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RMAF12: Blackbird Heeds that Funky Opera from Simply Italy

Okay, so tortured title aside (apologies), there was a lot going on in the Blackbird Audio room. Hosts Dan Muzquiz of San Diego's Blackbird, Bob Clarke of importer Profundo, and The Vinyl Anachronist Marc Philips of Colleen Cardas Imports, created a happy little space in the middle of RMAF and stuffed it full of high-value gear. Yes, "high value" -- that is, great sound for something quite a bit short of "arm & leg". And it worked. Dan and company were alternating (every hour or so) between a pair of systems over the course of the weekend. Here's the breakdown:

System 1

  • Opera Audio Grand Mezza loudspeakers ($2,795/pair)
  • Unison Research Simply Italy 12Wpc integrated amplifier ($2,450)
  • Unico CDE CD player ($4,275, with the optional upgraded dual-mono DAC)
  • Unison Research Giro turntable ($3,995, incl. tonearm)
  • Transfiguration Phoenix cartridge ($4,250)
  • Pure Audio phono preamp ($4,500)

System 2

  • Trenner & Friedl Pharoah loudspeakers ($12,500)
  • Funk Vector Mk III turntable ($1,695)
  • Funk FXR Mk II tonearm ($2,395)
  • Transfiguration’s new Axia cartridge ($2,450)
  • Heed Quasar phono pre ($1,200) and PSU ($1,200)
  • Heed Obelisk Pre ($1,900) with PX PSU ($1,400)
  • Heed Obelisk DA converter ($1,900) and DT transport ($1,900)
  • Heed Obelisk PM monoblock amplifiers ($4,200/pair)

I didn’t have a chance to catch System 2 during my two trips through, but System 1 was quite the treat. My second ears, Mal Kenny, had this to say about that setup:

Unison is very easy to listen to, but the excitement in this room came from the Pure Audio Vinyl Phono Preamplifier. It’s hard to listen to it without thinking “this is the default upgrade from the Koru” It has the same stunning heft, but with far more tonal color, and an actual sense of space. Pureaudio is made of of ex-Plinius guys, and it seems that the magic has gone with them.

For those of you keeping score, I’m a Plinius guy, so it’s pretty interesting to see the Plinius designers off on another project. Dan tells me that the Gary Morrison and Ross Stevens (ex-Plinius designers) are now collaborating to create the stripped-down, skeletal aluminum products that feature Class A designs and a warm, rich sound. Personally, I’m interested in getting my ears on more of this stuff.

Another brand I’m particularly caught by is the Opera loudspeakers — you can’t really capture the textures going on here in a pic (and I failed to get back there to take the requisite 20+ pictures that might begin to fill in this sketch). So, aside from quality parts and a warm, scrumptious sound, these sub-$3k loudspeakers are finished better — that is, they look better — than loudspeakers 10x their cost. I was loving that sweet satin finish on the side panels. And that front? What was that? Rubber? Leather? Who cares. It was as nice to touch (and photograph!) as it was to listen to. Winner, winner, chicken dinner!

[Begin rant]If you are a loudspeaker maker, please — no more plastic cases! That polyester/polyurethane finish you pour over wood and then burnish it up to a nice, mirrored shine, no longer looks like wood — it looks (and feels) like cheap plastic. If that’s what you were going for, fine, but you could have painted MDF and gotten a nicer-looking end-product. Yes, seriously. Please cut it out! Wood ought to look like wood for this finish to even make sense — otherwise, just use something else! Oh, and did I mention that mirrored-finishes are a PITA to take pictures of?[/end rant]

As for the rest, you got to love a team that actively attempts to construct systems that, even though aspirationally priced for most of us, still manage to eschew the stunning prices common in today’s high end. Nice work, here. Looking forward to spending more time in a Blackbird Audio room at the next show.

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