Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

  • SoundStage! Shorts - KEF's New R Series for 2018 (September 2018)
  • SoundStage! InSight - Simaudio Moon 390 Digital/Analog Preamplifier and Streamer (September 2018)
  • SoundStage! Shorts - EISA 2018-2019 Awards Introduction (August 2018)
  • 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)

Black Warrior Records BW1005
Format: CD

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

201102_andyfarberAndy Farber and His Orchestra open their new disc, This Could Be the Start of Something Big, with a lively, jumping piece of Ellington-inspired swing. “Bombers” features lock-step ensemble playing from the full band and great solos by Farber (on alto), Harvey Tibbs (trombone), and Kenny Rampton (trumpet). Pianist Kenny Ascher plays a smart, swinging solo on Farber’s “Space Suit,” which also features a warm clarinet outing by Dan Block. Farber has arranged the sections of the band precisely, and engineer Chris Allen at Sears Sound has placed them cleanly and well in the soundstage. Coleman Hawkins owns “Body and Soul,” but Farber’s own feature on his band’s version is a warm tribute and not a mere rehash. The title track was jazz lover Steve Allen’s gift to the music, and guest Jon Hendricks, with whom Farber has appeared, grabs hold of it to show us he still has his chops at age 89. Another Farber tune, “It Is What It Is,” is full-on Basie style, and Ascher has the earlier pianist’s easy touch down pat. Block, on tenor this time, plays a warm, melodic solo that leads to another impressive ensemble demonstration by the band. This Could Be the Start of Something Big is the work of a band that loves big-band jazz, doesn’t treat it like a museum artifact, and swings it hard.

201101_israelisongAnzic Records ANZ-3002
Format: CD

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


Eli Degibri is an Israeli jazz musician who started playing mandolin at age seven and picked up the saxophone three years later. When he was 16, he received a full scholarship to Berklee School of Music’s Summer Performance Program, and the school granted him another summer of study the following year. After further training at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance, Degibri toured with Herbie Hancock’s sextet for two and a half years beginning in 1999, when he was just 20. Since 2002 he’s fronted his own quartet, and he’s also a member of the band led by drummer Al Foster.

Six years ago, a friend of mine was working as the advertising director at Jazz Times magazine. He put me in contact with the editorial staff at the SoundStage! Network and encouraged me to consider writing music reviews for them. His prompting led me to where I am now, writing about music I love and finding endless satisfaction in exploring. We’ve stayed in touch over the years, and although he’s no longer working for a solely jazz-centric publication, he’s still an excellent musician and a die-hard music aficionado, so I turned to him this month for his thoughts on the best work to be released in the past year in the jazz genre. Ever knowledgeable and convivial, he easily plied me with a stack of recordings from composers that met my requirements and exceeded my expectations. Consider this my short list, if you will, of highlights of the year’s best jazz recordings.

201101_charleslloydSeventy-two-year-old legendary saxophonist Charles Lloyd returned this year with the soulful, heady Mirror (CD, EMC 2176), his second release with his current quartet, consisting of Jason Moran (piano), Reuben Rogers (double bass), and Eric Harland (drums). This album floats along like a lucid dream, with Lloyd’s plaintive horn crying out with love, sorrow, faith, and finesse. Lloyd has been around long enough to experience much of the lifespan of jazz first-hand, having been an integral part of the early scene for decades, playing with the likes of Cannonball Adderley and leading his own star-studded groups of stellar acclaim and then quietly shifting gears in the ’60s to record with pop phenomenons like the Doors and the Beach Boys. He regrouped in the ’90s for a few short-lived sessions before taking another respite, and he’s now reclaimed his role as an innovator and messenger for the next era. Mirror is a confident recording that speaks of experience and contentment, but also a driving desire to continue exploring the boundaries of this uniquely American art form, as though Lloyd is rediscovering a long-lost first love. Comprising new takes on old gospel favorites, love songs, fresh originals, and covers of Thelonious Monk ("Monk’s Mood," "Ruby My Dear") and the Beach Boys ("Caroline, No"), Mirror makes for quite the reflective retrospective.

201012_one_takeAlma Records ACD11912
Format: CD

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


It’s hard to think of another jazz organist right now who dominates the instrument the way Joey DeFrancesco does. Larry Goldings is widely respected, but he’s just as well known for being a pianist and arranger as he is for being an organist. I’ve reviewed Pete Levin favorably, but he’s not a household name. But DeFrancesco is as synonymous with jazz organ as Jimmy Smith was, and his discography -- 25 titles as a leader since 1989, as well as countless guest shots -- is a testament to his versatility and his popularity among other musicians.

Self released
Format: CD

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

201012_lowfidelityCanadian soul and blues singer Treasa Levasseur sure knows how to write a hook. Her second self-released disc, Low Fidelity, contains eight prime examples of her song craft, which she and producer David Gavin Baxter (he also plays guitar on the disc) set to smart, witty arrangements. She also covers two tunes by other writers, "Help Me Over" by Corin Raymond and Sean Cotton and "Talk to Me, Babe" by Bob Snider. All ten tracks show a keen ear for how to arrange and present a song. Levasseur plays to her greatest strength: her strong, slightly raspy voice, which can belt out one moment and caress the next. When she growls out a line, it doesn’t sound forced, and she can let her voice rise to a shout without losing track of the melody. Baxter and Sean Cotton both have a good grasp of Southern soul guitar, and Paul Reddick’s funky harmonica spices things up on "Good Ones Never Share" and the title track. "Rest of the Ride" even shows a sure touch with country music. You’ll be humming almost every tune in the car after just one play, but Low Fidelity holds up to repeated listens, in part because the recording reveals subtle details over time.

HowsaboutNOW? Records
Format: CD

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

201012_believeSpin is a Philadelphia-based band that bills itself as "rock / power pop / alternative." Believe is the band’s first full-length disc, and it’s a very commercial bid for attention. The guitars are loud, the synths sound vintage, and the songs follow heavily trod paths. But that doesn’t mean Believe doesn’t occasionally click. The loopy synth lines on "Hurt by You" and the title track are charming and fun, and the songs often hit their marks. "Over and Over" is an effective anthem-like rocker with good, chunky guitar lines; "Wake Up Girl" takes you back to the MTV '80s; and "After All" and "Ava" hint at the unique songwriters the band could be if they really tried. The harmony vocals, buried in the mix, are a strong point, but the overdriven guitars too often overpower them. The band’s loud/soft dynamic is reminiscent of another Pennsylvania band, Live, but Spin shows the potential to be a group of better songwriters with more staying power. The band members handled all the recording chores, and next time they might clean things up a bit by hiring an outside engineer and putting more space around the backup vocals. Spin has been getting some good press on the East Coast, and another couple of discs may justify that buzz.

Eagle Rock EVBRD33369
Format: Blu-ray

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

201012_thischristmas2This concert was part of the Sound Stage series, and it makes for a diverse and different holiday release. The playlist might fool you into thinking that a good portion of the event is given over to traditional holiday songs, but that’s not so. The songs might be traditional as far as titles go, but the music has been energetically reinvented. Not too surprisingly, considering McDonald’s presence, the selection of holiday songs is bookended by sets of tracks made popular by the Doobie Brothers. The concert gets rolling with "It Keeps You Runnin’," followed by "I Keep Forgettin’," and "Sweet Freedom." After these R&B/rock chestnuts, the holiday portion begins with "Every Time Christmas Comes Around." Along the way we’re given an R&B version of "Come, O Come Emanuel," a spirited Dixieland version of "I’ll Be Home for Christmas," and a foot-tapping "Cajun Christmas." After a medley of "White Christmas" and "Winter Wonderland," the concert closes with resounding versions of more Doobie Brothers anthems -- "Minute by Minute," "What a Fool Believes," and "Takin’ It to the Streets."

Throughout the concert, McDonald exhibits exceptional energy and expertise that strikes fire in the other musicians. The event was expertly filmed, and the transfer to Blu-ray is just short of exemplary. The disc offers three choices for sound: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1, and PCM 2.0. But forget the last two -- it’s the DTS tracks that have the most presence.

Hänssler Classic CD 98.609
Format: CD

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

201012_aboutchristmasWith their tight-knit harmonies and crooning style, the Berlin Voices (Esther Kaiser, Sarah Kaiser, Marc Secara, and Kristofer Benn) follow the tradition of the Singers Unlimited in presenting a holiday album that’s mostly jazz peppered with pop. Singing in German and English, they often weave musical lines in breathtaking counterpoint, and their impeccable intonation assures that no matter how complex the jazz sevenths become, they’re always in tune. The vocals are accompanied by a jazz trio of piano, bass, and drums, with saxophone, flute, cello, and bass clarinet added on certain cuts. The overall feeling is warm and lush, yet the repertory is surprisingly heavier on religious Christmas carols such as "Joy to the World," "Angels We Have Heard on High," and "Silent Night" than on pop holiday titles, which are represented only by "You Make It Feel Like Christmas" and "It’s Christmas Time All Over the World." The recording is close-up and personal and is impeccable in its own right. A jewel box seems an appropriate housing for this unusual and appealing gem.

201011_leadNYC Records / Buzz Music Records 6042
Format: CD

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


Jazz vibraphonist Mike Mainieri’s wide-ranging career as a recording and performing artist since 1960 includes appearances with George Benson and Pat Martino, as well as some surprising turns, like his work on Dire Straits’ Love over Gold (1982). His fusion group, Steps Ahead, included at various points Michael Brecker, Steve Gadd, Eddie Gomez, Don Grolnick, and other jazz musicians who made their reputations in the ’70s and ’80s. Mainieri and Dutch guitarist Marnix Busstra established their current quartet last year, when they recorded Twelve Pieces. Marnix and the remaining musicians, Eric van der Westen and Pieter Bastis, are well respected in Europe, where they recorded Trinary Motion / Live in Europe during a 2008 tour.

The broad umbrella of modern Latin music has grown into a global mainstream genre, but much of its lineage and heritage can be traced to “son,” a musical style popularized in Cuba during the early 20th century that unites African and Spanish rhythm and structure. Without son (literally meaning sound in Spanish), there would be no salsa, no mambo, and no “Macarena.” What began as a marginalized musical expression for the island nation’s poor and dispossessed has grown into a top contender in the hierarchy of modern popular music and has proven a formidable forebearer for modern Latin sounds. The marriage of Spanish and African cultures as a whole continues to influence the rest of the world for its contributions to music, dance, language, and art. An impassioned sensuality and infectious spirit unify the four albums I’ll share here in this segment.

201011_septetonacionalAs son evolved and gained popularity, musical groups of six and seven members formed across Cuba to perform and expand upon the newly emerging style. Cuban musician and composer Ignacio Piñeiro is credited with writing over 300 sons, and in the late 1920s he formed a group that would become Septeto Nacional, a veritable crown jewel of Cuba’s musical landscape and one that, generations later, is still performing. The group was nominated in 2004 for a Grammy, and they now return with their latest release, ¡Sin Rumba No Hay Son! (CD, World Village 468105), an acoustic offering of inventive new material alongside reinterpretations of Piñeiro’s now-classic century-old compositions. The disc branches out beyond son alone. While the romantic bolero, “En Tus Ojos Yo Veo” and the lively guaracha, “La Fiesta de los Animales,” don’t subscribe to the standard parameters of son, as with tracks such as “Donde Andabas Anoche,” they serve to further evince the development of Afro-Cuban musical culture. Septeto Nacional has long played an important role in Cuba’s history, and ¡Sin Rumba No Hay Son! may just be the catalyst to help them leave their latest indelible mark.