Better Right Than Happy: A Cautionary High End Audio Tale

The high end will continue to shrink. There will soon come a day when every surviving high end guy will come together in a room, shake hands with one another, and then all fall over dead.
– Kevin Halverson, co-founder of Muse Electronics.

After all these years, this final meeting still hasn’t happened…yet. I started The Audio Observatory way back when, even before Kevin laid this hard bit of prophecy on me. I didn’t really have much of a vision for TAO, which is the one big reason that it never became much of anything. It existed to serve my own purpose and my purpose was to do what I could to undermine the then-existing attitudes toward the relevance and influence of reviews. I simply wanted people to have the confidence to listen to what they liked and to enjoy what they listened to.

TAO Masthead
The TAO masthead, original artwork in ink, by Mimi Sheean

A mother-fucker can either listen to what he likes, or he can listen to what some other mother-fucker likes.
– Joe Roberts, Editor of Sound Practices.

TAO started out and ended up modestly. At its peak, I was sending out a few thousand issues at a time. But, when I started out I was only mailing a few hundred. Most were sent to my high end heroes. I sent issues of TAO to guys like Nelson Pass, Ray Kimber, Yves-Bernard André, Jim Winey, Bruce Thigpen and Roger Modjeski. After a few dozen issues I got a hand-written letter from Roger Modjeski and a poem. It turns out that he liked the line I used to close each issue.

Listen well, but listen happy.

The line captured what I wanted readers to get, that their happiness with their own beloved music was all that mattered. When I got that letter from Roger I knew I had gotten at least one thing right and lots of folks can’t even do that. He invited me to give him a call and to come up to Santa Barbara for lunch…just to talk. A few weeks later I did and so began an association that, to this day, informs a good deal of how I think and how I see the world, especially the world of high end audio.

Right away, Roger and I enjoyed each other’s company. I think we each sensed that we saw the other as an odd yet accurate reflection of our other self. If that doesn’t make of sense rest easy; t doesn’t make a lot of sense to me either. In some ways, we didn’t have much in common. Roger was an engineer’s-engineer and I was a mere layman, though one possessed of a strong appreciation for formal reasoning and a quick facility for the occasionally clarifying analogy. Sometimes Roger’s engineering rigor created an angst-inducing forest-for-the-trees situation that needed that ability on my part.

We both loved music and thought that vacuum tubes were the best path to achieve its reproduction in the home. That’s not really true. Roger thought that but I believed that the very best transistor gear was in fact superior to the best tube gear. But, I also thought that better designed vacuum gear outperformed most solid-state gear that was even remotely similarly priced. And, there was and there is no vacuum tube gear that’s as well designed as the gear Roger Modjeski designs. He simply has no equal.

Roger’s brilliance came from, well, brilliance. He had made the mistakes (in his mind) that lesser engineers had often made in their products and he never forgot a lesson once learned. After we got to know each other, he began to share his thoughts on his own designs and the designs of others. Some were old and some were new but he always looked to examine what had been achieved, or what had not, and how the failure of knowledge or experience or both had led to the result.

After a few of our lunch meetings, Roger offered me a job. I would handle Music Reference and RAM Labs sales and marketing. Me being me, I knew I could handle the task. I am not prone to delusion. I knew that Music Reference and RAM Labs were small companies in a small market. The job would not be a path to anything other than the chance to do something I’d never done before and to work along side someone for whom I held a genuine respect and fondness. I took the job and instantly The Audio Observatory was transformed. It was impossible for me to review tube gear in my own journal. My readers objected, but from then on I confined myself to reviews of solid-state gear. It was an unsatisfying turn for my association with The Audio Observatory but I knew it was the right move for me at the time.

Working with Roger was never dull, never easy, often frustrating yet frequently entertaining in a way that’s hard to describe. We met two Mondays a month, always for lunch. The day went like this. I’d hit the road from Valencia around 10 a.m. and look to arrive at Roger’s house in Santa Barbara around Noon. His mood upon meeting me at the door determined a lot. Sometimes I could tell that he’d been waiting for me in a kind of intellectually anxious way. Perhaps he’d read something that annoyed him but didn’t quite grasp in a way that satisfied his reasoning. Other times, I would be met with an air of frustration that he tried to hide behind a futile mask of cordiality. I could sense his dissatisfaction simmering. Sometimes I could find a kind of voice for whatever was gnawing at him and sometimes it persisted right on through our initial meeting, our lunch out, and our after-lunch meeting. Those could be some long-ass afternoons.

Still, I treasured our meetings. Roger Modjeski was a consistently fascinating person to hang around with and our customers loved his gear and the tubes he tested. And, I learned a lot. No, I didn’t learn many of the kinds of things that were very likely to improve my financial fortunes but I didn’t care. I was doing what I wanted to do and I was learning to do things I wanted to learn how to do. Roger wasn’t what anyone was likely to call a traditionally good teacher. Still, I learned a great deal from him and also from myself. Roger liked to say that pretty much every success he ever had at Music Reference and RAM Labs came from doing something for the first time, and learning from the mistakes that first effort had brought to light. Mistakes never pleased him, but he knew they were an unavoidable part of learning in the same way he had learned.

The greatest challenge for Music Reference was production. As much as Roger loved design and engineering he hated manufacturing. I’m not sure if he always hated it or whether the years of coordinating everything it took from a taking a product from concept to final testing fell on him. Either way, manufacturing was a constant topic. Roger wanted a production manager who could take over the most onerous duties. That would free Roger to develop new designs and also to do the kind of extended travel he believed the ongoing day-to-day demands of the business prevented.

One of my first bits of inexperience was exposed by my belief that finding the right candidate for the job would be doable if not easy. Music Reference and RAM Labs were located in Santa Barbara and I figured that between UCSB and Santa Barbara City College there would be a good number of qualified applicants in the area. I was wrong. Roger and I interviewed a number of candidates and one seemed less likely to be able to do the job or even to truly understand the substance of the job than the next. It was a sobering experience.

I met Graham Hardy back in my early days as a reviewer. He partnered with Kevin Halverson in the design of the legendary Muse Model Two Digital to Analog Converter. The Model Two was a ground-breaking product. It was the first DAC to show (to me, anyway) that digital could someday rival, and possibly exceed, the fundamental fidelity and musicality of the finest analog systems. Kevin might dispute this, but I believe it was the Model Two that really put Muse Electronics on the map back in the early 1990s.

Here’s where things start to evolve and worlds began to clash. Graham was an avid reader of The Audio Observatory and liked to question me about what I regarded as the essential musicality of a vacuum tube system. His curiosity got him thinking about designing a tube amplifier of his own. Graham had a particular design goal for his amp. He wanted it to be able to automatically bias its output tubes.

It will be as if there are eight little audio nerds living in each amplifier chassis, constantly turning tiny screwdrivers keeping the output tubes in a state of perfect bias.
-Graham J. Hardy

That sounded cool to me though I had always enjoyed biasing tubes for myself, in very much the same way I liked checking my car’s oil level and tire pressure. Still, Graham was passionate about the idea. His enthusiasm brought an idea to mind; could Graham be the production manager for Music Reference?

I thought about it for weeks before I brought the idea to Graham. It turned out he had been independently hoping I would set up a meeting with Roger. In hindsight that motive, on Graham’s part, should have been a warning. Graham was looking for affirmation that his concept was impressive to a respected, even legendary, designer of tube gear. He also wanted to prove to himself that he could slip from the digital world to the analog world and still do valuable work.

Roger didn’t have a problem with the meeting. All of the failed interviews with would-be production managers had worn him out and put him close to giving up on the idea that finding a decent candidate was even possible. We picked a date and Graham and I headed north to Santa Barbara. I knew that it would be a waste of time to make any attempt at coaching Graham about how best to present his ideas to Roger. I also knew that Roger could be a little bit like a roulette wheel when it came to how he would receive someone new. Roger was always cordial. He’d grown up in Richmond, Virginia and I always felt that a certain kind of southern gentility influenced his behavior. He was never loud or contradictory and he could be an excellent listener. But, once he knew that the person he was speaking to lacked a full understanding of what was being discussed he would begin the dissection just to make sure. He did this by asking one seemingly simple question after another. I regarded those questions as if they were the coils of a python; at first it felt OK but then it would get a little hard to breathe. Just when the person being questioned started to figure out what was happening, that answers to important questions had been fumbled, the end of the interview would come mercifully.

The interview went terribly. Roger started questions with phrases like, “You do understand…” -and- “Certainly you’re aware that…” When Roger asked, “Do you realize that capacitors in this kind of circuit will each discharge at different rates while music is playing?” I knew full well the interview was over. The Oxford PhD in physics, the genuine honest-to-God, card-carrying rocket scientist from JPL, had been laid-low by the soft-spoken electrical engineer from the University of Virginia.

Graham seethed all the way back to his house and about an hour later when I finally got home to my house I had a message from Roger on my machine. When I called him back, he thanked me for bringing Graham to Santa Barbara to meet with is. But, then he said, “You do understand that there’s no way I can work with him, right?’

Right.

So then back to the inexorable passage of time. The 1990s ended and then my marriage ended and finally my friendship with Graham came to a coda brought about by his poor behavior when he drank and finally by his subsequent move to Washington. I missed him, but being around Graham was like being close to a moving fire. It was only a matter of time before it became uncomfortable and a painful burn was sure to follow. All that said, I still miss him to this day. He always was, in his way, a great and dedicated friend.

Even more time passes. It’s New Year’s Eve 2017 and I was sitting in an outdoor jacuzzi having a late-night cocktail when I got a call from a number I didn’t recognize. The woman who answered told me she was calling about Graham and the water in the tub suddenly felt as cold as the desert’s winter air as it swirled around me. I knew before hearing the words exactly what she was going to say; Graham had finally killed himself.

Without being told, I knew that he had shot himself.

Without being told I knew the gun he pulled the trigger on was very likely one he had bought from me in the months after I was divorced.

Without being told I knew that this was by no means the end of the story.

Another reason the woman had called me was to enlist my help in getting one of Graham’s unfinished designs through final engineering and manufacture. I was astonished but I was also intrigued. I thought to myself, what were the odds that this design would ever surface again, especially after Graham’s death, and that I, of all people, could be the point of nexus required to get it to market or see it consigned to the ash heap of never-produced high end design??

Still, still; it was a very odd thing to consider. Graham’s amplifier, and especially the work he’d done on it after the time when he’d vanished from my radar, comprised a kind of vendetta against Roger Modjeski. There was no way for me to know if Graham had, against all odds, overcome his limitations as a designer of tube gear and created a viable circuit for today’s market. Then and now I say that the odds were against him but that doesn’t make such a design an impossibility.

Graham’s amplifier was made to look like a Music Reference amplifier. Roger liked to say that he had designed Music Reference amplifiers, especially the RM-9, to look as if they had been built by someone in his garage, but by someone who had access to certain elements of construction that would never be attainable to someone building something by himself. It was one of the first products to use a 6061 T6 aluminum top plate. The nomenclature was done in a technique called Anofax that would never wear out the way conventionally silk-screened lettering would. Each of the three transformers were hand-wound by either Roger or a technician who made guitar pickups for Seymour Duncan who Roger had trained in the exacting art and science of transformer winding. Once wound, the transformers were vacuum potted into enameled transformer cans. It was a tricky, laborious and time-consuming process from start to finish.

RM9
The original brochure photo for the classic RM-9

Graham’s amplifier had double the number of output tubes (per channel) of an RM-9. It also had a T6 top plate and a wooden frame. The power and output transformers were made by a company called Plitron which has a somewhat mixed reputation. A written description of Graham’s amp and the RM-9 could lead one to believe that they looked similar to each other, but they didn’t. Still, it was clear that Graham’s design was directed at what Roger Modjeski had created all those years before.

Graham's Amp
Graham Hardy’s cosmetic prototypes

No one will ever know why Graham didn’t finish the design himself or build the production amplifiers. For a time, even before he moved to Washington, he had a created company of sorts and a website, but there was never a product available to buy. When I learned that the prototypes had survived him I considered making the effort to hear them for myself, but I didn’t really want to. In the end, I believed it was very unlikely Graham had achieved a working version of his auto-bias function and, even if he had, I was even more doubtful he had achieved a musically viable product in what was his first attempt at designing a tube amplifier. It just ain’t that easy.

Still, I feel an odd and somewhat uncomfortable connection to Graham’s design. It had been so long since I had spoken to him it was as if the amplifiers were all that were left of him, and even they were incomplete. Somehow the amplifier’s design didn’t feel genuine. It didn’t feel like something that had been created to bring better sounding music to people’s homes. Somehow it felt hard and hollow and empty. I admit that I may be missing something about Graham’s amplifier. Perhaps he achieved far more than I’m giving him credit for, but I’m actually quite comfortable never knowing the answer.

There’s another irony to all of this. A while back I called Roger Modjeski to let him know about Graham’s passing and the amplifier he designed and built. But, Roger didn’t remember the fateful meeting. Even after I reminded him about the specifics, he simply didn’t remember. In the end, the meeting simply hadn’t meant anything to him. And, for Graham, even though he acted as if the meeting had meant a lot, he wasn’t able to find a way to directly benefit from it, or even to see it as a light that showed him a way forward. Graham could only find a way to feel dismissed and minimized even though no one had sought to make him feel that way. Without trying to win, or even knowing there was any kind of competition, Roger had won. In his effort to prove himself as the equal of his own education and professional stature as a physicist and engineer Graham had lost and, even worse, he had undermined himself and his mission in the process. What an terrible waste of intelligence, energy and potential.

Today, after all these years, there’s an effort underway to get Graham’s amplifier built. But, I still wish the whole thing just felt better to me. I wish Graham had been able to create out of a heartfelt desire to build something better rather than a pitiable need to be proven correct. More than that, I wish he had been able to live his life to its full measure. Who knows what he could have achieved had he simply given himself the occasional luxury of being wrong and the right we all have to learn from our mistakes and move on.

With that, I’ll give Graham the last words one final time.

Any good Englishman would rather be right than happy.
– Graham J. Hardy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Better Right Than Happy: A Cautionary High End Audio Tale

Review of Shinola’s Canfield Over-Ear Headphones

Canfield

Shinola is a fascinating company with a name that is, for me anyway, a little odd. I mean, come on; we all know what rhymes with Shinola. They make all sorts of interesting things from watches to wallets, from turntables to speakers, all assembled in their factory in Detroit, Michigan. The Canfield Over-Ear headphones are Shingle’s circumaural headphones. From a design standpoint the Canfield Over-Ears straddle a modern look with classic headphone shapes, contours and lines from the days of old. They are very solidly constructed. The lambskin ear cups are especially luxurious. The Canfield Over-Ear’s contemporary lineage is confirmed by the presence of an inline volume control and the fact that the (rather shortish) cable is terminated with a 3.5mm plug, though a good quality .25″ phone plug adapter is included.

Before I get into what it’s like to use and listen to the Shinolas I want to comment on its connectors. Disclaimer: I am a unreasonably obsessed by connectors and signal path issues. I accept the fact that the 3.5mm plug has become a kind of de facto standard when it come to the majority of headphones we use today. From this, I exempt really high end headphones which may operate in a fully-balanced mode and so may use XLR or other connectors that accommodate that topology. When it comes to the Shinola Canfield Over-Ears there are female connector jacks on each earpiece. So, there are soldered connections on each earpiece and another soldered connection on the other end. On one hand, this affords the user with an interesting opportunity; this configuration makes it easy to use another cable (that’s similarly terminated). Just pick your brand or make your own cables. The Shinola’s make swapping cables easy, if potentially costly.

But…

Under the best of circumstances you’ll be dealing with a significant number of extra solder points and plug-in connectors. That is not a recipe for a typical high end implementation. If Shinola is using what they consider to be good quality wire I would rather they ditch the female jacks on the earpieces and solder those wires directly to their drivers or crossovers. It’s a tough situation. I can see the advantage of what they’re doing but the downside, especially for a pair of $450 headphones, is significant.

The Shinola Canfield Over-Ear headphones are excellent. They are truly full-range and offer exceptional dynamic capabilities. But, maybe unfortunately and maybe not unfortunately, they do require some significant care and feeding. When driven by purpose-built headphone amps of commensurate quality the Canfields can dazzle. But, when driven by a phone or computer the Shinolas can sound a touch heavy. This problem results from a contemporary belief that’s poorly founded. The belief is that even the finest headphones can be happily driven by even the most modest of amplifiers. Quite simply, they can’t. A $450 pair of headphones deserve proper amplification.

When properly driven, the Shinola Canfield Over-Ear headphones sound marvelous. They are detailed, yet unfatiguing. They handle large dynamic swings with ease yet always preserve a deft portrayal of acoustic delicacy. The midband is slightly shelved back but vocals, both female and male, are always rendered clearly and with great articulation. The bottom end extension and impact are superb, easily besting my other reference headphones that are similarly priced. The Shinola’s even challenge significantly more expensive headphones, and they do so with a sense of ease and a lack of strain. The top end is smooth and extended if a tad soft. Every product is voiced and Shinola clearly voiced the Canfields to be kind to recordings that are not exactly what most would call high fidelity. All in all, though, the Canfields are superbly musical headphones, especially considering their price.

These Shinola headphones are beautiful and obviously lovingly assembled and finished. And, they look as if they would be quite comfortable to wear. The earpieces rotate freely and the length of the headband adjusts readily as well. I found it easy to adjust the Canfield Over-Ears to the point where they fit me just right. The texture of the lambskin ear pads is decadently smooth. My guess is that they’ll feel even better once they’re broken-in; rather like a fine baseball glove. The headband’s padding could be a little wider and more compliant. Since these are heavyish headphones their mass is concentrated on a relatively narrow area of the head. Could they be even more comfortable? For sure. Perhaps Shinola will reevaluate this as they evolve their headphones down the road.

As they are, the Shinolas are amazingly good headphones even in what is a very competitive section of the market, price wise. For a new company, they are a nearly miraculous product. I have every confidence that Shinola will better the Canfield Over-Ear headphones if they decide to stay in the headphone game. In this case, more than in other headphones at this price, the rewards you reap with the Canfields will have a direct relationship to the quality of the device that drives them. I, for one, do not see this as any kind of shortcoming or disadvantage. Think of it as a part of the price you’ll pay for enjoying the musical refinement that Shinola Canfield Over-Ear headphones can attain.

The Shinola Canfield Over-Ear headphones are very much worth the effort.

Shinola Canfield Over-Ear Headphones

$450 USD

Review of Shinola’s Canfield Over-Ear Headphones

My Fond Memory of Brooks Berdan

Originally published in an old blog of mine way back in 2013

I have a lot of fond memories of my old friend, Brooks Berdan. In my early days as a reviewer, he was always kind enough to loan me gear for review that would have been difficult if not impossible to get my hands on otherwise.

Later, when I consulted to Music Reference and Muse Electronics I learned what a truly fantastic dealer Brooks was and how hard he worked for his customers. Brooks was a very unusual dealer. He had a national reputation, but did virtually no business over the phone (let alone over the internet). Brooks was the rare dealer who wanted and, even needed, to know his customers before he would do business with them, let alone separate them from their money.

Brooks loved tube gear and faithfully represented Music Reference and RAM Tubes like no other dealer in the US. His loyalty had its perks. Very often, I would hand deliver his orders directly all the way from Santa Barbara, especially when he was ordering a lot of tubes or a one-off product like a hand-made RM-9 Special Edition.

Of course, just hanging out with Brooks was a special pleasure. We could talk music, or gear, or motorcycles, or the challenges of making a marriage work, for hours at a time, and we often did. Back in 2003, when I was going through my divorce, I dropped by Brooks’ shop one afternoon. I was giving him the summary version of where things were and mentioned, in passing, that it had become tough to write reviews since I hadn’t taken my analog rig when I had moved out of the house. Brooks looked up from what he was doing and asked me what I needed. I told him I could get along fine with a simple set up and that the Kuzma Stabi Reference and Dynavector XL that was back in Valencia were loaners from the distributor anyway.

Without a word, Brooks vanished into his storeroom and emerged with a boxed REGA P3 under his arm. Brooks asked me if I liked Sumiko Blue Point Special EVO. I told him I’d never been a huge fan of the original but had never heard the naked EVO version. “Well,” Brooks said, “try it. It’s a lot better than the old one. If you don’t like it you can always try something else.”

Up until that point, I figured Brooks was setting up the REGA for a customer, or as a demo, but then I realized he was building it for me.

“You know, Brooks, cash is a little tight right now; this whole divorce thing doesn’t come cheap.”

Brooks shook his head. “Don’t worry about it, pay me when you can.”

For the next hour, Brooks lovingly set up the REGA and the Sumiko. He did his work with a level of care that would seldom be afforded to such modest gear, but that was Brooks. For him, it didn’t matter if he was setting up an SPj La Luce or a REGA.

Brooks always took his work very seriously.

When he was done I said, “Thank you, Brooksy; what do I owe you?”

“Don’t worry about it, just send me what you can when you can.”

“Brooks, come on, I’m not that hard up, what do I owe you?”

Grudgingly, he got out his price sheets (on paper, of course) and said, “OK, my cost on this is like $600, so mail me a check for $500 when you can. Make the check for more than that and I won’t cash it.” Then, Brooks looked at the REGA and said, “Divorce is hard. You know what I’d like to ask my ex? Was I really that bad?”

I don’t have a guess about what Brooks was like as a husband, but I know he was much more than a business associate to me. On that day, I had no intention of asking Brooks to help me out. It turned out that I didn’t need to, Brooks was the kind of man to recognize a friend in need and would simply do what he could to to help.

The other day, I was thinking about that now-aged REGA, and how the decade had just flown by me as if it were a breeze. I miss not playing very many records these days. I listen to music every day, usually on my iPhone, occasionally on my small system at home. But, it has become the rare day when I have the time to play an LP and I miss the sound, the life and the pure joy of it. I’m sure the suspension on that old Sumiko has gotten a little dry and hard, but it still sounds great.

Someday I may have to replace that cartridge but I really don’t want to…

It was set up by the all-time master of analog, Brooks Berdan, and I’m proud to say that he was a friend of mine.

My Fond Memory of Brooks Berdan

Role Audio Sampan Music Box Review

In the beginning, there were speakers, big speakers in the corners of a living room, and the sound was good. The problem was that having a pair of Altec Voice of the Theater speakers meant for a severe intrusion into the typical living space found in an American home. But, for the next forty or so years, we coexisted with big speakers and big amplifiers and managed to enjoy our music despite the fact that our speakers weighed as much as a golf cart.

Thank goodness for the internet.

The internet has brought us a great deal of convenience along with everything else, both wanted and unwanted. For someone who works at home as I have for most of the last thirty years the ability to get proper music off of the internet proved to be elusive until very recently.

Bluetooth audio was OK but the sound quality of even the best bluetooth speakers is still marginal. Think of the the sound of AM radio when you think of bluetooth audio. Still, Americans want it all even as their living spaces get smaller. Fortunately, WiFi gives us the potential to get a little closer to the sound we want and the Role Audio Sampan Music Box takes full advantage of WiFi’s promise. The Music Box is a 42 by 5 by 4.5 inch box that sits happily behind my Mac on my faithful (though plain) 62 and 31.5 inch Ikea work table. Its slender, stealthy black enclosure looks sharp against the light red faux veneer that Ikea does so well.

For most of my review period, I’ve used the Music Box with my new Chromecast Audio which is very cool indeed. If you’ve yet to buy one you owe it to yourself to try one. It’s a little miniature hockey-puck-shaped device that sets up in a breeze and has proven very reliable. It’s the opposite of obtrusive.

I also used the Music Box directly from my CD player as a kind of resolution reference point. Lastly, I used the Music Box directly from my trusty 64 GB iPhone 5 and an ancient iPod I have laying around. In any case, a wired connection to the Music Box is simple. You can also use a stereo mini plug on the front or traditional left and right RCAs on the back.

musicbox-chrome-sht
Chromecast Audio atop the Music Box…Photo courtesy of Role Audio

I wasn’t really thinking about testing the dynamic capabilities of the Music Box when I first hooked it up, but the music playing seemed to demand it so I figured I’d crank the little guy up just for fun. Wow. The Music Box can play quite loudly and without a hint of strain. The benefit of matching a speaker’s design to the 100 watt amp is clear.

Still, I ramped things down for a few hours. The Music Box had just bumped its way across the country all the way from North Carolina and it seemed wise to let it settle in before doing any careful listening.

First up was Jim Steinke’s Finland Road Song from his Playing by Heart CD (Blind Guava Music OWR 0077). This is an amazingly well recorded HDCD of some superb solo guitar music played by a little-known virtuoso. The tracks are unique for their ability to capture transient attacked without a trace of electronic artifact. Through the Music Box the sound is clear with a great sense of presence to the plucking of the guitar strings.

The Sampan Music box should not be thought of as just another desk-top speaker. Its voicing is far more sophisticated and resolving than that and on this point I think mentioning a little set up care is in order. First, even though it sounded good when I sat closer to it, I try to stay at least 3 feet away from the speaker when I am putting forth an effort to listen carefully. Second, I find that the vertical listening axis is somewhat important. A little rearward tilt makes the upper mids sound more integrated with the lower treble making voices more natural.

Speaking of vocals, one of my critical tests for the Music Box came on Call it a Loan from Jackson Browne and David Lindley’s Love is Strange record (Inside Recordings INR5111-0). A couple minutes into this track there is a brief but exceptional bit of harmony between Browne and Lindley. David Lindley is singing in full voice, which he does rarely but always to great effect. A good speaker like the Music Box can at once separate and define each voice, letting the tones and timbres stand apart, yet blend sweetly in harmony. The voices need to sound at once as one and separate and the Sampan Music Box pulls this trick off nicely.

More of the this rare brand of musical integration is heard when I play Iris DeMent’s Broad Gold from her record The Trackless Woods (Flariella Records CD-FER-1006). The first part of the track blends DeMent’s voice in its lower range and piano. With the Music Box, her voice never seems pushed forward or pulled back. The presentation is solid, stable and musical. It’s easy to forget the gear and lean back and enjoy.

The Sampan Music Box remind me of my B&W P7 headphones except that my head doesn’t get tired when I listen the music box. It has the same crisp, clear ease to its sound and superb integration. Everything is there and easily discerned. I regard both devices at once as a reviewer’s tools and wonderfully musical components anyone can enjoy.

The simple fact is that you could easily build a main system around the Sampan Music Box. In any configuration it has the capacity to come very close to the dynamic ease you’re used to hearing from traditional two-speaker stereo systems that are far larger and cost far more. There’s very little from a musical standpoint it can’t handle, and handle with ease.

If you simply want better sound in your office or den, or if you finally want to get rid of those huge Altec Voice of the Theaters your wife has been threatening you about, do yourself a favor and give the Music Box serious consideration.

No matter how you use the Sampan Music Box you will be amazed by the quality and quantity of music it can bring into a room and your life.

Role Audio Sampan Music Box Review

Bowers & Wilkins A5 review

Back in the old days high end audio products had funny little niggles. Preamps would pop when you changed inputs. Volume potentiometers often miss-tracked until they hit their sweet spot somewhere around of after noon. When I was young and foolish I asked a designer why this was true. He told me that high end products were designed to sound good. Then, once a design sounded good a little grudging attention could be paid to getting rid of niggles, at least those niggles that could be corrected without affecting the sound.
This 20th century preamble is needed to discuss the 21st century Bowers & Wilkins A5 AirPlay speaker. The A5 is quite small (a little larger than a toaster) and very stylish looking. Once out of the box I found it looking quite at home perched on a shelf that is just a little higher than ear level when I’m seated on the sofa. Bowers & Wilkins has a set-up app that got the A5 integrated into my wireless system without delay.
The Good: The good thing about the A5 is how it sounds. It is nothing short of amazing in terms of its ability to generate significant and relatively effortless sounding SPLs. I’m sure matching drivers and enclosures to amplifiers has proven to be a genuine boon to the designers at Bowers & Wilkins. Vocals are especially good, significantly better than other Wi-Fi speakers I have used of similar size. Anyone who expects more fundamental musicality than the A5 can create has unreasonable expectations. The A5 sounds superb with all kinds of music.
The Not Quite as Good: Using the A5 ties you to AirPlay and that’s being tied to a work in progress that may never get much better. AirPlay is designed to allow disparate playback systems (TVs, speakers, etc.) to function with iTunes. Now, iTunes is the 800 pound gorilla and even though I have all of my music cataloged there, as a playback manager, iTunes is lacking. 
For example, if I start a track playing on my MacBook Pro and decide to play the selection through the Bowers & Wilkins A5 I need to be very careful. Why? Because AirPlay may decide to ramp up the volume to maximum when I select the A5 for playback. Interestingly, when I use AirPlay on an isomething  (iPod? iPhone? iPad?) it always wisely reduces the volume when it connects to the A5. Worse, and everyone is free to blame this on my Wi-Fi system, the system momentarily cuts out when the MacBook or the iPhone is engaged in any other processor-intense activity (like checking my email). Lastly, and this should be taken as evidence of AirPlay’s work in progress status, when my phone rings the music stops (whether I want it to or not) and does not resume at the end of the call.
When I first learned Bowers & Wilkins was going to be making products like the A5 I was excited. I knew B&W would be willing to do the engineering heavy lifting needed to make a product that brought high end sound to 21st century expectations of convenience and interconnection. I expected Bowers & Wilkins to build something that would go head to head with Sonos and do them one better. But, while the A5 betters Sonos in musical fidelity it is significantly less advanced than Sonos when it comes to control and convenience. That’s a problem because by its nature the A5 is a convenience product. I’m sure designing and executing a Sonos-like interface would have been a huge undertaking for Bowers & Wilkins. Then again, they are a company with a unique capacity (among high end companies) for such an effort.
That’s my challenge to Bowers & Wilkins: Keep everything that’s great about the A5 but develop your own interface and do it better than Sonos.
The A5 is worth the effort.
Bowers & Wilkins A5 review

Bower & Wilkins P7 Headphone Review

I really thought my long term reference headphones were safe from the new kid on the block, the Bowers & Wilkins P7. Sometimes safety is an illusion.
 
I was prepared to be impressed by the P7, don’t get me wrong. The truth is I’ve never heard a B&W product that wasn’t impressive. But, headphones can be very tricky. Those little drivers are just so dang close to the ears. Plus, you’re literally wearing an entire speaker system on your head.
 
Face it. There’s a lot that can go wrong. It’s easy to build headphones that sound impressive, but it’s very difficult to create headphones that sound musical. Impressive is easy because headphones always enjoy two advantages. First, the amount of air the transducers have to move is very small. Second, that small air space is defined by the designers of the headphones who know if the resulting product will be an open, closed or in-ear design. Contrast this with the designer of a speaker system who has no idea about the size, shape or construction of the room where the system will be used. All of this makes it easy to build headphones that sound impressive.
 
The problem is that it’s music that we’re after. And, because the system is on our heads, comfort. At first, the P7 reminded me the sport seats in a BMW M3. They felt snug and a little constricting. After a while they became more comfortable as the leather ear cups broke in. I do wish the cable were longer (without the extension), that it didn’t have controls wired into it, and was based soley on a quarter inch TRS connector (or something even better…hint). Indeed, reviewers are always wanting more and better. It’s a universal constant.
The musical presentation of the P7 is exceptionally tidy. They are stunningly and totally neutral from top to bottom and this can create an initial impression that they’re slightly airless. They’re not. They are dazzlingly revealing of source material which makes them as musical as any headphone I’ve ever heard. They are part reviewer’s reference and part trusted friend to music lovers. Let’s get down to some examples. “I feel like going home” is an old Charlie Rich song (yes, Charlie Rich). The song got new life and a superb treatment by Brendan Croker on the 1990cult-favorite, Missing…Presumed Having a Good Time. It is a classic country song with the vocal front and center. The P7 conveys the fullness of Croker’s strong yet plaintive voice and retrieves every detail of Mark Knopfler’s superb guitar accompaniment. Songs like these that are not too densely produced and feature a voice and a single guitar yet have a powerful bass line can sound congested. The P7 let the track breathe effortlessly; with the lingering sound of both voice and guitar so clearly and delicately captured. The bass is tight, pitch-perfect and wonderfully extended.
Again, simply dazzling.
 
Recreation of acoustic space is always a challenge for headphone simply because there’s so little space inside the ear pieces. Of course, acoustic space is actually a product of the recording process and it’s something that is not always there to be retrieved. Many times analog recordings of days gone by captured more of that space and sometimes the magic survived the transfer to CD. That is surely the case with Celedonio Romero’s sublime version of “Recuerdos de la Alhambra” from his CD An Evening of Guitar Music. This hard-to-find Delos CD was recorded in analog in 1986. The last days of analog lead to some very good CD transfers. The analog recordists knew the room was a part of the music and so they made sure the listener could experience it. Acoustic space is fragile and easy lost. The P7s convey that sense of space perfectly and it can be heard in the transients that come with the plucking of the strings and the sustained, woody resonance of the guitar. As an aside, I always advise listeners to choose one recording that features a solo stringed instrument as their first evaluation tool. Choose music you love and that’s recorded sensibly and learn its sound and magic. There’s no better way to check for essential musicality and essential musicality is what the Bowers & Wilkins P7 are all about. 

I confess I had my doubts B&W could hit the ball out of the park especially at such a modest price point, but they have. Ever the audiophile, I can’t help but wonder if they have their sights on something even more ambitious, that perhaps the P7 is a kind of warning shot for something even better? While I await for that inspiration to take hold at B&W, I’ll be enjoying my P7s. It’s quite hard for me to imagine headphones I would enjoy more than the P7 but I still hope Bowers & Wilkins is busy working on it.
Bower & Wilkins P7 Headphone Review

Review of the Audion Sterling Stereo Plus

For me, vacuum tube electronics have always represented a compromise but probably not in the way you would think. I believe that solid state amplification can equal the sound of vacuum tubes, but usually with a significant consequence of price. Simply put, dollar for dollar, one can garner more music with tubes than with transistors. As always there is a downside and with tubes it is often manifested in a loss of power, at least relative to the majority of the solid state offerings of today.

Audion made their name in the high end some years back with a lovely 300B mono amp called the Silver Night. Its arrival in many ways pre echoed the single-ended mania wrought by our high end compatriots in Japan. Throughout the fervent SE era there were a thoughtful few who kept asking one very key question: Where are the loudspeakers that are well suited to these amplifiers offering but a single digit of wattage? There was no viable answer. Oh, there were a few audio psychos with VOTs and a few more with a pair of Klipsch out in their garage, but no one really wanted to hear those speakers. Later of course the Lowther name was hopefully revived, but again the result was usually disappointing.

The Audion Sterling Stereo Plus is perhaps something of response to a longing for more power from a very simple tube design, and at a reasonable price. Its 18 watts comes from a single EI KT90 per channel. There is a single 6922 shared as a common input tube and a single 5687 driver, again shared by both channels. Unusually, there’s a prominent volume pot in the center of the faceplate, though the Sterling offers but one pair of inputs. The chassis, like that of the Silver Night, is of a pleasingly low profile and is quite a bit deeper than it is wide. The transformers are happily hidden from view by a similarly low profile transformer cover that is emblazoned with the Audion logo plate. The amplifier is solidly built, if not overbuilt, with a clean and efficient look about it. The rear panel connections are well done. My only quibble would be over the binding posts which, though sturdy enough, offer no method to tighten them down other than by hand. All in all, the Audion Sterling Stereo Plus is an attractive, one would almost say elegant, amplifier that you will be proud to display in your living or listening room.
A look inside the cleverly executed chassis reveals excellent construction techniques and layout. The transformer leads are neatly soldered directly to the output taps, no crimped on ring terminals here! The power transformer is a fairly large toroidal while the outputs are conventional EI designs. All in all, the internal construction of the Sterling is superb.
Early in my listening, I encountered but a single problem with the Audion. Occasionally, I would notice a fairly high pitched fluttering sound. Sometimes it was only audible when there was no music playing, but often it could be heard riding the music during quieter passages. I immediately suspected the 6922. Since I wasn’t using my preamp with the Audion in the system, I popped the top and removed one of the RAM Labs SLN 6922s out of the phono stage. Amazing. Not only was the Audion Sterling far more quiet, I found that the entire performance of the amplifier was improved. The background was now solid state black and the amplifier had a much better sense of large and small scale dynamics. The amplifier went from pleasant to musical with the substitution of but one tube. Ah, the joys of tube amplification! To borrow a phrase from Joni Mitchell, the Audion now sounded unfettered and alive. To put it simply, designing tube gear is sometimes an art, but testing tubes is always a science…and a science known and understood by a very few.
Still, as with any low powered tube amp there is always the question of whether there is enough power for the music’s needs. And, there’s also the mercurial KT90. This is a tube with a checkered past, somewhat in keeping with what I like to call the vacuum tube’s Second Coming. The KT90 was initially developed and marketed as a rebirth of the classic Genelex KT88, often referred to as the Gold Lion. Early KT90s were far from this, or even up to the standard of the 6550A and other octal based beam tube variants available at the time. Yes, it was more reliable than the Chinese KT88, but that’s not saying much. Worst of all was the fact that the KT90 just didn’t sound very good, a fact that was hard learned by many a hapless tube gear makers from Audio Research to VTL. The why of its poor sound is beyond my knowledge but there are a few in our industry who have offered interesting and well reasoned explanations.
Even with all of my suspicions about the musicality of of the KT90 I was determined to give the Audion Sterling Stereo Plus the full measure of my attention, if for no other reason that to find out if it was the tube or if it was the circuits that led to the less than satisfying results of the KT90. For the impatient among you I can say that it must have been the circuits. The Audion was one of the most enjoyable amps that I have ever used, but that’s a little too simple at this point in the review.
I have yet to address the issue of power, so I shall do so here: First of all, a watt’s a watt and don’t ever believe otherwise. All this nonsense about tube watts sounding more powerful is just a lot of wishful thinking from a bunch of tube newbies who don’t know enough to heed the wise man who said: “I have been foolish enough to think such thoughts, but wise enough to avoid saying them.” So, the Audion’s 18 watts a side are just that, no less and no more. The fact is that in my listening, with speakers ranging from ancient electrostats to modern low sensitivity mini-monitors, I always found that I had enough power to avoid having the amp sound strained. On the contrary, I found the Audion was always able to sound graceful and well controlled. At the limits of the its power delivery, it just flattens its presentation somewhat. This is apt proof of a well done tube design that recovers from clipping both quickly and without undue dramatics.
In the heart of its power range the Audion is a fine performer, particularly well suited to music which relies on a sense of acoustic space and instrumental timbre. It is a joy on both acoustic jazz and female vocals. The amplifier has a quick and light quality that makes it perfectly suited to a small system or a main system in a small room. The soundstage is wide but not always very deep. This is perhaps an inherent compromise of every stereo amplifier, but may also be the result of the shared input and driver tube. Again, this is hardly a fault that would be voiced if the Audion was partnered with appropriate gear and a reasonably sized room. As music gets more complex, either large scale symphonic work or massed voices, the Audion merely shifts gears, again letting the music compress just slightly.
Despite its modest power, the Audion sounds quite full range. Again, this speaks of thoughtful transformer design that is so often missing from lesser designs. The more simple the music, the more pure the signal, the more musical the Audion becomes. It beckons the listener not just to listen, but to feel the music and learn its message. So, it would appear that the previously perceived failings of the KT90 were more a result of mistakes by the amplifier designers than attributable to the tube itself. That the folks at Audion have succeeded where others have failed speaks well for their ingenuity and rekindles my interest in this oft’ maligned tube.
What is it about tube amps that make us love them, sometimes more than they deserve? Is there something about seeing the light from the power tubes and the knowing in our hearts and minds that we are literally seeing our music being amplified? Is there merely a consonance to their presentation that is simply beyond the quantification of our measurements, or are we just too foolish to know what we should be measuring? I’ve wrestled with these issues for decades, but have always come away without a confident answer. In the case of the Audion Sterling Stereo Plus I can say that its charm is more than superficial. Not only does it look the part, it delivers the musical goods. It has been a model of reliability (save for the bad 6922) and would appear likely to be a trouble free & faithful musical partner for years to come. Owing to the cathode-bias that obviate any need to adjust the KT90s over their lifetime, the Audion will also be a very easy amp to maintain. So, if you have heard most of the solid state amps at or near the $2000 price point and been disappointed you need to hear the Audion. If it’s elegance and music that you seek, you will find it in the Audion Sterling Stereo Plus.
Manufacturer’s comment from Audion
The Sterling Stereo Plus, KT88 power amplifier, has undergone a few changes since Paul’s original review. There have since been three incarnations, which have included a new larger chassis design. The footprint has remained roughly the same however the chassis is now taller allowing for larger mains and output transformers (of which we now wind in house. The chassis is made from military grade aluminium to improve sonic performance and aesthetics. The circuit too has changed in as much as we now use a pair of 6H23N tubes in the front, which now gives a better frequency response, in real terms better lows, tighter mids and stronger highs.
 
Internally we use better quality components now and offer a good upgrade path, which has recently changed from a 5 tier path to just 3 new classes (Insignia, Excelsior and Signature Reference) which is now being phased in over the next few months.
 
Listening wise the KT88 is a good all round performer. We use JJ KT88’s which we have found to give the best performance/ price ratio. Sonically very detailed with good bass and top end. The 18 watts output remains unchanged, and in pure class A, we have found that this amp can be used with many speakers, even those with lower efficiencies.
 
We have recently launched a newer version of the Audion Sterling plus known as the Audion Super Sterling, using the KT120 tubes, delivering 24 watts per channel in class A. The KT120 is an interesting tube in that it is sonically a cross between the sweeter EL34 and the more durable power house of the KT88,
 
We will soon be celebrating our 30th Anniversary so look out for our new amps coming later this year in celebration of that.
Graeme Holland
Review of the Audion Sterling Stereo Plus