Author Archives: Part-Time Audiophile

Have Yourself A Quiet Little Christmas: Year End Music Reviews

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by Paul Ashby

The holidays: a time to reflect with family, enjoy cozy nights indoors with blustery weather beating at the door, imbibe festive drink and hearty seasonal fare, celebrate surviving yet another year, endure exploitative ads and other craven commercialization, and fight insane traffic and all manner of undue sensory bombardment.

‘Tis the season! But where can one turn when one has had enough? O brothers and sisters: I believe I glimpse the ghost of Christmas adult-beverage present over there next to the hi-fi, feebly waving its hands in the air. And as it is, so it shall be. These are, to my jingle-weary ear, key 2014 releases that enable travel to a temporary oasis far from the year-end chaos. Please pour yourself a festive drink and join me, won’t you?

Since the Kranky and Erased Tapes labels pop up repeatedly among the following paragraphs (Have Yourself A Kranky Little Christmas?), consider this an acknowledgment that:

1) I work for a music distributor that sells these and other titles on the labels to stores and directly to consumers, and

2) I am, evidently, not above some occasional craven commercialization my own bad self.

As my friends in Hollywood (of which I have none) would tell you, it’s not a conflict of interest. It’s synergy.

A Winged Victory for the Sullen, Atomos (2xLP) (Kranky/Erased Tapes)

AWVFTS_AtomosVIIEPAWVFTS’s 2011 self-titled debut was majestically understated, but it still had some, y’know, songs. Morose, maybe, melancholy, definitely, but recognizable melodies. The 2014 followup, Atomos has moods and atmospheres (mainly permeated with shifting gradations of ozone-infused haze) … but there’s not much going on that might transport you to the realm of the hummable.

And that’s okay. More than okay.

More than okay as in this-is-my-favorite-album-of-2014.

The progressive dearth of traditional song structure likely has something to do with the fact that Atomos contains music from the score to Wayne MacGregor’s choreography for the dance performance by the same name. That choreography was inspired by the molecular, considering the name of the piece. And due to the dance aspect, there’s also a not-inconsiderable visual element to the music’s inspiration.

But this album works just dandy on its own. Take “Atomos VII,” for instance. If you’ve heard a better piece of gravity-defying, classically-inspired music this year, well…just keep it to yourself, okay?

(There’s an extended live version of this song on YouTube, however, apparent PA problems introduce some rude static at some of the most inappropriate times).

And, for those of you who prefer a bit more ozone in the monitors, there’s this Ben Frost remix:

AWVFTS’s reliance on effects processing varies from stratospheric to sub-surface; often there’s an underwater feel to the doppler-like distortion. So if there actually is a molecular facet to Atomos, H20 (along with helium) is definitely an elemental player. Gavin Bryars’ The Sinking of the Titanic seems to carry some weight here.

Live, A Winged Victory for the Sullen pulls this off with a three- or four-piece string section, a piano, a synth or two, and a lot of volume-pedal’d/heavily effected electric guitar. The grainy wheeze of a sampled harmonium merges with cellos and violins. The odd arpeggiated synth wends a staccato path through echoing strings. The beatless pace rarely passes larghissimo, the bass-dominated crescendoes swell and bloom, the drones take you to where you need to be (and, sometimes, beyond), and reverb washes everything to divinely baptismal degrees. People walk out of their concerts with tears running down their slack jaws. Whoa.

It’s what passes for a good time, Winged-Victory-style.

DDD/AAD/ADD SPARS-code trainspotters should take note that the tour press release states “all songs were processed completely analogue straight to magnetic tape.” So it could be safe to assume the vinyl of Atomos is an AAA release — in more ways than one. And the Erased Tapes label sells 24/96 WAVs of Atomos. Life is good.

A Winged Victory for the Sullen online store

A Winged Victory for the Sullen Kranky page

A Winged Victory for the Sullen Erased Tapes page

A Winged Victory for the Sullen on Discogs

A Winged Victory for the Sullen on Tidal HiFi

cf. Dead Texan and Stars of the Lid

For those wondering about influences and favorites, AWVFTS is not reluctant to publicly admire other musicians and specific pieces of music.

Janet Feder + Paul Fowler, Leavings (FLAC)

Boulder, CO resident Feder is joined by Paul Fowler on this film score. Apparently a bunch of the music here didn’t actually find its way to the film in question, so I’m especially curious about what visuals might have inspired this thang. Janet is the low-key superstar of the prepared acoustic guitar, and Leavings displays her talents as much as all her other wonderful releases. Fowler’s keyboard and piano perfectly complement Feder’s minimalist style, and this unassuming digital-only release is a lovely, quiet storm.

There are some percussive pieces whose tone reminds me a little of a more sedate Steve Tibbetts (sedate or no, never a bad thing) and there’s also some more outside avant-guitar excursions (“Fighting Fire”). The banjo-centered songs have a Bruce Langhorne/Hired Hand vibe — if anything can help redeem the banjo, it’s Feder’s tasteful flavor of non-Deliverance delivery.

Janet Feder’s Bandcamp page

Janet Feder on Discogs

Janet Feder on Tidal HiFi

Christina Vantzou, No2, (LP) (Kranky)

vantzouNo2Nº2 is filmmaker/composer Vantzou’s second album for the Kranky label. I imagine paid professional describers might tag this post-classical, or neoclassical, or even modern chamber music. There are strings, synths, and, sometimes, sampled vocals. All but one of the songs on No2 was produced by Adam Wiltzie, one half of A Winged Victory For the Sullen and Stars of the Lid.

This isn’t an album with a great deal of what you’d call momentum. Or, rather, the momentum here isn’t exactly going to pin your ears back. The pacing of the tracks on No2 is moderately…glacial. But the songs are memorable, perhaps in a deja-vu kind of way. After listening to this album a couple times, melodies and motifs begin to emerge and lodge themselves into your brain.

And since these reviews seem to have some sort of visual-element trend: another bonus with Christina’s music is you can go on YouTube and get unsettling, dreamlike, Vantzou-produced slo-mo videos for free.

The somber tone of the album also seems maybe to owe a little to Pieter Nooten and Michael Brook’s Sleeps With the Fishes, one of 4AD’s better (and less-promoted) late-80s releases. Think “melancholy” tinged with “haunting” then amp it down. ‘Way down. This is perfect music for a gray, rainy weekend morning.

I love this album. The only thing I’d change about No2 is to snap my fingers and make it available as 24/96 files. Please? I’ve been rilly good and I promise not to share them!

No2 is a subtly gorgeous album that rewards patient and perceptive listeners. And savvy, good-looking audiophiles such as yourself. Indulge.

Christina Vantzou’s Bandcamp page

Christina Vantzou on Discogs

Listen to Christina Vantzou, No2, on Tidal HiFi

Loscil, Sea Island (Kranky LP)

Loscil is instrumental electronic music. It pulses with a distinctly analogue feel. There’s an intangible…earthiness to what Scott Morgan does, and how he does it.

The songs aren’t distinct little beginning-middle-and-end journeys, but they’re not shallow tone-poems, either. There’s little of the blip, bloop or tin-eared bombast that dominates mush of recent synthesized music. And please slap me upside the back of the head if I ever even consider using the word “dreamscape,” but the songs on Sea Island seem to tug at the subconscious. The structures may be simple, but deceptively so — there’s something deeper going on here.

This is great road music, too, by the way. Play it loud in your car while driving through fog at dusk and you just might have something resembling a transformative experience (as much as that sort of thing should happen at 65mph, of course. Your mileage might vary).

One thing I do know is (warning: moderate digression ahead) that the new Pink Floyd album isn’t, as its marketing materials claim, “ambient” — and, when compared to, say, Ambient 4: On Land, Sea Island isn’t, either. It’s close enough, though. The tracks have more of a Music For Films vibe, anyway. Maybe the reason Sea Island is so good is the fact that it’s hard to figure out. But attempting to grok Loscil’s oeuvre isn’t exhausting. I mean, it’s not going to make you as tired as an Endless David Gilmour guitar solo. Trust me.

Loscil’s Bandcamp page

Loscil’s Kranky page

Loscil on Discogs

Listen to Loscil, Sea Island on Tidal HiFi

Hildur Guðnadóttir, Saman, (LP) (Touch UK)

Hildur Guðnadóttir (pronounced “guth-nah-door-tier”) is an Icelandic cellist who’s released six albums since 2006. She just finished touring the US as an opening performer for (and playing in) A Winged Victory for the Sullen. Saman is predominately solo cello, although Hildur does accompany herself with the occasional voice and…more cellos. It’s the instrument whose reputation is prone to drone, but Guðnadóttir can make the cello sing — by its lonesome, or multitracked — in a manner far beyond its usual sonorous overtones.

Guðnadóttir won’t settle for fighting the cello’s notorious penchant for feedback in an amplified stage environment, either. She’s reinvented the instrument’s physical form and tamed it in ways that actually set it free when amplified in a variety of settings.

When Hildur sings — as on this Icelandic hymn dating back to 1208 — the effect is nothing short of magical.

Like A Winged Victory for the Sullen, Janet Feder, and Christina Vantzou, Hildur knows the value of silence. It helps that this album is a high-quality pressing/recording (both LP and CD); its glorious resonance has a nearly infinite sheen to it.

Tired of your red-nosed uncle forcing you (again) to listen to double-disc sets of Yo-Yo Ma after/during a drink or three? Wait until around 2am, place this LP on the turntable, pull up a couple of chairs, turn off the lights and prepare to go someplace far away.

Hildur Guðnadóttir’s Bandcamp page

Hildurness

Hildur Guðnadóttir’s Touch page

Hildur Guðnadóttir via Forced Exposure

Hildur Guðnadóttir on Discogs

Listen to Hildur Guðnadóttir on Tidal HiFi

Fripp/Eno, Evening Star (LP) (Discipline Global Mobile/Opal, UK)

This is a long-overdue and very necessary vinyl reissue of the 1975 collaboration. It’s on Robert Fripp’s Discipline Global Mobile imprint, in conjunction with Brian Eno’s Opal label.

After cleaning off this sucker in the VPI machine, I carefully lowered the needle on side one, only to immediately (and repeatedly) wince at a loud, once-around-the-circumference scritch noise during the opening sixty-second fade-up of “Wind on Water.” As I’d bought the album a couple of months before and never cracked it open ’til just then, returning it for replacement wasn’t an option. Argh. Drat. Bleah. Etc.

The four songs on side one of Evening Star are probably some of the sweetest Fripp playing — the flipside of his best rock solos, like the screamers on Bowie’s “It’s No Game,” and “Fashion,” and Eno’s “I’ll Come Running” and “St. Elmo’s Fire”. Evening Star’s guitar isn’t so much an instrument as it is a drug. One of those non-existent, very good euphoric drugs, with no side effects, or hangover. I don’t think it can be overdosed upon.

Eno’s synthesizers and loops are there, but in a supporting role (other than “Wind on Wind”‘s calming lull, which is an excerpt from what was to become Discreet Music). The star of Evening Star is Robert Fripp.

Side two’s side-long “An Index of Metals” is an altogether different kettle of arsenic. Resembling 1973’s (No Pussyfooting) more than Discreet Music, it’s a swirling, atonal, alienating swarm of Fripp loops and Eno’s modulated square waves — presaging industrial music at a time before Throbbing Gristle’s “Hamburger Lady” was even a twinkle in Genesis P. Orridge’s situationist bank account. As such, it’s probably some variety of historical document, but it’s just not something I want to listen to more than once every five years or so — and is about as far from side one’s pastoral minimalism as you can get.

The mastering on this reissue is good. Other than that tragic first minute (which was probably just careless initial sleeving of the disc, rather than a pressing defect), the quality of the vinyl is okay — not good, or excellent. It’s not as though it was pressed on recycled tire rubber, but for an LP that costs this much, it should be much better.

Silent Night

And, in conclusion, myself, Billy Nelson and Little Bobby Fripp wish you the happiest of holidays and most silent of nights, enhanced by your music, company, food and drink of choice. Cheers.

Of WAF and Wimps

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Ugh.

 

by Cookie Marenco

There has been a lot going on in the news the last few weeks …

  • Uprisings with slogans of “I Can’t Breathe”
  • Taylor Swift removes herself from Spotify
  • Grammy nominations
  • More beheading of journalists
  • Flooding in California

… and in our own business…

  • Artists on tour facing crisis
  • Artists in the studio facing crisis
  • Artist facing crisis about everything and suddenly…
  • A leaf blower interrupts a sensitive session…

And then came the WAF….

no-girls-allowed1In terms of priorities, the WAF factor wasn’t ranking high on my list of subjects to comment on, but with the urging of close male audiophile friends, I decided to respond.  Here are my observations.

Kirsten Brodbeck-Kenny and Jeff Dorgay have written excellent pieces on the WAF factor, so I won’t rewrite those views.  I suggest everyone read and form your own opinions.  Myself, I’ll just say that the WAF factor should be renamed the WIMP factor since (as Jeff points out), it’s a pretty good excuse to blame the significant other as to why not to purchase something.  It’s the flip side of sales #101 at Guitar Center, “let me ask the manager if he’ll accept the deal”.  “I’ve got to get approval from the ‘boss’.  Sorry bud”.

I am a woman. I’ve spent my life working with men. I love men. Sometimes, they make me laugh, many have made me cry. Some people THINK I’m a man, especially on the testosterone prone forums.  Interesting to note …  once someone points out that I’m a woman (usually not me because I enjoy pretending to be a man), I find that a “kinder, gentler” discussion starts to take place. Interesting.

Occasionally, I’ll lose my temper like the others on the forums and spew all kinds of crap that I normally reserve for private obnoxiousness with friends.  Then I’ll get an email from a more calm customer who reminds me that I shouldn’t lower myself to the level of some on the forums.

What’s a day in my life?  My days begin with two hours of reading and responding to articles and emails about the music industry, new technology, innovations in science, business trends and the plight of the creative content maker.  At night, I’ll read gardening, cooking, travel blogs while watching Anthony Bourdain or Charlie Rose or baseball.  During the day, I’ll check Facebook to see what all my audiophile friends are doing and reading (limited by running a business, managing the crew and producing music). Somewhere in there, I’m listening to music for a few hours and I want it to sound good.

Demographics play a key role in generating revenue.  Let’s face it … not all forums are 50/50 gender based.  Most industries are not 50/50 gender based.  Ad agencies have figured it out.  If you weren’t aware, there is a large discussion in the investment world as to why more women aren’t funded for startups.

The auto industry changed it’s advertising in the early 90’s and the result was that now the majority of women buy new cars. The NFL got rid of the cheerleaders in favor of cheesecake — hunky quarterbacks with tattoos willing to bare it all. Suddenly, there are a lot of women’s t-shirts for all sports teams.

Sounds Hot

Perhaps some mindless “direct marketing” might help?

It was the women who bought Taylor Swift albums that pushed Taylor to reach a million units in sales this year — the only artist to do so. I’m not a fan of her music, but she is one smart “cookie”.  If you study purchasing power in music and consumer electronics, you’ll see the top selling items are devoured by women.

The audiophile world is not about exposed cable and ugly speakers.  Both men and women care about music, quality, value, aesthetics and design.  It was my father who cared about my car being washed and looking good. Lord knows I could care less about exposed cable and giant speakers in my house. I’ve got 5 sets of speakers in one room and 4 other rooms with different speakers.  It’s the guys in my life that want the black leather couch.  I could care less.

When I was growing up, my father demonstrated his love of audio gear and enthusiasm for gadgets.  Dad bought me a Sears reel-to-reel when I was 10, followed by a Sony Sound on Sound 1/4″ tape machine when I graduated high school.  I’m sure he regretted those gifts when in 1986 I asked for a $10,000 loan to buy a Lexicon reverb unit.  He pointed out that I could have purchased 2 brand new Volkswagen cars with that money.  “But, DAD … it will make my recordings sound so much better!”

Most people aren’t like me — a little brash, self-confident and buttheaded.  I’m not afraid to ask a question or take a risk.  I’m also not afraid to listen and observe.

If I’m not asked by a sales person, “can I help you?” I will move on to someone who will help me. It’s pretty simple.  All you have to do is care and be willing to show enthusiasm.  It’s about talking to anyone who will listen whether family, friends, students, oldsters or strangers.

Those of you who think women and the youngsters don’t care about high-end audio need to think again.  We have had some incredibly talented young audiophiles come out of our intern program.  I am proud of them.

Come to think of it, listening and caring would probably solve 99% of the world’s problems.

Enjoy your music!

Cookie Marenco

Blue Coast Music

www.bluecoastrecords.com
www.dsd-guide.com
www.otrstudios.com
www.cookiemarenco.com
www.downloadsnow.net

How Not to Get Women Interested in Audio

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By Marc Phillips

“Do you think we can get ourselves banned forever on this thread?”

TrollfaceThat was Mal Kenney, interrupting a perfectly lovely Sunday evening in early December with a Facebook challenge to shake up the suburbanites on one of the our favorite audio forums.

(What’s another word for “favorite”, one that expresses that, while we like to spend time on this forum, it’s also the bane of our existence? Hmm.)

Evidently someone asked the all-important question, “Do women like HI FI?” That, of course, was followed by countless responses from middle-aged audiophiles who either claimed that their significant others loved music but hated gear, or that the industry should really get its act together and start marketing to women.

The inside joke, of course, is that both Mal and I have women who are active audiophiles and are also involved in the audio industry. Mal is married to Kirsten Brodbeck-Kenney, who, after a relatively short time, has distinguished herself as an intriguing and unique voice in audio journalism. I, of course, am head over heels in love with Colleen Cardas, someone who needs no introduction in audio circles—except for maybe the aforementioned audio forum which sometimes seems to exist in a vacuum. Colleen solders like a champ, can tear down and rebuild an audio system in nothing flat and can walk into a room and immediately tell you if you’re out of phase in one channel.

Both Mal and I know the answer to the question, and it’s something along the lines of “stop worrying about this crap.” Just a few years ago we middle-aged audiophiles were so friggin’ concerned about getting younger generations interested in high-end audio, and guess what—they did, but in an entirely different way than we expected. Not only did they revolutionize the high-end market by energizing such product categories as headphones, DACs and computer audio, they embraced turntables and LPs as well. Middle-aged audiophiles had nothing to do with the journey of these individuals, but I’m sure that’s not stopping them from taking some of the credit.

Will women do the same and find a segment of the high-end audio industry to lionize and support? I suspect not because the same temporal element doesn’t exist. There’s no dire urge to keep the torch lit since women have always been around, and will continue to be around. Unlike “younger generations,” women have already witnessed the evolution of two-channel audio and they are either attracted to it or not. It’s that simple. For every audiophile who claims that the hobby—and the industry, for that matter—excludes women and that we should do something about it, the answer is “Why?”

Why do we feel the need to trot out names like Eveanna Manley and Colleen and that poor Japanese woman who has some executive role at Technics and that woman in Portland who owns a high-end audio store, just to feel better about the fact that our beloved hobby is dominated by males? There’s not a lot we can really do about it. We’ve tried marketing pink turntables and designing components that have a high WAF (Wife Acceptance Factor), and so far, I don’t think those measures have re-ignited high-end audio sales among women. For lack of a better way to say it, I think we should stop being dorks about the whole thing and let women pursue their own musical journeys.

Here’s why I think this is all a tremendous waste of our time and intellects. First of all, I’ve said for years that women and men listen to music differently. I have nothing but anecdotal evidence to back this up, but I have seen consistencies and so far no one—especially women—thinks I’m nuts for saying this. To put it simply, I think that men listen to music for the sonics, and that women listen to music for its meaning. There’s nothing biological behind this—it’s just the way we socialize our young people. Girls generally grow up singing together, learning all the words of their favorite songs, while boys generally rock out together, banging heads, playing air guitar and air drums. That’s why boys often talk about their favorite guitar solos while girls champion a favorite lyric that means something to their lives.

Of course this is a massive generalization. For instance, the boys and girls I knew growing up who played in the school band or orchestra had a very different approach to music appreciation than most kids. I’m also speaking of my own musical experiences growing up in Southern California during the ‘70s and ‘80s, which may be completely different from someone who grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution or in Brazil during the bossa nova craze in the early ‘60s. But it’s a generalization that feeds and informs both sides of the discussion. Men think more women would become audiophiles if we somehow made it easier for them, and women—well, I don’t even want to guess what women think, which is sort of the point. But I’ll hazard a guess that their answer is something akin to “we love music just as much as you do—we’re just not so weird about it.”

Just to muddy the waters a bit further, there’s the argument that there are already plenty of women audiophiles in the world—they’re just not hanging out on audio forums wondering how to further the cause. They’re getting it, and they’re probably having far more fun. At the same time, there are small numbers of women on these forums, and they do tend to speak up whenever some guy complains that there are no women who are interested in high-end audio.

Back to the thread on that audio forum, the boys don’t seem to be getting any closer to the truth. One poster states that the reason why women aren’t attracted to high-end audio is because they’re not encouraged to study science, math and engineering while they are in school. Another feels that women can’t focus on music the way men do because it gives them a headache. Others take a different, more flattering approach and say that women have better hearing than we have, a comment that is probably designed to score points with their significant others. (These are the same forum guys who, when asked about their celebrity crushes, say something like “My wife is the most beautiful celebrity I know…I’m such a lucky guy!” Zzzzzzz.)

A couple of posters have grazed the truth, however. One person stated that his wife isn’t as interested in buying gear as he is, but she appreciates the results in a “more meaningful, less nerdy way than I do.” Another poster elaborates on this by saying that while he listens for things like frequency response and imaging, his wife cares more about overall musicality. These viewpoints tend to support my theory about men and women having different priorities when it comes to listening to music, but I’m sure that won’t stop you from writing a comment at the bottom of this page saying that I’m sexist and I don’t know what I’m talking about despite the fact that you’re single, middle-aged and male—my usual critic whenever this subject pops up.

The most honest and relevant comment on that thread was, not surprisingly, made by a woman. Not just any woman, mind you, but Kirsten. In response to the gentleman who thinks that women aren’t encouraged to study science and technology, she replied, “I was referring to the many women I’ve met who are audiophiles who work in the industry. Threads like this crack me up because guys start going, ‘Where the wimmins at?’ when the answer is clearly ‘Designing, building and selling you the shinies that you so deeply desire.”

That’s really the point here. If you really want to know why there aren’t more women audiophiles, start talking to women and stop jumping on audio discussion forums with other male audiophiles to discuss the problem and how you’re going to fix it. Otherwise, it just might be the first time in a long time that you’ve actually made a woman laugh out loud.

Lambert Company hits Indiegogo

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I spent a few minutes with the Lambert Company’s “Play It By Ear” Headphone amp at CanJam this year — Mal heard it at CAS, and Brian spent some time with it at the LA Meet. You may have heard of it, too, courtesy of Steve Holt’s The Audio Nerd. I’m pretty sure there are some reviews out there, too — and yours truly just got one this week, for yet another take.

But Lambert has a bit more going on that just the headphone amplifier.

There’s this Indiegogo campaign, for example.

I’ve discussed the whole “point” of a crowd-funding campaign as a way to circumvent (and therefore minimize) the costs associated with ramping production to meet an uncertain market. That is, if you know exactly how many to build, you can project costs way more accurately and not have to do anything fancy with high prices up front in order to recoup the bulk of your investment with those first, and most likely, orders. If that seems subtle, here’s the nutshell — this method means “cheaper for you to buy” and we’ll leave it at that.

What Lambert seems to be doing is just that — finding ways to make their production run cheaper so that the final cost is cheaper. And there’s quite a bit they’ve got plans for.

There’s the headphone amplifier, obviously. But there’s also tube pre, a stereo amplifier, mono blocks, a power conditioner and a full desktop system with loudspeakers.

That’s a lot. And best of all? The wait times for all of this are supposed to be short. No “one year, plus” from order to delivery. This stuff is supposed to be coming out soon as everything is ready to roll.

And right now, it’s all up for grabs at “early bird” pricing. Check it out here.

Layaway plans for your Soul

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The Geek Soul has been live on Indiegogo for a couple of weeks now, as part of the Forever Funding campaign around the Geek Pulse headphone amp/DAC combo from LH Labs. Yes, it’s still up there, but a couple of things have changed and I wanted to call attention to that.

I’ve been talking about the program here for a couple of reasons, in part around the novelty of crowd-funding of crowd-sourced designs, but also because it’s audio related, and that’s kinda what we do around here. I’ve had some experience with Light Harmonic, the parent company, so I’ve been happy to continue that brand-exploration, perhaps especially in light of some of the feedback I’ve gotten about them (discussed here). In the spirit of full disclosure, Larry Ho of LH has been a huge supporter of Part-Time Audiophile over the years, and while his good taste is clearly in question, his design chops are not, and all the gear I’ve heard from him so far has been not only excellent, but surprisingly so.

Anyway, lets talk about your Soul.

Soul, as you may or may not know, is the top-level personal-audio headphone amplifier currently on offer from the LH Labs team, and includes some truly wack-a-doo DAC technologies, borrowed heavily from their extraordinarily expensive DAC flagships. That’s interesting.

What might be more interesting is that reaching it might not be all that much of a stretch. Not anymore.

Two things — one, there’s the trade-up program. Got a Pulse on the way? Great. You can trade that back in at 120% of your investment toward a new super-duper version (that’s the Soul). Two, there’s now a layaway plan.

Great news, everyone! Starting November 18 at 9:00AM Pacific Time, we’re releasing the long-awaited PayPlan perks for Geek Soul.

 

PayPlans are similar to “layaway.” You make a down payment, and then we invoice you later for the rest. In the case of Geek Soul, it’ll be three additional payments that will need to be made prior to us shipping your unit out to you.

 

Be sure to act quick, because these perks will be released in batches and will be quantity and time limited. Geek Soul is shipped in the order in which contributions are made, so the sooner you make your first payment, the sooner you’ll get your Geek Soul.

In other news, Geek Pulse is now shipping. The Forever Funding campaign is scheduled to close on January 1st, so time is getting short for securing a Pulse or Soul at pre-retail pricing.

The campaign is now live on Indiegogo.

Command Performance Grand Opening (with photos!)

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I stopped by Command Performance AV this week, just to peek in on Jeff and see what he’s got in store for us this weekend. I might have taken a few photos.

Anyway, in case you missed the announcement earlier this week, the grand opening of Command Performance will be this Saturday, November 8th, from 11am-5pm at their new location at 115 Park Avenue, Suite 2, Falls Church, Virginia 22046.

We will have a special demonstration by Irv Gross from Constellation Audio.  Constellation is known for their high-end electronics, which have been favorably reviewed by the press world-wide.  At our event, Constellation will make their first public (non-show) demonstration of their more affordable Inspiration line.  We will show the Preamp 1.0 ($9,000) and Stereo 1.0 Amp ($10,000).  We will also demonstrate the Virgo II Line Stage with DC Filter, Centaur Mono amps, and the Argo integrated amp from the Performance Line.

You will also have the opportunity to hear other brands, including Magico, Neat speakers, VPI, Arcam, and Musical Fidelity.

In addition to the demonstrations, come by for:

  • Special sale prices on all cables and accessories
  • Door prizes
  • Finger food

Our new address is 115 Park Avenue, Suite 2, Falls Church, VA 22046.  We are at the intersection of Park Avenue and Maple Avenue, in the same building as Town and Country Realty, one block from the State Theater and directly behind the CVS on Broad Street (Route 7).  We are conveniently located near Routes 495 and 66 as well as the East Falls Church metro stop, and we are not far from our old location.

Got some time this weekend? You should go check out the new showroom, say “Hi” to Jeff and Irv, give Bella a pat, and generally get your groove on. Jeff is going to serve some light refreshments and spin some records.

A good time will be had by all ….

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Review: Auralic Gemini 2000 headphone dock

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by John Grandberg

Lifestyle products. Yuck.  In “serious” audio, this dreaded term is to be avoided like the plague. And rightly so if we look at much of the gear out there labeled as such. But I’ve always wondered: who came up with this term? And what exactly does it mean to fall into this category? Is it simply a matter of design and convenience getting precedence over sound quality? If that’s right, we’re looking at the “sensible” gear from brands like Peachtree Audio and the like, which mix form, function, and sound quality in a rather favorable ratio, right? Hmm. No, that’s really not it. Does it mean the gear aims towards simplifying your daily grind rather than slowing you down? If so, my old McIntosh MCD205 CD changer would certainly qualify — that thing saved me tons of trips from the chair to the player. But again, somehow I doubt that’s the intent most people have when they use the term.

The more I consider the issue, the more I discover I don’t really have a proper definition that I could get most folks to agree on. Still, I’m led to believe that Lifestyle is a term we use to write something off. We don’t have to take it seriously if it’s overly concerned with looks, or small size, or some other factor other than “traditional” audiophile virtues. In other words, fluff. Stuff that is clearly aimed at outsiders. Some brands pretty much do Lifestyle gear exclusively — think Bose and B&O. Others somehow manage to straddle both sides of the fence — like when Meridian, a brand known for their “serious” preamps, processors, and speakers, released their F80 tabletop audio system. That thing managed to become quite popular despite the Lifestyle tag, and earned near universal praise from reviewers. Pretty impressive for what could essentially be dubbed a $3,000 boombox.

So, it seems Lifestyle is not necessarily the kiss of death, especially when it comes from a well-respected brand with a history behind them. There’s plenty of crap to be found but also the occasional gem. So, allow me to introduce another one: the AURALiC Gemini 2000.

AURALiC is well known for their Vega DAC and Taurus mkII headphone amp. Tyll Hertsens at InnerFidelity uses the Vega/Taurus stack as his reference rig for headphone reviews, and I can see why – the Vega is slick and the Taurus mkII is a favorite of mine as well. The combo will cost you nearly $5,500 which isn’t the most expensive DAC/amp combo out there but neither is it cheap by any means. It also takes up a decent amount of space and requires a minimum of five cables to operate: two AC, one digital, and a pair of analog interconnects. The reward for your troubles is a reference caliber system, capable of playing just about any file format over USB and driving just about any headphone in existence and doing it with aplomb.

But what if I told you it was possible to approach that level of performance for less than half the price, while taking up a lot less real estate in the process? Interested? I sure was.

AURALiC calls their Gemini series “headphone docks”. Like it or not, they fit squarely in the Lifestyle category as far as I can tell. Again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The Gemini starts at $1,199 for the Gemini 1000 and goes up to $1,999 for the top model — and subject of this review — the Gemini 2000. Wondering what the heck a headphone dock might be? Good question actually. It’s not really a term I’ve ever heard used before. But once you figure out the details it actually makes a lot of sense. The Gemini is a combination DAC and headphone amp, built-in to the form factor of a headphone stand, and featuring an integrated SD card reader for storing your music. Get it? Headphone dock? Makes more sense now, right?

Talk about Lifestyle … I’ll let that sink in for a minute. It is a headphone stand — but not just any stand, it’s the highly regarded Klutz Design CanCans stand. It’s got a DAC in there somewhere — and not just any DAC, a high quality device sporting DSD capability, a 32-bit ESS Sabre chip, and asynchronous USB based on the XMOS chipset. And don’t forget that headphone amp — not just any basic amp, but a fully balanced Class A design with XLR and 1/4″ outputs, analog volume control, and 2 full watts on tap into low impedance loads. Yikes — that’s a lot of stuff going on for what appears to be a stock Klutz Design unit. AURALiC’s trick is to stash everything in the copper base, using the base itself as a heatsink. There’s simply no room for traditional heat spreaders as found in the big Taurus amp. Consequently the unit gets warm to the touch with extended use but never so hot as to become problematic. Cables? Now we’re down to just two — AC power via external power brick (think laptop power supply) and a digital connection, which I’m pretty sure will be USB in most cases.

Yes, let’s face it: USB is by far the most commonly used digital input these days. Informal surveys I’ve taken of friends and forum dwellers show an overwhelming majority using USB for computer audio. Of those who stick with some form of SPDIF connection, it seems less and less use some type of disc-based transport. A slightly larger number go for USB to SPDIF converters to improve their native USB solution. But again, the vast majority go for USB direct. Obviously this can vary depending on what community we use to make the inquiry, and there are still holdouts who refuse to embrace computer audio…. but that’s clearly the direction we’re headed in.

All this to say the Gemini 2000 is a thoroughly modern device equipped with an excellent USB implementation from XMOS, capable of hi-res PCM and DSD to boot. A fallback Toslink jack is included, as well as a separate USB connection for compatible Android phones or tablets via an OTG cable. But the star of the show, the one I used 99% of the time, is that USB connection. I ran Audirvana+ on a MacBook Pro (driverless, natch) or JRiver Media Center on an HP Elitebook, having excellent results with both.

Initially, I was a bit confounded about the included SD card reader. I’m used to my Resonnesence Labs Invicta DAC accepting high capacity SDXC cards and handling all playback from the front panel — a sort of all-in-one transport/DAC solution. But the Gemini has no playback controls … just a power knob, a source button, and a power button. That’s it. Upon further investigation I discovered the card reader is simply that — a reader, not a player. The computer, via USB connection, will mount the drive and can then play tracks from it. Which I suppose might come in handy in a work situation where one is not allowed to store personal (music) files on the hard drive. Then again, if one can install USB audio drivers (required for a Windows system) but not music, that seems perhaps inconsistent. Still, the card reader doesn’t take up much space and likely adds very little to the total price, so I’m happy to see it on board.

The Gemini is strictly a closed system. By that I mean its DAC section has no RCA or XLR line-out section, nor does its headphone stage have analog inputs to feed it from any other source. This is a digital-in, headphone-out only setup. In Gemini 1000 form the sole output is a 1/4″ headphone jack. The 2000 keeps that 1/4″ jack but also adds a balanced XLR output around the back. This is the 4-pin XLR variety which is commonly used for balanced headphones, and I happen to find it easier to deal with than the dual 3-pin XLR alternative. If you don’t have any balanced headphones and don’t intend to recable anytime soon then stick with the Gemini 1000 and call it a day — the extra juice on offer from the 2000 only comes from the balanced output.

Let’s talk about the Klutz Design CanCans for a second. If you’ve only ever seen this thing in pictures then you may find it somewhat odd-looking, what with that funky teardrop shape and those wild color combinations. In person, the design is actually far more striking than I expected. I typically use headphone stands from Codia Acoustic Design made from vertical MDF (think older Magico speakers such as the Magico Mini, before they went all aluminum). So I’m generally used to a more natural wood appearance. It doesn’t help that my review unit was bright red with a gold base … pretty much the most in-your-face color scheme AURALiC offers. But you know what? After a bit of acclimation, I learned to appreciate the stand for what it is. No, it doesn’t have traditional lines, but neither do the excellent Vivid Giya speakers – and I love those things, so why not the CanCans/Gemini as well? Another thing worth mentioning is the fact that this somewhat unusual design actually works well with most headphones. Many of the more “traditional” headphone stands out there don’t pair very well with certain headphone styles. Some are too short, some put unwanted pressure on your expensive leather pads, some mess with the headband pad resulting in annoying indentations after long-term use…. you’d think a simple headphone stand would be hard to mess up, but trust me on this one – a lot of them are sub optimal to say the least. Not so with the Klutz/Gemini offering. The only brand I can imagine (maybe) having issues is Audio Technica due to their “Wing” headpad design. There may not be enough pressure there to hold itself up. I don’t have any on hand to test at the moment but every single other brand I tried worked flawlessly.

Ok, so who exactly is the target market for this thing anyway? AURALiC’s head man Xuanquian Wang tells me he happily replaced his Taurus/Vega bedroom setup with a Gemini 2000, and is pleased with the sound as well as the space savings and reduced complexity. I can totally see that. Whether in a cubicle or just a home office, today’s desk jockeys don’t typically have the luxury of accommodating largish DAC and amp combinations, not to mention the cabling situation. Gemini could be just the ticket for an upwardly mobile fellow looking for killer sound while he codes or fills out his TPS reports – or whatever the heck it is people do at a desk job (you’d be surprised). Just add headphone and music for a complete audio experience, able to compete with plenty of separate DAC/amp combos I can think up.

So, what about the sound … is it any good? AURALiC may have done a commendable job packing all their components into a small space, and the fit n finish here is certainly deserving of a premium. But still ….  is it really possible for this thing to sound as good as the price suggests, or rather, demands?

In a word: YES! As impossible as it may seem, I find the Gemini 2000 to be easily competitive in the $2,000 space.

First impressions: I wired it up via USB to a MacBook Pro, loaded Audirvana+, and went to town with a bunch of my favorite tracks. The clear, flowing sound emanating from my Alpha Dogs had me quickly forgetting about any notion of a compromised Lifestyle product. I happen to have in for review a dedicated DAC/headphone amp device (which shall be unnamed due to being an obscure new company — you won’t recognize it anyway) with an MSRP of $2,200. This thing is nearly 13 pounds and roughly comparable in size to AURALiC’s own Vega stacked on their Taurus. In other words, the antithesis of a compact Lifestyle product. I was struck by how the Gemini 2000 not only kept up but actually surpassed the heftier competition in some key sonic areas. Among them were inner detail, spacial accuracy, and downright fun factor. Despite appearances to the contrary, AURALiC’s little wonder had significantly more jump factor, both in sonic drive and rated power delivery. The larger device was more polite, potentially more “HiFi” sounding, but at the end of the day would not be my choice for a keeper. And remember — this is judging purely from a sonic standpoint, not taking into account any matters of size, looks, or convenience. It’s all well and good to point to a huge chassis and make assumptions, but we really need to listen with an open mind to discover what stuff really sounds like. You know, without preconceptions.

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Listening

I cued up some of my favorite material and got to work, satisfied for the moment that AURALiC had earned the right to be judged on pure merit rather than just external design. I’ve been focusing more on themes lately as opposed to individual test tracks — life is too short to hear the same songs dozens or hundreds of times a year. Instead, I use playlists consisting of a much broader range of material classified in groups. For evaluating timbre I’ve been doing a lot of cello — an SACD rip ofYo-Yo Ma Plays Ennio Morricone, one of my new favorites Into the Trees by Zoe Keating, and of course the incomparable Jacqueline Du Pre with her definitive take on Elgar: Cello Concerto in E Minor (24/96 remaster). What I heard from the Gemini 2000 was a consistent level of competence that I’ve come to expect from high-quality gear. Bows across strings sounded palpable and utterly convincing, with just the right amount of attack. Sadly, I’m frequently disappointed in this area, regardless of the prices involved.

Judging low frequencies, I often use a mix of acoustic and electronic styles to nail down the performance level of a component. The Gemini 2000 did a bang up job with Gary Karr’s “Amati” on the XCRD24 release of Super Double Bass, or for that matter the unknown (to me) bassist on Rahshaan Patterson’s cover of the song “Street Life”, a track originally performed by The Crusaders (side note — this cover version is from the 1997 film Hoodlum — a mediocre film at best but a surprisingly good soundtrack if you like hip-hop and R&B — I found it for $.99 at a thrift store). Depth and tone were satisfyingly convincing if not quite on the same level as I recall from AURALiC’s own Vega paired with their Taurus mkII. Same goes for the slam on Daft Punk’s Tron: Legacy soundtrack — the separate components dug deeper, as one would expect from a combo costing more than double and using much more beefy power supplies. Still, the Gemini 2000 did not at all sound lacking when used in isolation, delivering satisfying impact that seemed all but impossible from such a compact integrated device.

And did I mention it had no trouble playing anything I threw at it? Double data rate DSD? No problem. DXD? Most people have no clue what that format is, but just in case you do, Gemini will play it happily. I never had a single hiccup playing from my MacBook, or from my HP Elitebook running Windows 7 using the provided drivers. The XMOS chipset is known to be rock solid for reliability and that proved to be the case here as well. I also did Toslink up to 24/96 without an issue — didn’t bother trying higher rates as that often comes down to transport or cable quality when using an optical connection, rather than the DAC itself. I very briefly tried the alternate USB connection using an older Samsung Galaxy SIII as transport, which also worked fine from what I could tell. That’s not really my thing but I’m sure some people will find it worthwhile.

I went on and on testing various aspects, or at least that’s what I told myself I was doing — honestly I think I was mostly just enjoying the trip through my collection. I noted very little to complain about and very much to praise, including the excellent imaging and high levels of detail retrieval. The Alpha Dogs sound quite open despite being closed back headphones, and the Gemini 2000 really played up that aspect. I use an aftermarket cable from Effect Audio terminated in a 4-pin XLR plug to take full advantage of the balanced architecture of the 2000 model. Switching to the front panel 1/4″ single ended jack via the stock Alpha Dog cable revealed a somewhat compressed presentation with more strident highs and something like a thinning of the overall tonal thickness — not a particularly good thing when paired with this specific headphone. The differences in cable construction may play a small part in this but for the most part I’m chalking it up to the doubling of power output in balanced mode. The Alpha Dogs, like most planar magnetic designs, love current, and the Gemini 2000 provides it with nearly 2,000mW per channel in balanced mode. This is double what the single ended jack can provide, and makes a pretty good argument for going with the Gemini 2000 over the less expensive 1000 model if planar headphones are your weapon of choice. For more easy models with dynamic drivers it may not make as much of a difference but I can’t say for sure.

I moved on from the Alpha Dogs and ended up trying a large number of headphones with the Gemini. It handled everything I threw at it quite gracefully. Low impedance models like Grados had no issues with hiss or hum — unfortunately a common occurrence with certain powerful headphone amps, especially those with a more complex DAC/amp architecture. It had no issues pushing higher impedance models from Sennheiser and beyerdynamic, and even did a respectable job with the HiFiMAN HE-6 torture test. I’ve heard better with that notoriously difficult load, but I’ve certainly heard far worse as well, even from much larger and more imposing dedicated headphone amps. The balanced output proved slightly noisy with sensitive in-ear monitors but the single ended jack did an excellent job — I find this to often be the case with balanced designs, so nothing unusual here. I suppose the dedicated IEM user would seriously consider the Gemini 1000 and pocket the difference, while others will reap the significant benefit of the balanced out. The overall character of the 2000 remained the same across many different headphone loads – clarity, neutrality, and pinpoint imaging are the terms that kept coming back over and over. It’s impossible to separate DAC from amp in this case so I’ll simply say the end result is highly satisfying, with enough resolution and grunt to handle most any job.

Just look at the pictures – it’s somewhat hard to take the Gemini 2000 seriously given the unusual looks, the closed architecture of the system, and of course the price. Despite my pre-existing respect for the company, I had anticipated having difficulty with this review. I figured it would be a sort of concept device, merely interesting to prove it could be done, but not really useful in the real world. After playing with the device for many hours and getting a feel for its capabilities, I have to say my fears were unfounded. This is a really satisfying piece of gear, even when approached from an audio quality standpoint alone.

Is there a premium involved for the Lifestyle aspect at play? I suppose there is. It’s possible to get slightly better overall sound (not to mention more inputs and outputs) from a more traditional device such as the BMC PureDAC. But it says a lot about the Gemini 2000 that it doesn’t fall far behind even compared to the best examples at this price point. Will it be for everyone? Certainly not. Am I glad it exists for what it is? Absolutely. In that way it reminds me of Astell&Kern’s AK240 and Chord’s Hugo: all three are rather expensive and yet surprisingly popular devices which make no apologies for their specific designs. All three are things I thought I’d have difficulty being able to recommend, yet here I am doing so.

If the Gemini 2000 seems like a solution to your unique audio situation, I definitely recommend giving it a spin.

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Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2014 Opens Tomorrow

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Logo - Blue VectorThe Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, 2014 Edition, starts this Friday.

RMAF is the largest of the consumer-oriented audio shows, and this year boasts over 160 rooms, stuffed to the rafters with hi-fi gear and demos. 160 rooms. 160! And that doesn’t count the 60 or so CanJam demos/displays.

Holy guacamole.

Into the fray step your intrepid reporters. There will be five of us this year. Next year, maybe we’ll plan ahead and staff up — I’m thinking that 8 might be a good number, though 12 really ought to have been the target. Oh well. Five will have to do.

Our sister-site, The Audio Traveler, will be carrying the load for the next several weeks, so be sure to tune in.

Wish us luck!

New Kickstarter: DSP-enabled wireless headphones from XTZ

Now, this is something you don’t see every day. It’s called “Headphone Divine”. A wireless headphone, supporting aptX Bluetooth … with on-board DSP-based correction. No, seriously. DSP.

“Why?”, you ask. Well, turns out that we all seem to like different things. If you’re a “bass head” or a “detail freak”, you’re going to respond well to different headphones. Well, with a DSP-enabling headphone, you don’t have to choose. And you can even change your mind without having to change your cans. The app is available on IOS and, if they hit their stretch goals, on Android as well.

The campaign is already fully funded, so this is a lock. The company, XTZ, has been selling room correction kits for years — I have one of their microphones that I used with Amarra, and it’s excellent.

How the final product turns out is still an open question, but the cost-to-entry is only $99 — pretty low on the scale of risk.

Check out the campaign here.

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