Author Archives: Part-Time Audiophile

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.

LH Labs Updates: Flex, Infinity, Verb, Soul

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igg_2-630x250I got a chance to chat with Casey Hartwell, the Digital Marketing Manager for LH Labs. It was pretty much required — I’d seen so many updates to the various crowd-funding campaigns that the company was managing, that I had totally lost track of what was new, what was old, and what was what.

For those of you keeping score, LH Labs is a division of Light Harmonic, the maker of the most-excellent Darth Vader Da Vinci DAC that I reviewed for TAS last year. They’re also the team that launched one of the most successful crowd-funding campaigns in audio’s high-end, and then repeated that trick with another right on top of it. The company has since taken a lot of flack, some deserved and some not, around their delivery of those products, but when they decided to add “crowd-designed” to the “crowd-funded”, things got a little hairy. The net-net is that the products are shipping with more to come.

The current hot potato is the Geek Wave, a high-resolution portable digital audio player. If that sounds like Pono, you can be forgiven, but the Wave has moved from Indiegogo campaign to InDemand funding, prior to general retail availability currently scheduled for July. One of the things this last-minute campaign is offering is a greatly simplified buying experience, with the available options narrowed from approximately 8.3 million to just six. One of the newest additions to the design is a low-noise, full-size OLED display — and I for one am thrilled by the move. I didn’t exactly hate the last design mock-up, which made the Wave to look rather iPod, in a dressed up but still 2005 kind of way. The new look will be more industrial and far closer to the big iPhone 6+ and Samsung Galaxy devices (if not quite so big). Delivery on that device is scheduled for May/June of 2015.

What’s new with Wave? Flex. The Geek Wave Flex is a kind of like a “Wave Lite”, that is, a digital audio player missing the on-board storage of Wave (but maintaining the SD-card storage), and stripping out the WiFi and the Bluetooth. Purist? Maybe. But also a little cheaper. Delivery and availability is expected concurrent with the schedule for Wave — May/June of 2015.

Geek Pulse, the Indiegogo campaign that broke records and drove competitors (and some audiophiles) completely bananas, is still on track, if delayed. I understand that most backers looking for the “base model” have gotten their headphone amplifier/DAC combo boxes, and I’ve received assurances that the rest are soon to be on the way, though I am compelled to acknowledge that there are a great many backers that are getting more than a little antsy with the protracted process (see some of the comments, below, for a sampling). Speaking of which, those of us opting in for the Infinity Option for Pulse are still in for a bit of a wait — the brand-new ESS9018aq2m chip needed a whole new PCB to support the 32-pin architecture. Casey told me that we’re going to see an additional 6-8 weeks right there.

Delivery delays aside, the design team marches on and on the coming soon front, expect to see the Geek Pulse Headphone Amplifier (“concept” photo above). This product will hit the Pulse campaign on February 23rd, so keep an eye out. The product is, essentially, a Pulse with all the trimmings — except one. No DAC. That’s right, it’s just a headphone amplifier (like the name suggests). Given the image, I’m expecting tubes as a major feature and/or option. This product is also definitely part of their “desktop class” product line, as opposed to the VI DAC, which we’ll get to next. Anyway, more details on the HPA soon.

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Geek Soul, announced recently as part of the Forever Funding edition of the Geek Pulse, was designed to be the ultimate evolution of the many iterations of the DAC to be found in the Geek Pulse. Like I alluded to, the Soul was not a “desktop category” product — it was more of a “home audio category”. Well, Soul got a revamp — say hello to the VI DAC.

Other than a rather swanky case, designed to mitigate internal reflections and maximize damping and overall coolness, the VI DAC includes an option for a tube-output stage. That option, interestingly, is an add on — the “regular” solid-state output remains, so you essentially have a dual-output DAC. VI has been “live” on IGG for about a week now, and like many of the LH Labs campaigns, currently sits at something like 10x it’s target (braggarts). The DAC is about as capable as it gets, supporting sample rates of up to and including quad-rate DSD and 384k PCM. Dual femto-clocks and an option for dual ESS SABRE9018AQ2M DAC chips (brand new for 2015). That last bit is a bit of an oddity — the “base” DAC uses dual SABRE9018K2M DAC chips, but for $22, you can upgrade to the SABRE9018AQ2M chips. According to LH Labs, the new chip set “boasts even better harmonic distortion characteristics than its predecessor, as well as a lower noise floor and greater dynamic range.” Worth it? Up to you, but you better move quick as this chip needs a special-order PCB to incorporate it (see the note about the Infinity upgrade, above), so they’re controlling the orders on this perk to lots of 22. When they’re gone, they’re gone.

In case you missed it, LH Labs also announced a pair of new IEM headphone offerings — the Verb ($39) and the Verb X ($69). Casey tells me that the Verb has a v-shaped response (highs + bass), aka, “a commercial tuning”. This headphone has arrived State-side and is shipping in the next 2 weeks. The Verb X, the fully-balanced IEM with the “audiophile tuning”, is coming in about 4 weeks.

That’s quite a list of updates, so we’ll cap it there. I did, however, ask Casey about what’s coming down the pipe; he said this: “There’s plenty more crowd-funding campaigns planned for this year.”

I asked him to clarify, and he offered: “We’ll be diversifying our product offerings — for both the audiophile market and the mass market.”

Casey, clearly, is a tease. Stay tuned.

Introducing The Reluctant Sommelier

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Ultimate-Destination

This month, we’re introducing a new columnist, The Reluctant Sommelier. Nina, a professional wine educator, has offered to share some of her thoughts about, and experiences in, the world of wine. We’re thrilled to see her here. -Ed.

By Nina Sventitsky

In this, my first wine column for Part-Time Audiophile, I’d like to get something straight from the start.

I have the title of Silver-Pin Sommelier, but I will not be reminiscing about the fantastic Chateau Laf—- or Domaine La——- that I had back in ’97 … we’ll have none of that here, ever. It’s boring and you can do that on wine-iocircle.org with all of those other guys who refute your love of Cabernet Sauvignon because no one has proven scientifically that your $46 bottle is better than their $6 plonk. Which they made, in their basement, using Welch’s, tartaric acid and some old 2 x 4’s.

Taking the somm course(s), passing the exam, and hanging the certificate (I have one, and a cute little silver tastevin pin for my lapel) makes me expert at nothing. It just says I’m curious, and it’s just one of the milestones I’ve taken in my journey with wine. There is always so much to learn and there is always someone who knows more than me, at any given time and place.

I will add that I am not a wine fanatic. I am known to be exuberant and enthusiastic in general, and maybe a little frenetic in personality. I simply don’t go bonkers over that last wine I had; maybe I am not a big believer in the ultimate anything. Expect down to earth advice here, fun facts, and some cool ideas to train your appreciation of wine, and help you buy/order it better.

Gold Standard resizeBut first, the RULES.

1. Don’t ask me what my favorite wine is. Who cares what my favorite wine is, it surely won’t be yours. I don’t have A Favorite Wine; I have wine style preferences that line up with what I’m doing/eating/in the mood for.

2. Let’s use terminology that actually means something. It’s fine to be colloquial, but not lazy. The word ‘sweet’ should only be used to refer to wines with residual sugar in them. Moscato d’Asti, dessert wine, Porto, etc. If you refer to a fruity wine as sweet, I’m gonna bonk you over the head. Do you mean “fruity and smooth”? Then say that. Do you like “powerful, full-bodied tannic reds”? Say that, instead of “I only drink Cabs.”

3. Please don’t say “I only drink Cabs”. Be open to the world of other red varieties. More on that later.

3. Please don’t say you don’t like white wine. Pity, as whites generally have great aromas — it’s easier to get the floral and exotic aromas of white wine than reds. Spices, “ethereal” scents like beeswax, florals like acacia and orange blossom, that’s what’s to like with whites. 90% of what we TASTE in wine is actually olfactory, but you knew that already. If you are a provenance snob, some of the world’s best wines are whites. Chateau d’Yquem or Meursault anyone?

4. Use ratings and reviews as guidelines, not gospel. Some of this stuff is driven by advertising and the economic model to be sure — but then again, you’re getting free advice so take it and use your judgement.

5. Price is NOT indicative of quality, but it is a reality. I will not entertain arguments or comments about the criminality of high-priced Napa cult wines. Go make the wine yourself, take $10M and turn it into negative $500,000 and then you can complain about what’s shiite and what’s not for $100. It’s a ridiculous train that I’m sending to another depot. No defense, no apologies.

6. No such grapes as Barolo, Brunello, Chianti Classico, Rioja, Burgundy. Those grapes would actually be (take this down, you’re gonna need it if you don’t want to sound like a fool): Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Sangiovese (mainly, with a few others), Tempranillo (again, mainly T, with sometimes a few other varieties) and Pinot Noir.

7. Use “variety” to name a grape, and “varietal” as an adverb or adjective. “The varieties in Bordeaux include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc …”. “This Pinot Noir is varietally correct — it tastes of mushrooms, fresh berries and dirt.” Okay to exchange conversationally, but train yourself now, I had to change an entire course book last year for this.

So, with a modicum of humility, a maximum of curiosity, and the patience of a five year-old — let’s get to it with the subject of my next column, answers to Ask the Sommelier. I’ve got resources, a bunch of somms and wine educator friends from many different regions, and my own common sense. Silly and dumb questions welcomed, and this time snark will be at a minimum. Wine can be confusing, let’s clear it all up!

Leave your comments and questions below, thanks!

-The Reluctant Sommelier

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.

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Good Reviews and Bad Decisions

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By Marc Phillips

Just a few weeks ago I received an email from a retail customer who wanted to purchase one of the products I represent. He contacted the appropriate dealer, arranged for an audition, took the product home and within a couple of days discovered that it brought great joy to him and his loved ones, enough to warrant the writing of a check. But before he made his final decision, he needed to email me with an all-too-common request:

“Could you provide me with links to reviews?” he wrote. “That will help me to decide.”

Anton_EgoIn the privacy of my office I huffed and puffed and rolled my eyes. But I acquiesced and checked my own website for an appropriate review, and lo and behold I had one to send back. Unfortunately it was a horrible review, one of my least favorite, and not because it trashed my product. The reviewer, in fact, had praised the product to the skies and even wound up purchasing it for his own reference system. The problem, however, was in execution: the writing was that of an amateur, the editing seemed to be non-existent and even the review website itself was sloppy, garish and downright annoying to view.

I emailed that review out, and the dealer got the sale. But I kept asking myself, why was obtaining a review the last step of the buying decision—instead of one of the first? In my equipment-reviewing days we held fast to the notion that a review was always the first step of a well-informed, intelligent buying process, that audio equipment reviews were designed to spotlight certain products that the reader might find interesting. The next steps, of course, were going to a dealer, listening to the product, taking it home to see how the product fared in a familiar environment, and finally whipping out the checkbook or credit card.

The real question I wanted to ask the customer was this: Do you really know this reviewer well enough to blindly trust his opinion? Do you know who he is, or what his qualifications are to review equipment? Or did you just need an insurance policy for when your audiophile buddies come over and listen to your new component, something to throw back at them when they ask, “Why did you buy this? Why didn’t you buy the [insert positively reviewed component] instead?”

expert-button_forweb-e1345329354880In this current Age of Information, the preponderance of “experts” can be overwhelming, especially for consumers. In the old days we had people like J. Gordon Holt, Harry Pearson and many other lighting the way for the hobby, making observations based upon technical experience, rigorous testing protocols and, hopefully, some semblance of an entertaining writing style. Most of these people had personalities to go along with their opinions, so it was fairly easy to identify with their tastes and preferences and then apply those judiciously to our own sensibilities.

But these days, it’s much more difficult to ascertain those credentials. Many among the current crop of Internet audio writers seem to be made up of audiophiles who grew up reading equipment reviews from the likes of Stereophile and TAS, so they know what a proper review looks like. But who are these people, and why should we listen to them?

I’ll give you three instances, right off the top of my head, of why you shouldn’t listen to an audio reviewer just because they’re an audio reviewer:

  • A couple of years ago, I attended one of the smaller regional trade shows for high-end audio. In one room, I noticed a man sitting in the sweet spot and scribbling copious notes on a yellow legal pad. The exhibitor whispered to me that this gentleman was an “important reviewer” for one of the online mags. The next day, I decided to check out this fellow’s website and some of his past reviews. What I found on the home page was his “World’s First Review!!!” on the very product he was listening to in that room just the day before. In other words, this guy was performing his in-depth “reviews” while attending trade shows.
  • I asked an online website a specific question about one of their writers, and found out that this writer’s name was merely a pseudonym used by the publisher/editor to give the appearance that he had a “staff of writers” working for him—when in reality, it was all basically a one-man show.
  • A manufacturer at a trade show recently told me that they had to stop sending a certain well-known reviewer products to review because those products kept shipping back to the manufacturer with the factory tape and seals still intact. Needless to say, that didn’t prevent the reviewer from publishing a rave review, nor hitting up the manufacturer afterward for a full-page ad.

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I’ll even offer a personal anecdote based on my own experience as a reviewer. Do you know what a “pull quote” is? That’s when an advertisement contains a quote from a positive review as a selling point for the product. In all my years of reviewing, I only had one pull quote ever used in a print advertisement. I would have celebrated that accomplishment, but my enthusiasm was tempered by the fact that the quote used in the ad did not belong to me. It was written by an editor who wanted to make my review more positive in order to please the manufacturer. In other words, my only personal endorsement in the pages of a print magazine was complete and utter bullshit. I’m less than happy about that.

Card-perspective-new3-430x290So am I saying that you shouldn’t trust reviewers? Of course not! There are plenty of excellent, trustworthy audio scribes out there who provide a genuine and valuable service to audiophiles. Generally speaking, the guys who have been doing it forever and a day are the ones who have resisted temptation and have managed to hold onto their integrity—even in a marketplace consumed by unmeasurable social media campaigns and questionable Google hits. There’s certainly a lot of talk among audiophiles—especially on audio discussion forums—about the more unsavory tactics employed by reviewers and their magazines such as swapping favorable reviews for advertising dollars and free equipment, and then dumping the products on AudiogoN for a little extra money on the side. But in a vast majority of cases, these shenanigans are imagined—and for the simple reason that reviewers and publications can’t hope to have any longevity in this industry if they aren’t being as honest as possible about what they really do for a living.

The first step in using equipment reviews as part of an informed buying decision, of course, is to find a reviewer who has the same tastes as you. This won’t happen overnight. I started subscribing to Stereophile in 1985, and I didn’t apply the knowledge I’d gained from their reviewers until well into the ‘90s. By then I had learned that I shared the same love for British hi-fi as Sam Tellig, the same musical wild streaks as Corey Greenberg and the same curiosity for exotic yet old-fashioned designs as Art Dudley (someone I discovered a few years earlier, in his days of helming Listener). If they loved a product, I sought it out for myself to see if my opinions coincided with theirs. Yes, I have made some unwise buying decisions over the years, but not because I blindly trusted a reviewer.

In fact, most of the first high-end audio purchases I made—Snell Type J and Spendor S20 loudspeakers, for example—were based purely on my listening experiences and not reviews. I remember the Spendors receiving a luke-warm review from Stereophile a good year after I purchased them, but I didn’t mind. I knew they made me happy, and that was all that counted.

Today, it seems to be a different story. We’re all so busy, busy, busy. We don’t have time to audition everything out there (which seems to run counter to my belief that audiophiles have to listen to absolutely everything before they make a buying decision), so it’s just easier if we ask some random strangers on an Internet forum if one speaker is “better” than another. It’s easier to do a Google search on whatever product is getting buzz at that particular moment. It’s easier to trust a stranger than our own ears. That’s because we audiophiles secretly dread inviting our buddies over to hear the latest upgrade. There’s nothing worse than spending a lot of money and then being told you made a mistake. So finding a trustworthy and knowledgeable guide is one way to avoid a potential criticism.

muppet-criticsThe next step after finding a reviewer you can trust is to find more reviewers you can trust—because one guy can occasionally screw up and get it wrong. The industry is full of stories of reviewers who mated inefficient speakers with low-powered tube amps and weren’t that thrilled with the sound—resulting in a less-than-enthusiastic review. Occasionally a product suffers a minor mishap during shipping that results in damage to a minor part—fuses, resistors, etc.—that causes the product to operate somewhat normally, albeit with compromised sound quality, and the review still goes forward. (My biggest headache usually comes from ribbon cables inside the unit that somehow become unplugged as they travel halfway around the world.) So going with one review from one guy is not the smartest thing you can do in this hobby.

When it comes to personal preferences, you really need a consensus before you can gather truly relevant data. One of my favorite websites in the world is Metacritic.com, where movies, music releases, video games and TV programs are all assigned a weighted score from 1 to 100 based upon all the reviews that exist, as opposed to just one. I know that if a film scores above 80, for example, the likelihood that I will enjoy it is high. Reading a single film review in the local paper, as you might imagine, is a far less reliable way to predict quality. What if that film critic hates Adam Sandler, and I love absolutely everything he does? If so, then that review is simply not useful to me. It’s the same for audio reviews. Why would you take a tube amp review seriously when the reviewer goes out of his way to say he prefers solid-state? I’ve seen it happen. It’s not right. And you shouldn’t take that reviewer’s advice.

Once you assemble a list of writers you trust, then you can use their opinions as a tool to find the right high-end audio component for you. Contact dealers, make appointments, bring your own music and then ask if you can take it home once you’ve determined that the purchase is a true possibility. A review is a starting point. This hobby is a long, long journey. If you cut corners—and buying high-end audio components based merely on a single good review is cutting corners—then chances are you’ll never be truly happy pursuing a hobby that’s ultimately about finding happiness.

About the Author

Marc Phillips has been writing about turntables and LPs under the Vinyl Anachronist moniker since 1998. Since then he has written for such publications as Perfect Sound Forever, Ultimate Audio, TONEAudio, Positive Feedback Online and much more. Since 2011 he has partnered with Colleen Cardas to form Colleen Cardas Imports, the US distributor and importer for Unison Research, Opera, PureAudio and Axis.

He currently lives in Western Colorado with Colleen and their dog/CCI mascot Lucy, where he hikes, bikes and constantly complains about the paucity of good cigar stores and record stores within a 300-mile radius.

Review: Tekton SEAS Pendragon

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by John Richardson

Oh my, these seem like big speakers, or more like two giant monoliths bearing down on me as it sit in my listening chair. Good lord, I think these things are about to devour me! Of course, it’s been awhile since I’ve had a set of decent sized floor standers in my listening room, so it’s taken me some time to become accustomed to both the appearance and sound of these um, monstrosities. I won’t say I find such designs abhorrent, but the fact that my listening area occupies the third floor of my house may have something to do with my lack of experience with larger, heavier speakers.

The speakers to which I refer are Tekton Design’s SEAS Pendragons, which were designed and constructed here in the USA in Orem, Utah. While these Pendragons are somewhat of an anomaly in my room, my experience with Tekton Design and its founder, Eric Alexander, is not. As it turns out, I have owned a pair of Tekton speakers for a number of years. My Tektons are a smallish pair of desktop speakers sporting single drivers that I bought probably six or seven years ago as part of a small system for my office at work. Driven by several tiny chip-based amps over the years, these small speakers still continue to delight me. Arrayed before me on my desk they simply disappear, leaving an arc of music hanging in mid-air. I bought them to help me get work done in an otherwise drab and uninteresting environment, but sometimes they keep me from my tasks by forcing me to pay attention to the music instead. They’ve been real troopers as well, as they’ve managed to survive several office moves along with a desktop flood (long story …) that left one of them irreversibly stained. No matter, as I love them still. Unfortunately, the chip amp du jour didn’t fare as well.

I recall Eric Alexander being especially helpful when I placed the order for my little speakers. He expertly aided me in choosing the right model for my intended use and guided me toward a custom wood veneer that would complement my surroundings exactly. I felt I got a very fair price for what I received.

Let’s fast forward a few years. When I was offered the opportunity to hear and review a much more modern and very different design from Tekton, I just couldn’t refuse, which brings us back to the SEAS Pendragons that now grace my room. Very different indeed. These seemingly gargantuan transducers are a far cry from my relatively lilliputian desktop speakers.

While most definitely large, this SEAS version isn’t the largest of Tekton’s Pendragon models. That honor goes to the original Pendragons. These bad boys stand a full 54 inches high, whereas the SEAS version reaches only 50 inches in height. The SEAS Pendragons are also narrower and not as deep, so they may end up working better (and looking better) in more regular sized listening environments. I’ve finally become somewhat used to how these look in my listening room, but I still can’t imagine them hanging out in our living room; they’re just too obtrusive, plus they might just try to hit on my wife. Of course, your own experiences and preferences may differ.

The primary difference between the two Pendragon versions (besides overall size) is that the version under review here uses a pair of SEAS eight-inch bass/midrange drivers per side as opposed to the un-named 12-inch drivers found in the original Pendragons. Both versions are offered at $2500. Further comparisons may be found at the Tekton Design website (www.tektondesign.com); I’ll focus more specifically here on the SEAS version I have in-house. A quick run-down of the specifications shows that these speakers sport dimensions of 50 inches (height) by 10 inches (width) by 13 inches (depth), a four ohm average impedance, and a stated sensitivity of 95 dB at one watt at one meter. The frequency response is given as 30 Hz to 30 kHz with a maximum power handling of 200 watts per channel. My review samples came in a classy matte black finish, but other custom finishes are also available along with crossover capacitor upgrades.

Looking dead-on at the speakers, one notes the pair of eight-inch SEAS drivers flanking a linear array of three tweeters in a classic D’Appolito configuration. The tweeters are said to be OEM units specially manufactured for Tekton Design. Upon closer inspection, each tweeter unit sports at its center a conical protuberance resembling a phase plug of sorts. On the rear of each speaker, we find a pair of goodly sized ports along with a single pair of quality binding posts which I found to easily accommodate both spade lugs and banana terminations. No grilles were supplied, though the speakers came with detachable rectangular bases to which spikes were threaded for coupling the speakers to the floor.

With regard to set up, I ultimately settled on the speakers placed well out into my room, about seven and a half feet apart, and about eight feet from my listening position with just a bit of toe-in. Users should be prepared to play around a bit here to get the best center fill and imaging effects.

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Listening Impressions and Comparisons

There’s no real debate about whether or not size matters … at least not when it comes to loudspeakers. Big speakers sound different from small speakers, and that’s all there is to it. That’s not to say that one is necessarily better than the other, as each has its own strengths and weaknesses. Relatively speaking, I’ve been treading of late in the “small speaker” camp. Not tiny, mind you, as in BBC LS3/5a territory, but small, as in stand mounted monitors. My current favorites are Spendor SP1s from the vintage domain and ATC SCM19, version 2 monitors representing the modern set. Both are stand-mounted and small, at least relative to the Pendragons. I’m beguiled and won over by the precision of these smaller speakers, as well as by their ability to throw a huge soundstage and give a lovely illusion of aural space. Focusing on the more modern ATCs, I also get a wonderful sense of speed and x-ray resolution, but without a loss in overall musicality. These ATCs I could listen to all day at reasonable volume with essentially no sense of listening fatigue. I also didn’t break my back or pull a muscle trying to hump them up to my third floor listening room. Of course, there are the obvious shortcomings of smaller speakers, such as lack of scale and frequency extension into the lowest octaves.

As our goodly editor Scot Hull helped me load the Pendragons into my car, he suggested that I put a good 100 watts per channel to them to really get them singing. I’m sure that with their rated sensitivity of 95 dB, one could probably get away with less power, especially if it’s coming from a good vacuum tube amp. But I heeded Scot’s advice and initially tried out my two more powerful amplifiers: a REDGUM RGi60 ENR integrated and a pair of Merrill Audio Thor monoblocks. The REDGUM is a warm sounding class A/B design rated at just over 100 watts per channel while the Merrill Thor is a slightly more neutral sounding design of the class D variety rated at 200 watts per channel. In both cases these measurements apply to eight ohm loads. Of course, both amps increase their wattage into the average four ohm load presented by the Pendragons, with the Merrills doubling down to 400 watts per side.

What I discovered is that the Tektons really like power, and a lot of it.

I started out using the REDGUM amp, which I thought would be an excellent match to the Pendragons. After few days of critical (and not so critical) listening, I came away feeling that something important was missing. The overall presentation was certainly warm and engaging, exactly as I expected from the REDGUM, but I found myself yearning for more detail and resolution than I was getting. The sound seemed muffled at low levels, making me want to crank up the volume, which certainly did help to a certain extent. Even so, I couldn’t quite get to the level of enjoyment that I sensed these speakers were capable of providing. All of this got me to thinking that maybe a bit more power might actually help, even though the REDGUM should have been giving me more than enough to get the speakers firing on all cylinders. I don’t think that the REDGUM itself was just too warm and unresolving, as it has performed very well on a wide variety of other speakers I have paired it with, so perhaps an impedance mis-match might be to blame.

The next obvious option to try was the much more powerful Merrill Thor monoblocks, which presumably provide an average 400 watts per channel to the four-ohm Tektons. I was a bit concerned about doubling the maximum power recommendation for the speakers, but what the heck. I knew the Merrills were capable of providing good clean power which probably wouldn’t harm the speakers.

Now things began to get interesting. With the Merrill Thor running the show, it was like a wholly new and different pair of speakers had somehow snuck into my room. Resolution and detail were suddenly there, both at low and high volumes, though not quite to the extent provided via my ATC SCM19 monitors. I now had that big speaker sound that was somehow eluding me before, along with a nice glimpse of the delicacy and transparency that might be expected from a smaller speaker. While the Pendragons beg to be played at high volume, being able to perform at lower volumes is a requirement in most real-world listening environments. After all, most of us live in smaller homes surrounded by other people. Our loved ones may not remain so for ever if we are constantly blasting them out of our immediate existence. Besides, my wife is a light sleeper.

In the present configuration, I can say I’ve pushed a lot of music through the SEAS Pendragons in the last few weeks, and I can report that they are a thoroughly modern sounding design that should appeal to a wide array of contemporary listeners. Firstly, they do everything well that you would expect such a speaker to do well. They convey a real sense of scale and slam to music, especially symphonic, grand opera, and stadium rock. Fans of these genres will probably want large speakers that make an attempt to bring the recording venue into their living rooms, and here is where the Pendragons excel. Also, with sufficient power (I sort of question the provided sensitivity rating), these speakers give a good sense of macrodynamics. They can get quite loud without missing a beat, but still manage to provide that sense of lilting delicacy at lower volumes when the performance calls for it.

I mentioned that I consider these Tektons to be truly modern speakers. Allow me to expand a bit more upon that statement here. I’ve wanted for a long time to hear a classic BBC type monitor, the nearly antique Spendor BC1, as I’d heard that its midrange reproduction can be magical; even better than my SP1s according to some reports. Finally a pair made it into my listening room and rudely plopped down a couple of feet in front of the Pendragons. Yes, this classic design has a number of immediate and obvious shortcomings when compared to a well-implemented speaker of today, but that midrange does indeed get something right, and in my opinion, something that most of today’s speakers lack. That quality, folks, is an almost luminous sense of harmonic realism and texture that seems to have been designed out of modern speakers in leu of absolute accuracy and resolution. No, I wouldn’t want BC1s to be my only speakers, but I could happily live with them for a long time based solely on that exquisite midrange, along with a few other qualities I find particularly satisfying. For string and voice reproduction at low to middling volume, these damn boxes can sound like the real thing!

After being distracted for a few days by the Spendors, I got myself back to the task of evaluating the Tekton Pendragons. How did they compare in the area of midrange texture where the BC1s rule? Not that badly, I’m glad to report. Indeed, the Pendragons do lack some of that wonderful organic woody character and body that the BC1s lent to string reproduction — I could almost sense the rosin dripping off the bows of the violins and cellos! Not to worry though, as I still got a healthy dose of harmonic texture and timbre from the Tekton speakers. No speaker will do everything perfectly, nor should it be expected to. It’s just that the Pendragon, like the vast majority of audiophile quality full-range speakers designed today, tends to strive for overall tonal accuracy as well as extension at both frequency extremes; nothing seems overdone or unduly emphasized. As an amplifier analogy, I’d say the Spendor BC1 is a lot like a classic low-powered single ended vacuum tube amp beaming with second order harmonic distortion, whereas the Pendragon is more akin to a clean, powerful and modern solid state design. We all know that second order harmonic distortion is a coloration, but sometimes I’m just in the mood for it, dammit! Hence, it looks like the BC1s will be hanging around these parts for awhile to satisfy my crazy inclinations when the mood strikes.

On well recorded source material, I was pleased with the SEAS Pendragons’ ability to get out of the way in a spatial sense. I somehow expected speakers this large to have trouble excusing themselves from the aural soundstage, but this was indeed not the case. Listening to discs such as  Bill Frisell’s album Blues Dream, I found that I could close my eyes and actually get the speakers to more or less step out of the way (note that I didn’t say “disappear”). Instruments readily filled the space between the speakers, and I got a good sense of the soundstage projecting behind and beyond them as well. Image specificity was good also, with each instrument placed within the soundstage with reasonable precision. Again, I was expecting far less satisfactory performance in these areas from such a large and reasonably priced speaker.

Detail and overall resolution were also very good, as exemplified by a few digital needle drops I did in order to digitally archive some recent thrift store vinyl finds. I did a couple of these when the Spendor BC1s were in the system and was rewarded with what appeared to be nearly perfect, noiseless recordings. Once I put the Pendragons back in the system and listened to my recordings again, I heard numerous click and crackle artifacts that my filtering software missed that were not audible via the BC1s. Perhaps the Pendragons were emphasizing (or at least not suppressing) the frequency regions in which these artifacts reside, but I’m banking on the increased resolution of the Tektons making the biggest difference here, thus giving me a better overall view of what was really on the recording. As another example, Frisell and his ensemble were a joy to listen to, as I got plenty of resolving power and detail, from the occasional slap of a hand on the guitar body to the delicacy of the lightly tapped hi-hat cymbal. Oh, and I really do keep coming back to the scale of reproduction, both in dynamic and presence, that only a speaker of this magnitude can provide. In many ways, these qualities do go a long way toward bringing the listener closer to the actual venue, and I know this is something that a lot of music lovers strive to achieve in their playback. Here the SEAS Pendragon won’t disappoint, though I’d say it’s not quite world-class in this regard. For example, I’ve heard a well-amplified set of Wilson Audio MAXX speakers trump the Pendragons on this count ( … of course, there’s a small difference in price here… but anyway); I’d say the Wilsons were both better resolving and also extended to subsonic frequencies which allow that last bit of hall acoustic to come alive.

Wanna crank it up? No problem! The SEAS Pendragons like to go loud, though I got limited opportunity to explore this realm of performance. Grab a little stadium rock such as Yes: Live at Montreux 2003 (download, HDTracks). Turn it up a bit and sit back and enjoy. Try, for instance, a cut such as “The Fish” which highlights Chris Squires’ electric bass as both rhythm and solo instrument. This version of the song is a real tour-de-force that should get any amateur guitarist, bassist or not, strumming away at the air instrument. Through the Pendragons I could really get a feel for the impact, slam, and depth of tone of Squires’ bass. Attack and decay were quite good, with the bass never seeming to become overly sloppy or bloated. I could say the same about the reproduction of the drum kit as well, especially noting the lack of overhang in the kick drum. I further found that the interplay between the band and audience was effectively reproduced, with the clapping, hooting, and whistling coming from the rear of the soundscape, well behind the band. Likewise, I found the crowd noise to be highly realistic and natural sounding, which is often hard for transducers to accomplish in my experience.

One component pairing I wanted to try remained: using the Rogue Audio Sphinx integrated amp ($1295 — reviewed here) to power the SEAS Pendragons, as this could represent a wonderful coupling for the audiophile on a budget who wants a full-range audio system.  And the news on this front is all good: I heard much of the punch and precision offered by the more powerful Merrill Thor, but with a small but healthy helping of tube-like fluidity, presumably from the vacuum tube preamp section of the Rogue amp. In fact, I’m kicking myself for not spending more time with this combination, as I found it so pleasing. I’d even go so far as saying that the soundstage is even more three-dimensional, with individual instruments taking on a bit of “glow” yet keeping appropriate space or distance amongst themselves. A softer, more textured and laid back presentation is on offer perhaps, but one that I think many listeners would warm to and appreciate. About the only negatives I could conjure up would be a little loss of air on the top end and loss of dynamic, but this seems a small price to pay for the remainder of the sonic presentation. Re-listening to Bill Frisell’s “Blues Dream” brought these points to the forefront immediately, as the presentation was softer, gentler, and I dare say a tad more musical. Take home message: the Tekton SEAS Pendragon and the Rogue Sphinx amplifier are a match well worth exploring.

When all is said and done, I found the SEAS Pendragon to be a capable full-range speaker, especially at its price point. While not perfect (what is?), I believe it effectively carries out the goals for which it was designed. A quick post-mortem comparison against my reference ATC SCM19 monitors powered by the Thor monoblocks highlights a few of its ultimate shortcomings. Keep in mind that I’m nitpicking here, and it’s not my goal to take the Pendragons apart sonically.

Firstly, the Pendragons seemed a tad slow and less resolving in comparison to the ATC monitors, which really shouldn’t surprise anyone. The Pendragon is a large, ported design with an active cabinet while the SCM19 sports a smaller, sealed, less-resonant box and a studio monitor heritage. Further, while the bass obviously doesn’t go as deep with the ATCs; what is there is somewhat cleaner, quicker, and better defined, which again is easily explained by the two speakers’ design differences. Again, not surprisingly, the SCM19s do a more convincing disappearing act within the audible soundstage while throwing a wider and deeper illusion of the soundscape. Both speakers, however, boast a slightly warm tonal character with plenty of harmonic information to keep the listener engaged, though neither speaker can quite match the harmonic midrange richness and natural timbre of the classic Spendor BC1, or to a slightly lesser extent, the Spendor SP1. These latter speakers, of course, cannot realistically compete with either the Tektons or the ATCs in other areas such as overall dynamics, accuracy and extension at the frequency extremes, or in overall loudness and power handling.

Of course, the previous observations are really apples to oranges comparisons, given the difference in size and design of the speakers compared. However, they go to show that no one speaker is going to do everything perfectly all the time, and that each design will have its own strengths and weaknesses. Potential buyers should have a good idea of what factors and performance characteristics are most important to them and gravitate toward the speakers that best satisfy these while coupling effectively to a given listening environment. Better yet, the completist could own several sets of speakers and rotate them in or out of the system depending on mood or type of music being played. Oh wait … this is probably what a lot of us are already doing.

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Summing up

I feel that I’ve spent too much of this review trying to nitpick the Tekton SEAS Pendragons to death, but this has never been my intention. I’d now like to emphasize as my take home message what’s right about them, and that is their ability to play a wide range of music in a convincing and thoughtful manner. Within the constraints of what they are, which is a very large but also very reasonably priced audiophile speaker, they perform amazingly well. Forget about audiophile minutiae for a moment and realize that these Pendragons reproduce real music, and with a good dose of scale, slam, and panache, thank you very much. I don’t think Led Zeppelin or Yes ever sounded so real and “there” in my room before!

For buyers looking for the type of speaker that the Pendragons are, I’m not sure you could do any better for $2500 (though, perhaps you can — they’re currently on sale for 30% off). Now, I’ve not heard anywhere near all of the competing speakers at that price point, but I’ve heard enough to say that the Tekton effort is right up there. Just be prepared to give them some good source material and enough high quality amplification to get them running to their full potential.

Highly recommended, and another winning product from Eric Alexander and Tekton Design!

For more, see our First Listen and the Tekton showcase in the Amp Madness shootout.

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About the Author

John Richardson has been interested in music and audio since his early teen years, or stated another way, as long as he can remember.  He has been involved in the audio community in one way or another for around 20 years and for the last five has been a regular contributor to the on-line magazine Stereomojo.  There, he has been the resident computer audio guy and “value conscious audiophile” (aka “cheap bastard”).

John is also a professor of analytical chemistry and forensic chemistry consultant in his spare time when he isn’t listening to music or evaluating gear.  He tries to fit in plenty of time to hang out with his two teenage kids, his lovely wife, and the family cat, though only the cat also seems to harbor audiophile tendencies.  John also enjoys running, cycling, golfing, hiking, or just about any other activity that sucks up time and money.

Financial Interests: Writing for Part-Time Audiophile is his sole intersection with audio’s high-end.

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Review: Rogue Audio Sphinx Integrated Amplifier

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by John Richardson

Late last summer I was invited to a cookout at the home of an audio buddy of mine, Bill Magerman. I couldn’t refuse, as Bill is an excellent cook and a man of multiple talents and interests. Besides running his blueberry farm in the rural Pocano mountains of Pennsylvania, Bill also heads up Tribute Audio, whose primary business is restoring and rebuilding classic EPI speakers, which is how I first met him. You may also know Bill as a principal partner and chief designer (and builder) at Darwin Cables, a newer company that constructs minimalist high-end audio interconnects and speaker cables. If you own a pair of Darwin cables, they came directly from Mr. Magerman’s workshop. Oh, and if that’s not enough, Bill also is one of the guys who constructs circuit boards for one of the USA’s premier audio companies, Rogue Audio.

Back to the picnic. I arrived with the wife ready to dive into Bill’s cooking when I found that the gathering was a bit larger than I had expected; it seemed that there were around 30 or so folks packed into Bill’s barn. As it turned out, I had been invited to a company gathering for the good people who work at Rogue Audio. For a reviewer and gear hound like myself, this situation turned out to be a great opportunity to pick the brains of the folks who actually design and build these wonderful products. Not only were these people highly skilled technicians, but also music lovers and audiophiles. It was a pleasure to spend time with them, from company head Mark O’Brien down to the folks on the floor who stuff the chassis. And I wasn’t the only reviewer there; I was joined by analog guru Michael Fremer, with whom I had a nice chat about music, gear, and reviewing.

I must admit that I did feel a bit out of place and a tad uncomfortable. Why? Well, I had never before spent any real time with Rogue Audio gear, so I was unable to relate my own experiences regarding the stuff these folks were building. It was one of those classic “oh, crap” moments where this reviewer came up somewhat short and frankly seemed at a loss for words. Little did I know that soon thereafter I would have the opportunity to correct this shortcoming by getting comfy with one of Rogue Audio’s most popular products, the entry-level Sphinx Integrated amplifier. And what a pleasure this relationship has been!

First, let’s begin with some history. Rogue Audio was started up nearly 20 years ago in Broadheadsville, Pennsylvania, where the company still resides. It focuses primarily on the design and construction of quality vacuum tube amplification gear such as power amps, preamps, integrated amps, and phono stages. Over the years, Rogue Audio has earned a reputation for building some of the biggest bang-for-the-buck amplification products in high-end audio, with added value in my book since all of the gear is hand built right here in Pennsylvania (my state of residence as well). After meeting the talented and dedicated people who build it all, color me at that much more impressed. Rogue is also well-known for its high level of customer support, an added bonus that shouldn’t be underestimated these days. I feel like an audio idiot for somehow ignoring this company for so long, and if anyone says that Americans can’t manufacture anything anymore, I’ll just send them over to be educated by Mr. O’Brien, Mr. Magerman, and friends.

On then to the Sphinx. In ancient Greek and Egyptian cultures the sphinx was a wily beast with a lion’s body, wings, and a human head and face. The mythological Greek sphinx which guarded the city of Thebes had an infamous riddle, and if the passerby didn’t correctly answer it, he became dinner for said creature. If Rogue Audio’s Sphinx packs a riddle, it would have something to do with how so much versatility and sound quality can be packed into a box costing a tad less than $1300 (it’s $1295 to be exact). That’s right. A full function, high-end integrated amp for the typical cost of one month’s rent or mortgage. Well, maybe not.

Starting with the basics, our modern-day Sphinx is a class D switching amplifier with an active vacuum tube preamplifier section. It puts out 100 watts per channel into eight ohms and is said to double its output power into four ohm loads. The preamplifier section is based around a pair of matched 12AU7 tubes which can be viewed through ventilation holes in the top panel of the unit. The circuit boards are well constructed and cleanly assembled (thank you, Mr. Magerman and friends), but what really jumps out from under the hood is the large toroidal transformer which serves as the basis of a linear supply powering the unit. Output jacks are gold-plated and are board mounted while the speaker binding posts are the cheaper plastic units seen on a lot of gear in the lower end of the high-end of audio. I don’t have any problem with this, as cost considerations have to come into play somewhere on an amplifier at this price point, and they worked just fine with the spade lugs on my speaker cables. The listener also gets a front-panel mounted balance control and a custom Alps volume potentiometer, which is accessed from either the front panel or from an optional ($100 extra) remote control. This all metal remote is good for volume change only and is heavy enough to probably inflict a knockout blow to the rear of the head of the unfortunate victim at whom it is wielded. Of course, I can’t verify this assumption first-hand.

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What really gets me is the plethora of useful features that Rogue Audio offers on this budget unit. The Sphinx really has about everything someone dipping their toes into the world of high-end audio could want. We have three sets of line level inputs and two sets of preamp outputs (all single ended), a phono stage offering 40 dB of gain with a fixed loading of 47 kohm (appropriate for most high output mm or mc cartridges), and even an on-board headphone amplifier. Run a subwoofer from the variable outputs or use them as a separate tube-based preamp in a pinch. The options seem endless; all you need to get started are a source component or two, a pair of speakers, some cables, and you still have plenty of room to expand outward from there. I will say that I am glad that Rogue Audio wasn’t tempted to build an on-board DAC into the unit. While such things are seen as a typical convenience in this age of computer audio, I feel that digital technology is changing fast enough that the DAC will become obsolete way faster than the amplifier will.

The main amplifier section is built around an OEM version of the popular Hypex switching module driving MOSFET output devices. As an aside, the Hypex switching units are often found on much more expensive class D amplifiers, including my reference Merrill Thor monoblocks, which clock in at $4800 retail. This amplification circuitry is well supported by the beefy power supply circuitry I mentioned earlier, leading to a robust output into a range of speaker sensitivities and impedances (more about this later). You’ve heard that class D amps are hard sounding and unforgiving in a musical sense, right? Well, these modern class D amplifiers aren’t your older brother’s switching amps, as a bit of critical listening will most surely demonstrate. I too used to be a nonbeliever, but as is nearly always the case, circumstances change as technology marches forward.

As I see it, the Rogue Sphinx is a hybrid design which melds the best virtues of vacuum tubes and solid state amplification into a single device. The mixing of switching amplifier and tube technologies is somewhat unusual, but not unique. Down in my living room I use a Virtue Audio Sensation M451 integrated amp which employs Tripath (e.g., class T) amplification with a Dodd Audio tube buffer preamp section, all to very pleasing sonic effect.

Using the Sphinx is quite simple. The mains power is controlled by a rocker switch on the rear panel. When turned on, the unit goes into a standby mode in which the main amplifier section is warmed, but no power goes to the tubed preamp section. Incidentally, the headphone amplifier section is powered and activated in the standby mode and is controlled by either the main volume knob or optional remote. Quite efficient. The standby mode is exited by pressing a button on the front panel, which puts the amp into full listening mode after about a 20 second warmup period for the tubes. At the end of a day of listening, I always put the Sphinx into standby and then gave it a half-hour or so of warm-up in full-on mode before doing any serious listening the next day.

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Sonic Impressions

The Rogue Sphinx was enjoyed using a range of speakers: Shahinian Compasses, Spendor SP1s, Tekton Pendragons, and ATC SCM 19 (version 2) monitors. Other components in the system remained constant. The digital front end consisted of Channel D’s Pure Music engine installed on a 2012 Mac Mini running bits to an Antelope Audio Zodiac DAC via a Sound Devices USBPre interface serving as a USB to S/PDIF converter. Both the Zodiac and the USBPre were powered by custom linear power supplies from Your Final System (YFS). To keep things local, interconnects and power cable to the Sphinx were sourced from Tel Wire, which produces its wares just down the road from Rogue Audio in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Fantasy speaker cables from Harmonic Technology were also used while the DAC and amp were both plugged in to a Spiritual Audio VX-9 power conditioner. As an aside, the Tel Wire HC power cord I used costs $1100, which isn’t much less than the Rogue Sphinx itself! Even so, I fully believe that a component of high quality such as the Sphinx deserves and reaps the benefits of a good power cord. Perhaps my choice was a bit of overkill, but I was more than pleased by the sonic benefits of the pairing.

The Sphinx performed admirably with all of the speakers I tested it with, allowing the strengths (and sometimes the warts) of each pair to shine through. Most of these speakers are relatively easy loads with sensitivities around 90 dB or above with the exception of the ATC SCM 19s, which, while a benign load with regard to reactance and phase, are only around 83 dB efficient. Right now, I’m listening to Lyle Mays’ album Street Dreams through my vintage Spendor SP1s, and I’m glued to my chair. A good portion of the wonderful classic midrange beauty and bloom of the Spendors shine through, coupled with articulate and well controlled synthesizer bass offering plenty of slam, but without any excessive overhang or sloppiness. I’m sensing that the class D strength of bass control without loss of extension is a match made in heaven with the old school polypropylene woofers on the Spendors. No matter what I queued up, be it Buddy Rich or Bill Frisell, I got plenty of punch and drive along with loads of fun and musical enjoyment. Folks who are interested in vintage speakers should really enjoy this matchup; that is, if you are lucky enough to find a pair of SP1s on the market. They match well price-wise with the Sphinx also, as they can be found in the $400-$900 range when they do come up for sale.

Most of the critical listening and evaluation I did with the Rogue Sphinx utilized the ATC SCM 19 monitors. Of the speakers in permanent or revolving residence in my household, the ATCs are probably the most resolving and transparent to any changes made elsewhere in my system while remaining eminently listenable. I also find them to be plenty neutral, such that they don’t add colorations of their own to the overall sound of the system. In contrast, I love my Shahinian Compasses in part because they couple well to almost any amplifier and sound remarkably homogeneous in a good and musically satisfying way. This sort of audio homogenization is an ideal property for a music-loving consumer’s speaker, but it’s not always the best choice for reviewing. I need to hear what is going on when I make a change elsewhere in the system, but without sacrificing long term musicality, and that’s exactly what the ATC monitors give me.

The ATCs are a sealed box design, which in turn means that they need some power to really get up and go. I’d say 100 watts per channel is about the minimal requirement for most applications, which is exactly what the Rogue Sphinx delivers. I had some initial concerns about the Sphinx being able to handle the low efficiency of the ATCs, but I needn’t have worried. The amp did just fine. It never got more than warm to the touch, and it didn’t seem to run out of gas, even when played at moderate to high volume. The speakers also did exactly what they are supposed to do by getting out of the way and letting the Sphinx strut its stuff.

My overall impression of the Rogue Sphinx playing through the ATC SCM 19s is that it is an exceptionally capable amplifier, and not only for an amp requiring a relatively small monetary outlay. I’m getting power, finesse, dimensionality, and excellent neutrality though the entirety of the audible waveband. Keying up Bill Frisell’s album Blues Dream (CD), I found it hard to get up and do my chores for the day. I was hoping that the down-home country feel of the music would put me in “chore mood”, but alas, it was not to be. The listening experience was just too enjoyable to allow me to get up and work. Arrayed around and in front of me were blaring horns, twangy guitars, vivid percussion, and God knows what else. Nothing was hidden under the bushel barrel, and everything was enchanting. I could close my eyes and almost feel like I was at the recording session. Depth and width of soundstage were excellent and exactly what I know the ATCs capable of delivering with the right amplification. I think those vacuum tubes in the front end of the amplifier play a big part in making it all happen. Even so, with the tubes in there, I never felt that there was any excessive warmth of tone; everything seemed just right, or maybe with some recordings, just to the cool side of neutral. Of course, bass control and extension were exceptional down to a reasonable frequency, say 45 Hz or so, as would be expected when mating a class D amplifier to a smaller sealed box monitor design. What was there was so good that I didn’t really care about what I was missing in the “feel it but don’t so much hear it” lowest frequency domain. Let me reiterate that these ATC speakers cost $4300 nowadays, so you are looking at nearly five grand to get up and running with an appropriately good pair of stands. I think they are worth every penny of that asking price, but more importantly, Rogue Audio’s $1300 full-function integrated amp more than stands up to the task of driving these exceptional monitors.

The Sphinx/ATC combination was every bit as impressive when playing back orchestral and chamber music. I often fall back on the Lyrita catalog when evaluating gear because it represents a perfect mix of excellent performances and superb recording technique, mostly captured by top Decca engineers during the 1970s in exquisite analog glory. I suspect that Lyrita owner and producer Richard Itter was something of a perfectionist given the technical strength and consistency of the label. The only downside is that the label exclusively dealt with 20th century English chamber and orchestral works, which may not be to every music lover’s tastes.

$_57 A good, but somewhat obscure example of the Lyrita catalog is David Morgan’s Violin Concerto and Contrasts (LP, Lyrita SRCS 97, digitally archived) which was recorded in 1978, right at the apex of analog recording technology. The music is decidedly modern but melodic and accessible. The whole thing is beautifully recorded, with the violin shining through but perfectly balanced against the orchestra as its sound wafts slightly above and in front of the rest of the ensemble, as perfectly captured by the Rogue Sphinx/ATC combo. Recorded string tone is a real thing about these recordings, and the Sphinx rendered it with appropriate edge, immediacy, and shimmer, along with a touch of lushness when called for. Again, dimensionality, depth, and width of soundstage were consistently good, which kept me totally engaged in the realism of the performance. Overall orchestral dynamics were also good, but maybe not the best I’ve heard; perhaps this is the one area where maybe the ATCs could have used a bit more oomph. I did mention that these speakers like power, right?

Moving on to another Lyrita selection which showcases several of Gustav Holst’s lesser known works (LP, Lyrita SRCS 56, digitally archived) allows me to comment further on the strengths of the Rogue Sphinx. This disc features “A Somerset Rhapsody”, a tone poem for orchestra which showcases Holst’s musical expressions toward the bucolic English countryside. Here may be found lovely string and woodwind tones counterpointed against percussion and brass lines of an almost martial feeling, all of which were expertly rendered mood-wise by the Sphinx. I found the oboe especially convincing in tone, with all of its complex harmonics reproduced as in a real instrument played in real-time and space.

Comparisons

I had on hand two amplifiers I wanted to compare with the Rogue Sphinx, both of which are considerably more expensive. The first was my REDGUM RGi60 ENR integrated, which is a highly musical design putting out just over 100 watts per channel, class AB, into eight ohms. The REDGUM amp retails for $2850. The other comparison I wanted to make was with another class D amplifier, in this case the Merrill Audio Thor monoblocks, which sell for $4800 and put out 200 watts per channel into eight ohms.

First up was the REDGUM, driving the ATC SCM 19 monitors. I could immediately hear distinct differences between the REDGUM and the Rogue amplifiers. Compared to the Sphinx, the REDGUM RGi60 ENR sounded softer and much more tube-like in the traditional sense. Bass was pleasingly plump and full, but nowhere near as taut and controlled as through the Sphinx. I’d almost call it wooly, but not quite. Just really nice and warm, and even perhaps a bit emphasized. Likewise, the midrange via the REDGUM was luminous, warm, and big, providing lots of space between and around instruments. Individual notes were rounder with a more legato quality, without quite the sense of incisiveness or attack I heard when listening through the Rogue amp. Not that the REDGUM seemed slow, but maybe just in less of a hurry rhythmically. Treble notes were clean and nicely rounded as well, giving a hint of almost excessive harmonic texture at the cost of ultimate extension. I’d suggest that listeners who prefer warmth and harmonic texture would come down on the side of the REDGUM amp while those who prefer a faster, more rhythmically paced amp may well prefer the Sphinx. The REDGUM comes with a few caveats as well. First, it lacks a few of the amenities of the Sphinx, such as a built-in phono stage and headphone amplifier. Secondly, I have found that the REDGUM experienced occasional thermal shutdowns when driving the inefficient ATC speakers, mainly during warmer weather. While I never got to run the Rogue Sphinx in excessively hot weather, I just don’t anticipate it ever struggling to drive any speaker, primarily due to the efficiency of its class D design. I thoroughly enjoyed both amplifiers mated with the ATC speakers, but for obviously different reasons.

Perhaps an even more interesting comparison exists between the Rogue Sphinx and the Merrill Audio Thor, only because both are class D designs built around Hypex switching modules. Although the amps differ in price point and execution, they do have a fair bit in common with one another. The Thor has no preamplifier section, so I ended up controlling its output level using the volume potentiometer built into the Antelope DAC. Also, because the Thor has only balanced inputs, I used a pair of XLR-terminated Darwin Audio Truth interconnects between the DAC and amplifier units (another nod to Mr. Magerman here).

Some folks might be tempted to trumpet the Rogue Sphinx as a slayer of the overpriced giants of high-end audio. It may well be, but I tend to be a bit more reserved in my judgment. Direct comparison with the nearly four-times-as-expensive Merrill Audio monoblocks explains why. While the Merrill Thor lacks all of the features and conveniences of the two integrated amps, it strode decisively ahead of both, performance-wise. Put against the Sphinx, the Thor demonstrated marked improvement in all of the following areas: decreased noise floor, detail retrieval, overall dynamics, and soundstage width and depth. It also imbued the music with just the right touch of warmth that I sometimes found missing with the Rogue Sphinx. I’m sure that some of these improvements had to do with the doubling of power output, but we can’t escape the fact that the Merrill Thor is just a much more refined amp. And it should be, given the price differential.

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Summing Up

In the end, I came away mightily impressed with Rogue Audio’s Sphinx integrated amplifier. It was enjoyable enough that if I hadn’t had two much more expensive amplifiers on hand to compare it with, I probably would have been happy as a pig rolling in mud listening to the Sphinx indefinitely. Keep in mind that I offer such praise based on its sonic qualities alone; recalling all of the built-in features offered brings the amp value-wise to a whole new level.

The one aspect of the Sphinx’s performance that I was unable to evaluate was its phono stage. I didn’t have a turntable on hand fitted with a high-output cartridge (nor do I even have such a cartridge), so that option was out. I hear that it is quite good for what it is, and given the level of quality of the rest of the amp, I wouldn’t be surprised. I did spend some time with the headphone output, and I found it to be as good as anything else I had on hand when listening through my Audio Technica ‘phones. Again, I’m not surprised.

The Rogue Sphinx probably won’t satisfy the needs of the most demanding audiophile, but that’s OK. Rogue Audio has higher-level offerings to fill that niche. I see that Sphinx appealing most to someone on a budget who is looking for a very high level of performance accompanied by lots of functionality. As I said before, this amp would be perfect for the budding audiophile looking for a centerpiece component to build a system around that he or she could be proud of and enjoy for many years to come.

Well done, Rogue Audio, and I’m glad I finally had the opportunity to make your acquaintance.

About the Author

John Richardson has been interested in music and audio since his early teen years, or stated another way, as long as he can remember.  He has been involved in the audio community in one way or another for around 20 years and for the last five has been a regular contributor to the on-line magazine Stereomojo.  There, he has been the resident computer audio guy and “value conscious audiophile” (aka “cheap bastard”).

John is also a professor of analytical chemistry and forensic chemistry consultant in his spare time when he isn’t listening to music or evaluating gear.  He tries to fit in plenty of time to hang out with his two teenage kids, his lovely wife, and the family cat, though only the cat also seems to harbor audiophile tendencies.  John also enjoys running, cycling, golfing, hiking, or just about any other activity that sucks up time and money.

Financial Interests: Writing for Part-Time Audiophile is his sole intersection with audio’s high-end.

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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.

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