Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment


Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

  • SoundStage! InSight - Simaudio's $118,888 Moon 888 Mono Amplifiers (June 2018)
  • SoundStage! Shorts - Totem's Tribe Tower (May 2018)
  • SoundStage! InSight - Amphion's Three Newest Argon Loudspeakers (April 2018)
  • SoundStage! Shorts - Making the Hegel Mohican CD Player (March 2018)
  • SoundStage! InSight - Estelon Lynx Wireless Intelligent Loudspeaker (March 2018)
  • SoundStage! InSight - McIntosh's Five New Solid-State Integrated Amplifiers (January 2018)
  • SoundStage! Shorts - Amphion's Krypton Loudspeaker (January 2018)
  • SoundStage! InSight - Anthem STR Preamplifier and Power Amplifier (December 2017)
  • SoundStage! Shorts - McIntosh Laboratory MA252 Integrated Amplifier (November 2017)
  • SoundStage! InSight - Hegel H90 and H190 Integrated Amplifiers (October 2017)
  • SoundStage! Shorts - How Hegel's SoundEngine Works (October 2017)
  • SoundStage! InSight  - Estelon History and YB and Extreme Loudspeakers (September 2017)
  • SoundStage! Shorts - What Makes Hegel Different? (August 2017)
  • SoundStage! Shorts - Estelon Extreme Legacy Edition Loudspeaker (July 2017)
  • SoundStage! InSight - Amphion Overview and Technologies (July 2017)
  • SoundStage! Insight - Totem Acoustic Signature One Loudspeaker (June 2017)
  • SoundStage! Encore - The Cowboy Junkies'
  • SoundStage! Shorts -- Anthem's STR Integrated Amplifier (May 2017)
  • SoundStage! Shorts -- Paradigm's Perforated Phase Alignment (PPA) Lenses (March 2017)
  • SoundStage! InSight -- Paradigm's Persona 9H Loudspeaker (March 2017)
  • SoundStage! InSight -- Contrasts: Dynaudio's Contour and Focus XD Speaker Lines (February 2017)
  • SoundStage! Shorts - New Technologies in MartinLogan's Masterpiece Series
  • SoundStage! Shorts - Dynaudio/Volkswagen Car Audio (December 2016)
  • SoundStage! InSight - Gryphon Philosophy and the Kodo and Mojo S Speakers (January 2017)
  • SoundStage! Shorts -- What's a Tonmeister? (November 2016)
  • SoundStage! InSight - AxiomAir N3 Wireless Speaker System (December 2016)
  • SoundStage! InSight - Bang & Olufsen BeoLab 90 (November 2016)
  • SoundStage! Shorts - Gryphon Diablo 120 Integrated Amplifier (October 2016)
  • SoundStage! InSight - Dynaudio History and Driver Technology (October 2016)
  • SoundStage! Shorts - The Story How Gryphon Began (September 2016)
  • SoundStage! InSight - Devialet History, ADH Technology, and Expert 1000 Pro (September 2016)
  • SoundStage! Shorts - Devialet's Phantom Loudspeakers (August 2016)
  • SoundStage! InSight - McIntosh Home Theater and Streaming Audio (July 2016)
  • SoundStage! Shorts - McIntosh MC275 Stereo Amplifier (June 2016)
  • SoundStage! InSight - McIntosh History and Autoformer Technology (June 2016)
  • SoundStage! InSight - NAD Viso HP50 Headphones (May 2016)
  • SoundStage! Shorts - GoldenEar Technology's Anechoic Chamber (May 2016)
  • SoundStage! Shorts - PSB's M4U 4 Earphones (April 2016)
  • SoundStage! InSight - GoldenEar Technology's Triton Two+ and Three+ Loudspeakers (March 2016)
  • SoundStage! Shorts -- KEF's LS50 (February 2016)

The Windmills of Your MindWinter & Winter 910 182-2
Format: CD

Musical Performance ****
Sound Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****

 

"The Windmills of Your Mind," a tune by Michel Legrand with lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman, first appeared in the 1968 film The Thomas Crown Affair, where Noel Harrison sang it. Somehow Paul Motian, with the aid of Bill Frisell on guitar, Thomas Morgan on bass, and Petra Haden on vocals, has found something mysterious and even magical in a song I’ve always found stodgy. It’s the title track on the drummer’s newest addition to his extensive discography as a leader, and it shows him, even at 80, challenging himself.

West coast hip-hop, quirky alt-rock, and a bit of angelic folk have been keeping unlikely company in my rotation of late. And while these artists have nothing in common, they’re worthy listens if you’re looking for some select new tunes to close out the year.

FirewireLateef the Truthspeaker prepares to release his first solo effort, Firewire (CD, Quannum Projects QP93), on November 8, 2011. A prolific collaborator in the West Coast underground hip-hop scene, Lateef co-founded the artists’ collective and independent record label Quannum Projects (which is celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2012), as well as several successful Oakland/Bay-area rap groups including Latyrx and the Mighty Underdogs. His lyrical prowess, combined with a willingness to tackle subjects of societal injustice, has earned him a reputation as one of the best rappers today. Born Lateef K. Daumont in Oakland, CA, in 1974, he was raised by his parents, who were both members of the Black Panther movement. Firewire is his first album released independently rather than as part of a collaborative project, but that doesn’t mean it’s a one-man show. He invites old and new friends to contribute, giving the album a beefy roll call that includes DJ Shadow, Lyrics Born, Chief Xcel, Dan the Automator, and Headnodic among others. Most of the album’s tracks feature different producers, lending a unique sound and flavor to each song. The opener, "Let’s Get Up" (produced by Chief Xcel) is an energetic embarkation and gives the album good thrust right out of the gate. "Hardships" examines how politics and inequity affect the poor, and it laments the current US economic hardships of the many due to the gross exploitation of the system perpetrated by the few. It’s a potentially perfect anthem for the Occupy Wall Street movement. The songs range widely from pop and jungle-mystique to R&B and island jams, but throughout the album Lateef’s rhymes address intelligent themes and are delivered with unparalleled alacrity and skill. Firewire celebrates the past accomplishments of Lateef the Truthspeaker and his collaborative nature, and it ushers in his next era of quality music making under his solo guise -- this is truly hip-hop to be reckoned with.

DiscoveriesSteel Bird Music SBM006
Format: CD

Musical Performance ****
Sound Quality ***1/2
Overall Enjoyment ****

 

Discoveries is jazz pianist Josh Nelson’s fifth disc as a leader, and he’s played as a sideman on more than 30 other recordings. Now that he’s 32, it’s probably time to stop attaching the word young to him, but it might be premature to start calling him a veteran. Still, he’s very confident on Discoveries,with the compositions and arrangements showing increased originality over his previous recordings. Nelson cites writers Jules Verne and H.G. Wells as influences, along with Speak Like a Child and The Prisoner, Herbie Hancock’s late-1960s recordings for Blue Note.As with all those works, Discoveries evokes the past while anticipating the future.

Café BluePremonition Records 90760-1
Format: LP (reissue)

Musical Performance ****1/2
Sound Quality *****
Overall Enjoyment *****

 

Patricia Barber’s third release, Café Blue, was her 1994 breakthrough, a critics’ favorite that helped the singer/pianist develop a strong following. This vinyl reissue is, by my count, the third appearance of Café Blue on disc. Jim Anderson, the original engineer, remixed this two-LP/33 1/3rpm set at Capitol Studios in Hollywood; Bob Ludwig remastered it; and Doug Sax cut the lacquers for pressing by RTI. Anderson had already taken great care with the recording, but he was eager to use Capitol’s tools, both old and new, to tweak it. I compared this pressing with the MFSL Hybrid SACD, and the difference on "What a Shame" was immediate and dramatic. The heavy reverb that surrounds Barber’s voice and, to some extent, the other instruments on the earlier disc is much reduced on this LP. Her voice now has just a hint of reverb and sounds more natural, which gives the other instruments more space to breathe. At first I thought I preferred the older mix on "The Thrill Is Gone," but after a few listens I liked the new version much more. It pulls the bass back just enough to let it flow better with the music and gives Barber’s voice more focus. Fans may go back and forth between their earlier CD/SACD or LP and this new one, especially since the songs are in a different sequence, but they won’t want to miss this reissue.

. . . Joseph Taylor
josepht@soundstagenetwork.com

Self released
Format: CD

Musical Performance ****
Sound Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****

Fluteus MaximusWhen I was in college, Herbie Mann was a big part of the music scene. His version of Memphis blues crossed boundaries to successfully mix soul, pop, and jazz, and just about everyone could enjoy it. When I played this new album by flutist Mindy Canter, it popped the cork on a lot of happy memories. Though classically trained, Canter visits the same eclectic mix that Mann pursued. In fact, she plays some tunes closely associated with Mann, such as "Do It Again" and "Watermelon Man." A virtuoso herself, Canter has a backing group that grooves right along with her, heart and soul. Guitarist Denny Geyer stands out, and not just for his rich and vibrant guitar tracks. He proves to be a fine blues singer on "High Heel Sneakers," "Funny How Time Slips Away," "Hallelujah," and the old Tennessee Ernie Ford hit "16 Tons." The album closes with songs that work but might seem to some like strange bedfellows to the others on the disc -- "Over the Rainbow," featuring a Latin beat, and "Happy Trails," which features a flutist’s idea of a "lonesome wail." To cash in on the funk aspect of the disc, Canter overdubs some amazing Hammond B3 tracks that are perfectly recorded, always audible, and never unduly spotlighted. The other instruments are just as well recorded; Paul Smith’s bass is rich and full, providing terrific impetus to every track. To preserve spontaneity, the group recorded one take of each song in a four-hour session. I’d be up for a second volume and maybe a spin-off disc featuring Geyer as vocalist.

429 Records FTN 17832
Format: CD

Musical Performance ****
Sound Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****

Dedicated When Steve Cropper first heard "Think" by the "5" Royales, he must have thought, "Man, that’s what I want to sound like." The R&B group was at its peak for roughly ten years beginning in 1952, and Lowman Pauling was its guitarist and principal songwriter. His simple, clean, and powerful guitar style was a prime influence on Cropper’s work, and Cropper pays tribute to him and the group on Dedicated. He and producer Jon Tiven get help from a variety of singers, including Steve Winwood, Bettye LaVette, Sharon Jones, and Lucinda Williams. Williams is mannered and overwrought on "Dedicated to the One I Love," but she does a nice, restrained turn on "When I Get Like This." Blues Traveler’s John Popper is excellent on "My Sugar Sugar," but the high points belong to LaVette and Willie Jones on "Don’t Be Ashamed" and Sharon Jones on "Messin’ Up." The band includes Muscle Shoals stalwarts Spooner Oldham and David Hood, and the horn arrangements by Cropper, Tiven, and Neal Sugarman are true to the "5" Royales’ original ’50s sound. Cropper, who’s outstanding throughout, proves that it isn’t how many notes you play; it’s how you play them. Dan Penn, who does a beautiful vocal on "Someone Made You for Me," engineered the recording in his own studio, and the sound is as vintage as digital can get.

Jazzed Media JM1054
Format: CD

Musical Performance ****
Sound Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****

Parallel Lives I can’t begin to count the number of "girl singer" discs that arrive here during a typical month. If it’s not in the dozens, it seems so. Some of them are good, but we have limited space and a disc needs to be quite good to make the cut. Andrea Wolper’s standout set is a disc everyone should hear. She’s got a warm and versatile voice, which on this set carries her all the way from crooning a ballad like "Skylark" to scatting and making exuberant vocal sound effects on "Blue Wind." She’s a terrific arranger, taking new paths rather than expected ones ("Who Will Buy?" from the Broadway musical Oliver becomes a sexy, lazy samba), and she’s a composer as well, contributing three originals to the disc. Moreover, she’s a talented program builder, picking good but not overexposed tunes that range all the way from Joni Mitchell ("Song to a Seagull" and "Be Cool") to Buffy Sainte-Marie ("Maple Sugar Boy"), and she even adds a nod back to Richard Rogers ("Something Good"). Her band is tight, consisting of musicians who can be part of the whole or set out in a blaze of glory on a solo riff. The sound that conveys all of this talent is warm and focused, and it presents a stage that has appealing depth, with the drums sounding behind the piano but no less clear than if they’d been in front. This one’s a winner; don’t let it pass you by.

The Left BankeSundazed LP 5375
Format: LP

Musical Performance *****
Sound Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

 

When, in 1967, The Left Banke completed its first LP, Walk Away Renée/Pretty Ballerina,the New York quintet had already made a couple of personnel changes. By the time Smash Records released Left Banke Too in 1968, only three of the group’s five original members remained. That instability, along with ego problems and legal complications, shortened what could have been a long and distinguished career in rock’n’roll. Left Banke compilations have drifted in and out of print over the years; Sundazed Records’ reissues of Walk Away Renée/Pretty Ballerina on CD and LP are the first versions available in almost two decades.

September is here, and my soundtrack for celebrating the cooler days ahead has lately consisted of the music of two legends, each of whom has a knack for continuing to produce incredible music; the impressively strong sophomore release of an up-and-coming West Coast band whose sound is a throwback to the 1960s; and a wild-card Norwegian fiddle band who liven things up with a light-hearted, heavily skilled vengeance.

Levon HelmLevon Helm’s Dirt Farmer (2008) won him a Grammy, and that same year he received a Lifetime Achievement Award for his involvement with The Band, and was named "Artist of the Year" by the Americana Music Association. The following year, hot on the heels of so much recent acclaim, he recorded a concert that was finally released this spring as Ramble at the Ryman (CD, Levon Helm Records), at Ryman Auditorium, the legendary venue in Nashville, Tennessee, that was the original home of the Grand Ole Opry. His core band that night was an impressive 12-piece crew that included his talented daughter, Amy Helm, of the folk band Ollabelle, but the guest list is what makes this disc a must-have: Little Sammy Davis, John Hiatt, Buddy Miller, Sam Bush, and Sheryl Crow. The 15 tracks span Helm’s career, with such favorites as "Rag Mama Rag" and "The Weight," from his days with The Band, to material from Dirt Farmer, to classic covers of songs by Chuck Berry and the Carter Family. The recording is warm and spontaneous, and the genuine respect for Helm is palpable, both from the adoring audience and from the heavyweight musicians joining him onstage. Helm’s distinctive voice still has the high-pitched, lonesome quality it did in the 1960s, but age and excellence have since further permeated his singing, like spirits preserved in some ancient oak barrel. Many magical moments were captured during this performance, and while Helm sings about how "You Don’t Know the Shape I’m In," if you ask me, he’s still in top form.

Fuzzy Music PEPCD018
Format: CD

Musical Performance ****1/2
Sound Quality *****
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

Movie MusicDrummer Peter Erskine says his record label, Fuzzy Music, is for musicians who "find themselves dipping into rich cultural pools of musical styles, beliefs and realities that do not fit into the large corporate record company way of thought or aesthetics." The label’s emphasis is straight jazz, accurately recorded. This is Erskine’s second collection of standards, and he’s joined on Standards 2 -- Movie Music by pianist Alan Pasqua, tenor saxophonist Bob Mintzer, and bassist Darek Oles. Erskine says in his liner notes that the songs are standards "in both the jazz and cinematic sense." This quartet finds plenty to chew on in the nine themes presented here, and each of the players gets a shot or two at arranging. Erskine’s take on "Tara’s Theme" (from Gone with the Wind) swings lightly, while Pasqua approaches "Somewhere" as a subtle ballad, giving Mintzer beautiful harmonic support during his solos. Mintzer takes "Night and Day" from bossa nova to bop, with space for a nice feature from Erskine. Oles’s impressionistic arrangement of "Rosemary’s Baby" is a model of restraint, and Pasqua responds to it with a solo that shows a unique understanding of space, allowing a sustained note or chord to carry the moment rather than filling every space. The recording is exemplary. Warm, subtly detailed, and spacious, Standards 2 -- Movie Music is a gift to both you and your hi-fi.