Every so often something comes along that changes everything. In childhood, the new kid gets a yo-yo, you go to a drive-in and there’s pizza during the intermission, you visit Yosemite National Park for the first time, the Beatles are on Ed Sullivan, and your father finally fires up the Dynakit Stereo 70 he’s been building and the lavish music makes the drab living room disappear. As an adult, transformative moments in audio happen so rarely that you grow used to mere incremental improvements, but then the faded pastel of your listening experience is blasted away by the bold colors of something truly radiant. The Helius Designs Viridia turntable and Phaedra tonearm were just that for me, and I’m still basking in their glories.
Pacific Jazz Records/Blue Note Records ST-70/B0032877-01
Musical Performance: ****½
Sound Quality: ****½
Overall Enjoyment: ****½
If you’re a vinyl lover and a jazz fan, this is a great time to be alive. Blue Note Records has its Tone Poet and Classic Vinyl series, while Acoustic Sounds and Verve Records are collaborating to reissue titles from Verve, Impulse! Records, and other labels held by Universal Music Enterprises that don’t fall under the Blue Note umbrella. I’ve covered quite a few releases from all three reissue series here, and I had been planning to look elsewhere this month to mix things up until I played Katanga!, a Tone Poet reissue of a 1963 Pacific Jazz session co-led by Curtis Amy and Dupree Bolton.
Note: for the full suite of measurements from the SoundStage! Audio-Electronics Lab, click this link.
Sound Performance Lab (SPL) is based in Niederkrüchten, in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, and has manufactured professional and home audio gear since 1983. With a deep background in studio mastering, SPL founder and chief designer Wolfgang Neumann got the idea of starting his own company while managing a recording studio in rural Germany in the late 1970s. In those days, the US dollar was valued at roughly 3.5 times the deutschmark, and importing US-made studio gear wasn’t cheap. This led Neumann to begin the tinkering that ultimately convinced him he could design and build better-sounding products and sell them at prices significantly below those of imported US equivalents. By 1983, he’d begun selling his products under the SPL brand, but struggled with distribution until, in 1985, he met Hermann Gier.
All else being equal, newer is generally better—a conclusion I recently came to (and not for the first time) after another round of car shopping. I’d rather have a newer-model car than the outgoing model, if only for the former’s updated infotainment systems: these days, at least for a family such as mine, with two teenagers, Apple’s CarPlay is a necessity. And newer vehicles offer other, more basic advantages: greater fuel efficiency, improved safety features, and better build quality all around.
So there I was, listening to the MSB Technology S202 stereo power amplifier ($29,500, all prices USD) paired with my own MSB Discrete DAC ($9950 base price, $21,380 as configured) through Magico A5 loudspeakers ($24,800/pair). I marveled at the system’s resolution and quietness—“blacker” backgrounds I’d never heard. The sound of this system was so good, so right—so everything—I kept thinking that if I were an audiophile who didn’t have to review gear for a living and I owned such a system, where could I go from here? Would I need to “go” anywhere at all? I was so impressed by the sound that I wrote about it in my last month’s “Opinion” for SoundStage! Ultra, “Building a Supersystem Around Magico Speakers and MSB Technology Electronics.” I could have just stopped chasing better sound and been thrilled with that setup for the long haul.
Verve Records/Impulse! Records B0033210-01
Musical Performance: ****½
Sound Quality: ****
Overall Enjoyment: ****½
Acoustic Sounds, Inc. and Verve Records/Universal Music Enterprises continue their reissue collaboration, the Acoustic Sounds Series, with the re-release of Ray Charles’s 1961 recording for Impulse! Records, Genius + Soul = Jazz. This album consists of ten tracks, three of them featuring Charles on vocals, with big-band arrangements by Quincy Jones and Ralph Burns. Prior to the original release of Genius + Soul = Jazz, Charles’s 1959 album The Genius of Ray Charles had also featured big-band arrangements by Jones, among others, on one side—and Burns had provided the string arrangements on side 2.
Audiophiles are an eccentric bunch. When we start describing sound the way a sommelier might describe a bottle of fine red wine, it can be difficult for even the most openminded non-audiophile to take us seriously. Speakers, DACs, and amplifiers are the easiest suspects for which to make an objective case. You can measure them, and correlate your subjective listening impressions to draw broad conclusions about how good a component sounds.
The notion that high-end audio can’t offer strong value propositions is ridiculous. If you choose your components wisely, you can assemble and own an incredible-sounding music-reproducing system that will virtually transport you to the best clubs, concert halls, and recording studios in history—a system that will last for decades as it provides thousands of hours of listening enjoyment to you and your family.
Magico’s A series of loudspeakers is interesting for several reasons—certainly in terms of their design and sound, but also in how this series fits into Magico’s entire history of speakers. Those of you who recall the introduction in 2010 of Magico’s first Q-series speaker, the Q5 ($59,950/pair when introduced, all prices USD), will know that those who first saw and heard it thought it a groundbreaking product. Its all-aluminum cabinet was displayed at the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show, in Las Vegas, with one side panel removed. Attendees were mesmerized—the lattice of braces and bolts and high-tech drive units began an era of Magico’s history that saw huge growth, not only in terms of units sold but in stature within the industry. The company’s founder, Alon Wolf, was making speakers his way. They looked like nothing else, and they sounded like nothing else.
Provogue Records PRD76431
Musical Performance: ***½
Sound Quality: ***½
Overall Enjoyment: ***½
Steve Cropper is a guitarist many people know without actually knowing his name. His guitar riff opens Sam & Dave’s “Soul Man,” and he appeared on countless other recordings on the Stax Records label, and on sister label Volt Records, as a member of the Stax/Volt house band, Booker T. & the MGs. He cowrote a number of songs with Otis Redding, including the singer’s biggest hit, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” After the Stax/Volt years, he played on, or produced, records by Jeff Beck, Rod Stewart, Ringo Starr, and John Lennon, to name just a few.
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