Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment for Everyone

Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment for Everyone

  • 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)
  • SoundStage! InSight -- Monitor Audio's Platinum II Series (January 2016)

Stax Records STX-325025-02
Format: CD

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

201008_midnightflyerBetween them, Steve Cropper and Felix Cavaliere have many years’ experience playing soul music, but Nudge It Up a Notch, their 2008 contribution to the resurrected Stax Records, was their first collaboration. Though the songs were strong, they were marred by too much compression in the mastering. Tom Hambridge helped produce Midnight Flyer, and the sound is a vast improvement, if perhaps a touch bland.

The songs aren’t quite as consistent as those on the duo’s debut, but there’s still plenty to like. Cavaliere is in great voice, and his performances on "I Can’t Stand It" (a duet with his daughter Aria) and "I Can’t Stand the Rain" are seminars in how to sing a soul tune. Steve Cropper’s solos are models of elegant understatement and feeling, and his rhythm guitar playing is the pulse that keeps things moving. The old-style backing vocals help ground the music in tradition, but on many tunes I found myself wishing Cavaliere had used traditional keyboards. "Early Morning Riser" and "I Can’t Stand It" derive a lot of their energy from his Hammond organ playing. The songs on Midnight Flyer take a few listens to grab you, but they’re well constructed by two old-time craftsmen, with assistance from Hambridge. How about a horn section next time?

NLQ/Whitehouse Records
Format: CD

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

201008_quarterThe Japanese have had a passion for American jazz since the 1950s, culminating in the erection of the New Latin Quarter club in Tokyo. Boasting 100 "hostesses," 40 employees, and 80 tables (300 patrons), the establishment became a crown jewel in the East, both for hearing jazz and, according to the program notes, for espionage and spying. One envisions a scene where a mobster is contracted to deliver illicit cargo while listening to Julie London. The artists who’ve played there constitute a who’s who of jazz, and their performances have been preserved. In 2007, 47 reel-to-reel tapes were discovered, and they’ll now be available on CD.

Rather than duplicating any particular evening, the CDs present excerpts from various sets. Volume 1 gets off to a relaxed, swinging start as Nat "King" Cole (1963) sings an impeccable, suave, and swinging version of "The Way You Look Tonight," followed by Nancy Wilson (1970) definitively vamping "The Man Who Got Away." Performances by Keely Smith, Chubby Checker, Louis Armstrong, Patti Page, Julie London, Bobby Troup, Sammy Davis Jr., The Mills Brothers, and the Harry James Orchestra fill out the disc. Page’s "What Is This Thing Called Love" (1962) is a revelation. I’d never thought of the "singing rage" as a jazz performer, but here’s proof that she could be just that. The disc finishes with Louis Armstrong doing a rousing version of "When the Saints Go Marchin’ In" (1961).

All of the cuts present previously unavailable recordings by music legends in their prime, and the recorded sound is mono and better than you might expect. We can look forward to additional volumes in a series that delivers real treasures for the jazz lover.

Rainbow Quartz Records TT 167
Format: CD

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

201008_gripweedsThe Grip Weeds have finally released their fifth disc, and it’s cause for celebration. Strange Change Machine roars to life on "Speed of Life" with an explosion of drum rolls by Kurt Reil, solidifying his standing as one of rock’s great timekeepers. The song’s Mellotron, throbbing guitar delays, ringing major seventh chords, and soaring harmonies are proof once again that the Grip Weeds belong in rock’s pantheon. Kristin Pinell and Rick Reil are a formidable two-guitar lineup, and the disc demonstrates that old-school guitar effects, real keyboards, and analog recording are the keys to great rock'n'roll.

Strange Change Machine contains more than 80 minutes of music over two discs, and there isn’t a dead moment on it, although I might have enjoyed a less obvious Todd Rundgren cover than "Hello, It’s Me." The amazing thing about the Grip Weeds is that the band can play such tough, no-holds-barred rock'n'roll, and still be subtle, elegant, and melodic. Strange Change Machine is also available as a two-LP set. I need to catch this band live.

On the Air 9654
Format: CD

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

201008_leboLawrence Lebo is a disarming singer from California who defies categorization. Essentially a jazz vocalist, she incorporates elements of blues, western swing, and folk for a result that’s better identified with her own name than any particular genre. Much of the time Lebo partners with just one instrument, the double bass of Denny Croy, who some readers might know as a bassist for the Brian Setzer Orchestra. The two play and sing hand in glove, with impeccable pitch and undeniable nuance. I liked every song on this CD, but the blues tracks, including "Lawrence’s Working Girl Blues," "It’s Not the First Time," and a superb version of "Walking the Back Streets," got to me the most. In the jazz vein, I’d pick the anguished "I Should Care," again a duet with Croy, and to represent western swing, there’s "A Promise I Can Keep," a Lebo original that uses the largest group of instruments, including vibes and violin.

The recorded sound is honest and clean with good frequency and dynamic response. The bass is especially well recorded, and the balance between bass and voice in the duets couldn’t be better. So "Don’t Call Her Larry." Instead, call Lebo brilliant and refreshing.

201007_exileUniversal Music B0014130-02
Format: CD

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


When the Rolling Stones released Exile On Main Street in 1972, critical reception was lukewarm. Reviewing the album in Rolling Stone, Lenny Kaye wrote, "Exile On Main Street appears to take up where Sticky Fingers left off, with the Stones attempting to deal with their problems and once again slightly missing the mark." But fans disagreed, and Exile hit number one on the charts in both the US and the UK. It repeated that feat 38 years later, when Universal Music, the band's current label, issued this remixed (by Bob Clearmountain) and remastered (by Stephen Marcussen) version in May.

201007_footstepsEach of the discs highlighted in this month's "Select Sounds" weaves melodious chords of intrigue, mystery, and magic. Spanning the globe from African deserts to smoky cabarets and including French Acadian and gypsy caravan cultures, these albums are united by a nomadic spirit and rhythms that find roots in the universal language of music.

Documentary filmmaker and producer Kathi von Koerber's Footsteps in Africa project began as a feature-length film exploring the life, worldview and creativity of the nomadic Tuareg people of the Sahara desert. The film is set to debut at select festivals around the world later this year, but its trance- and dance-inducing soundtrack was released on June 1. Originating from ancient migratory tribes crossing desert lands from India to Africa and the Middle East, the Tuareg use music as a unifying force, often singing, dancing, and playing music for hours on end during communal gatherings. Taking authentic field recordings from several ceremonial and festival gatherings, Joshua Jacobs collaborated with DJs worldwide to turn these excerpts of Tuareg life into full-on dance floor-ready remixes. Persian-American composer, Jamshied Sharifi adds instrumental overdubs to eight of the disc's 14 tracks, offering an array of soundscapes for expansion by DJs like Nicodemus, DimmSummer, and Cheb i Sabbah. On "Open," the Bombay Dub Orchestra drops a percussive onslaught of djembe and hand drums over Morocco's Hassan Hakmoun's deep singing drone to create a heady, sonic vibe. Listening transports you to sand-strewn landscapes where hot desert winds whip ancient melodies into reborn remixes that sound at once old and new. Footsteps in Africa Soundtrack: Nomadic Remix (Kiahkeya 001) also serves a good cause, as 15 percent of profits go to the Nomadic Villagers Clean Water Awareness Fund, a collaborative charity established by the film's producers, the Indigenous Cultural Educational Center, and Tuareg leaders to improve wells and access to clean water for the people and musicians featured in the film and soundtrack.

201007_feufolletThe sub-Saharan spell is broken when Fuefollet's new disc begins. A raucous Cajun spirit is ushered in and, like stepping from a time machine, I imagine I've arrived in a rowdy jukejoint in the Bayou lands of Lafayette, Louisiana. En Couleurs (MUD 6503) is the new release from the youthful, highly skilled musicians in Feufollet, and it continues their tradition of respecting their Acadian forebearers while paving uncharted territory in the zydeco/Cajun genres. "Cajun pop" is how fiddler and accordion player Chris Stafford characterizes the sound, and while the album includes some traditional numbers, the originals take a divergent path that tingles with an exploratory freedom and freshness. Unusual instruments such as a digital autoharp, glockenspiels, and toy pianos mingle with the standard accordion, mandolin, fiddle, and guitar to create a unique sound that's clearly Cajun, but also vaguely indie pop. Opener "Au Fond Du Lac," written and beautifully sung by Anna Laura Edmiston, waltzes out of the gate with a pretty, lanky shuffle, telling a creole tale of love gone wrong. Short instrumental interludes, ranging from 29 seconds to just under two minutes, pepper the disc, segueing into longer lyrical ballads. There's an easy lilt to the songs and though much of the material deals with tales of woe, the foreign tongue and melodious accompaniment mask any tragic feel. En Couleurs arrives just a year after the band's last release, Cow Island Hop, and it brings a wealth of good new material. This prolific band continues to deliver their authentic and evolving sound to the masses; my only complaint with this one is that at 42 minutes, it's over too soon.

201007_fishtankFinally, Fishtank Ensemble ups the ante with Woman in Sin (FE 1003), one of the most eclectic and pleasant new surprises I've uncovered in some time. The four-piece band comprises a melting pot of creative talent with two Americans (vocalist Ursula Knudson and flamenco guitarist Doug Smolens), a Parisian violinist (Fabrice Martinez), and a Serbian-born upright bassist (Djordje Stijepovic). Knudson's coy vocals are one part Betty Boop, one part torch singer, and one part classically trained operatic, climbing octaves effortlessly. The music is inspired by Roma roots and includes Kurdish, Dutch, Transylvanian, and Serbian traditional songs, as well as originals rooted in those and similar cultures. First-rate musicianship harnesses the energetic thrust of the tunes, which the group renders rich with a Hot Club and theatrical flair. After just one listen, you'll find it hard to resist the urge to clap and shout "Opa! Opa!" in chorus. "Djordje's Rachenitza" showcases the awesome slap-bass talent of Stijepovic, and the seductive cover of Edie Cooley and Otis Blackwell's "Fever" is a sexy showstopper that lets Knudson's incredible vocals sizzle. The band apparently lives in Hollywood, CA, and travels to local gigs by means of a kitschy (but functional) mule-drawn gypsy wagon. After hearing their music, that isn't hard to believe. I'm continually inspired by people who can have this much fun making a living.

These disparate albums are unified by the quality and creativity of the music they contain. Hollywood gypsies, desert nomads, and young Cajun blood have all celebrated their unique cultural roots and generously inducted the rest of us into their folds. Opa!

201006_charlesConcord Records CRE-31669
Format: CD 

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


Ray Charles invented soul music in the 1950s, and he made country music his own for a while in the '60s, but he always kept his hand in jazz. When he was with Atlantic Records, where he made the great rhythm and blues sides that propelled him to stardom, he recorded a number of jazz albums, including two with vibraphonist Milt Jackson. When he left Atlantic in 1960 for ABC Records, one of his first projects was a big-band jazz album for Impulse!, the label's jazz subsidiary. Genius + Soul = Jazz was similar in conception and personnel to The Genius of Ray Charles, his 1959 recording for Atlantic. Both records alternated between Ralph Burns and Quincy Jones for the arrangements, and both employed members of Count Basie's orchestra for roughly half the tunes, the balance being played by a band composed of great session players.

Stockfisch SFR 357.4058.2
Format: Hybrid Stereo SACD

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

201006_parisMany musicians have paid tribute to Paris, among them composers as disparate as Frederick Delius, George Gershwin, and Michel Legrand. Now German pianist Sebastian Sternal has added his two cents to the mix with a seven-track album inspired by different neighborhoods in the French capital. He has with him the other two members of his virtuoso trio, Sebastian Klose on upright bass and Axel Pape on drums and percussion, and for authenticity he's added French singer Anne-Marie Jean on three of the cuts. Thanks in no small part to splendid recorded sound, the shimmering, slightly dreamy rambling all goes down easily, but I didn't find it memorable five hours later. The lucid sound is a bit different from most piano-trio recordings in the way the instruments are placed in the sound field. The piano, usually in the center, is to the right; the drums are to the left; and the bass anchors the center, as does the vocalist on her numbers. But in the hands of master producer Günther Pahler, it works well.

Concord Records CRE-32026
Format: CD

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

201006_sinatra"I haven't sung this soft since I had the laryngitis," Frank Sinatra joked after his first session with Antonio Carlos Jobim. Sinatra's choice to do bossa nova was in contrast to what Stan Coryn, in his liner notes to Sinatra/Jobim: The Complete Reprise Recordings, calls "the kapow style of Sinatra up at The Sands." Jobim played guitar and brought Dom Um Romão to play percussion, while Sinatra supplied his own musicians, including guitarist Al Viola, and conductor Claus Olgerman. Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim was one of the singer's most popular albums of the 1960s, and he sounds completely at ease in Olgerman's settings. Two years later Sinatra and Jobim teamed up with Eumir Deodato for another run at bossa nova, but Sinatra was less satisfied with the results. Seven of the songs made their way to Sinatra & Company in 1971, but three have never been released until now. Sinatra may have been right about the three unreleased tracks. He sounds less than confident on them, and he and Jobim don't click on "Off Key (Desafinado)." But most of the tracks are prime Sinatra, and fans will want the three new ones. The mastering is quite good, and Coryn's liner notes are entertaining. I have Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim on vinyl in mono and stereo, and I'm very pleased to add this disc to my collection.

Linn Records AKH 351
Format: LP

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

201006_williamorbitWilliam Orbit is probably best known as the producer of Madonna's Ray of Light (1998), and Blur's 13 (1999), but his resume as a producer, musician, and solo artist is extensive. He was the driving force behind Bassomatic, a house music band from the 1990s, and he has recorded seven solo discs since 1987. My Oracle Lives Uptown, his eighth, features atmospheric and danceable electronica. It's also beautifully recorded, and Orbit was eager for his fans to hear it in studio master quality. He has therefore released it on Linn Records, which offers My Oracle on CD and LP, as well as 24-bit and 16-bit downloads. My copy was pressed on two absolutely quiet 180-gram LPs at Pallas in Germany. The keyboard washes are beautifully textured, the kick drums -- real and electronic -- thump solidly, and the layers of musical detail are clear and precise, even on densely arranged passages. The music is emotionally stirring, but it has a cerebral undercurrent. "Hydrajacked" sounds like a theme from a futuristic cop show, and the title tune has a nearly Motown vibe. Orbit brings a human touch to music that can often seem distant and cold, and you can dance to it. He plays guitar and keyboards on the album, and he also produced, co-engineered, and mixed it. Geoff Pesche did the direct metal mastering, but it has the warmth and flow of analog.