Author Archives: Part-Time Audiophile

The Smoking Jacket: The Courteous Cigar Smoker

Gandalf-fumando-pipa

Gandalf-fumando-pipa

By Marc Phillips

“How much longer are you going to be smoking that cigar?”

I’ve been smoking high-quality premium cigars for about 17 years now, and not once has anyone approached me in public to ask me to extinguish my stogie. Instead, I often have people approach me cautiously and then say to me, “What is that you’re smoking? It smells wonderful.” It always seems like those people are about to ask me if I can go somewhere else, but they’ve always surprised me — perhaps because I’m not smoking White Owls or Swisher Sweets. I’m smoking the good stuff, as they say.

smokeoutsideI’ve always tried to stay out of the way of others while smoking cigars. I stay downwind, I find a cozy little corner away from the action, I do whatever it takes to successfully complete the satisfying ritual of smoking an incredible cigar without being interrupted by others. I do believe most modern-day enthusiasts do the same — like me they either smoke at home or in a comfortable cigar lounge where like-minded people can blow clouds of smoke in each other’s face without repercussion.

Well, my streak ended this past Easter Sunday. Colleen and I were visiting her family in Denver, and we were all getting ready to watch the neighborhood’s annual Egg Toss Contest. I had just grabbed a handful of cigars from my favorite store in Denver, Capitol Cigars on Colfax. (I love this store because despite the sketchy neighborhood — I did have a homeless man shove a Bible in my face just before I walked in the door — but the customer service and selection are simply superb.) So I sat down in a chair on the front porch of a beautiful home that was built back in 1886, enjoyed the unseasonably warm afternoon sun and lit up the new Fume D’Amour from Illusione, a cigar that made it to the top five in this year’s Cigar Aficionado’s Top 25 Cigars for 2014.

A relatively young woman from two doors down — not next door, but two front yards over — stopped her gardening chores and came over to tell me how much my cigar smoke was making her sick. Now, if I was in my own front yard and a neighbor of mine did this, I would probably laugh and be more than slightly rude. (For an extreme yet kind of funny version of this type of reaction, check out Tommy Zman’s decidedly hairy-knuckled Cigar Advisor article.) But I wasn’t. I responded thusly: “I’m sorry. I didn’t know I was bothering you. I’ll just finish this in the backyard instead.” She thanked me, and I retreated to the back.

I acquiesced for three reasons. First, I found it impossible to be snarky to an attractive gardener dressed solely in a string bikini. Second, as I suggested before, this was not my house. I’m not about to cause a neighborhood row unless I’m actually a denizen of said neighborhood. Finally, I found it a little strange that this woman and her heavily tattooed male companion/housemate/husband/whatever were smoking a big bowl of weed on their front porch just a few minutes before, yet she found my somewhat related activity to be offensive.

Now I’m not saying this was wrong — tobacco is a far more harmful substance than marijuana in my opinion — but I was struck by how everything had flip-flopped in recent years. In a state like Colorado, where marijuana is now obviously legal, weed has become more socially acceptable than a cigar. Ten years ago, who would have thought that people who smoked pot on their front porches — it is still illegal to smoke pot in public in Colorado, by the way, especially around all the kids that were running around on the sidewalks at the time — could become so morally indignant over a lit stogie fifty or sixty feet away?

The situation was further exacerbated by a young egg-thrower of about ten years of age who drifted into my dissipating cloud of smoke, and turned to look at me and my Fume D’Amour with sheer and utter horror. He then ran off to his parents across the street, pointed me out to them, and then they both patted his shoulder and comforted him. Then all three went inside, where his parents must have made an additional appointment with their family therapist so they could deal with the trauma I inflicted on their child.

I think the point is this: times are changing for cigar smokers. We like to argue about how cigars are much safer to smoke than cigarettes, and that the data suggests that you have to smoke a lot of cigars before you are at a significant risk for lung, mouth and gum diseases, and that premium cigars lack the addictive and harmful chemicals of other tobacco products. (For the most part, a good cigar also happens to be 100% organic and natural.) But the people who don’t smoke cigars don’t see those distinctions. Tobacco is tobacco is tobacco. It’s all bad.

I think back to 1998, when I smoked my first cigar, and cigar-smoking had become the latest cool thing that everyone was doing. I can remember going to a bar or a club, lighting up a cigar, and having beautiful women line up to take a puff and see what the fuss was all about. These days, cigar lounges are dropping off the map faster than brick-and-mortar high-end audio stores. Smoking a big fat cigar in public, still perfectly legal in many places, is frowned upon to the point where it’s actually rare to see someone doing it. While people like Tommy Zman fight for the right to enjoy cigars without guilt or shame, for the most part we cigar smokers should be attentive to the fact that we’re far more likely to hear complaints than ever before. And we should comply — not because it’s the considerate thing to do, but because we’ll enjoy this hobby more if we can accomplish it in peace.

This whole incident soured my visit somewhat, which was a bummer since I scored some really nice sticks at Capitol Cigars.

Illusione Fume D’Amour Clemente

cigar4As I said, this was the cigar I was attempting to enjoy when I was called out for my rudeness, and it was almost great enough to erase the incident from my mind. I’ve been a big fan of Illusione for the last few years — they’re a relatively new company started by a relatively young guy, so it’s the ideal marque for younger hobbyists who tend to flock to such modern, off-the-wall blends as Acid, Asylum, Lars Tetens and others. But here’s a surprise — these bold, complex sticks will remind you of the great factories in Nicaragua, Dominican Republic and even, dare I say, Cuba. These are not your 25-year-old nephew’s gimmicky flavored cigars.

The normal Illusione line can be spectacular at times — smoke an MJ12 maduro to find out what I mean — but their “premium” lines such as Ultra, Cruzado, Singulare and the award-winning Epernay take this quality a notch higher. Fume D’Amour is a relatively new line for them, and this Clemente (6.5”, 48 ring) actually placed #3 on Cigar Aficionado’s top 25 for 2014. It’s not for the timid—it’s powerful and assertive and exhibited a little bit of harshness in its first third. But that edge was replaced at the halfway point with a solid nut and spice flavor profile that held tight to the end. This cigar burned evenly and flawless, and that effortless draw I crave was there in spades.

Even though this particular stick was relatively expensive due to the excessive tobacco taxes in Colorado, most Illusiones, including this one, retail for well under $10.

Nat Sherman Timeless Divino

cigar3Nat Sherman is an old, old name in the world of tobacco. Always considered the quintessential American cigar company, Nat Sherman faded in recent years as they focused more on machine-made tobacco products and other cigar lines that didn’t really match the tastes of serious cigar connoisseurs. Well, all of that changed when the Timeless line debuted a few years ago. If you like your cigar creamy with notes of chocolate or coffee or even both, the Timeless will be a rich, comforting surprise.

I’ve smoked nearly every size in the line by now. They’re relatively hard to find — even Cigar.com doesn’t have them listed yet — but I always grab one if I see them. This divino, a smallish figurado, was the one that also placed on the Top 25 this year (at #20). I’m not sure if it’s any better than the rest of the line, but it certainly had a beautiful, even burn that revealed an almost flawless roll. I usually don’t buy whole boxes of cigars because I’m often bored by the time I hit the last one — which is why I never smoke the same cigar twice in a row — but this is one cigar that I would gladly buy in quantity.

Best of all, the Timeless line is affordable — I think I’ve paid as little as $6 for one in the past. Along with new offerings from old-school companies such as the Romeo y Julieta Romeo and the Macanudo Cru Royale, the Nat Sherman Timeless will completely change your mind about this 86-year-old New Jersey-based cigar maker.

Headley Grange Eminente

cigar5You gotta love a cigar that was named after the studio where Led Zeppelin recorded the song “When the Levee Breaks.” Made by another relatively new company named Crowned Heads, the Headley Grange line is designed to be as bold and heavy as John Bonham’s bass drum foot. Light in hand and evenly blended, these cigars smoke like a fevered dream, close to perfect while throwing out some complex notes that will make you reach for your thesaurus. Because it’s so well-blended and evenly aerated, it tends to smoke quickly, which fully satisfies without making you terribly green afterward.

As I get older, I tend to gravitate more to the classic lines from factories who have been around forever. But I also recognize that newer lines such as Headley Grange and Illusione can be great, as well as new offerings from resurrected companies such as Nat Sherman. I think it’s important to steer the kids away from those new-fangled gimmicky infused brands and show them what a real cigar is.

It’s obvious that the younger generations aren’t as interested in this hobby as we boomers, and they’re more likely to scoff at our smoke. But cigar aficionados have been around for a long time, and perhaps the backlash is temporary (the parallels to the high-end audio industry are intentional) as long as we show that enjoyment of fine cigars is an affordable luxury that makes life a little more pleasant — even for those who like to garden while semi-nude.

Selective Focus: The Complexity of Simplicity

Yggy-3

Yggy-3

By Lee Shelly

Photographing an inanimate object … specifically a box 18″ wide by 5″ high by 13″ deep. No sweat! Pretty simple, right? I used to think so too! This week, I received a brand new product (shhh!) from Schiit Audio, and was tasked with providing them with quality photos for their website, print materials and advertising.

I’m going to take you through the setup and process involved in making some ‘simple’ photos.

Schiit’s website is predominantly back with white text. Traditional “on-white” product shots won’t work in that environment, so we’ll be shooting this on-black. This makes my job simultaneously easier and harder. Easier because I don’t have to deal with shadows on the background or below the product. Harder because I had to be very careful about where the light spills. It can’t hit the black background or it will look gray. It can’t hit the base at the wrong angle or I’ll pick up the reflection in the image. Oh yeah … and then there’s the dust. Dust tends to disappear nicely on white surfaces, but not so on black! Every little speck shows up. In fact, it’s enhanced by the lighting. If I don’t keep the environment clean (and even if I do) there will be hours spent in Photoshop dust-busting the images before I can submit them.

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Ok, so we know it’s going to an on-black shoot … what’s does that entail? First there’s the background. In my studio, The PhotoLoft (www.photography-loft.com), I have a variety of rolls of seamless backgrounds available quickly in ceiling mount rollers.

This saves me a ton of time and aggravation versus setting up a background stand, pulling out the right roll and hanging it. It also means I won’t be tripping over that stand all day as I maneuver the lights.

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A quick note about space. The first time I shot the Schiit back in 2010, I was working out of my home studio. I had 10′ x 20′ to work within … and it was a nightmare! Trust me when I tell you that between lights, background, table, tripods — and, well, me — it was nigh on impossible to move.

Having space is important, even when the thing your shooting is relatively small. Now I have 2,700 sq ft.

Overkill? For this perhaps, but when we’re shooting fashion, every bit of that space is used. Anyway, back to the Schiit we’re shooting today.

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Next step is getting a solid and spacious work surface. I made a 4′ x 8′ rolling table that serves as my workspace for jobs of this nature. I used to work on a standard 3′ x 6′ folding table, and that works too, but the larger roller table makes everything easier. To the roller, I add a 3′ x 3′ folding card table. This serves as the staging area and computer workstation.

We drape the background onto the table to create a seamless area of blackness.

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To that we add the little extra visual element that will keep the product from looking like its floating in empty space … a black reflective plexiglass base.

When I started out, I used to use a piece of glass to create this effect because, well, it was available. I had this nice big glass coffee table. That was ok until 1) I noticed that the reflection wasn’t clean … there was actually a double reflection coming from the top and bottom of the glass, and 2) my wife didn’t notice it was missing once and tried to set a cup of coffee down. One carpet cleaning later, I was told never to do that again. Black plexiglass solved the first issue, and kept my marriage safe as well.

The downside of plexiglass is that it scratches easily, and every scratch shows up … there goes more of that Photoshop time. I can use both sides, but still I go through about six 2′ x 3′ pieces of black plexiglass each year. Polished granite scratches less, but it’s unwieldy and ungodly expensive.

Under the plexiglass goes a large patch of black velvet. Velvet eats light and we don’t want light showing up except on the product.

Remember the product? Yeah, we’re getting there.

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Speaking of light, it’s time to break out the lighting for today’s adventure.

I want to have a very deep depth-of-field on this shoot because I want the product relatively sharp from front-to-back. This requires a very small aperture and that means lots of light power. I also want to eliminate the ambient sunlight so I know all the light is under my control. That means fast shutter speeds … again, lotsa light power. I’m using a total of four 320w/s studio strobes.

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Each strobe will get a light-modifier to shape the light depending on what the light is doing … being a key light, a fill light or a highlight. The key lights on this shoot will be 12″ x 36″ strip boxes. This provide an even, soft distribution of light over an area the size that we need.

The highlights will have either a grid, that controls exactly where the light falls, or a socked beauty dish that provides a little broader coverage.

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It’s time to set up the light stands. Three will be basic Tri-stands while the fourth will be a boom stand that will hold the lights that are behind the product, so the stand isn’t in the frame.

Ok, so now we see it starting to come together. The left light will light the faceplate of the product. The right light will light the side. The boomed overhead light will light the top and the gridded highlight, which is just out of frame, will give a little extra light to the headphones on top.

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All these lights need to be synced up to fire together. Back in the day, this meant a sequence of sync cables. What a mess … like I need more wires over which I can trip. Now it’s much easier to accomplish this task thanks to wireless triggers.

I use Pocket Wizard brand triggers because I find them to be the most reliable. I can also set up different groups of lights to fire separately so I can test my lights one at a time while remaining at the camera rather than walking back and forth turning lights on and off. This may not seem like that big a deal, but it is. Each light gets its own receiver and the camera gets a transmitter. Now when I fire the camera, the lights all fire too!

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Time to take a picture, right?

Not so fast, the first thing I do is set my camera to the aperture, ISO and shutter speed I want and take a test frame with no flash. The result should be a black frame, which gets confirmed via the histogram. This tells me the ambient room light is having no effect on the resulting image. I then shoot four frames, one with each of the lights individually, while using a light meter to make sure I have each light set to the proper level. Then I have to assess what the meter is telling me, and adjust for the fact that this particular product is a silver reflective metal. This means that the meter reading will actually result in an overexposure, so I need to adjust accordingly.

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Once I’ve confirmed my camera and light settings, it’s time to tether the camera to the computer.

I have learned the hard way that you can NOT trust the LCD on the back of the camera. The histogram helps, but there is nothing like seeing the image on a calibrated monitor at larger than 3″ diagonal.

There are several software options to accomplish this task. Nikon has their own and Adobe offers the option through their software as well.

There are wireless options, but when I’m working with 36mp images, I don’t have time to wait for them to transfer over WiFi. So USB3 it is.

Yeah … more wires.

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Once the tether-connection is established, it’s finally time to take a frame with all the lights firing and decide what adjustments need to be made.

It’s a rare day indeed when everything looks just right on the first shot, even though I’ve shot these products for the last 4+ years, there is always some tweaking to be done.

Light levels from one or more lights, angles and positions of the lights and camera settings, all need adjusting almost every time. This is no exception. The boomed highlight is not quite hitting at the right angle and it’s too hot. The front face is showing a little bit of gradation meaning an angle adjustment is needed and the gridded highlight isn’t quite bright enough to give the kick I need. Several adjustments and a few more test frames, and it’s time to clean up the dust before the real shot. The finished frame? Top of the page.

That shot is SOOC … straight out of the camera … and will need some further adjustment in Photoshop. There is still dust despite my best efforts to eliminate it. That all needs to be cleaned. There was a small amount of spill into the background that will need to be darkened. However, overall, I’m happy with the in-camera result. That’s frame number one. I’ll be shooting to deliver a total of 6 shots in this setup … different angles as well as the back and some closeup details. While they will not need all new background setups, the light is adjusted each time to ensure the proper angles of incidence for even smooth light.

To wrap up, here’s a shot of all the gear needed to make this ‘simple’ photo:

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Sometimes the simplest results require complex and challenging processes … but those are often the most fun as well!

I hope you’ve enjoyed a glimpse into my day-to-day work. I’m happy to answer questions.

Oh … and yeah … I got to listen to the new product. It’s one of my favorite perks. I’ll let Scot and the review team give you the full scoop when it’s released later this summer, but I will say this: it’s worth the wait!

About the Author

11020374_10204876382127650_1989947298_nLee is a Philadelphia-based commercial photographer best known for his work in the field of Consumer Electronics product photography, but he’s also a hobbyist who loves to make art with his camera wherever he finds it.

You can find him at www.leeshellyphoto.com.

Tangerine Dream SHM-SACD Reissues

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1280px-Tangerine-dream-ebw-2

Edgar Froese and Tangerine Dream (Eberswalde, Germany in 2007), courtesy of Wikimedia

 by Paul Ashby

Following founder Edgar Froese’s sudden passing earlier this year, fans new and old are examining, re-examining, and appreciating Tangerine Dream’s catalog. For the newcomer, or those wanting a refresher, there are several good places to start.

Four Tangerine Dream SHM-SACDs were released in late February via Virgin/Universal Japan. They’ll only play on SACD machines; also available are (slightly) less-pricey SHM-CD versions that’ll spin on standard players.

They’re difficult to find in the USA. They’re expensive. And they sound remarkably good — so much better than the mediocre first-issue Virgin UK CDs, or the late-80s budget LP reissues on Virgin UK, or crackly US LP versions on Jem’s Virgin International label. These new SACD reissues represent Tangerine Dream’s most transformative (and, at the same time, most consistent) mid-’70s era, when they transitioned from a psychedelic Krautrock combo into a more focused, powerful and unique electronic entity.

Phaedra (1974)

td-phaeMellotron, prowling Moogs, repetitive sequencer lines, all soaked in echo, phase and reverb…Phaedra isn’t easy listening. It wasn’t easy recording, either; legend has it that the bass frequencies damaged studio monitors during the sessions. But it wasn’t all sturm und drone — along with Tony Banks’ intro to Genesis’ “Watcher Of The Skies,” “Mysterious Semblance at the Strand of Nightmares” remains an exemplary early utilization of the Mellotron as a neo-classical keyboard of choice.

Phaedra‘s celestial throb was amazing then and it’s remarkable now, especially when considered in the context of the state of electronic music in 1974.

Rubycon (1975)

td-rubyFollowing a seven-minute intro of faux-oceanic, new-age bliss-out fake-out, Rubycon descends into a whirlpool of darkly relentless sequencers. Phaedra merely hinted at this, a monolithic illustration of the disciplined implementation of synthesizers and hallucinogenic atmospherics to an ultimately …. organic yet ominous effect. Dude. Doesn’t the original meaning of “Rubicon” have something to do with water and the inability to turn back? Yeah. That.

This isn’t Tomita or Switched-On Bach or Vangelis or even Synergy. Rubycon is the sound of finely-honed menace. It’s the album that launched hundreds of thousands of acid trips– or, uh, so I’ve heard.

Richochet (1975)

td-ricoThis live album is my least favorite of the four. Where Phaedra and Rubycon swirl, veer, soar and dive, Ricochet plods and meanders, with relatively little grace or form. The addition of drums, unheard in the TD studio lineup since 1973’s Atem, gives the album more of a progressive rock feel, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing — the album has its moments. But if you’re going to skip any of these four, Ricochet might be the one worth missing; the recording benefits the least from the SACD remaster.

It’s very possible that the band, exhausted from touring and recording, needed to, shall we say, recoup and regenerate, and this live album gave them a chance to catch their breath. What came next would make the lull worth the wait.

Stratosfear (1976)

td-stratIt was inevitable — Tangerine Dream goes MELODIC! Purists might claim that the tuneful won out at the expense of more adventurous exploration…I mean, the title track resembles an actual song with nearly-recognizable verses and choruses, and you can tap your feet and hum to it. Also, here there be guitar solos. Horrors! But don’t despair (much), despairing types; the album still has unsettling vibes and TD’s trademark grainy ozone to spare. If flights of melancholy are your thing, Stratosfear will meet you halfway on the runway to broodville.

Overall, the sound on these SACDs (with the exception of the relatively drab Richochet) is excellent, especially on Stratosfear. The 12-string guitar on the latter has real presence, and the highs are delivered with a potent sizzle. If you like improved stereo separation and a more defined bass synth pulse to your Rubycon experience, you’ll feel it. There’s a lot going on in these recordings, and crappier masterings quickly turn the mid-low and low-end to mush. None of that here. There’s a clarity to the presentation sorely lacking on the old Virgin CDs. The soundstaging is much improved, as well.

The packaging is very Japanese, and by that I mean DELUXE, and high quality. “Mini-LP” gatefolds with obi strips, plus another obi that wraps around the back cover. Poly sleeves inside the glossy laminated jackets.

What’s missing? I’d LOVE Tangram (1980) in this format. It was the last truly great TD album. If subsequent SACD releases follow chronologically (and I have no evidence upon which to base this speculation), Encore, Cyclone, Force Majeure and Tangram should be the next batch. If there is a next batch. Fingers crossed.

USA sources for these reissues are … scant. Amazon US has them for $60. Yes, each. That would be $240 for all four (but hey, shipping is free with Amazon Prime!). CDJapan is selling them for $33.00 each plus shipping from Japan — about 25 bucks for all four, if you want them fast. But it’d be about $85 cheaper than getting them from the Amazon Borg.

Is it worth it for four SACDs? To a fan, on a decent system, at indecent dB levels, they’re justifiable. Incidentally, cranking these in the living room at “reference volume” is a blast, but one of the best parts of rediscovering these albums has been hearing them on good headphones through a quality headphone amplifier. Space music, inner space …that sort of thing.

One bit of advice: unless you’re a object-based, completist packaging slut like me, play for time and hope that these are released soon on DSD — for a few dollars less than $33 each.

And if you like this stuff, and haven’t already, go deeper into Edgar Froese’s solo career. Good starting points are Aqua, Epsilon in Malaysian Pale, and Macula Transfer, all from the same era as the SACD reissue series.

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The audio from the YouTube embeds below is not encoded from the SACDs…not that anyone could really tell the difference on YouTube, I know. They appear to be from the 1994 series of remasters.

Review: Fostex TH500RP and HiFiMAN HE-560 headphones

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by Brian Hunter

The market continues to swirl around planar magnetic technology and its popular sonic benefits. With growing maturity and gains in acceptance and sales, the fallout is proving to be a real “W” for consumers. Where the forerunners of the planar race used to sit solely in the upper tier of $2k, it now appears that there could be a mad dash for mindshare in the slightly more wallet-comfortable $700-$900 range. The first early contenders entered the market last year in the form of the two subjects of this review, the Fostex TH500RP and the HiFiMAN HE-560. One of the newest additions to this open-back mid-tier group is about to hit the market, courtesy of Head-Fi favorite Audeze. First shown to the public at CES this year, the EL-8 is the newest planar magnetic headphone from the company and comes in both closed and open variations for $699.

Fostex is no stranger to planar magnetic technology. For those not familiar, one of their earlier classic headphones, the T50RP, is perhaps one of the most tweaked and modded headphones of all time, giving birth to standalone mod brands like MrSpeakers. The new Fostex open-back drafts some of that original brand equity with a similar model nomenclature, just add a “H” and a “0” to the blender, and mix well. While a quick glance might allude to similarities, the constancies with the product in hand end quite quickly. Gone is the plastic outer shell and closed-back “directness” of sound, instead replaced by an interesting yet simple open-back design and upper-tier build. On-product branding for the TH500RP is understated, consisting of a same-color Fostex logo on the headband and the simple white text of “REGULAR PHASE STEREO HEADPHONE” circling the lower half of the earcup. The model number is located on the inside of the headband out of sight, opposite the serial number on the right internal side.

On the head, the Fostex is very comfortable. The clamping pressure is to my preference, which is to say, fairly light. The headphone sits very well on my (admittedly absolutely ginormous rather large) head and offered easy adjustments in all directions for the drivers. In contrast with HiFiMAN HE-560 however, the Fostex does not offer interchangeable cables; the connection is hardwired directly to the ear cup.

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I very much enjoyed the feel of the TH500RP. It’s a light, but durable, design and it really struck a chord with me, maybe enven more so than the HE-560’s wearability did.

The HiFiMAN external design of its headphones has come a long way. The rounded edges and lighter weight of the HE560 make entire package feel very thought-out from top to bottom. The headband architecture has been revised to something like a toned-down and smaller version of the behemoth Abyss headphone. A small head-cage traces an outline in which the leather head-pad can be adjusted either up or down. And while the TH500RP may have outpaced the 560 in terms of clamping pressure comfort, the HifiMAN is by no means tight as far as headphones go. Long term listening should pose no problems with the sturdy feel and neck-reliving 375g of weight (the HE-6 is 502g). The ear pads feature a leather edging but the actual head-facing material is more of a felt-like texture. While the outer ring of the ear cup is now decorated with a dark red wood grain finish, the outside grill remains much of the same traditional styling of the rest of the HiFiMAN line. Also consistent with other models, the removable cable is terminated in a easy-to-swap twist off connection that allows for balanced connections to amplifiers if you so desire, a good option that I like to see in higher-end head-fi products. Both headphones are very high in terms of wearablity and comfort (at least according to this reviewer’s pumpkin head melon).

If you take a quick trip up the reviewer’s frequency trail, you always start at the bass. In both cases for these headphones, the news is good. Taking queues from the traits that planar magnetic technology is known for, on a grand scale the bass in both cases exudes tightness and balance. It’s delightfully present; it feels deep and never overdone. For a bit of perspective, I threw in a benchmark to my reference Audeze LCD-3’s (also a planar magnetic technology) for good measure. In Mark Ronson’s newest collaboration with Bruno Mars “Uptown Funk”, there is a sampled vocal chorus that is doubled by a bass line throughout the song. The initial intro to the male line is stripped down, but as the song grows the two play out very close together. Of the three, the LCD-3 still held the crowd in terms of being able to discern the separation between these two bass elements. The Fostex felt a little more blended, with the HE-560 allowing for a bit more separation. Still when all is said and done the bass is one of the true arenas where planars excel the most and all three of these options bring it to the table.

But that’s pretty much where the TH500RP and HE-560 really start to diverge. When I reviewed some of my listening notes on the Fostex, one word kept leaping out at me, ‘fat’. I’m comfortable with calling the Fostex “fat sounding”. Being fat in musical terms can be very good (fat tones!), even as it tugs on the sleeve of individual preference a little more. What I’m not comfortable calling the TH500RP is “richer” or “more analog” than most headphones. Those terms don’t quite fit the robustness of the tonal saturation I heard throughout the mid range. That being said, I would recommend a listen to the 500 if tubes and vinyl are your thing; some early feedback on the headphone suggested that this pairing might be very desirable to individuals who lean towards those type of priorities. It is still great fun in sonic terms, but piled up next to the HE-560, vocals would sound just a hair more congested at times by comparison.

What is a bit more obvious — and unique to the HE-560 — is the top-end. There is a bit more of it overall and the extension upward is pretty fantastic, at almost any price point. The detail, articulation and dynamic finesse all took me by surprise when I first donned the review sample. If micro-detail is your thing, than the 560 may align with your priorities. The Allison Kraus’ album New Favorite starts out with a balanced stereo field of acoustic guitars with the slide filling in the gaps. The single note leads, dipped in just the right amount of reverb, offers an interesting pinpoint to gauge location awareness and the guitars provide an anchor to the song, the slide leads appear to move around and even out into (head-) space as the song progresses. Throughout the mids and treble, the HE-560 did a tremendous job of providing a sharp focus and sense of projected “out of your head” experience. But even with all this transparency, it’s important to remember that the 560 generally had more treble presence than the 500, which may again induce some polarization, depending on your relationship with sensitivity to the frequency. By comparison, the TH500RP felt closer to the LCD-3 “house sound” in terms of frequency response, at least more than the HE-560 did, which is consistent with the rest of the HiFiMAN line.

You could potentially draw audiophile party lines between the fat 500 and the leaner 560, but really, that generalization would be shortchanging the whole scene. Even a simple “tube lovers start here” sign pointing to the 500 doesn’t tell the whole story. Bass is just where it should be for both headphones by most audiophile terms, which is becoming quite the signature trademark for planars. Control, reach and slam are hitting benchmark levels that have apparently proved more of a challenge for dynamic driver models over the years. These two open back models show us how far the hobby has come in a short time.

I am pretty awestruck by the performance squeezed out of the HE-560. If you prefer a bit more detail and energy in the high frequencies, then HiFiMAN is the direction you should look; the spatial reasoning and attention to detail makes it a superb specimen in this price bracket.

Those big on tones and textures may get a kick out of the TH500RP; along with a comfortable fit, the headphone feels like a feather on the head — compared to far too many.

Those looking for a step up from the $300-$500 tier of headphones should be fairly happy with new entries to the subtle ledge that hangs just under a grand. Not really a budget move, these newest offerings in headphone audio give a solid taste of the flagship good life, just without the crazy price tags.

Audiophiles who love chasing the last 10% still can get their fix with the current flagship offerings from Audeze, HiFiMAN, Stax and Abyss, but these more practical offerings make serious waves for high fidelity.

Highly recommended. Both of ’em.

Both

Fostex 1

Fostex 2

HiFiman 1

HifiMAN 2

The Reluctant Sommelier: Is Vintage Important?

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Two_Much_Fun

by Nina Sventitsky

I have seen this question in several blogs lately. Why is it coming up now?

It could be a result of the great 2012 vintage of wines from regions up and down the West Coast of the US, released starting last Fall and continuing into this year – in particular, wines that have been aged for a few years in oak are readily available from an outstanding vintage. The 2010 Barolos from Italy are out now, as well, another great vintage for that wine region. Ditto for Brunello.

What makes a decent vintage anyway?

Essentially, it’s a great growing season, one in which the weather, sunlight, temperature all happen at a pace that allows for steady ripening of grapes, across a region, with consistency. A vintage in which, no matter what your macro- and micro-climate is in the vineyard and no matter where you are in that wine region, the yields were ideal, ripening was ideal and potential for aging and market value are fantastic.

The point about vintage is this … you can have the best soils, experienced growers and winemakers, a well-known wine region, but a bad summer of heat, or a series of rainy days just prior to harvest, and it all goes out the window. Weather is the main variable in determining the success of the particular vintage.

This is why regions like California, Australia and Spain have been gaining traction in the United States; fair prices, more consistent weather in generally great climates for wine, and styles that we like.

Here in the US, the West Coast is blessed with a perfect convergence of geology, topography, climate and weather. 90% of US wine production comes from California. Another few percentage points come from Oregon and Washington.  Our West Coast climate is the envy of all other major global wine regions, because it is generally consistent. In California particularly, we are blessed with predictability.

Not so with some of the rest of the world’s great wine regions. Get a bad vintage or two in a row, and you’re sitting on a lot of expensive wine with bad reviews. And you have to live with that wine and hope for the best.

Maybe I exaggerate a bit. No one is horrified drinking Burgundy from a not-great vintage; maybe feeling a bit ripped off and disappointed, but not horrified.

If you are simply buying for everyday drinking, and not to cellar, what’s at retail is going to be fine – you should simply understand which broad regions are dependent on variable weather. Those with weather challenges year to year are Northern Italy, France, New Zealand, Chile – and here in the US, Oregon due to some ripening challenges.

You should also know your wine style, what you love. If you are a big Cab drinker, and love rich juicy wines with a lot of tannin – 2011 Napa Valley is not the vintage for you. In spite of what I said in the previous paragraphs about our perfect weather, 2011 was unseasonably cold and overcast in California. It was a very cool vintage and I don’t mean culturally cool; I mean literally cool. It was the summer-that-never-was out here, with grapes taking FOREVER to ripen. Red wines are a bit austere. But for whites? A cool season means crisp acid and possibly more aromatics – there is the silver lining for this “bad vintage.”

Declared Vintages

There are some regions that will “declare” their great vintages, like Champagne and Porto. You should expect that this practice guarantees that the regions winemakers think it’s their best, and that the wines are meant to be aged.

In Rioja, the wine region that I represent (disclosure alert!), the consortium rates each vintage, from (No Comment) to Good to Very Good to Excellent. Most Rioja bodegas won’t make a Reserva or Gran Reserva wine in a “Good” rated year – too much expensive oak goes into making these wines, since there are minimum aging requirements in barrel and bottle. Grapes from those vintages will go into simple wines with a bit of oak aging and prices under $20.

Thomas_Arvid_Cork_2001 (1)

When Should I Just Give In and Open the Bottle?

Such a confusing and mysterious question. This is when a bit of research and a Coravin helps. Coravin is an expensive accessory that allows one to extract a small amount of wine straight through the foil and cork to test readiness; once removed the cork reseals itself and you’ve got your answer. But it’s $300 and so new (released only a few years ago) that there is not enough data to support that the wine is not affected by the argon gas injected into the bottle to protect against oxygen contact.

The best option is to research – the region, the vintage and harvest conditions, the winemaker’s style or reputation. Five minutes of time will make a lot of difference.

In general? Most of us wait too long to open that bottle of California wine that’s been sitting in the closet forever. Not every wine region supports extra long aging. Napa Valley wines? If you have not opened your 1990’s, you’re too late.

Then again, don’t be an ijit and buy a young wine and expect it to simply “open up” after a run through the aerator. Barolo from the excellent 2010 vintage? Hope you’re patient, because that baby needs another decade, and can last another 30 years.

Rather than publish a master chart of the past 20 years of vintages from the great wines of the world, I urge you to take a few minutes to search “(xxx region) vintage report“.   Most wine regions publish vintage reports, or harvest reports.

FYI, here is the vintage summary from the Napa Valley Vintners:

http://www.napavintners.com/napa_valley/vintage_charts.asp

And from Sonoma County Vintners, a report on the 2010 vintage, lots of learning in this one:

http://www.sonomawine.com/press-room/press-releases/147-challenging-growing-conditions-produce-outstanding-grapes-throughout-sonoma-county

And because this can be a bit confusing, a knowledgable retailer, storefront or online, plays an important role. There are so many online retailers known for providing in depth info about producers, regions, weather and vintages – among them WineAccess.com, Winex.com, K & L Wine Merchants (KLWINES.com). Snooth and Bottlenotes are excellent for background information on wines and vintages.

One thing is certain – researching and tasting through vintages is a helluva lot less expensive than researching your next audio obsession! And it’s something you can do simultaneously.

Happy sipping!

About the Author

NinaSunsetGlassNina Sventitsky has been “into wine” for the last 20 years. She serves as the Secretary General of the North American Sommelier Association (NASA) and is the brand ambassador for the wine region of Rioja, Spain. She is also a professional wine educator, focusing on US varieties. Her professional certifications include: WSA/NASA Silver Pin Certified Sommelier, NASA American Wine Specialist, NASA Italian Wine Specialist, WSET Advanced Certificate, and the Court of Master Sommeliers Level 1.

She’s also a partner at WyWires.

The Vinyl Grouch: Bill Evans at the Complete Village Vanguard Recordings (1961)

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BillEvansComplete

By Ken Micallef

Journeys through vinyl old and new, whether mastered from analog or digital sources, with great music the only common currency

Listening to pianist Bill Evans’ recently released box set, The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings, 1961 (Concord/Fantasy), it’s easy to understand why jazz was loved and popular then and why it’s decidedly un-loved today. Sucker-punching an ill-informed public that wouldn’t know Louis Armstrong if he walked up and sold them a joint, the media has been whipping on jazz a lot lately, from the Rocky wannabe jazz charade masquerading as a film, Whiplash, to the unconscionable parody of tenor saxophone great Sonny Rollins in the usually urbane pages of the New Yorker. This lazy, uninformed view of America’s original art form has filtered down to many venues, including John H. Darko’s Digital Audio Review, where the typically astute audio writer (and excellent photographer) expresses his distaste for certain jazz artists in his piece, “6moonbeams #1”:

Do you enjoy the music you hear at audio shows? In the main, I do not. My tastes are more closely aligned with FactMag and The Quietus coverage than JustJazzGuitar.com or Gramophone. Not every audiophile subsists on a diet of Jazz At The Pawnshop or Harry Belafonte but you wouldn’t know that from wandering the halls of the average hi-fi show.

And later in the same piece:

The majority of music heard at shows is clearly aimed at the dominant demographic: middle-aged white men who savour the familiarity of Diana Krall or Hotel California … I’m not advocating that we all start listening to A Place to Bury Strangers or The Haxan Cloak, but there’s a hidden thirst among a mostly silent minority for greater musical variety.

On one hand, I take issue with John’s remarks, but on the other I couldn’t agree with him more. It’s like, “Finally, someone said it!” Though I haven’t heard Belafonte or the trite, Swedes-play-trad Jazz at the Pawnshop at a show in years, my ire is reserved for the “white man blues” often played at shows, wherein some crusty white dude strums his acoustic guitar and moans about his troubles with a soul so saccharine you wish the ghost of Howlin’ Wolf would strike him dead. The jazz-fumbling, mealy-mouthed Diana Krall prevails as well, typically in exhibitor’s rooms designed to lure the wealthy yet dead-in-the-ears audiophile who equates multiple drivers, shiny surfaces and a husky female voice with “high-end audio.” This kind of customer evaluates audio with his eyes, not his ears. Too much in our hi-fi hobby is about the gear and not the music, and the industry loves it. How else to get the rubes to upgrade year after year if the gear isn’t the primary focus? We music lovers are the losers, as well as such fascinating artists as, yes, The Haxan Cloak, and fellow electronic music purveyors, Oneohtrix Point Never and Holy Other, folk satirist Father John Misty, and such ear-friendly jazz journeymen as drummer Reggie Quinerly, guitarist Gilad Heckselman, trumpeter Marcus Parsley, and on such albums as One Quiet Night and Day Trip, guitarist Pat Metheny.

I’m not a fan of what typically passes for jazz at audio shows (you definitely won’t hear Wayne Shorter, Archie Shepp or Ornette Coleman), but it’s my bet that Darko has never heard Bill Evans’ concert LP masterpieces, Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz For Debby. The original tapes from which these two recordings were culled have now been restored (grafting hundreds of snippets of tape together in Pro Tools) to feature all of the music (and crowd chatter) from those afternoon and evening performances from June 25, 1961. The four-LP box set is jammed with goodies. Pressed on 180-gram vinyl, the LPs (each in its own polyethylene inner sleeve and standard cardboard sleeve) are packaged with a 12-page booklet, complete with new liner notes by reissue producer Bill Belmont and the original liner notes by the set’s original producer, the recently passed Orrin Keepnews. Reproductions of Keepnews’ session annotations and photographer Steve Schapiro’s proof sheets are also included, as well as replications of Bill Grauer Productions, Inc.’s “Recording Data Sheets,” and a poster of the famous cover — Evans, in profile, the true tortured jazz artist.

I like to think that if an adult Darko had been present at the Village Vanguard that day in 1961, he would’ve fallen under the spell of Evans’ lyrical, smart, seriously innovative swinging jazz just as thousands have, ever since. Evans, with bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian, basically invented the template for the jazz trio we hear today in pianists from Brad Mehldau and Frank Kimbrough to Jason Moran and newcomer Tigran Hamasyan. Not that such legendary pianists as Tommy Flanagan, Hank Jones, Oscar Peterson and even Horace Silver, all working during the Evans era, weren’t equally important, but Evans brought a tenderness, a sense of beauty, introspection and a new way of improvising interactively with the bassist and drummer that has most influenced today’s jazz pianists, including Keith Jarrett and Fred Hersch. Adding to the recordings’ sense of mystery was the death of equally innovative 25-year-old bassist LaFaro in a car crash ten days after the Vanguard performances. LaFaro’s death took a brutal emotional toll on Evans, who was, according to drummer Paul Motian, “numb with grief” and “like a ghost” after LaFaro’s death. Evans eventually went on hiatus for months after LaFaro’s death.

The four LPs of The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings, 1961 reveal the Evans’ trio’s almost spooky level of musical communication. They stand as marvelous, intimate recordings a half century later.

Listening to LaFaro’s “Gloria’s Step” and “Jade Visions,” “Solar” or “Milestones,” you’re instantly caught up in the trio’s beauty and sophistication, developed over two years prior to the Vanguard Date, that inform every selection. And for live recordings from 1961 the audio — tracked on an Ampex two-track setup next to the stage — is stunning. Every brush stroke, every piano note, every upper register bass pluck is exceptionally well-defined and tonally rich. It feels like you’re sitting tableside, you almost feel one with the trio.

You’re hearing the rules of piano trio improvisation being rewritten, where each member of the trio has an equal melodic, rhythmic and comping role — a revolutionary idea in the early 60s. In Oscar Peterson’s trio, for example, Oscar played like a fiend while Ed Thigpen and Ray Brown kept time and traded occasional fours. Evans called this new method of improvisation the “internalized beat,” where everyone solos, and, conceptually, no one solos – the group expression becomes one. It’s exquisite music yet also bittersweet, not only for the loss of LaFaro, but due to Evans’ harmonic sophistication, brilliant ballad playing and solo skills. Evans’ music perpetually leaned to the darker side of the emotional and psychological spectrum. These introspective performances delight and swing, but also make one to reflect on Evans’ loss, and perhaps, our own.

9/10

Vinyl Quality: 9/10

Would Darko dig it? I think he would. He’s honest when saying he wants to hear the music he loves at shows. A silent majority does exist in hi-fi I circles, 30- (or 40-) some-things like Darko, and for example, AudioQuest’s Stephen Mejias (formerly of Stereophile), our very own Scot Hull, DeVore Fidelity’s John DeVore, and 1000s of non-industry true believers who not only appreciate digital and analog reproduction, but for whom the quest to enjoy music at its deepest levels is what ultimately satisfies and drives them, not the quest for gear. And that’s exactly what drove the early years in hi-fi, in the shape of the “Space Age Bachelor pad” esthetic, found in the early ‘60s pages of Playboy and Audio. Stereophile’s Art Dudley and Herb Reichert would gladly pony up for the gear cherished in that now fuzzy ‘60s era: Thorens and Rek-O-Kut turntables, Tandberg reel-to-reels, Klipsh and Wharfdale speakers, Fisher, McIntosh and Marantz amplifiers, all similar to those seen in this audio/style think-piece from The Selvedge Yard.

Same as those ‘60s audiophiles, today’s listener wants to hear his or her music, not the sounds that made grandpappy go all tingly. Jazz of the 1960s was the popular music currency of the day. Just as today’s hip-hop vocalists dream of being the next Beyonce or Kanye, ‘60s crooners such as the doomed Beverly Kenney, ultra hip Mark Murphy, and 100s of others evolved during the swing era, ingrained in public tastes from the days of the big bands and bebop. Bill Evans was arguably the most popular and influential jazz pianist of the ‘60s due to his lyrical, cerebral and wistful piano style as well as his image, which established the now clichéd icon of the serious jazz cat deep in thought, hunched over his keyboard, choosing each note as if it was his last. But Evans’ best-selling jazz was highly melodic and available then only in the LP format, which required the musician to pack a lot of very approachable, listenable, swinging sounds into one 40 minute LP.

Music Quality 10/10

Music Quality: 10/10

Transferred from 44.1 digital files originally extracted for a Japanese CD box set, Bill Evans’ The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings, 1961 is an intensely enjoyable listen, “low resolution sampling rate” be damned. Though set producer Bill Belmont has received much criticism for cutting the vinyl from 44.1 files rather than the original tapes, the sound is intimate, warm, and clear without sounding overtly cold or digital. Similar things can be said for Concord’s hard-to-find but still in-print OJC series, and Blue Note’s ongoing 75th Anniversary reissues. Do these vinyl reissues capture the lifelike presence, tonality and palatable immediacy of the original pressings? Of course not. But they are superior to the LP reissues of the late 80s and 1990s, when CD’s “Perfect Sound Forever” lie flashed dollar signs in front of a music industry sorely in need of a cash infusion. Vinyl is back and here to stay. Nine million units sold in the US in 2014!

If you’re a jazz newbie, check out Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz For Debby. Analogue Productions offers excellent LPs of both titles. Or for $99.99, go for the complete experience with The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings, 1961. It could begin the start of a beautiful love affair with jazz.

The Smoking Jacket: Do You Really Need Cuban Cigars?

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padron-1926

By Marc Phillips

Colleen and I just returned from a dealer event in Phoenix a few days ago where we introduced our new Axis VoiceBox S monitors to the Arizona Audio Video Club, our second visit in as many years. Normally at the conclusion of such an event, the attendees line up to talk with us about the products we distribute, whether this amp will go with that pair of speakers, that sort of thing. Toward the end of the meeting, one gentleman approached me and asked me a question I didn’t quite expect.

“What do you think about Cuban cigars once again entering the US marketplace?” he asked, obviously aware that I was an avid cigar smoker from some of my writings on my Vinyl Anachronist blog.

I brought up my usual points, gained from my brief experience as the co-owner of a cigar lounge back in Texas as well as my nearly twenty years as a cigar enthusiast. The Cuban cigar market, as I was told a few years ago, is pretty much spoken for in the global marketplace. The great Cuban cigar plantations and rolling factories can’t simply ramp up production to meet with the new and sudden demand from the U.S., and that the immediate outcome would probably be skyrocketing prices among premium Cuban cigars. Fine cigars are much like fine wines; it takes years and years to expand crops without sacrificing the quality of the final product.

In addition, there’s always the chance that the counterfeit market for genuine Cuban cigars will expand as well. Just a few years ago a sales representative for a cigar factory provided me with some alarming figures about the preponderance of counterfeits. Mexico, the place where many Americans go to score Cuban cigars, has a counterfeit rate of 85 to 90 percent. Canada, which many people believe is a far safer but slightly more expensive alternative to Mexico, can experience a 50 percent counterfeit rate.

Here’s the scary part, however — in Havana, Cuba, up to one-third of the cigars offered to tourists can be counterfeit. You heard me right. A genuine Cuban cigar isn’t even a sure thing in Cuba. As most experienced cigar connoisseurs know, you have to travel to places such as London or Geneva to ensure that you are always getting the finest Cubans — mostly due to the tight relationships European tobacco retailers have with the Cuban plantations and factories over the last couple of centuries. Other knowledgeable smokers also know how to spot counterfeits by such obvious giveaways as missing Cuban government seals on the boxes, or the quality and techniques used in the roll. (The Cigar Aficionado website, by the way, has an excellent page, with photos, on how to spot “fake” stogies.) I usually rely on my taste buds — I’ve smoked enough Cubans to know the difference after a puff or two.

I also provided my audiophile friend with another point, one that I usually don’t mention, and it’s this: every Cuban cigar in the world isn’t necessarily head and shoulders above every other cigar in the world. In the past I’ve talked about the unique climate and soil conditions, the talented and almost Zen-like rollers and the carefully monitored quality and lineage of the seeds that are responsible for the extraordinary quality of Cuban cigars. After all, you can have a Dominican cigar made from Cuban seeds, or Cuban torceadors rolling cigars with tobacco from other countries, and it’s not quite the same as a real Cuban cigar made by a gentleman who’s been sitting in the same chair at a Havana factory for the last 45 years.

But when it comes down right down to it, even the Cuban factories aren’t always perfect. Many cigar smokers discuss the Dark Ages of the Cuban Tobacco Industry, which took place between 1995 and 2005, give or take a year. For some reason — some people blame weather conditions, others blame the factories for lowering quality standards to meet global demand — Cuban cigars, as a whole, suffered a lapse in quality. They weren’t bad by any means, just not the best, just not as good as they used to be. Some of the great factories in other countries such as Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic started catching up during this time. You can see this leveling of the playing field in the annual Cigar Aficionado Top 25 Cigar ratings over the last couple of decades when classic Cuban cigars from Cohiba, Montecristo and other reputable marques no longer dominated those lists.

Before I go on, I have to admit that I’ve never smoked a Cuban cigar that was less than fantastic. I know why they are so highly prized in the cigar world. At the same time, I’ve also smoked plenty of non-Cuban cigars that were clearly just as good, if not better. While my favorite cigar of all time was a tiny little Cuaba figurado from Havana that took less than twenty minutes to smoke to its nub, many of my personal Top Ten are not from Cuba — such as the Padron No.45 Family Reserve, the Litto Gomez Small Batch No.1, the Davidoff Nicaragua Toro, the Arturo Fuente Don Carlos and a few others. These cigars can cost as almost as much as a great Cuban cigar, but they’re easily worth it.

But what if I told you that two of my favorite cigars, ones that I feel equal the best Cubans I’ve smoked in terms of flavor, construction and draw, can be bought for about $10 or less per stick? After our presentation to the Arizona Audio Video Club, I headed down to Churchill’s Cigars in Tempe, one of my favorite cigar stores in the country. I stocked up on two little gems, the Padron No.35 and the Curivari El Gran Rey, and they are both exquisite.

Padron 1926 Anniversary No.35

When I think about the greatest non-Cuban cigars in the world, the 1926 Anniversary Series from Padron immediately comes to mind. I’ve smoked nearly all of them, all the way up to special versions such as the aforementioned No. 45 Family Reserve and the world-class No. 85 figurado, the cigar I smoked on my 50th birthday a couple of years ago. There’s only one problem with smoking these beautifully textured powerhouses—they’re nicknamed “The Little Hammer,” by the way—they’re expensive. I think that No. 85 cost me more than $40, which is about the same price as a legendary Cuban cigar such as a Cohiba Behike BHK 52.

The No. 35, however, is the smallest stick in the line. A petite corona, it measures just four inches long with a ring size of 48. Like that truly awesome Cuaba, it’s good for only about 20-25 minutes before it’s gone forever. Because of that size, however, the No. 35 almost ventures into the affordable category—depending upon the store, they usually average about $11 per stick. That might sound like a lot for such a tiny little thing, but after you’ve smoked it you’ll truly understand the old adage that bigger is not necessarily better.

While the No. 35 has that same potent yet smooth flavor profile as a genuine Cuban stick, it also matches those lofty Cuban standards of draw and construction. As a result, this tiny cigar produces giant plumes of smoke, perhaps more than any other cigar I smoke on a regular basis. While there’s more to a cigar than just creating huge clouds of smoke around your head, that effortless draw should tell you that this cigar is expertly assembled by the world’s best torceadors. Second-hand smoke issues aside, the tiny No. 35 makes an incredibly huge impression.

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Curivari El Gran Rey

Funny story, but I had smoked about four of these beauties before I realized that Curivari was the name of the brand, and El Gran Rey was the just the name of this particular Curivari line. El Gran Rey seems like such a classic name for a cigar brand, a little unmemorable in the same way that a Chinese restaurant named Golden Dragon is a little unmemorable. But for just about $8.25, the price I paid at Churchill’s, you can have a relatively inexpensive cigar that easily achieves the Triple Crown of flavor, construction and draw.

I have a bit of a sentimental attachment to this cigar as well. A couple of years ago I interviewed tenor saxophonist Daniel Louis White for Perfect Sound Forever. He was working part-time at Habana House, my primary cigar store in Austin, so he invited me down so we could talk and smoke cigars. At the time Daniel would actually work a few weeks at HH and scrape up enough cash to complete work on his LP, Natural Consequences. Before we started, I asked him to tell me his favorite cigar in the entire store, and he picked the Curivari. I’d never heard of it before—the red and gold band was so old-school-cigar traditional that I never even noticed it among the fancier boutique cigars with their much more distinctive bands.

If you listen to our original recorded interview, you’ll hear me pause every couple of minutes to say, “Man, this is an incredible cigar!” (You won’t hear Daniel nodding in agreement, but it happens every time as well.) Light in hand, easy to draw, a perfect blend of complex and powerful flavors without a trace of harshness, this cigar had all the earmarks of the best Cubans. The only downside to this cigar is that it’s relatively hard to find — I think Curivari is still a relatively small company with a relatively low output. But if I see it in a cigar store, as I did in Phoenix, I grab a handful.

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I know there are plenty of seasoned cigar smokers out there who wear a sign around their necks that say, “Havana or Nothing!” But for every cigar snob who constantly incessantly about his “Cuban connection” and how every other cigar is second best, there are plenty of cigar smokers who enjoy more than just a taste of the very best by being less Havana-centric. Both the Padron No.35 and the Curivari El Grand Rey will satisfy in much the same way, and you won’t have to go broke or violate international law — at least for now — to experience them.

Selective Focus: Yes, Size Matters

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11020374_10204876382127650_1989947298_nSay hello to Lee Shelly — our new resident lensman. Lee is a Philadelphia-based commercial photographer best known for his work in the field of Consumer Electronics product photography, but he’s also a hobbyist who loves to make art with his camera wherever he finds it. You can find him at www.leeshellyphoto.com

In his occasional column here at Part-Time Audiophile, Selective Focus, Lee shares some stuff he gets asked as a pro shooter. In this offering, Lee takes apart some of the more common myths — around size.

Consider it a reference for your next camera.

Camera Choices

–by Lee Shelly

OK, so you’ve done the Selfie thing to death. You’ve filled up your phone’s memory with a million vacation shots. You’ve maxed out your cloud storage with snaps of your cat and your kids. You’ve effectively outgrown your camera phone … but what should you buy next? There are only about a billion options. Here are a few things to consider and maybe help you narrow your choices.

Megawhatxils?

The most often quoted, and among the least important specs, is the resolution. This is expressed in megapixels (mp). A megapixel is a million pixels. A 1mp image is roughly 1200×900 pixels. That’s already a higher resolution than your TV and many computer monitors can display. Billboards have been shot with 6mp cameras. So why do we need 24mp cameras? A few valid reasons. First, you may want to crop in on a smaller portion of the total image and still maintain enough resolution to show it on-screen or have a print made. Second, there are applications where more pixels help, specifically large prints that are meant to be viewed at close distance; photos on your wall, for instance.

So how many megapixels are enough? Well, a rule of thumb is that you’ll want to maintain 150dpi (dots per inch) to get good print quality. Therefore, a file that has 2000 x 3000 pixels (6mp) will print well as large as 13” x 20”, and a file that has 3000 x 4500 (13.5mp) will print beautifully at 20” x 30”. Since just about every current camera will give you 13mp or more, unless you’re looking to print bigger than 20” x 30” or you need to severely crop your images; any camera you’re considering has plenty of resolution.

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To demonstrate the advantage of higher resolution when it comes to cropping, let’s say you would like to crop and print an 8×10 print from the original photo (left). If it were taken with a 12mp camera, to maintain enough resolution, the most you could crop would be shown in the 2nd photo (center). If, on the other hand, you had used a 36mp sensor, you could crop to the 3rd photo and still maintain enough resolution to print an 8×10.

But more is always better, right? Not so much. The sensors for cameras are pretty small already. When you cram more pixels onto the same sensor size, you get more resolution, but you also get more digital noise.

Here are some samples that demonstrate the difference between the noise from a D90, a 12mp APS-C (small DSLR sensor), and a D700, a 12mp full frame sensor. Both were shot at the same ISO.

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Nikon D700 — low noise

 

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Nikon D90 — high noise

 

The same number of pixels, crammed onto a smaller sensor leads to more noise. The bottom line? Megapixels are not all the same and more is not always better.

Does size matter?

It’s an age old question, and despite what we men want to believe, size does matter … at least when it comes to sensor size.

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At 4.89×3.67 mm, the iPhone 6’s camera has a sensor that’s half the size of your pinky fingernail. Cramming 8 million pixel sites onto a sensor that small is going to lead to compromised image quality.

The size of the photo site (aka, a pixel) on the sensor determines the amount of light it can receive in a given amount of exposure time. The smaller the site, the less light it can receive. In order to keep the shutter speeds fast enough, the camera takes the lower amount of light and amplifies it (for you audio nerds, think: “increasing gain”). But that also means it’s amplifying the digital noise and distortion right along with the good information. The more amplification, the more noise you’ll see in your image. Cameras all have “noise reduction” filters that are applied to try to give the impression of a cleaner image, but when you “smooth” the noise, you also soften the picture. That’s why the sharpest images come from the cameras that apply the least gain … the ones with the bigger sensors

So, after your smart phone, buying a nice compact “Point n Shoot” camera is the next logical step, right? That’s a definite … maybe. The popular Nikon Coolpix line, for example, uses a sensor that’s really not much bigger at 6.17 × 4.55mm, but crams as many as 20mp onto it. This leads to many of the same compromises in terms of image quality, but does add other advantages in terms of the lens and the ability to zoom … but we’ll talk about that in a bit.

Where you really start to see a step up in the sensor quality and image quality is when you hit the current crop of “Mirrorless” cameras. These offer you many of the conveniences of a point n shoot, but offer MUCH larger sensors. Bigger sensors mean bigger photo sites (pixels) and better image quality. These also feature the option to swap lenses to get the best lens for the task at hand rather than relying on the built-in lens of a Point n Shoot.

The DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) cameras feature sensors that are at least as large as the mirrorless cameras … and often have larger ones. The best of these feature “Full Frame” sensors that are the same size as traditional 35mm film. Again, repeat after me, bigger is better when it comes to sensors. If you decide you need to have a camera with 24mps … please consider a full frame DLSR if you want the best image quality, because smaller sensors with 24mp are going to lead to compromised images, especially indoors or in low light.

What the heck is “Medium Format”? These are cameras with even larger sensors that can go as high as 80mp and still look fantastic. Who needs that? Professional commercial photographers. I’m just including them here to demonstrate what BIG really is when it comes to sensors.

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What else?

OK, we’ve established bigger is better, but is that the only consideration?

Of course not! If it were, we’d all buy the camera with the biggest sensor we can afford and there would be about 1/4 the number of models on the market. Instead, considerations like size, convenience, flexibility and image quality all need to be weighed. Here are a few of the pros and cons of each category.

Compact “Point n Shoots” (PnS)

These may have the smallest sensors, but what they sacrifice in image quality, they make up for in convenience. Generally equipped with zoom lenses that can bring the action closer, they offer a lot of convenience over your fixed lens cell phone camera. (Oh, and no, that “digital zoom” in your smartphone isn’t really zooming … it’s just cropping. You end up with even less pixels in the end.)

They are also the smallest option. If that means you are more likely to take it with you, then that’s an important consideration. The best camera in the world is useless if you don’t have it with you when inspiration strikes! Prices on these start under $100 and it’s a rare model indeed that exceeds $500.

The Bottom Line: PnS cameras give you the maximum convenience in the smallest package with better image quality than your phone-camera and prices that won’t put too big a dent in your wallet. The PnS category includes the popular Nikon Coolpix, Canon PowerShot and Sony Cyber-Shots as well as many other brands.

Mirrorless Cameras

While the PnS cameras have a zoom lens, they have just that one built-in lens — that is, you can’t swap out the lens for something with more zoom, more width or more whatever. The PnS zooms also tend to have smaller apertures, meaning they let less light in, and this forces you to have slower shutter speeds, and this leads to blurry images in low light or when shooting fast action.

Mirrorless cameras give you most of the size advantages of a PnS, but also give you larger sensors and the ability to switch out the lenses depending on what you need to shoot. There are options for zooms similar to the PnS, but they do add some bulk. Mirrorless cameras might fit nicely into a purse, coat pocket or small camera bag, but not a shirt pocket or the back or your skinny jeans like a PnS will.

You’ll also have to spend a bit more on these. Prices start around $400 with a starter zoom lens and range up to as much as $1500 … and then there are those lenses to buy.

The Bottom Line: The combination of larger sensor and better lenses lead to almost DSLR-like image quality while giving you much of the convenience of a PnS. Among the popular brands in this category are the Olympus Micro 4/3, Sony NEX and Panasonic Lumix.

DSLR

These beasts are not going to win any contests for convenience, but they are going to give you the best performance. They will consistently give you the best image quality, the fastest response (important when you’re trying to catch little Johnny’s soccer action), the longest battery life and the most lens options.

Sounds great … why not get one right away? Because they are also MUCH larger than any of the other categories. Their weight is measured in pounds, not ounces. They aren’t going to fit in ANY of your pockets … that’s why they come with camera straps. They also tend to be the priciest options, with full frame models starting at $1800 and maxing out at $6500 for just the camera body.

Bottom Line: If performance at-any-cost is your primary concern, and you don’t mind the weight and bulk, the DSLR is what you want. Canon EOS, Nikon D-series and Sony A-Series are the best bets in this category.

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Hopefully this takes some of the confusion out of the myriad of choices you’ll face. Or maybe it confused you even more. Feel free to ask questions on the topic in the comments. While I’m not here to make specific brand and model recommendations, I will address general questions.

DeVore Fidelity Gibbon X — Live in NoVA

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A Command Performance A/V demo setup featuring DeVore Fidelity Orangutan O/93

Got this note from my local audio dealer, Jeff Fox, and thought I’d pass it along. Be a good time to check out the speaker I was so smitten with at the NYAV ShowRMAF and CES.

From Noon to 5 pm on February 28th, Command Performance AV will host a special listening event with John DeVore.  John will premier the DeVORE FIDELITY Gibbon 10 speakers (also known as the Gibbon X).

After several years of development, this primate is ready for its public debut. The Gibbon 10 is a full-range speaker with a brand new tweeter and midrange, both designed specifically for this speaker.  The prototypes of this speaker were the rage at RMAF 2014 and CES 2015.  Now you will be among the first to hear this great speaker.

Command Performance is located at 115 Park Avenue, Suite #2, Falls Church, VA 22046.

I’ll look for you all there. I’ll be “that guy”; you know, the one with the absurdly large camera.

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