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.

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

The Legacy of my friend, Brooks Berdan: My REGA P3 / Sumiko Blue Point Special EVO

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 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 an 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 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, hanging 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 usually 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 and Dynavector XL that was back in Santa Clarita 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 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. He 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, Brooks got out his price sheets and said, “OK, my cost on this is like $600, so send 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, he was a friend. On that day, I had no intention of asking Brooks to help me out. It turned out I didn’t need to, Brooks was the kind of man to recognize a friend in need and would 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 like a breeze. I miss not playing 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 don’t want to…

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

The Legacy of my friend, Brooks Berdan: My REGA P3 / Sumiko Blue Point Special EVO

How to evaluate high end audio gear: Choosing reference recordings

From time to time I get emails asking which recordings I have used when I write reviews and why. I usually keep this type of information to myself for my own odd reasons.

But in this case, I will relent: 

In the early 70s, before the term audiophile had come into common use, a recording was made that unknowingly adhered to every audiophile convention that are now the subject of so much of the hype that infects today’s audiophile labels. The record is Joni Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon (Reprise RS 6376). First of all, this LP is among the last of the big label LPs that were lovingly pressed on only the finest vinyl. My pressing is pushing 30 years old, is free of pops and ticks, and tracks just as it did lo those many years ago. Here we have the most challenging registers of the female voice, trading focus with cello, clarinet, piano and more. Can you hear the shadings that make the clarinet stand clear from the voice? Do you hear the floor boards resonate beneath the cello? The truth is in the details, and this LP has a wealth of them. The recording is beyond reproach, and the compositions are sublime and timeless. The bad news? This baby will be very hard to find in decent condition.

Sorry for follow up one needle in a haystack LP with another, but this one is another LP that will become an essential part of your collection, if you can get a hold of a copy. It is the 1984 release by guitarist George Cromarty, Wind in the Heather (Dancing Cat Records {a division of Windham Hill} DC3001). This is an amazing collection of short solo guitar pieces. Each of the 13 original compositions are melodic masterpieces in their own right, and the recording is simply lucious…easily the finest recording of acoustic guitar that I have ever heard. The mastering was done by Bernie Grundman and you will never hear a cleaner pressing. Like the Mitchell LP, this LP is invaluable for listening to a system’s critical ability, or sometime unfortunate inability, to render both a natural sound space and retrieve the essence of the acoustical truth of the music. Does the guitar emanate from clear space, or does it seem bound to the speakers? Do the overtones of each note connect to the fundamental pitch of the note, or does one come from here and the other from a over there? Acoustic instruments demand coherence, and this is always a challenge for a multi-driver loudspeaker.

But what, you may ask, about the non-acoustical truth? Find yourself (this will be much easier) a copy of the 1975 classic from Steely Dan, Katy Lied (ABC Records ABCD-846). Again, here we have audiophile sensibilities before audiophile pretensions. The back cover of the album notes not only the use of a Neumann VMS 70 lathe, but also advises strict adherence to the RIAA curve. Who says the ‘70s were an empty decade? This is great stuff, rock with wit and intelligence played by some of the hardcore studio guys of the era (including Rick Derringer, the late Jeffery Porcaro, and a pre sellout Larry Carlton). My friends, these guys could play. If your system is unable to play “Chain Lightning” with Derringer’s sharp & wicked guitar riffs and Porcaro’s thundering drum fills both loudly and with ease please resign as an audiophile and take up bowling.

Here’s something you can buy new that represents the state of the art in vinyl today. The artist is Sonny Landreth, bayou slide guitarist extraordinaire. The LP is called Outward Bound and you can buy a new pressing of this from none other than Classic Records (RTH1032-1), and while you can also get it on CD, why would you? For a modern rock recording, Outward Bound is dynamically challenging for a system. The players showcased here don’t spend much time tacking it easy. Mastering, once again is by Grundman, and while the pressing is good, it doesn’t measure up to the oldies that have discussed previously in this section. Again, this material needs to be recreated at full volume, yet always in complete control and with all of its original tonality and timbre intact.

The language of audio (and now video) is critical if we are to make ourselves understood. The bad news is that most of our vocabulary is borrowed from photography and other visual arts. Terms like imaging and focus really have no place in a audio, but they have become terms of art that we all use without thinking about them. Even the oft used term bright refers to brilliance of light rather than anything even remotely related to sound. Still, it’s just too late to buck the semantical system, so here are some notable CDs that I use. Please note that some of these will be easy to find, while some a bit rare.

A good starting place is as their search system allows you to find CDs by a number of different criteria from performer, piece of music, ensemble, label and catalog number. Tone, timbre and ambiance: Three tests, one CD One Minute and thirty-four seconds! The Cowboy Junkies / The Trinity Sessions (RCA 8568-2-R) Track 1: “Mining for Gold.” This classic traditional tune, sung a cappella by Margo Timmons will tell you more about what your system can and can’t do than any other minute and a half of recorded music can. It was recorded using the famed (notorious?) Calrec Ambisonic microphone in the Church of the Holy Trinity in Toronto. What you should hear, what you must hear, is the sense of the church’s physical size and space even before Timmons starts to sing. In the center of the space you should hear Timmons’ earthy, smoldering yet sweet voice at once anchored and yet floating in the center of the soundstage. Can you hear it? If you can you’re already most of the way there. If you can’t, well, “Houston. we have a problem.” Until you can get this most basic test right, your system will be stuck in neutral.

Midrange pitch precision and speed of attack and decay: Laurel Zucker & Susan Jolles / Images for Flute & Harp / Sonatine for flute & harp Victor Frost (1952-) (Cantilena Records 66016-2) Track 14 Moderato e deciso. Lots of luck finding this gem…it took me weeks to find it. The flute and harp cast their notes squarely on pitch and the interplay between the distinct voices create quite a challenge. Listen for any tendency for the flute to sound wispy or tonally dispersed. It is not a function of the recording. The harp’s strings start and stop quickly so any sense of slowness or muddying tells you that something bad is happening. As an aside, this is a truly fine piece of modern classical music in a sea of amusical junk. This CD is worth the trouble of finding it, and trouble you will have.

Small scale ambiance & image placement: Gabriel Fauré The Two Piano Quartets / The Ames Piano Quartet (Dorian DOR-90144). The entire CD is the very pinnacle of the genre in both performance and recording. A good system has to place each of the three string instruments in their own sound field with the piano well focused, yet expansive. A weak system will have the notes of the piano jumping (seeming to come from different positions as the pitch changes) and the strings may become crowded together or unnaturally spread out. Again, not the easiest CD to find, but it’s out there and in print.

Large scale ambiance & image placement: Brahms-Schoenberg Piano Quartet in G minor / Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (Vox Cum Laude MCD 10018). Again, not an easy one to find but a treasure. To my knowledge, the only current release featuring Schoenberg’s orchestral transcription of this seminal piano work by Brahms at the height of his creative powers. The job of recreating the sense of a full orchestra in one’s listening room is at once irresistible and impossible. The scope and sweep of the dynamics are just too much, not to mention the sheer space and complexity that the music presents. Still, we must try: What we want here is a sense of size and majesty without strain. A great system will be able to approach this ideal and lower volume levels and the poor system won’t be able to get it right at any level. Listen also for a natural portrayal of shifts between the loud and the soft and everything in between. Any tendency to draw the presentation of the music toward the speakers, like light from a flashlight, is bad and is illustrative of a system that has reached its limits.

Dynamic shifts, tonal consistency & complexity: Beethoven-Liszt Piano Transcriptions Symphony No.6 / Glenn Gould (Sony SMK 52639). Want to hear Beethoven’s Pastorale symphony as if for the very first time? That’s what it’s like to hear this wonderful Lizst transcription of this sadly overplayed, yet marvelous piece. By giving a solo piano virtually all of the symphony’s themes, Liszt strips the melodies and harmonies of this piece bare. One can hear much further into the piece without all of the timbre and voices of the full orchestra. A system will also reveal if it has any problems recreating a sense of tonal complexity without a feeling or tendency toward confusion. Gould’s playing and the recording are beyond reproach. A superb system will keep the tonal nature of the piano consistent whether the notes are played fast or slow, loud or soft. How does your system capture these essentials?

This is by no means a comprehensive list, but rather a sampling of recordings I trust to ask and answer basic questions of essential system musicality.

How to evaluate high end audio gear: Choosing reference recordings