by Rafe Arnott
I love everything about it.
The sound, the feel of records in my hands, the hunt for an elusive LP….
Rifling through the stacks in an old record store and catching your breath as you suddenly reverse-flip back because your fingers snapped too-fast past the mint condition Louis Armstrong and Count Basie The Great Reunion before your brain could receive the message from your eyes for what you saw.
Or scoring an unopened copy of the Bee Gees’ Trafalgar off of Discogs and sitting down to tear off the cellophane wrap, then hearing it play for the first time since it was sealed away 43 years ago.
That’s my jam baby.
So it is with trepidation that I now say I might be falling in love with 1/4″ tapes.
Richard Brown of Open Reel Hardware & Software was just in the process of hot-switching from SACD to a Stellavox reel player when I first walked into one of Covenant Audio‘s two rooms at T.H.E. Show on Friday, and within a second of hearing the tape take over from the Esoteric K03 SACD player (no slouch), I stopped dead in my tracks and my head swiveled around to look at the equipment rack like Linda Blair’s did in the The Exorcist.
So I sat down in this room’s sweet spot (their other room features WAVAC, more on that room later) and let Brown and Kenny Gunlock of Covenant tell me about the heavily-modified Stellavox 5i-KC tape deck (Approx. $3,000 US) which was silently spinning an Impulse session from 1963 of Count Basie and the Kansas City 7 through a hand-made 100 wpc Technical Brain TB-Zero integrated amplifier ($26,800) and Silverline Audio Bolero Supreme speakers ($15,000).
I became instantly uncomfortable. I knew I was in serious trouble.
Voices (a studio technician introduces the band with some banter) and instruments floated out of a black void of nothingness and I started freaking a bit because it sounded – and felt – like the studio walls were wrapping around and behind my head and body, enveloping me in time and space. Back to 1963 when the recording was made.
Gunlock continued to explain to me the painstaking construction process that goes into Naoto Kurosawa’s amplifier topology, and the elimination of emitter resistors from the circuit path (apparently this is one of the reasons the amp sounds so effing good).
Kurosawa’s solid state TB-Zero has the type of minor sonic coloration, grip in the treble and midrange, transparency to source and hyper-3D sound staging I usually associate with tube gear.
The fact it was able to handle transient attack and decay with such speed and subtlety, presenting every instrument and voice with such nuance and delicacy only made it harder to believe that no valves were hidden under the exquisite casework.
As much praise as I have for the amp, the Silverline Bolero Supremes did an admirable job of completely disappearing and letting the music come through. Gunlock said the Supremes were easy to position and took only minutes to set up. Bass, while not absolutely the deepest and most authoritative I’ve heard (depending on the recording), was clean and tight.
We finished off with a 1/4″ tape from what I believe Richard said was a dupe of a remaster of The Doors’ “Riders on the Storm”.
I’m here to tell you that the rain coming down throughout this song’s recording was so realistic that I felt like I was sitting on my grandmother’s porch as a child, albeit now I was sitting and waiting through a thunder storm as The Doors played just a few feet in front of me.
The tape was ridiculously, crazy-good sounding. It wasn’t hi-fi, it was performance, it was in the studio. It was art. This is serious gear for people who want to seriously hear their recordings.
Richard said he knew a European distributor with a large supply of first-generation dupes from remastering houses that were priced around $100 each ….
I don’t feel so good.