3rd Generation Mini Cooper review through the eyes of a 1st Generation 2006 Copper Owner/Lover

I put off driving a new Mini Cooper for years.

The fact is that I’ve driven a 2nd Generation Cooper S but the only Cooper I’ve driven is my own 2006 Cooper named Titan.

I’ve liked Titan since the day I took custody of him on January 7, 2007. He was a Late Build 2006; the best of the 1st Gen Minis. Initially, I found the gearbox lackluster and the engine, well, trending toward the average.

But now, after 7 years, I have grown to love this car.

Now, Titan sits in the garage with 143,000 miles on the clock. The gearbox, clutch & engine all work the very same way they did when I drove him off the lot at Bob Smith Mini back i 2007. There are no door dings, only a few rock chips on the hood to mar his rare beauty.

Still, time stand still for no car; not even the Titan.

Last Sunday I went to the new home of Bob Smith Mini to drive a new 2015 Mini Cooper. I knew there would be no manual transmission cars on the lot so I decided to drive an auto, just to get a feel for the new 3 cylinder engine and the driving dynamics of the new, bigger Mini.

Size matters.

The new Cooper is a larger and more buttoned down car, of these facts there is no doubt. The engine is cool and collected and the transmission is pretty slick. Handling is a huge question mark. My 2006 Cooper handles (to this day) with deft aplomb and near-surgical precision. The 2015 Cooper more glides over the road more than it carves it up. Turn in is controlled but it’s also more than a touch toward the languid. In the few turns that I took the chassis felt stout enough but the suspension was meant to please another kind of driver; dare I say, a driver used to driving lesser cars.

For whom is the 2015 Cooper intended? I think it’s intended for someone who likes their idea of a Mini. They like the idea of the Mini’s kind of cool. They like that the new Mini is said to be larger and more comfortable. When they actually get around to driving the 2015 they’ll be driving a car that will drive pretty much like what they’re used to. When the goal is to sell more cars, this makes sense.

But, it’s not really in keeping with the spirit that Mini has established. Writing about a car’s soul is tricky. BMW owned the MIni brand for a very long time before they came out with the Cooper. I’m sure they spent a lot of time looking at the original Mini and wondering about its translation into a contemporary car. The succeeded beyond anyone’s expectation and they did so by building a pure car; a car with soul.

My 2006 Cooper begs me to swing it hard into corners. The 2015 is a little numb on center and quick movements of the steering wheel bring a sense of lift before the car changes direction. The new Cooper needs to be convinced to turn while the older Cooper seemed almost to anticipate turns and curves.

The longer wheelbase of the 2015 is a good thing, though. The 2006 is solid and predictable until you really get it going and start to push it. It never feels light, but sudden changes of direction at speed reveal the stability limitations of a such a short wheeelbase.

I cannot promise that I will not buy a 2015 Mini Cooper. My plan is to find a manual transmission version to test drive. Many a car has had its personality changed with the simple presence of that third pedal. A touch more soul just might do it.

3rd Generation Mini Cooper review through the eyes of a 1st Generation 2006 Copper Owner/Lover

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