, dynamic range, and noise floor. I could have been listening to a 2007 recording of Die Walküre, except that it was in mono. (Stereo became the standard in the late 1950s.) I couldn’t quite figure out the microphone setup; it could have been just a single mike; but the voices are always picked up fairly close, so that every syllable of the German text is crystal clear, much clearer than in modern stereo recordings. Perhaps it was the superior acoustics of the opera house. The orchestral sound also has great presence and timbral accuracy.
What I simply can’t understand is how this remarkable audio experience could have passed without commentary by the critics when the same tracks were first released on the Tahra label as part of a no longer available four-CD set titled The Staatskapelle of Dresden [1548–1959]: a Sound Portrait. Nobody seemed to have noticed the hi-fi gem among all the scratchy old mono recordings. It seems to confirm my suspicion that a lot of music critics listen to recordings through their kitchen radio. At any rate, we should be grateful to Profil for reissuing this exceptional rarity.
peteraczel | 15 April, 2009 15:42
Most classical recordings released over the past twenty years are of decent quality in both performance and sound. The standards have been raised to a fairly high and uniform level. For that very reason the critic tends to get bored, even a lightweight critic like me. It takes an unusually fine performance and/or truly superb sound to generate any kind of excitement. Unfortunately, most music critics, including some of the best, have rather crude sound systems that cannot distinguish between good, better, and best sound. They can barely tell good from bad. Here I have a slight advantage. Even more unfortunately, most music critics (and that includes me) do not have the high-level musical education and natural gift to distinguish between a good professional performance and a truly brilliant one, especially in complex and quirky music like a Mahler symphony. That’s why the same performance is lauded by one critic and panned by another. How many critics are able to verify whether or not all the meticulous and highly specific tempo, dynamic, and expression marking written into the score by Mahler have been faithfully rendered by the orchestra and conductor? Not many, only a small minority, and I am definitely not one of them. All I can do is to give you my sincere impression of just a few performances as a longtime music lover, plus a reasonably authoritative opinion of their audio quality, since I own a reference-quality sound system. You have to decide what that’s worth to you.
When it comes to audio quality, the issue of CDs versus SACDs keeps coming up (the DVD-A appears to be dead). I no longer have any doubt that the CD layer and 2-channel SACD layer of the same disc do not sound discernibly different if the original mix was the same. (See the October 17, 2007 web ’zine posting “Redbook vs. Hi-Rez” for details.) The multichannel layer sounds different by definition, but I have found that 2-channel playback through my Linkwitz Lab “Orion++” system actually gives me better spatial information than 5.1-channel systems. I have concluded that critics who hear a world of difference between CD and SACD (that is, between PCM and DSD) are delusional.
CD from ARTEK
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 7 in E Minor. Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Gerard Schwarz, conductor. AR-0043-2 (recorded 2005, released 2008).
Here is a prime example of what I wrote in the introduction above. The 7th is the least recorded and perhaps the least understood of the Mahler symphonies, so any new recording of it is worth paying attention to. In the November/December 2008 issue of Fanfare, two well-established critics, Christopher Abbot and Lynn René Bayley, reviewed Schwarz’s performance. Abbot dismissed it as undistinguished and Bayley raved about it. Whom should you believe? Abbot was particularly critical of the “poor” sound, and Bayley made a special point of the “fantastic” sound quality. Now I ask you… My own take on the recording is that it is in the best Gerard Schwarz tradition: straightforward, unmannered, never flagging, highly musical. To decide exactly how faithful it is to Mahler’s intentions, I would need a professor from Juilliard or Curtis with a score. The Liverpudlians play beautifully, that much I can tell. As for the sound, I’m with Bayley; maybe it isn’t fantastic but it’s very, very good, wide in dynamic range, transparent, never harsh, with good soundstaging. I think Abbot must have had his CD player plugged into his kitchen radio.
CD from ATMA Classique
J. S. Bach: “Bach Métamorphoses” (Bach orchestrations by Leopold Stokowski, William Walton, Gustav Holst, Edward Elgar, Yoav Talmi, Anton Webern, and Ottorino Respighi). Orchestre symphonique de Québec, Yoav Talmi, conductor; Alexander Weimann, harpsichord. ACD2 2570 (2008).
This is an all-Canadian production, subsidized by the Canadian government. Orchestral transcriptions of Bach’s organ music and of his other keyboard pieces are not as controversial as they used to be; it is widely assumed today that Bach would have loved to compose for a big modern orchestra if it had existed in his time. Of course, a modern orchestration still needs to be in the spirit of the original, as for example Stokowski’s transcription of the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor is not. It is overblown and sensationalistic to the point of vulgarity. On the other hand, my favorite track on this CD, Respighi’s brilliant orchestration of the Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, is arguably even more magnificent than the original organ version. (Toscanini commissioned Respighi in 1929 to do it.) The Québec orchestra is just a little bit on the crude side in comparison with the great ones, but they play with tremendous enthusiasm under the Israeli conductor Talmi. In any case, I don’t know of another disc that brings together seven different composers’ approach to orchestrating Bach. The audio quality is in-your-face, close-miked, 1960s-style, but very good and clean of its kind.
SACD from CPO
Joseph Haydn: String Quartets, Op. 20 (No. 1 in E-flat Major, No. 2 in C Major, No. 3 in G Minor, No. 4 in D Major, No. 5 in F Minor, No. 6 in A Major). Pellegrini Quartet (Antonio Pellegrini, violin; Thomas Hofer, violin; Fabio Marano, viola; Helmut Menzler, cello). 777 173-2 (2 SACDs, recorded 2005 and 2006, released 2008).
Haydn’s Opus 20 quartets are a milestone. They are the first, the original, the prototypical “great” string quartets in the history of classical music. Quartet writing was never the same again. Haydn’s later masterpieces, as well as Mozart’s and Beethoven’s, are unlikely to have happened without these prototypes. Just listen, for example, to the melancholy complexities of the first movement of Op. 20 No. 5 in F Minor, lasting a full 11 minutes. Earlier works seem lightweight by comparison. The Pellegrini Quartet does not quite have the hair-trigger precision and tonal refinement of the Emerson or the symphonic weight of the old Guarneri (to bring up just two examples), but they play on the highest professional level, with considerable verve and musicality. The have a lightness of touch in passages where a heavier hand is too often the case. Repeats are all played. All in all, excellent performances of very great music. The recording is rather close-miked without much hall sound, but if you set the volume exactly right the total effect is absolute realism. If you start blasting it, the violins turn wiry; there is no margin. I could hear no difference between the CD and 2-channel SACD layers; the surround-sound layer I didn’t bother to try.
CDs from EMI
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 9 in D Major. Berliner Philharmoniker, Sir Simon Rattle, conductor. 50999 5 01228 2 0 (2 CDs, recorded 2007, released 2008).
When there are so many splendid recordings of a Mahler symphony to choose from, the very least a new release from a major label should provide is excellent sound. That is not the case here. Assembled from several evenings of live concert performances, the Mahler Ninth recording is totally flat in sonic perspective, with no hall sound, almost as if the soundstage had collapsed from front to back, and screaming strings at ff to fff. It’s a pity because the famous Berlin strings play very beautifully, as expected. The quality of the interpretation is a matter of opinion, the usual Rattle mixture of magnificence and idiosyncrasy, but the inadequate sound disqualifies the disc in my book. The Stravinsky recordings, made under exactly the same conditions by the same engineering team a month earlier, appear to be better in audio quality only because Stravinsky’s orchestration doesn’t require nearly the 3-D space that Mahler’s does. The whole thing still sounds pretty cramped. It goes without saying that the music is well played by the mighty Berliners and, in the superb Symphony of Psalms, well sung by the excellent radio choir, but ideally Stravinsky should be played with more snap, more rhythmic insistence, more punch than Rattle seems willing to provide. In fact, some of Robert Craft’s performances from the early ’90s with a freelance orchestra are more idiomatic in this respect (although not as fluent and slick), and better recorded, too. The “amateur” Robert Craft better than the great Sir Simon? What’s the world coming to…
CD from Hyperion
Leopold Godowsky: Excerpts from Walzermasken and Triakontameron; Symphonic Metamorphoses on Künstlerleben, Die Fledermaus, and Wein, Weib und Gesang by Johann Strauss II; The Last Waltz by Oscar Straus. Marc-André Hamelin, piano. CDA67626 (recorded 2007, released 2008).
Leopold Godowsky was the circus pianist of the late 19th and early 20th century; Marc-André Hamelin is the circus pianist of our era. That label in no way diminishes their artistry, which in both cases was/is of the highest order; it’s just a way to categorize their near-impossible feats of pianism. This is piano music of the same sort as Horowitz’s “Carmen” variations or his “Stars and Stripes,” but more elegant, translucent, and pearlescent. Godowsky’s reinterpretations of these Viennese waltz classics are in excellent taste, as are his own nostalgic compositions in ¾ time, but they take a transcendental pianist to play them as they should be played. Hamelin, as I’ve stated a number of times before, is that kind of pianist. He appears to have twenty fingers; his articulation of the densest passages is as clean and clear as if he were playing “Chopsticks;” the fastest passages almost seem slow because of the relaxed clarity of his playing. And have you ever heard a Canadian get that Viennese lilt exactly right? He does. What’s really amazing is that, where other pianists create tension by conquering the difficulties of fast and complex music, Hamelin’s playing is perfect ease at all times. He creates tension with carefully graded dynamics. Supreme skill is always a thrill. The recorded sound of the piano (an English job) is for once right on the money—perfectly balanced from the lowest bass to the highest treble, with exactly the right reverb (not too much) and excellent presence. No complaint or reservation this time: A+ audio!
CDs from Naxos
Elliott Carter: String Quartet No. 1 (1951), No. 2 (1959) No. 3 (1971), No. 4 (1986), and No. 5 (1995). Pacifica Quartet (Simin Ganatra, violin I; Sibbi Bernhardsson, violin II; Masumi Per Rostad, viola; Brandon Vamos, cello). 8.559362 (Quartet No. 1 and No. 5, recorded 2007, released 2008) and 8.559363 (Quartet No. 2, No. 3, and No. 4, recorded 2008, released 2009).
Elliott Carter is alive and well and 100 years old; I’ve been vaguely aware of his music and running away from it since he was about 50. Now I realize I was wrong; he is a very impressive composer. His music is staggeringly complicated, in rhythm, counterpoint, dynamics, sonority. Its appeal is to the intellect, not the emotions. The atonal cogitations are interrupted from time to time by a few seconds of radiant beauty, only to lapse back into cerebral abstraction almost immediately. I am amazed and fascinated for a while, and then I can’t take it anymore. What’s truly astonishing about these recordings is the virtuosity of the Pacifica Quartet. They play this fiendishly difficult music with utter precision and at the same time with relaxed ease and a warm tone, as if it were Mozart. You have to hear it to believe it. They are clearly one of the great string quartets of the world. The recorded sound is also on the highest level, approaching my favorite Ray Kimber IsoMike recordings in you-are-there-ness and warmth. Judy Sherman was the producer; it’s some of her best work.
Leopold Stokowski: Bach Transcriptions • 2. J. S. Bach: Toccata and Fugue in D Minor; Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring; Sleepers, Awake! & others; also selections by Giovanni Palestrina, William Byrd, Luigi Boccherini, & others. Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, José Serebrier, conductor. 8.572050 (recorded 2008, released 2009).
This is the second installment of Serebrier pretending to be Stokowski, conducting the latter’s orchestrations of Bach’s organ music and of other 16th to 18th century pieces. The impersonation is successful; it’s the Stoki sound all right, maybe not quite as sumptuous as that of the old Philadelphia Orchestra but close. This UK orchestra is a lot better than the Canadians reviewed under ATMA Classique above; the only piece they both play is the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, which is just as over the top here, whereas the other Stokowski transcriptions are relatively chaste. I can’t help loving this kind of gorgeously cosmeticized Bach, as long as I also have access to the original versions. The audio, of course, is a very important part of the glamorizing process and is quite excellent in this case, with the proper dimensionality in what appears to be a medium-sized hall and, sine qua non, the lush Stokowskian string sound.
CD and SACD from Ondine
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 2 in C Minor (“Resurrection”). Simona Šaturová, soprano; Yvonne Naef, mezzo-soprano; The Philadelphia Singers Chorale; The Philadelphia Orchestra, Christoph Eschenbach, conductor. ODE 1134-2D (2 CDs, recorded 2007, released 2009).
Once again, for the nth time, Mahler—but as I have often said, he is the composer for the hi-fi era, and this is an audio web ’zine. To validate that perspective, the sound of this CD is truly sensational, the best of the Philadelphia series on Ondine so far. The bass is awesome (the Telarc bass drum has been bested!); the dynamic range is the widest possible; the brasses are unbelievably brilliant; the climaxes are without a trace of harshness (very rare!); the Verizon Hall organ is majestic; the soundstage has excellent width and depth. And get this: no SACD; this is an optimized-for-CD-only, two-channel production—maybe the word has reached Ondine and Polyhymnia. (The somewhat earlier Shostakovich recording is still on hybrid CD/SACD.) The orchestra plays magnificently; the soloists and chorus are wonderful; and Eschenbach’s conducting is on a level that makes his terminated Philadelphia tenure appear like a great loss. His risk-taking and micromanaging style, for which he has been criticized, works to the music’s advantage in this work. Overall, I can’t imagine a more desirable performance and recording of the Mahler Second, which is one of my favorites because, despite its gigantic concept, it has a dewy freshness, almost an innocent quality, which is absent from the more sophisticated and (let’s face it) neurotic symphonies after the Fourth. The Shostakovich recording is not nearly as remarkable; Eschenbach’s interpretation is a little blah, as if he couldn’t summon up sufficient enthusiasm for the symphony and were only interested in playing all the notes and dynamic markings correctly. The orchestral sound is excellent, as usual, but doesn’t have the extraordinary quality of the Mahler CD. The Blok songs are well sung by Yvonne Naef and beautifully accompanied by the first-chair Philadelphia players; the dramatic numbers are perhaps more interesting than the lyrical ones but they strain Naef’s voice to the limit.
DVDs from Opus Arte
Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde. Robert Gambill, Tristan; Nina Stemme, Isolde; Katarina Karnéus, Brangäne; Bo Skovhus, Kurwenal; René Pape, King Marke; The Glyndebourne Chorus; London Philharmonic Orchestra, Jirí Belohlávek, conductor; Nikolaus Lehnhoff, stage director. OA 0988 D (3 DVDs, recorded 2007, released 2008).
This could quite plausibly be the one Tristan to have if you’re having only one (apologies to Schaefer Beer for twisting their words). The main reason for that is Nina Stemme, unquestionably the reigning Isolde of today and, to my ears, one of the best ever. That wasn’t quite my opinion when I reviewed the Domingo/Stemme Tristan CDs a couple of years ago, but here her voice has the heft below that I missed in the earlier recording. She has developed into an amazing singer, with ringing high notes, rich low notes, unlimited volume, and nary a moment of strain. When she crescendoes to a climactic passage I am left gasping. I thought only an orchestra can do that. If her voice were as beautiful as it is powerful and secure, she would be absolutely unique. Plus, she is a pretty good actress, too. By comparison, Robert Gambill is a lightweight, or at best a middleweight; Stemme overwhelms him when they are singing together, but in his solo passages he often rises to the occasion and sings quite beautifully. He is not a genuine Heldentenor, but who is these days? In the impossibly strenuous third act his vocal limitations tend to stymie him from time to time, but he is quite theatrical and carries the dramatic flow at all times. Katarina Karnéus is perfect as Brangäne; her big offstage number in the second act is sung as beautifully as I’ve ever heard it. Bo Skovhus seems a bit uncomfortable as Kurwenal; he is better in Mozart, but the role is not a game changer one way or the other. As for René Pape, he is still the best in any role he chooses to sing and has no equal as King Marke. The London Philharmonic plays sensationally, and Belohlávek conducts the work with tremendous élan. All in all, the musical production left no doubt in my mind that I was listening to one of the pinnacles of Western art. As for the theatrical production, it is absolutely minimal, abstract/geometrical in scenery and stylized/medieval in costumes. It works for me; it’s the human interaction that’s important in Tristan, not the physical background. A great DVD set.
SACDs from PentaTone Classics
Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 1 in F Minor, Op. 10; Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 54. Russian National Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski, conductor. PTC 5186 068 (recorded 2004, released 2006).
My interest in these recordings arises from the fact that Jurowski seems to be the leading candidate for the position of permanent music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra (“my” orchestra). Of course, it’s still a couple of years off in the future, and he hasn’t said yes, but all the preliminary signs are there. He is known to have a penchant for the little-known works of famous composers, as witnessed by the Tchaikovsky performances. What we have here is not the familiar Hamlet “Fantasy Overture,” Op. 67, but the complete orchestra-pit music composed for the play, and not the famous Romeo and Juliet “Fantasy Overture” of 1880 but the quite different Ur-version of 1869. The overture introducing the theater pieces is a short version of Op. 67, and the rest is just snippets lasting half a minute to 7½ minutes, all of it good but not great music. The early R & J overture sounds unfamiliar until the overly familiar love theme and battle theme emerge, and then the whole piece sounds less organic and effective than the final 1880 version. The Shostakovich symphonies are pretty much repertory items by now, the First an astonishingly brilliant, upbeat, flashy work by a very grown-up teenager, the Sixth a strangely lopsided affair with no sonata-form first movement, an excruciatingly long and grim slow movement, and then two very short, lightweight fast movements that are more fun. (I really don’t know how to relate to the Sixth.) All the performances are very thoughtful, expressive, transparent, tightly controlled, with high-level playing by the excellent Russian National Orchestra. The studio recordings by Polyhymnia are typical of their multi-miked kind, with good depth, definition, and dynamic range, basically high-quality but occasionally a bit on the bright side. I think the potential problem with Jurowski, should he end up permanently in Philadelphia, is that he tends to straightjacket the orchestra instead of giving it its head and letting it play, which would be the preferable way to conduct the Philadelphians. I suspect he is something of a control freak, and he is very, very serious. He is only in his mid-30s.
CDs from RCA Red Seal
Frédéric Chopin: “Rubinstein Plays Chopin—The Original Jacket Collection.” The Nocturnes, the Mazurkas, the Ballades, the Scherzos, the Polonaises, the Sonatas, the Waltzes, the Preludes, et al. Artur Rubinstein, piano. 88697-31619-2 (10 CDs, recorded 1946 to 1966, re-released 2008).
Artur Rubinstein (1887–1982) was arguably the greatest Chopin interpreter of the 20th century. You could bring up a small number of rival names, but I am inclined to agree with Max Wilcox, who produced most of these recordings and who told me many years ago, “Don’t look for better performances—you’re not going to find any.” Rubinstein combined a subtle, elegant rubato with a glowing piano tone and a fluid, soaring continuity of the melodic line that gave his Chopin playing a signature quality. His Chopin is Chopin (to paraphrase Yul Brynner as the Pharaoh). That he made nearly all of these recordings as an old man does not diminish their quality; he got better and better as he grew older, perhaps not in technique but in musical insight. I am almost inclined to say that you don’t need any other Chopin recordings than this set. (I said almost.) As for the audio quality, five of the ten discs appear to be close to, or identical to, Max Wilcox’s mid-1980s downmix of three channels to two, which sounded beautiful. The five other discs were “transferred by Maria Triana” (says the booklet), who obviously wasn’t there and doesn’t know what Rubinstein sounded like. She changed the balance so that the treble no longer has the singing, pellucid quality of the old mix and the bass is heavier. Everybody wants to make a difference, for better or worse. Maria notwithstanding, this is still an essential collection for those who don’t own the older CDs.
CD from Sony Classical
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Sonatas—No. 12 in A-flat Major, Op. 26; No. 9 in E Major, Op. 14 No. 1; No. 10 in G Major, Op. 14 No. 2; No. 15 in D Major, Op. 28 (“Pastorale”). Murray Perahia, piano. 88697326462 (recorded and released 2008).
There is no better Beethoven pianist alive today than Murray Perahia (when his temperamental thumb isn’t bothering him, that is). Here he plays four of Beethoven’s “lesser” piano sonatas, all in major keys. They are lesser only in comparison with some of the later sonatas, which are stupendous, the greatest ever. If any other composer had produced these four sonatas, he would still be considered a great master. Perahia plays them as perfectly—in tempo, articulation, transparency of detail, musicality—as is conceivable. On a scale of 1 to 10, this is an 11. The audio is excellent, a thoroughly up-to-date piano sound, maybe a bit too mellow for my taste—I would have liked a slightly more clangorous quality even better. Purely personal.
SACDs from Telarc
Giacomo Puccini: La Bohème. Norah Amsellem, Mimi; Marcus Haddock, Rodolfo; Georgia Jarman, Musetta; Fabio Capitanucci, Marcello; Denis Sedov, Colline; Christopher Schaldenbrand, Schaunard; Kevin Glavin, Benoit/Alcindoro; Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Robert Spano, conductor. 2SACD-60697 (2 SACDs, recorded 2007, 2008).
La Bohème is, according to most statistics, the most popular opera in the world; its recorded versions on 78, LP, CD, and DVD are beyond counting. That this recent live concert-hall recording from Atlanta isn’t the best-sung and best-played of all time is a certainty—but it might actually be the most subtly detailed theatrically and the best recorded. Not that it isn’t well sung and well played, also. All the singers are young or youngish ones on their way up, some of them perhaps to stardom; they sing most idiomatically and persuasively; and the Atlanta orchestra under Spano, a very fine conductor, plays beautifully and accurately. There’s not a thing wrong with this performance; it’s just that the competition is too fierce. The recorded sound is superb, perhaps the most realistic opera recording I’ve ever heard, with better front-to-back depth, localization, and transparency than seems to be possible in conventional opera-stage-and-orchestra-pit recordings. Again I could hear no significant difference between the PCM and DSD layers in sequential listening, instant A/B being impossible. The EQ may have been very slightly different. (As a footnote, I should add that my all-time favorite La Bohème is the 1946 mono recording conducted by Toscanini. It’s never even mentioned in present-day surveys, but it’s unique because of the incandescent orchestral performance and Jan Peerce’s singing as Rodolfo. Peerce didn’t quite have the voice of a Gigli, Björling, or Corelli, but under Toscanini he was inspired to sing way over his head and outperform them all. By chance, I overheard him discussing this particular recording in a Copenhagen fish restaurant in the 1960s. His comment on later recordings was “stereo, schmereo, not as good.”)
“Cameron Carpenter: Revolutionary.” Organ compositions and transcriptions of Bach, Carpenter, Chopin, Demessieux, Dupré, Horowitz, and Liszt. Cameron Carpenter, organ. SACD-60711 (recorded and released 2008).
Who is Cameron Carpenter? He is a campy exhibitionist in his late twenties who happens to be the technically most astonishing organist the world has ever seen. There’s a DVD that comes in the box with the audio disc (DVD-70711), so you can see him perform at the Marshall & Ogletree “virtual pipe organ,” which has a very impressive, more or less traditional console but no pipes—it’s all digital (audiophiles: the low bass comes out of two Bruce Thigpen rotary woofers!). Carpenter wears a heavily sequined white T-shirt, reminiscent of Siegfried & Roy, and white organist’s shoes of his own design. My goodness! In his transcription of Chopin’s “Revolutionary” Étude in C Minor, Op. 10, No. 12, which is also Track 1 of the CD, the fiendishly difficult left-hand piano part is all done with the pedals, on which he does a dazzling tap dance that one-ups Gene Kelly in physicality. I’m telling you, Helmut Walcha, Jean Guillou, Michael Murray, and company are left in the dust. Track 2 of the CD, as well as of the DVD, is Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, which has acquired the “Evolutionary” label, so that Carpenter can add echoes of orchestral transcriptions by Stokowski, Caillet, et al. to Bach’s original organ music. Velocity, startling sonorities, and all sorts of ten-fingered/two-toed wonders take precedence over musical values, although I can’t say that his playing is unmusical, just eccentric. (In Bach’s Nun komm, der heiden Heiland his phrasing is actually quite chaste.) The digital organ has extremely fast response but no starting chuff on the notes when the keys are depressed. It all sounds like a gigantic and extremely complex electric buzzer. The recording, on the other hand, is quite awesome, as can be expected from Telarc. The dynamic range goes from pppp to ffff; the low bass goes down to dc (or so it seems). I could hear no difference between the CD and two-channel SACD layers. The whole thing is something of a circus, but I’m really glad I was exposed to it. It’s a blast.
peteraczel | 12 November, 2008 16:59
Powered 2-Way Floor-Standing Loudspeaker System
Designer: Linkwitz Lab, 15 Prospect Lane, Corte Madera, CA 94925. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Web: www.linkwitzlab.com. Constructor: Wood Artistry, L.L.C., 408 Moore Lane, Healdsburg, CA 95448. Voice: (707) 473-0593. Fax: (707) 473-0653. E-mail: email@example.com. Web: www.woodartistry.com. “Pluto-2” loudspeaker system, $2995 (complete with built-in power amplifiers). Kit versions available in various stages of completion at considerably lower prices. Tested samples on loan from constructor.
I have to be very careful positioning this product correctly because my assessment could easily be understated or overstated. The Linkwitz Lab website positions the Pluto-2 as a sort of “Orion Lite,” but that raises some questions. It is true that the Pluto-2 sounds remarkably similar to the Orion + at moderate listening levels on most program material, but it is not a “boxless” design—and isn’t the elimination of the box the very essence of the Linkwitz doctrine of loudspeaker design? On the other hand, the Pluto-2’s drivers aren’t really enclosed in a box; each is mounted at the end of a PVC pipe sealed at the other end and stuffed with sound-absorbent material. You could argue that “it’s not a box”—in effect it amounts to a kind of infinite transmission line. Be that as it may, regardless of design philosophy, the Pluto-2 is highly original and ingenious in concept, probably even more so than the Orion, and is capable of reference-quality sound as long as you watch your SPLs, especially at high and low frequencies. In smaller rooms permitting some flexibility of placement, it’s a state-of-the-art loudspeaker at a fraction of the expected cost. In terms of value it’s nothing short of amazing, even at Wood Artistry’s rather high labor charges for the fully assembled version—and if you are a do-it-yourselfer, the performance-to-cost ratio rises to the highest possible category.
Siegfried Linkwitz readily admits that without the Aura NSW2-326-8A 2-inch tweeter the Pluto design would not have been possible. This unique tweeter with its concave titanium diaphragm and high displacement capability can be crossed over at 1 kHz because its range actually extends two octaves below that frequency. The unusually low crossover is essential to the superior omnidirectional response of the speaker. The midrange/woofer is a SEAS L16RN-SL (H1480-08) 5-inch aluminum-cone unit, an upgrade for the Pluto-2 from the original Pluto woofer and now capable of 40 Hz response with surprisingly large displacement.
The mounting of these two drivers is extremely clever and at the same time extremely simple. The SEAS unit faces upward in a 31-inch long 4-inch diameter PVC pipe, and the Aura tweeter faces forward at the short end of a 35-inch tall upside-down L pipe of 2-inch diameter. The Γ-shaped pipe is positioned in such a way that the tweeter is lined up with the periphery, rather than the center, of the midrange/woofer to avoid diffraction, and the input to the tweeter is electronically delayed to make it acoustically centered on the upward-facing driver. This is tantamount to a coaxial configuration while retaining all the advantages of separately baffled drivers. (Contrast this solution with the most probable design using a 2-inch tweeter and a 5-inch woofer the average engineer would have come up with: a nearfield monitor in a tiny box!)
The self-contained electronics consist of three National Semiconductor LM3886 integrated-circuit power amplifiers plus various circuits for equalization, crossover, etc. The IC power amps are rated at 50 watts (peak) each; two of them are bridged to drive the midrange/woofer; the third drives the tweeter. The Linkwitz Lab website explains that these ICs are thermally more stable than discrete-component amplifiers (see http://www.linkwitzlab.com/Pluto/electronics.htm —discrete-circuit diehards, read it and weep). Both drivers are equalized for maximum flatness (their raw response is somewhat uneven); the numerous op-amps on the circuit board are all Burr-Brown/Texas Instrument OPA2134’s; the crossover slopes are 24 dB per octave (Linkwitz-Riley, needless to say). The gain of the tweeter channel is adjustable within ±2.5 dB, but access to the trim pot is rather cumbersome, I must say.
Overall, the choice of drivers, the physical implementation of baffling them, the design of the integrated electronics, the whole Gestalt of the Pluto-2 are unique and unprecedented. Siegfried Linkwitz is a seminal thinker on the subject of loudspeaker design. That’s why I tend to pay a lot more attention to him than to designers of expensive monkey coffins. The Pluto-2 is the anti-monkey-coffin supreme. (See “Editorial” at http://theaudiocritic.com/plog/index.php?op=Default&Date=200602&blogId=1 and also http://theaudiocritic.com/plog/index.php?op=Default&Date=200612&blogId=1 for a definition of “monkey coffin.”)
I must add, at the risk of sounding repetitious, that the Pluto-2 information on the Linkwitz Lab website is much more detailed (and, I’m willing to admit, more interesting) than the above; I strongly urge the reader to go to www.linkwitzlab.com for the most complete and most insightful loudspeaker discussions known to me. My review here is basically nothing more than an independent verification of Linkwitz’s claims.
I am very suspicious of loudspeaker measurements that originate from the designer. They are nearly always promotional rather than scientific. Siegfried Linkwitz’s measurements as posted on his website are the exception. They are outdoor response curves, which are inherently more accurate than my usual MLS (quasi-anechoic) indoor curves, and I have every reason to believe that they are honest and unfudged because Siegfried is his own severest critic. Therefore I refer the reader to http://www.linkwitzlab.com/Pluto/specs.htm and to http://www.linkwitzlab.com/Pluto/electronics.htm for the outdoor measurements. I did, however, run a few indoor tests for my own satisfaction. (I’m much too lazy for the outdoor stuff—I won’t move my measuring equipment in and out, in and out, just to be as authoritative as Siegfried.)
One thing I was curious about was the midrange/woofer distortion at fairly high SPLs, which is obviously the Achilles’ heel of the speaker and about which I found no specific information on the Linkwitz website. I set a 100 Hz tone at a 1-meter SPL of 85 dB, which is quite loud but far from seismic, and at that level I took a nearfield measurement of THD from 500 Hz downward. The result is shown in Fig. 1. At 40 Hz, the bottom limit of the speaker’s response, the distortion is 10%, indicating that the Pluto-2 is unquestionably a small-signal transducer. When I raised the level further, the distortion rose to unacceptable levels at the lower frequencies and the speaker started to buzz.
Fig. 1: Nearfield THD of the midrange/woofer at a 1-meter SPL of 85 dB (level measured at 100 Hz).
To find out whether the high THD consisted mostly of 2nd harmonic, which would probably be relatively harmless, I kept the same level and took a nearfield FFT of a 50 Hz tone. Fig. 2 shows that the 3rd harmonic is only 8 dB below the 2nd harmonic, which is neither very good nor very bad. I’m not suggesting that any of this is a big deal, but it does show that cranking the Pluto-2 to very high levels isn’t a good idea.
Fig. 2: Nearfield spectrum of a 50 Hz tone at same SPL as Fig. 1.
Sweeping the Aura tweeter I also detected a rather substantial peak a little above 16 kHz, way higher than my hearing limit (I should have consulted one of my dogs). The equalized curves on the Linkwitz website show a considerably smaller peak than I saw. In any case, it’s almost certainly inaudible or at least insignificant.
Lastly, because it’s hard to believe that this is a 40 Hz system with that dinky little 5-inch driver, I measured the frequency response from 200 Hz down, just to see if I could duplicate Linkwitz’s curve. I could. As Fig. 3 shows, the f3 (–3 dB frequency) is 40 Hz on the nose, and the f6 is 32 Hz. Quite remarkable.
Fig. 3: Nearfield response of the midrange/woofer.
First of all, sit a little nearer to a pair of Pluto-2’s than you normally would, so that the listening angle is larger than the usual 60°. Secondly, keep them away from the back wall and the side walls as much as possible. (They’re very easy to move, weighing only 15 pounds each, so their location doesn’t have to be permanent.) Thirdly, crank them to a comfortable, natural volume level; don’t blast them. Now listen. They sound utterly neutral and very precisely detailed. The soundstage is huge and palpable. You can look into the performance venue and visualize the performers. In that respect the Pluto-2 duplicates the audible characteristics of the Orion+ quite closely, even though the polar radiation pattern is omnidirectional instead of figure eight. (Check the Linkwitz website for a full explanation of this phenomenon.) What both speakers have in common is a totally open quality that separates them from conventional boxes (including the costliest!) and makes listening to them an entirely new experience—as I have said a number of times before (but it bears repeating).
Where the Pluto-2 parts company with the Orion+ is at high volume levels. On organ music, for example, the 5-inch driver can’t keep up with loud pedal notes, and the tweeter begins to sound quite stressed on fortissimo brass and pounding piano chords. When the SPL rises to the point where you think the speaker is somewhat uncomfortable, cut back the volume just a tiny bit and the sound will remain gorgeous—and loud enough. It goes without saying that when a relatively low-priced priced speaker is comparable to the Orion+ under most conditions, it is unique and without competition.
If you want the ultimate in domestic loudspeaker sound, buy or build an Orion++ system (that’s the Orion+ with the Thor subwoofers). If your listening space and budget are limited, buy or build a pair of Pluto-2’s. The sound will not be a compromise in comparison with the Orion; you’ll just have to limit yourself to normally loud listening levels. I think the Pluto-2 is a brilliant exercise in tradeoffs in order to achieve the best possible compromise between audio performance, cost (especially DIY cost), size and weight, ease of DIY construction, and looks. I need to emphasize that the speaker is basically a do-it-yourself design; the finished Wood Artistry version is merely a convenient and somewhat costly alternative for inept lazybones like me. (The irony is that the latter contains no wood parts; the fit and finish rendered by the woodworkers are nevertheless of a high order.) Make sure you check out the Linkwitz website for the huge savings possible when you opt for the DIY solution.
As a final thought, let us not forget what made the Pluto-2 possible. Siegfried Linkwitz is a quadruple threat. He is (1) a world-class electronics designer, (2) a uniquely original thinker on the subject of loudspeaker systems, (3) a very serious music lover, and (4) more interested in advancing the art than in making a lot of money. Take away any one of those four qualifications, and there wouldn’t have been a Pluto. Nor an Orion, for that matter.
The bass limitations of the Pluto-2 at high signal levels caused Siegfried Linkwitz to experiment with subwoofers for the system. The outcome of the experiments turned out to be of limited interest, mainly because the additional costs are incompatible with the value-oriented concept of the basic design. You might as well get an Orion++ (well, almost).
The Pluto-2+ system consists of a pair of Pluto-2’s, a crossover/equalizer similar to the one designed for the Thor (the subwoofer of the Orion++ system), a two-channel power amplifier of sufficient power, and a pair of 10-inch Peerless 830668 drivers in sealed enclosures of the properly calculated volume. These drivers are nowhere near the quality of the Peerless XLS 12-inchers used in the Thor; on organ music at high SPLs they tend to overload; when swept through the crossover/equalizer they start buzzing from 22 Hz down even at small signal levels (at least my loaner sample does, maybe not all of them). Yes, they extend the measured bass response another octave, from 40 Hz to 20 Hz, and they protect the 5-inch driver from overloading because they are crossed over at 100 Hz. I think the benefit-to-cost ratio is too small (Wood Artistry charges $5490 for a ready-built Pluto-2+ system), and I suspect that Siegfried Linkwitz shares that opinion. Stick with the basic Pluto-2 and you’ll be a happy camper.
PPS: DIY vs. Readymade
Don Naples, the owner of Wood Artistry, emailed the following information after having read the above review:
I can see from your comments that I should have provided some information about how the version we make differs from the DIY version. There are wood parts in the speaker, including the woofer mounting ring and the electronics cabinet...We also machine custom parts for better mounting of the woofers and tweeters, make a more contiguous tweeter tube, make custom stainless steel rings rather than using a radiator clamp, add an electronics drawer with power switch, have a rounded foot with wrap-around screening rather than four wood posts, and more. We machine the edges of the round subwoofer tubes and cap them with wood of the customer’s choice rather than make square boxes. All this does little to affect the sound quality, but it does offer a more finished look. I agree that the best value is the DIY version, but for those who want a professionally built version, they do get more than what is in the construction plans.
(Note: The photos shown here of the Pluto-2 are of the Wood Artistry version.)
peteraczel | 30 July, 2008 10:46
Catching Up with CDs and SACDs
The following is merely a random sampling of what I’ve been listening to since the last group of reviews in November 2007. Software problems have been the main reason for the long hiatus from reviewing, but stagnation due my advancing years seems to have been a contributing cause.
CDs from Harmonia Mundi
Frédéric Chopin: 24 Préludes, Op. 28; Trois Nouvelles Études; Prélude in C-sharp Minor, Op. 45; Petit Prélude in A-flat Major. Frederic Mompou: Música callada No. 15; Prélude No. 9; El lago (Le Lac). Alexandre Tharaud, piano. HMC 901982 (recorded 2007, released 2008).
There’s more than one way to skin a cat, but not nearly as many ways as there are to play the Chopin preludes. Alexandre Tharaud’s way is not Rubinstein’s or Pollini’s but equally great—very dramatic, verging almost on violence in some of the pieces, but still totally controlled and authoritative. His technique is above criticism. I wasn’t quite as enchanted by these performances as by his older CD of Chopin waltzes, just thoroughly impressed. As for his parallels between Chopin and Mompou, that’s his thing, not mine. Maybe he’s got something there… The audio quality of the recording is just a bit more resonant and swimmy than my ideal but still quite excellent. This is a far from negligible addition to the Chopin discography.
“Fantasy”—repertoire for two violins. Bohuslav Martinu: Sonatina for two violins and piano. Dmitri Shostakovich: Three violin duets, with piano accompaniment. Darius Milhaud: Sonata for two violins and piano, Op. 15. Isang Yun: Sonatina for two violins; Pezzo Fantasioso. Angela Chun & Jennifer Chun, violins; Nelson Padgett, piano. HMU 907444 (recorded 1998, released 2008).
It’s difficult to have a bigtime career as a solo violinist, no matter how good you are—and the Chun sisters are very good. So they did something clever: they went for the relatively limited repertoire for two violins, where they are able to shine. In this recording they shine brightly, no doubt about it. The Martinu sonatina is a sassy, edgy, mildly dissonant, rather lightweight piece, which the Chun sisters toss off with easy virtuosity. The Shostakovich duets are even lighter stuff (arrangements of excerpts from his theater and film music) but lovely-sounding and beautifully played here. The centerpiece and most serious music of the recorded program is the Milhaud sonata, reminiscent of Debussy and Ravel, which the Chun sisters play with a combination of impressionistic refinement and controlled vigor. The Yun compositions leave me cold; they meander all over the place and consist mostly of sound effects (successfully showing off, it must be admitted, the beautiful sound of Angela’s Montagnana and Jennifer’s Amati). All in all—great musicianship, somewhat constrained repertory. The 10-year old recording is excellent in audio quality; the violins have great presence without any edginess; what’s not clear to me is why this performance was shelved for 10 years, while the Chun sisters remained musically active to this day. So far I haven’t received an answer to that question.
SACD from LSO Live
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 6 in A Minor. London Symphony Orchestra, Valery Gergiev, conductor. SACD LSO0661 (recorded 2007, released 2008).
Here we go again—Mahler 6th. This time it’s on a single disc because Gergiev gets it done in 77 minutes and 11 seconds. Is that good? Yes and no. Gergiev has been advertised as an explosive, blood-and-guts dynamo who made his bones in the orchestra pit of a busy opera house, and that’s the way he conducts here. It’s very exciting and certainly different, without the expected Mahlerian longueurs, rather Wagnerian, and necessarily superficial where nuance is needed. I thoroughly enjoyed it and at the same time found it questionable. The LSO is a natural Mahler orchestra in its sonority; they play magnificently. I chose to listen to the 2-channel SACD layer of the disc over my Orion++ loudspeaker system and found James Mallinson’s live recording at the Barbican absolutely stunning. The soundstage is wide and deep; the orchestral texture is very clean and detailed; the dynamic range is wide. I spot-checked the Redbook CD layer, and it sounded about the same. Maybe an interruptible recording without an audience could have brought out an occasional inner detail more clearly, maybe not. This should definitely not be your first and only CD of the Mahler 6th, but as an occasional indulgence it has a lot of merit.
CDs from Naxos
Béla Bartók: Bluebeard’s Castle (Opera in One Act, Libretto by Béla Balázs). Sung in Hungarian. Bluebeard: Gustáv Belácek, bass; Judith: Andrea Meláth, mezzo-soprano; Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop, conductor. 8.660928 (recorded and released 2007).
In May 2007 Marin Alsop and the Bournemouth orchestra had a big early-Bartók recording session in Poole, England, committing to CD their version of the 1911 opera and the 1914–16 ballet. Whether it was a worthwhile effort is debatable, since both works have benefited from a number of much better modern recordings. (If I weren’t Hungarian and something of a Bartók watcher, I wouldn’t even bother to write about these CDs.) Alsop is too bland for Bartók; the music demands greater incisiveness, more of an edge, you could almost say more violence. Merely beautiful orchestral balances don’t cut it. And that’s not the only problem. For example, the spoken prologue is missing from “Bluebeard,” which is a falsification because the music is supposed to start under the narrator’s voice. As for the Slovak bass Belácek, he sings well enough, but his heavily accented Hungarian reminds me of the itinerant Slovak tinkers who used to peddle their wares in the courtyard of our Budapest apartment house when I was a child. They would call out “Wiring! Patching! Pot mending!” in bad Hungarian; we called them wire-Slovaks. This isn’t just pedantic quibbling; the Magyar cadences are an intrinsic part of Bartók’s vocal metrics. Ten seconds of listening to Mihály Székely, the greatest Bluebeard of all time (Mercury Living Presence, D101216, recorded 1962) will prove my point. (Never mind that there aren’t too many Hungarian-speaking music critics in the U.S.) The mezzo Meláth at least sings in normal Hungarian. The ballet music of the Prince doesn’t quite have the searing and unrelenting intensity of the opera, but there are many gorgeous passages, magnificently orchestrated. Alsop plays it kind of blah half the time; she goes on automatic pilot much too often. Compare, for example, the superb 1991 performance by Pierre Boulez with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on DGG. The audio quality of both Naxos discs is good, with a credible soundstage and wide dynamic range, but that alone won’t save the day.
Ernö von Dohnányi: Violin Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 27; Violin Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 43. Michael Ludwig, violin; Royal Scottish National Orchestra, JoAnn Falletta, conductor. 8.570833 (recorded 2007, released 2008).
When I was a child in Hungary, Dohnányi (1877–1960) was the big-deal pianist; nobody even talked about him as a composer. By that time (late 1930s), Bartók was the big-deal composer, even though earlier (pre-World War I) Bartók was also considered a superb pianist. From today’s perspective, of course, Bartók is a giant and Dohnányi an interesting minor composer—and who cares about their piano playing? These two violin concertos, composed in 1915 and 1949 respectively, are very easy listening; even the 1949 one isn’t particularly “modern” and the 1915 one a lot less so; both are big, lush, gorgeously orchestrated, Romantic works with amazing virtuoso moments for the violin. That they aren’t regular repertory pieces is inexplicable. Michael Ludwig is a superb violinist with a big, singing, invariably sweet tone; I knew him well as the Associate Concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra, a post he left not long ago. The Scottish orchestra and JoAnn Falletta are also very impressive, and the recording, made in the splendid acoustics of Glasgow’s Henry Wood Hall, is about as good in audio quality as I ever heard in a violin concerto—truly 3-D out of just two channels, with outstanding dynamics. This is a surprisingly excellent CD.
SACD from Ondine
Peter Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 74 (“Pathétique”); Dumka, Op. 59. The Philadelphia Orchestra, Christoph Eschenbach, conductor; Christoph Eschenbach, piano (in the Dumka). ODE 1131-5 (recorded 2006, released 2008).
The Philadelphians have been known as a “Tchaikovsky orchestra” since the days of Leopold Stokowski, and here they certainly live up to that reputation. The schmaltzy second theme of the first movement never sounded better than as played by their magnificent strings, and the brasses are also stunning. Eschenbach’s performance is predictably much slower and more sentimental than the definitive Mravinsky/Leningrad recording of 1960 on DGG, but with the Philadelphia sound and the highly expressive, dramatic playing this is still memorable music-making. The recorded sound is far from the best effort of Polyhymnia in Verizon Hall; other recordings have had a more natural reverberation and sounded less congested, although the basic texture and structure are still good in both the Redbook and the SACD layers of the disc. As for the upbeat Dumka, Eschenbach plays it beautifully; he is actually less controversial as a piano virtuoso than as a conductor.
SACD from PentaTone
Franz Liszt: 12 Études d’exécution transcendante. Claudio Arrau, piano. PTC 5186 171 (recorded 1974, remastered and released 2008).
Claudio Arrau was one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century, an aristocratic musician of impeccable taste and irreproachable keyboard technique. He recorded these supremely difficult pieces at the age of 71, when his prowess was still undiminished and his musicianship at its ripest. In his interpretations, Liszt’s flashy showpieces emerge as beautiful music, not just spectacular explosions of gorgeous sound. He goes one step beyond supervirtuosos like Lazar Berman. Are his fingers quite as amazing? Amazing enough and, besides, it’s irrelevant—his way is the better way to hear this music. As for audio quality, here’s one instance where the reprocessed SACD layer sounds considerably better than the CD layer—cleaner, crisper, better defined. Since the original recording was on analog tape, it’s not quite clear to me how the two versions could diverge so much.
CD from RCA Red Seal
Jascha Heifetz: The Original Jacket Collection. Works by Bach, Beethoven, Bizet, Bloch, Brahms, Bruch, Debussy, de Falla, Franck, Glazunov, Korngold, Kreisler, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Ravel, Rózsa, Sibelius, R. Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Vieuxtemps, et al. Jascha Heifetz, violin; various orchestras, conductors, & accompanists. 88697-21742-2 (10 CDs, recorded 1946–1972, reissued 2008).
The arguments about Jascha Heifetz (1901–1987), if any, were always about subtle details of interpretation, never about violin playing. In the latter department he stood alone, almost unquestionably the most perfect violinist of the twentieth century. Even the greatest string players have occasional intonation problems—not Heifetz. He invariably hit each note square in the middle, regardless of duration or velocity. His vibrato was unique; smaller, faster, less wobbly than anyone else’s. His double-stops were flawless, without exception. He was simply unaware of any difficulties of execution. And he played in a lofty, aristocratic, infinitely self-assured, one might say Olympian style, with slight mannerisms of phrasing now and then. It was basically unfair to other violinists. This collection reproduces the original LP jacket art and copy of each recording in reduced CD envelope size—that’s its marketing gimmick. All the great violin concertos are here—the Beethoven, the Brahms, the Mendelssohn, the Sibelius, the Tchaikovsky, in performances unequaled to this day, with some great orchestras (Chicago, Boston, etc.) and great conductors (such as Reiner and Munch). There are also a few solo performances with and without piano accompaniment. The recorded sound in most instances is very acceptable even by today’s standards; in the pieces where the great Lew Layton was the recording engineer the audio quality is actually quite amazing. For those who don’t own some of these unique recordings in older editions, this latest version looks like a good buy.
Franz Schubert: Piano Quintet in A Major, D. 667 (“The Trout”). W. A. Mozart: Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, K. 493. Yefim Bronfman, piano; Pinchas Zukerman, violin; Jethro Marks, viola; Amanda Forsyth, cello; Joel Quarrington, double bass (in D. 667). 88697160442 (recorded 2007, released 2008).
What’s better than a great chamber ensemble? A chamber ensemble of world-class soloists, provided the latter are totally attuned to chamber music. That’s the case here, in spades. Yefim Bronfman is one of the flashiest of soloists but here he is the team player par excellence. His phrasing is absolutely gorgeous where the piano is on top, and then he fades back into the sonic fabric of the music like a lifelong chamber artist. The same can be said of Pinchas Zukerman; his violin tone is warm and silky at all times and his phrasing elegant, whether he is carrying the melody or playing figurations. The other members of the group are not as famous but certainly no slouches. The juxtaposition of these two lovely compositions, written 33 years apart, is somewhat arbitrary; they are both for piano and strings, but the Mozart is a darker, emotionally more complex work by far. It is quite wonderful to hear both pieces performed on this level of technical excellence. The recorded sound, too, is excellent; strings and piano have all the presence you could ask for and are in perfect balance. The recording was done at McGill University in Montreal—I always liked Canadian audio!
CDs from Sony Classical
J. S. Bach: Partita No. 2 in C Minor, BWV 826; Partita No. 3 in A Minor, BWV 827; Partita No. 4 in D Major, BWV 828. Murray Perahia, piano. 88697-22697-2 (recorded 2007, released 2008).
Murray Perahia is arguably the world’s greatest living pianist, at least in the standard classical repertoire. This release certainly puts forth that argument. That his chronic thumb trauma still keeps acting up from time to time, forcing temporary withdrawals from the concert stage, does not seem to affect his superb technique when he is well and making a recording, as in this case. As for his musicianship, it remains peerless. These cerebral Bach pieces acquire an utterly natural, singing, human quality under his fingers, while retaining the utmost transparency in polyphony and the greatest possible clarification of rhythmic complexity. Astonishing pianism! The German-engineered piano recording has all the presence you can ask for, with just a tad more resonance than I like—but that’s a matter of taste. Perahia’s warm piano tone is certainly rendered accurately.
Art Tatum: Piano Starts Here; Live at The Shrine. Zenph Studios Re-Performance (stereo surround version and binaural stereo version). 88697-22218-2 (original recordings 1933 and 1949, Zenph re-performance 2007, released 2008).
If you asked me who were the greatest jazz pianists of the 20th century, my answer would have to be Art Tatum first, then a big gap, then all the others. And I am in good professional company with that opinion. The man was not only a superb jazz artist but also a piano virtuoso with the keyboard technique of a Marc-André Hamelin. He appeared to possess four hands instead of just two, and his phrasing, rhythm, voice leading, etc., were always dead-on at any velocity. As for Zenph re-performances, I described the process under Sony Classical/Glenn Gould in the November 2007 group of reviews. The piano sound is completely modern, since the Yamaha player piano is newly recorded, but the dynamic range is limited to that of the original recording. Here we have Art Tatum at 23½ years old in the “Piano Starts Here,” which includes his signature “Tiger Rag,” and 16 years later, at 39½ years old, in “Live at The Shrine.” I find the earlier performance to be more virtuosic, with amazing sonorities and incredibly fast runs of startling clarity, but it’s pretty conventional jazz of such smoothness and fluency that much of it sounds like a superior form of cocktail piano. The later recording is of much more modern-sounding jazz, more interesting but most of it less flashy, less wow-style. Regardless of the differences, it’s all truly spectacular. The binaural stereo tracks are particularly clear over headphones, simulating what Art Tatum himself would have heard while playing, but I find headphone listening to be quite irritating after a few minutes, so I stopped. The best news is that there are many more Zenph re-performances coming. I wonder what recording they’ll resurrect next.
SACDs from Telarc
Sergei Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, Op. 100; Lieutenant Kijé Suite, Op. 60. Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Paavo Järvi, conductor. SACD-60683 (recorded 2007, released 2008).
Here’s 2¼ hours of excellent Russian music, played by the excellent Cincinnati orchestra, conducted by the excellent Estonian-American conductor Paavo Järvi, produced by the excellent record producer Robert Woods, and engineered by the excellent recording engineer Michael Bishop. So why isn’t the overall effect excellent? Mainly because of the Cincinnati Music Hall, a bitch of a recording venue. The orchestra plays beautifully; Järvi’s musicianship and concept of the music are of the highest order; and the sound is just blah. The strings are unable to produce the free-breathing expansiveness and bloom they’re capable of because of the acoustics of the hall. Woods and Bishop have come up with stunning recordings over and over again, so it’s clearly not their fault. The Lieutenant Kijé music comes off relatively best because of the light string writing; the Rachmaninoff symphony, for example, with its gorgeous string passages doesn’t sound as gorgeous as it should. This has nothing to do with the interpretations, which are right up there with the best. I could discern no differences in basic sound quality between the various layers of either disc. Call these efforts a near miss.
CDs from Testament
Richard Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen (Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, Götterdämmerung). Recorded live at the Festspielhaus Bayreuth, July 24–28, 1955, by the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra, Joseph Keilberth, conductor. Cast included Hans Hotter as Wotan, Astrid Varnay as Brünnhilde, Wolfgang Windgassen as Siegfried, Gustav Neidlinger as Alberich, and others of that caliber. SBT14 1412 (14 CDs, released 2006).
This is the full set of the same Ring performance of which I already reviewed the Götterdämmerung conclusion. In this particular edition, as distinct from the four separately available operas, the librettos have been left out (but can be downloaded from www.testament.co.uk), and the entire music is on 14 CDs. As I said, this 1955 production is arguably equal, or even superior, to the 1958–1966 Solti/Vienna Ring recordings, which to this day are considered the gold standard and became the political reason why Decca suppressed this earlier effort for half a century. Certainly Hans Hotter, great as he is in the Solti recordings, was in even better voice a few years earlier; Astrid Varnay is a not a whit inferior to Birgit Nilsson (in my opinion actually more beautiful-sounding, but let’s not fight); Windgassen and Neidlinger overlap both productions but are younger and fresher in the earlier one; and so on. As for the conductor, Keilberth is not as flashy and high-voltage as Solti but an equally good musician, rock solid in Wagner, so that leaves the audio as the sticking point—a very interesting comparison. The 1955 taping is very early stereo, before they knew how to gimmick it up, and therefore utterly natural-sounding, with occasional imbalances due to the tricky acoustics of the Festspielhaus and some tape overloads. The later Solti recordings exhibit much more sophisticated audio engineering, with many more microphones and dazzling effects that often sound a bit artificial. I really don’t know which sound I prefer. That a live performance over one five-day period in Bayreuth can be on such a consistently high level is truly amazing, much more remarkable than the heavily rehearsed and edited studio recordings of Solti over an eight-year interval. We are lucky to have both and should be grateful to Testament for resurrecting the Bayreuth recording.
Sony HD Tuner
peteraczel | 15 May, 2008 15:44
HD Radio FM/AM Digital Tuner
This is a $100 (that’s no typo) tuner that blows away the classic “super tuners” of McIntosh, Marantz, Sequerra, Accuphase, etc., according to FM experts who know more than I do.
Sony Corporation (made in China). Voice: 1 (800) 222-SONY. Web: www.sony.com/service. XDR-F1HD FM/AM Digital Tuner, $99.95 (available from a large number of Internet retailers). Tested sample owned by The Audio Critic.
Analog FM radio can be of fairly high quality if the signal is fat enough, the antenna good enough, and there’s no multipath. Big ifs. Digital HD radio (not to be confused with satellite radio) is much more consistent and reliable. The digital signal is bundled with the analog signal and transmitted over the same broadcast frequency. Usually there are three programs broadcast by one station over a given frequency: the analog FM program, the HD1 program duplicating the analog program, and the HD2 program, which is generally without commercials. The available bandwidth permits a data rate of 48 Kbps for HD1 and 48 Kbps for HD2, or 96 Kbps if there is only one HD channel. Such rates are labeled CD-quality, or near-CD-quality, by iBiquity Digital, the developer and licenser of HD radio, a somewhat wishful appellation in my opinion. (More about that below.)
HD radio broadcasts appear to be proliferating at a higher rate than HD radios and tuners, at least from where I’m sitting. This $100 Sony is a fantastic bargain and appears to be just what the doctor ordered. Unfortunately I don’t have the RF test equipment for generating and measuring FM frequencies, but Brian Beezley does (go to http://ham-radio.com/k6sti/xdr-f1hd.htm). He and his associate Bob Smith, both of whom know what they’re talking about, report that the XDR-F1HD outperforms on the test bench every known tuner under the sun, regardless of price. The secret is a new NXP (formerly Philips) chipset that implements the front end for digital IF reception as well as the digital-IF DSP back end. This proves once again that innovative engineering at reduced cost is able to supersede obsolete high-end solutions (how I love to reiterate that!).
In my location (Bucks County, Pennsylvania, about halfway between Philadelphia and Allentown) I am now able to receive many more programs than ever before without noise, breakup or interference. As for audio quality, here’s what I have observed so far: HD radio at 48 Kbps is wider in both frequency range and dynamic range than analog FM. The noise floor is also incomparably better—basically total silence. What is missing at the reduced data rate is the spatial detail. The subtle spatial clues that render a clear 3-D soundstage and provide air around the instruments are better on the best analog FM broadcasts if cleanly received and reproduced through a really good pair of loudspeakers. I haven’t been able to determine if this is true when the HD radio transmission is at 96 Kbps because all high-quality stations in my area carry both HD1 and HD2 programs. Another problem is that if the HD1 channel locks in, then the analog FM channel is not available, and if it doesn’t lock in, the analog FM signal is most likely equally flawed. Unfortunately, the commercial realities of FM broadcasting are such that further technical improvements are unlikely.
I must add that all of the above observations are based on reception with the excellent Terk FM Pro FM-50 indoor/outdoor antenna with “Power Injector.” (See the old print Issue No. 25 of The Audio Critic, downloadable from this website.) The antenna is permanently fixed in position, aimed at Philadelphia.
The XDR-F1HD also receives AM, both analog and HD, but with the rudimentary AM antenna that comes with the tuner I haven’t received any music broadcasts worth discussing. Talk programs are fine at the reduced data rates.
In appearance, the Sony is small, cute, and cuddly, sporting a 2½-inch display window where you can see the station and channel ID, and sometimes even the title and performer of the selection being played. All the controls are on top of the unit and are duplicated on the “remote commander” (their nomenclature, not mine). Bottom line: highly recommended.
peteraczel | 30 March, 2008 09:47
Powered 4-Way Dipole Loudspeaker System
Designer: Linkwitz Lab, 15 Prospect Lane, Corte Madera, CA 94925. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Web: www.linkwitzlab.com. Constructor: Wood Artistry, L.L.C., 408 Moore Lane, Healdsburg, CA 95448. Voice: (707) 473-0593. Fax: (707) 473-0653. E-mail: email@example.com. Web: www.woodartistry.com. “Orion++” loudspeaker system, $10,350 and up for two complete channels (custom-built, complete with two electronic crossovers, all necessary cables, two “Thor” subwoofers, and ATI AT6012 twelve-channel power amplifier). Kit versions available in various stages of completion at lower prices. Tested samples owned by The Audio Critic.
This is a sequel to the February 2005 review of the original Linkwitz Lab “Orion.” It is recommended that readers go back to that review (via Archives below) before getting too involved in this one.
Siegfried Linkwitz is unique in that he understands transducer physics, room acoustics, and auditory psychology equally and has no preconceived engineering biases. That’s why he has been able to develop a superior concept of loudspeaker design. A superior concept always ends up with better results than a less good concept, no matter how perfectly the latter is executed. A “monkey coffin” (i.e., a closed rectangular box housing forward-firing drivers) will not sound as good as Linkwitz’s simple boxless “Orion” concept, no matter how big, beautiful, expensive, elaborately designed, and prestigiously labeled the monkey coffin is. The Stereophile cultists will find that hard to accept but it’s an audible fact of life.
The “Orion+” and the “Orion++”
The “Orion++” is an improvement over the original Orion but not nearly as great an improvement as the original Orion was over ordinary loudspeakers. I am not going to repeat my comments on the original Orion (see the link above); this review is strictly about the changes and improvements. In any event, it would be a waste of bandwidth to go into an extensive discussion of the Orion and Orion++ design principles, since Siegfried Linkwitz himself has done the job far better than I could possibly do it on his brilliant website, www.linkwitzlab.com. Siegfried knows more than I do and dislikes audiophile hype and voodoo at least as much as I do, so I have really nothing to add to what he says. What I am providing here is merely an independent validating opinion.
The main change here is the addition of a rearward-firing tweeter, another Excel T25CF002 “Millennium” by SEAS, placed back-to-back against the forward-firing tweeter and wired in parallel with it, but with reversed phase, so that both domes move simultaneously toward and away from the listener. This one change makes the speaker an Orion+, in Linkwitz’s nomenclature. The Orion+ is therefore basically identical in radiation from the front and back of the dipole, although there are minor differences due to the physical structure of the speaker. There is nothing new about a rearward-firing tweeter (the Snell Acoustics Type A, for example, goes back to the ’70s), but the way it is integrated into the Orion to form a completely symmetrical and uniformly phased dipole is unusual. Linkwitz devotes considerable space on his website to the enlistment of a reflective rear wall for better sound, contrary to the traditional let’s-dampen-everything approach. I am not going to repeat here what he says; go to the website and read it. It’s great stuff.
The Orion+ sounds different from the Orion. (I’ll come to the Orion++ in a moment.) The rear tweeter works in mysterious ways (again, go to the Linkwitz website), opening up the sound and taking the listener further into the venue of the recorded music and away from the acoustics of the listening room. When everything is trimmed in properly—speaker location, toe-in, tweeter level, overall volume, etc.—you are transported to there and no longer aware of here. It’s quite critical, however; the Orion+ is not as forgiving as the Orion. It took me long hours of extremely focused listening to adjust the tweeter trim pots on the crossover circuit board so that the treble sounded absolutely natural. Just a hair up or down made a surprising difference. Siegfried is not at all happy about that, but that’s the way it is. Now that it’s done I wouldn’t have it any other way—both structurally and texturally the best sound I ever had in my main listening room.
The “Thor” Subwoofer
When you add a pair of “Thor” subwoofers and a second crossover/equalizer to the Orion+, it becomes the Orion++. This is a luxury, and an expensive one at that, because the Orion+ and the Orion++ sound the same on most recordings. The superiority of the Orion++ becomes apparent only on recordings with a lot of bass energy (organ, double bass, synthesizer, and such), in which case you can play the music much louder with less bass distortion. The low-frequency rolloff of the Thor is about the same as of the Orion woofers, so there is no bass extension as such—the bass was extended all the way to begin with, without subwoofers. That’s why the Thor is not really a subwoofer in the conventional sense but rather a kind of superwoofer.
The Thor’s driver is a 12-inch Peerless Xtra Long Stroke (XLS) Model 830500 from Denmark; the enclosure is completely sealed, with an internal volume of approximately 50 liters (1¾ cubic feet); the crossover frequency is 50 Hz. The response profile is a combination of the sealed-box rolloff and electronic equalization. The latter is provided by the dedicated electronic crossover/equalizer, which also has pushbuttons to switch the two Thors in and out. In most cases, but not all, you hear nothing when you do that. I listen to more music with the Thors out than in. When you need it, however, there’s a complement of six woofers, four 10-inchers and two 12-inchers, to pump out the bass. That’s the equivalent, and then some, of a pair of 18-inch woofers—and more effectively deployed, more accurately crossed over, and lower in distortion than 18-inchers in conventional big systems. The Linkwitz crossover is of a highly sophisticated design to assure a totally seamless transition from the open dipole woofers of the basic Orions to the sealed boxes of the Thors. That would not be possible with a crossover frequency higher than 50 Hz. (Once again, read the website.)
My usual MLS (quasi-anechoic) loudspeaker measurements are limited in accuracy, as Siegfried Linkwitz himself has repeatedly pointed out. I would still perform them and publish them here if it weren’t for Siegfried’s much more sophisticated and authoritative measurement data on his website, which I trust implicitly; they are the very antithesis of the promotional graphs hyped by the typical loudspeaker manufacturer. In any event, the rear tweeter of the Orion+ has exactly the same response as the front tweeter, which is shown in the graph accompanying my February 2005 review of the original Orion. The nearfield response of the equalized Thor is basically the same as the nearfield response of the equalized Orion woofers. The f3 appears to be around 20 Hz. (Yes, see the Linkwitz website.) Of course, the in-room response of this extremely complex system has little to do with the anechoic or quasi-anechoic response, accurate or not.
Regarding the extraordinary sonic characteristics of the Orion+ and Orion++, I wish to be a little more specific than above. The basic neutrality, i.e., lack of coloration, of the sound is due mainly to the SEAS and Peerless drivers and, to some extent, the extremely sophisticated electronic crossover. The unprecedented openness and vividness of the sound are probably due to the well-integrated 100% dipole design and correct placement at a distance from all three walls. (The latter requirement undoubtedly eliminates many conventionally furnished rooms from the Orion’s deployment possibilities.) The almost magical sonic disappearance of the listening room and immersion in the acoustics of the recording venue are the result of the mysterious interaction of the rear tweeter and the rear wall, discussed in detail on the Linkwitz website. The impact of the bass drum, of organ pedals, etc., is effected by the perfect synchronization of the Orion woofers and the Thors by the second crossover/equalizer. It’s a complete package, with nothing missing and no part overemphasized at the expense of another. It’s still two-channel stereo, but so far I haven’t heard a 5.1 or 7.1 surround-sound system that gave me as much audio information and brought me as close to the performance as the Orion++.
You could save a lot of money (at least $2150) if you don’t order a ready-made pair of Thors with the bass crossover/equalizer, in which case you’ll still have the same sound if you don’t listen at high levels to bass-rich material. Or you could save a lot more money if you choose one of the many kit options to construct part of, or most of, the system yourself. (See http://www.linkwitzlab.com/DIY%20products.htm and http://www.woodartistry.com/speakers-and-cabinets/index.html.) I can tell you one thing: if you buy a $50,000 pair of monkey coffins with one of the iconic high-end labels, the sound in your listening room still won’t be as lifelike and musical as if you had bought the Orions. The only problem is that a side-by-side listening comparison isn’t available anywhere, to the best of my knowledge. You’ll just have to trust me. Or never know the ultimate audio delights…