Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Koru Phonostage, part 2: Performance

The Koru's understated yet solid front face
Cue music playing of the Elton John Variety

"Will you go get it?"

"No, you go get it!"

"It's all the way over there, I don't care enough to get it."

Thus ends the Mancave's statement about album art and liner notes.  For those keeping track, it was "Funeral for a Friend" and how silly is that to fuss over?

No, we don't read liner notes, or gaze lovingly at the album art.  If this makes us overly honest, or philistines, I couldn't tell you.  I am skeptical that lot of people pour over it at all, and find people listing this as one of their favorite things about vinyl, are either overselling it, are crazy and actually do it.  But in reality, we spin disks and stream files for no other reason but the music - and for us the closer it sounds to what was actually laid down, the more we enjoy it - good liner notes, or not.

This attiude not only keeps us vinyl fans, it also keeps us in the DAC/FLAC and SACD game, too.  All make it easier, and sometimes possible at all to hear what the artist was actually playing in the studio or on stage.

And the Koru phonostage promised to do all of that within a few hours of putting it in the stack (Thanks to the generous equipment loan from Forefront Audio).  We avoided Audiophile Favorites - that kind of music that sounds good but has no soul.  We played a lineup of what we would actually listen to, rather than a bunch of tests.  Some is recorded well, some actually enjoyed by audiophiles, and some are definitely below average in the sound quality.  If this Phono stage is to distinguish itself, it's got to be forgiving where forgiving is called for, and revealing when what is revealed is beautiful.

Rondo Bronze + Headshell
One of the things that really stood out was the musical density of this thing - not only do you get a thick musically-rich sound (not euphonic, but a solid you-are-there presence) with enough detail that musical instruments sound like musical instruments.  And also what was notable in every case, was the quiet of the phonostage and the extra transparency that you get when noise is low.  You aren't usually aware of the small amount of haze or grunge hanging in the air with most phono stages.  In fact, I was able to turn the volume nearly all the way up before we heard any noise, which is a big difference between the Plinius Koru and the Plinius Jarrah we had before (which was very prone to RFI if everything wasn't just perfect).  Where the Koru remained quiet, was even at the point where noise would start becoming audible with the extremely quiet Parasound JC3*.  The Plinius Koru is free of any of that, and its silent background adds to realism not in a beat-you-over-the-head-audiophile-feats-and-stunts kind of way which quickly grows tiring (the artificially inky blackness with overhyped dynamics some components have that quickly have you seeking other activities).  It was more natural in a "you aren't going to ever tire of spinning your records" kind of way.

*- our house is only a mile or two from some powerful radio transmitters, so noise is always and has always been an issue in our setup.  The Parasound is damn quiet in any real sense, but just the Plinius has a very small edge over it in our situation.  We suspect both would be outstanding in a "normal" location.

One of the things that made this review somewhat delayed, is we substituted in an Ortofon Rondo Bronze on and Arche headshell.  From our impressions of that combination in the previous review, we felt that we needed to go back and re-listen and reevaluate the Koru.  One of the things that we had previously was the Denon DL-103R was perfectly suited to the Parasound JC3 we were using it with, and it sounded even better with the Koru, however, on a lark we drug out the Ortofon Rondo Bronze, which we were never quite satisfied with with the Parasound, but with the Arche+Koru ... whoa!  The whole setup took a giant leap forward and despite the "higher than entry level" price, this cartridge was never considered a reference (the "Cadenza Black" would be considered a possible Reference level, and higher).  But the Koru clearly wasn't reading the marketing literature and the market position of our little Rondo, it took its signal and brought forth more music and emotion than we were, frankly, expecting.  And one thing that we have to be clear, is that we were unable to try truly expensive "reference" cartridges - we figure this sin is forgivable, since even on a US$4k phonostage, it would be a rare audiophile indeed that would use a $2.5k+ cartridge given it would have to be retipped every couple of years (it certainly wouldn't be for us, anyway).

But once we were sure the Rondo Bronze was fully broken in, we got down to work ...

Elton John "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" [stereo]

Right at the needle drop, we started hearing density of music we hadn't heard before, but along with that density and detail, the instruments were separated in a way we hadn't heard previously.  A sense of the live performance, too.  The dynamics came through perfectly, and it felt like we heard a special version of the performance.  A sense of the "echo" we hadn't heard before, too.  It went from a good recording to a "flesh and blood" performance.  Score one for the Koru ...

She took a piece of our hearts ...
Big Brother and the Holding Company "Cheap Thrills" [vintage, mono]

We have two copies of Cheap Thrills actually.  One (mono) was bought decades ago, new, by the parent of the Mrs.  We also have the (stereo) reissue that was released more recently.  When we played both, the vintage mono sounded by far the best:  the emotion of the music, Janis' pleading voice on "Piece of My Heart" came through the best - and gave us goosebumps as the song took us away from our living room to the feeling of a concert.  As much as we like to pick apart recordings and sound cues, the only thing we really noted was that the raw emotion, and music turned off our analytical minds and swept us away.  And to think we felt this album was "so-so" ...

Felt like a very good demo - where
they worked it all out, but more
intimacy than studio gimmicks
Jefferson Airplane "Surrealistic Pillow" [mono]

We decided to listen to the mono version, since the stereo has a heavy hand on the reverb, and the mono version has a much more intimate feel, indeed, the best playback gives a feel of a demo-tape in the emotion.  This did that to a great deal, with the outstanding track of that reminded me how much I liked them, and how ahead of their time they were when they made this album.  The stand-out track for us was "Plastic Fantastic Lover" which, again, was a track I usually didn't "get" but with the sonics all dialed in, the rhythmic poetic chanting had us toe tapping and the rawness that put me in a space that was what I imagined it was like hanging out in a mellow, loose party hosted by someone famous, where Andy Warhol was a guest.

"Ella and Louis" [45RPM 2 disk Reissue]

This is a stalwart of ours we use to compare everything.  I can confidently say that unless we become refugees of some kind, we will always have this album in one form or another.  Everything we have come to expect came through, but a little more.  The voices can sometimes seem giant and overblown, but with the Koru, somehow the space seemed bigger and voices more proportional (neat trick!).  When we had listened to the SACD version on some Quad speakers, there was the sense of physical presence we hadn't heard on anything previously.  But with the Koru, we had it.  And I'd have to say the whole system was keeping up with those Quads.  Which is remarkable on a setup that ultimately has to go through dynamic speakers.

Chicago's Greatest Hits [vintage LP, stereo]

Yeah, this album isn't the best for sound quality - each track is somewhat uneven compared to the other ones.  But this is the sort of music that we listen to on a day to day basis - and wager everyone else does too.  What came through on some of the better tracks was that the brass instruments were realistic in tone, and size - given how we've struggled with the sound of trumpets to dial it just the right way in, we were very pleased to find the sound dialled in here, which showed that the Koru let through more musical beauty than our previous set-ups when faced with this, frankly, poor record.  On tracks with poor quality, while the Koru didn't underline and beat you over the head with it, you knew the tracks didn't sound good, but even so, it was listenable.

Norman Greenbaum "Spirit in the sky" [Reissue, LP, stereo]

We were absolutely blown away with the opening on the title track, the blat and braaaaap of the guitar wasn't overblown, nor too thin - the thick, meaty sound of the guitars led into the rest of the song.  On a good system, this song is a great toe tapper, and we wish the artist had more success!

Miles Davis "A Kind of Blue" [LP, stereo]
You may have noticed that our music descriptions are lighter on the detailed technical descriptions, and heavier on how the music made us feel.  This is both the result of how we listen to music, but it is also that this combination with the Koru at its heart, time and time again pulled us into the emotion and flow of the music, and while the instruments all sounded like instruments, it also sometimes produced that "X" factor you get when listening to live music. When you listen to this album even through a clock radio, you know you are hearing fantastic music.  When you hear it presented the way we did?  It is mind blowing.  The Koru delivered to us the whole band in our living room, with a very emotional core that you can only get when things are just right.

Conclusions:   A New Reference for us?

We will state quite plainly, that the Plinius Koru really rocked our world, and distinguished itself to the point where we ordered one and it currently resides in our reference stack.  Not only did if offer us more performance than our previous phonostage (Parasound JC3), even at a higher MSRP, it offers greater value for what we're after.  It seems unfussy about the cartridges (assuming optimal load and gain, the Koru seems to do really well with whatever you throw at it), and seems to extract more beauty, better (and more tuneful) bass, and a natural extended treble but all of that was preserving the coherence we go for in our musical presentation.  The really killer deal is that time and time again, we were drawn into the performance and emotion of the music.  And if there is a stronger endorsement than that, I don't know what it is.

Strengths:  Dead quiet, Great dynamics, Solid frequency extensions at both end, all are tuneful and coherent.  Seem happy with whatever you throw at it cartridge-wise.  Tons of loading and gain options right on the back for easy access.  Set it and forget it.  Invariably drew us into the performance.

Downsides:  Dearth of competition at its price point forces you to compare to vastly more expensive and cheaper, making comparisons much more difficult.  Needs 24 hours to warm up and sound its best.  (Yeah, not a lot)

Still a Mystery:  How would it do with some truly high end cartridges ($2k+)?

Bottom Line:  We have a new reference.  You should have this on your "short list" if you want more from your records.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Led Zeppelin I, II, III Reissues - A Whole Lotta Love!

I grew up in the Midwest in the US.  What that means for our readers is pretty simple - I'm incapable of an unbiased review of classic rock since it was in the air we breathed and water we swam in during our formative years.  But also I love the genre possibly more than any other. I play a mean air guitar, as well as the air drums.  And I probably cannot listen to a stream of classic rock (just called "rock" when and where I am from) without being familiar with more than half the songs from way back.  I think, during the summer, too, when I was growing up, at any one time you could go see any number of bands that seemed perpetually on tour, wending their way across the plains and up and down the Mississippi & Missouri Rivers.

When I go and visit my home city of St. Louis, a quick spin the dial will usually give you 5-6 choices of various forms of classic rock, where the library ends about the time Clinton assumed office.  For someone coming to his home region, steeped in nostalgia, this is a good thing, as the music sets the mood, and the memories come flooding back.

But as Thomas Wolfe said: You can't go home.  I've changed, and was not the same 18 year old who was so keen on getting out of town and conquering the world (and how is that conquest coming along, mister?  Hmmm ... ).  But one memory that stuck in my head was a "contest" they had circa 1985 or so - the DJ got in his head to play several Led Zeppelin songs (Black Dog, Communication Breakdown, Immigrant Song and Dazed and Confused) - and people were asked to call in to vote for their favorite.  They declare a winner, and it is all a success.  I couldn't get my call in because all the lines were busy the whole time.  This was the power of Led Zeppelin in St. Louis in the mid 1980's - arguably the whole Midwest.

This was the radio station I grew up listening to
Going back?  Nothing changed, it is still as
awesome as ever!
What delighted me, is that I had heard some time ago that Led Zeppelin was going to do a high rez rip of their master tapes, and press vinyl and release files, etc.  As someone who is naturally cynical I at first rolled my eyes and thought there they go again another band trying to extract some more cash from their past glories.  Then I woke up ... no this is Led Zeppelin!  If you ever haunt stores looking for clean, unscratched, unabused records, it can be a little challenging.  It isn't as hard as the most popular Beatles albums, but it is rather daunting.  Plus the scuttlebutt was they were also releasing 24/96 on FLAC after ripping the masters to 24/192.  And the vinyl didn't looks like it was going to be $50 like many reissues, too.

The Cynicism melted away, and I preorderd the vinyl.  And then found out that the vinyl pressing plants were so busy that the vinyl would have to wait a couple of weeks, but CD's were out, and the FLAC files were downloadable.  I couldn't wait.  I downloaded all 3 in 24/96.  You call it weakness, I call it Led Zeppelin!

You know?  This is the best and most detailed (not analytical) I have ever heard them - Communications Breakdown, Dazed and Confused, The Immigrant Song ... all sound as they should, and if you system is revealing enough - it will have the sense of "presence" we're all trying to achieve.  What I noticed is none of the instruments, vocals and other things never get congested as they sometimes did in earlier mixes on the reference system. And of special note, is that on Whole Lotta Love (LZ2), there are a ton of cymbal hits.  Previously I thought they messed up the recording.  Nope.  On this master, the cymbals sound like cymbals.  For recording quality, you won't find better out there, I don't think - all the tracks are far better than I have heard on CD and used vinyl.  Not only is it a rational path for a record collector frustrated with locating a good sounding copy, I'd say the FLAC version offers nearly a definitive version.
I only, as of the writing, Have I and II on vinyl, and with a quick spin, it sounds better than the FLAC.  I was wondering if they did a special version for vinyl - or saved the highest 24/192 for it?  Or perhaps it is just that the "imperfections in vinyl" forced the engineers to work their hearts out and came up with a better product.  Or my theory ... Classic Rock of this caliber needs an LP to be absolutely right.

I could continue to heap accolades upon this release, but really all I have to say is to pick up the music in your preferred format and ENJOY it - and the better your system sounds, the better the presentation will be, and this is one of those rare cases where favorite music has an uncompromising sound quality.

I have to go, my air guitar solo starts soon, I'm playing Led Zeppelin II, The Lemon Song ...

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Gear Lust: Small Watts, Big Sound!

"What the world needs is a good 5W amp" - Paul Klipsch (c 1950)

The Klipschorn - the horn speaker that put Klipsch on the
map.  It's secret?  You put it in the corner and the room
becomes part of the speaker!

These days a typical system put together by an audiophile usually involves 60-600W per channel, and speakers that have a 4-6 Ohm minimum load with a sensitivity of 87dB from 1w at 1m.  Such sensitivity is considered "average" - but rewind about 50 years, and it is anything but average, since in the age of tubes, 60W per channel, considered by many to be a minimal output in the world of solid state is a reasonably large tube amplifier.  A modern "average" speaker would be a "pig" by those standards.

Tannoy Westminster SE's -- 99dB efficient, but you can see
from this picture, they are not small at ALL.  Size = Efficiency
But the main push to lower efficiency speakers and bigger power was due to the blinking SIZE of the ones that could be driven from a small amount of watts.  Once a ton of watts was available inexpensively, you can make fewer compromises to accommodate inefficient speakers (higher performance drivers, small cabinets, lower impedances for larger excusions with smaller drivers, etc. ).  This all was a good thing for those with smaller rooms and a need for domestic tranquility.  More performance, smaller, etc.  And, truth time, our system's muscle is based upon a pair of Thiel speakers and a large power amp behind it.  Jim Thiel was famous for saying "watts is cheap" when people complained about the giant amps needed to drive his speakers.  And compared to 1950, it is easier and less complex to have large solid state amps.  We love our sound - but you have to wonder, could you get something as satisfying with fewer watts and higher efficiency?  Did we lose something in the transition?

Well a large number of audiophiles feel that somehow things lost some soul, or swear up and down that we lost some dynamic performance when efficiencies dropped.  But in any event, we think that many become curious about low power/high efficiency and go exploring.  Some never come back.

And we have to say, that we're curious, too.  So below is a list of the kinds of speakers we've been curious about:

1.  Tannoy Glenair (95dB efficiency, US$10k/pr):  With a reported 95dB efficiency, gorgeous cabinetry, a modern look, and a coincident 15" driver assembly, we'd love to hear it.  We'd bet a nice 10-20W amp is all you'd need to rock the house!
The Tannoy Glenair!  We'll take the room, too!
photo courtesy of Tannoy
2.  Spatial Hologram M2 (100dB efficiency, US$2k-$2.5k/pr):  A open panel speaker than got great press, and at about $2k for the pair, with 100dB efficiency at 4 Ohms, with "controlled directivity" which should eliminate most room acoustical effects, this has us very interested!
Beautiful Minimalism, Boxless, 100dB efficiency, Controlled dispersion
all for $2-2.5k? (photo courtesy of Spatial Audio)
3.  Klipschorn (105dB efficiency, US$9k/pr):  Klipsch has been a pioneering speaker company in the US, and despite a focus on the mass market, they still do make most of the original models.  It is also rare in that it also survived it's founder's death with it's mission and focus intact (horn-loaded speakers).  These are huge monsters, that have to be put in the corner of the room, which might just redeem them.  A truly flea watt amplifier of around 5W will reportedly make them sing, but they are not afraid of large amps either.  Initially they were used with Leak amplifiers, which were known for their clean linear power (they used pretty aggressive feedback by the way)

The Klipschorn with Paul Klipsch and Belle.  Huge speaker,
because it goes into the corner, it is redeemed ...

4.  Zu Audio Druid (101dB efficiency, US$5.2k/pr):  Zu is a love it or hate it proposition, we understand, but the previous generation of this unconventional speaker got some horn aficionados on 6Moons entranced.  Most don't get so much audiophile cred, but their design is so different, they are definitely worth a listen!  In audio shows, the company tends to play music people actually listen to, and the speakers are designed to rock ... and not require super-expensive electronics (by audiophile standards, anyway).
Zu is love it or hate it, but at 101dB efficiency, this may be hard to pass up!
5.  Klipsch Cornwall III (102dB efficiency, US$4k/pr):  A second entry from Klipsch, these are smaller, a little less efficient, and combines a conventional bass driver with a horn mid and tweeter.  While we're curious about the Klipschorn, this speaker is likely the one we'd live with.

"It's Boxy, but Nice"  The Klipsch Cornwall III.  It's bigger than the picture makes it out, in a very
non-audiophile kind of way.

You may have noticed that there are a huge number of speakers that we left out - like DeVore Fidelity, Audio Note, Teresonic, Avanteguard Acoustics and others.  Rather than make a catalog of high efficiency speakers, of which there are dozens if not hundreds, we just put together a list of a few, trying to keep things under $10-ish k and as intriguing as possible.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Horseshoes, Hand Grenades and Audio

"Always aim at complete harmony of thought and word and deed. Always aim at purifying your thoughts and everything will be well." - Mahatma Ghandi

"Rare is the union of beauty and purity" - Juvenal

"I used to be Snow White, but I drifted." - Mae West
The ultimate in purity - it is 100% mechanical, and
never goes through a single one of those degrading
mechanical to electrical conversions ....
Analog reproduction is a beautiful thing.  You put a small needle attached to a tiny transducer into a groove that's been scratched in a vinyl disk, and then the small signal comes off of it and gets equalized and amplified and then the resultant sound is converted into sound through some more loudspeaker transducers.  Any little thing can wreck the signal on the way, make it unconvincing in it's realism and dispell the illusion of the performance you are trying weave.

So rightly so, people who care about that sort of thing can get fussy.  And many quickly focus in on purity.  Is the chain of reproduction pure enough?  And given that enjoyment of music (or really anything else) is a subjective experience, it is a relevant question.

Egads!  A giant equalization curve used on all records.
How can this be pure?  Or is it all about spinning
that illusion with the realities of the medium?  The CD
folks will tell you that this medium is horribly flawed...
If someone were to, say, do some digital room correction, the sound might be technically more realistic, if it introduces cognitive dissonance since an analog chain was digitized, then adjusted before becoming analog again ... that illusion, and important frame of mind might just be wrecked.  The illusion is gone since your mind will be constantly reminding you of your transgressions.  Or ... if you feel this is awesome, will be assuring you that this is the best darn sound you have ever heard, and re-enforcing that illusion.  We're thinking that until you "get used to it" you won't actually get to truly hear what you did, and if it served that illusion well enough.

Here in the Mancave, being practical sorts, we have had to deal with all kinds of mind-busting things that improved our sound, and our enjoyment, that we feel the path of purity is a dead end, and will have you falling short of what you could have.  But the path of "everything might be worthy" is pretty rocky, too (Hello, pennies under the speakers!)
DSP room correction.  Have you wrecked your sound
or improved it?  Your attitude towards purity is the answer ...

After all, if you were just going for perfect purity, you'd sell your stereo and learn to play a musical instrument, and go to live performances and never play even the radio for music.  (Hey, that doesn't sound too bad, hmmm ....)

So our advice is that since we're trying to spin an illusion to fool ourselves, and increase our enjoyment of music, really anything in service of that goal should be "fair game."  I guarantee that if you get rid of notions of purity, and pour that energy into spinning that illusion, you will be far happier!

Thursday, June 5, 2014

A Love Song to Alvin Toffler

"The Throwaway Society?"
Not if you are an Audiophile
This whole stream of thought came after reading an insightful article by Alan Sircom of HiFi+ magazine.

The Throwaway Society
  is a section of the book Future Shock by Alvin Toffler.  Widely read, the whole book was by and large correct - the rate of change was so fast that everyone is in a continuous upgrade cycle, tossing out the old and obsolete, and living in a sort of culture shock since mentally people cannot adapt quickly enough to the change we ourselves instigate.  So much isn't designed to be repaired or last to keep the costs low, that not only can you afford to throw it away in a few years, you must throw it away.  And what you replace it with, is usually better and more capable by a significant margin.

I know I feel it.  I am pretty sure everyone feels it.  But ... in audiophilia, with a few exceptions, has escaped largely immune from this churn.

As people are throwing away their 2 year old cellphones for new ones with better performance and better features, and every 3-6 years their computer for similar reasons, audiophiles don't throw away their audio gear.  Most audio gear is as relevant as the day it was bought even decades later.  And with a little repair work, decades longer. 
State of the art, 1948 and
still embraced by audiophiles

Consider that while on average some new format comes along every 2-4 years, the ones that have had sticking power, the LP and CD, are 57 years old and 32 years old respectively.  Even the growing popularity of FLAC, and high rez audio, are based upon standards that are over 15 years old, and it has only been over the last few years that it seems to be here to stay (though this is still in a state of churn you can see by glancing over magazines).

Don't get me started about tubes and tube electronics - some designs are about 60 years old and used and refined today.  All new Quad speakers are based upon the old ESL-63 which was conceived of in the year in it's name, and released in 1980.  I could go on ... but honestly, audio electronics is a bit of an anomaly in the throwaway culture.
Released in 1974, Refined for decades, but
basically the same beast as when it was released
and still a very very good turntable!  Can't
say that about very much at all.  It's not cheap
but when you consider you'll have it for decades
if you want, there are far more expensive things
in your life that you must churn.

I keep thinking that some of the complaints people have about the "high cost" of audiophile electronics is driven by a mentality with an underlying "but I am going to have to replace this in 5 years, I couldn't possibly spend $5k on that Phonostage."  Once you get past the assumption you are throwing something away, you realize that  you could live with much of the kit you acquire for decades (so you better get a good whatever-it-is).   When you factor that in, the prices pale by comparison to the ongoing costs of computers and cellphones that are designed to break in 3-5 years, and not be repaired.  If you choose carefully, and wisely, your stack will last for a significant chunk of your life(*).  You change cars every 5-10 years, Cellphones every 2, computers 3-5 years - your audio gear and music collection might just stay with you the longest.

It's as if we preserve what is obsolete and make it beautiful and long lasting.

So as our society plows further into a land where software is constantly failing and being "improved" over time, and throws away nearly everything they own with technology baked in every few years, realize that Audiophilia is not buying into that culture, at least not very far into it.

Next time you fire up your tube amp (c 1935), and spin a LP (c1957) and play through your dynamic speakers (c1931) or Electrostatic ones (c1957) you can think about what we throw away and what we keep.

(*) - I will say there is a digital caveat ... most CD players have weak transports, and while they are designed to be repaired in most cases, if you want something to last, you are best off buying something from a company that makes and sells their own transports (Esoteric comes to mind, but there are others).  DAC's and computer based audio - the jury is still out on the longevity of the formats and standards.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Too Many Variables ... and the Arché Headshell

Rondo + Arché Headshell
We recently pressed into service in the middle of our Koru phonostage listening tests, an Ortofon Rondo Bronze and the Acoustic Science Arché Headshell.  This poses a couple of problems - the most significant is that we changed far too many variables to keep the "listening impressions" review intact, and the improvement is so large, we're not undoing them.  Scientific method be d***ed ... we are going to re-do the listening impressions and redo the review ...

First up, and the crack in the foundation of our carefully constructed "one variable at a time" discipline, was when we took out the Denon and pout in the Ortofon Rondo Bronze in a standard headshell.  It was a solid improvement in every important way- especially a sense of refinement we hadn't had with the Denon.  Having experience with this cartridge before, we decided to continue with the tests, and we were on our merry way reviewing albums for the review of the Plinius Koru.  Once we got about a half dozen good examples of what the Koru would give to someone who would consider it, and thought about editing and adding photographs, we hit writer's block.  This review wasn't writing itself like they usually do, like we were missing something.  Still, we kept mining our record collection, and adding in new stuff here and there and really enjoying ourselves.

But given we can't leave well enough alone, this morning, we put in the Arché headshell.  The thing about the headshell, is it lets you make your tonearm sit absolutely neutral against its bearing (moving coil cartridges usually sound the best when the tonearm is ever so slightly uptilted toward the cartridge, though at the expense of giving up some of the goodness of the tonearm's capability).  So the Arché lets the tonearm be at an optimal setting, and all the adjustments that you need to make (stylus rake angle, azimuth, overhang, etc.) is done at the headshell - the effect we're told is it makes your tonearm seem like you have upgraded to the next level without going through the trauma of a tonearm change provided you have a removable headshell.

The Second Variable Changed
So, at 6AM, our dogs made it apparent that one of us had to get up and let them out (and being relatively lazy dogs that enjoy sleeping in, we paid attention).  So down the stairs, and out they went.  To an NPR Sunday show softly playing, I put in the Arché.  I went through all the regular steps, to set up the tonearm alignment, after making the tonearm exactly level, and after watching the videos that Acoustical Systems put on YouTube (the headshell didn't come with any directions, so you have to go and watch some videos they published).  One thing to note, is I had to swap out the counterweight for the heavier one that came with the tonearm to get the Protofon to its optimal tracking force - the headshell is heavy.  
Compared to a standard alignment using a Jelco tonearm (all the adjustments are possible, but it isn't very convenient) the adjustments with Arché was a lot easier and quicker, and I think I was able to get a more optimal setting as a result - hooray for Acoustical Sciences!  We were also able to do a rather painstaking Azimuth Alignment, too, that would have driven me nuts with the standard headshell.  The setting of the SRA (Stylus Rake Angle) was so easy, it might motivate me to try it out with a digital microscope someday!

And you know what?  The whole sound got kicked up a solid notch after the Arché and detailed Azimuth alignment.  While we wouldn't dispute the effects of having a neutral tonearm bias on the bearings, we got a more precise and careful alignment because of the ease of doing so, too.

Alas, though, given how much an improvement (that the Koru more than kept up with, for the record!) it put us in the position of starting over our listening tests, so the review publishing date is going to be delayed yet again.  

"Who invited them over to
perform for us?" was the comment
But, we thought we'd put together a couple of simple listening impressions, in the mean time:

Peter Paul and Mary "Album 1700" - the instruments seemed warmer, richer and more realistic, and the image size - Holy Mother of G-d it was big.  The Missus commented "So why did nobody tell me we invited them over to our house?"  

The Raw Energy Thrown at Us ...
George Thorogood and the Destroyers "Move it on Over" - What we noticed in the Rondo earlier was a refinement, but a little bit of restraint.  No more, the Bass and the Mids seemed to be fleshed out, and the rawness and force of Mr Thorogood came through fully.  The dynamics started showing their stuff, which took an already dramatic performance to a new level.

To say were were anything less then delighted with how things were coming together was an understatement.  But we're now faced with the daunting task, of redoing our listening tests for the long overdue Plinius Koru review ... Darn.  More music.  What ever shall we do? :-)

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Hey! It's Record Store Day!

Record Store Day ("RSD") started as a small promotion done to boost sales at local record stores that were getting slammed by big box stores in 2007.  The the ensuing 7 years, and a growing vinyl revival, it evolved into a bit of a retail/audio/cultural phenomenon.  RSD have added a few smaller "RSD's" throughout the year ("Back Friday" in November for instance) but the biggie is in April.  Record labels have responded to the growing number of sales, by making rare releases, B-sides, live recordings and covers of well known artists, picture disks, remix albums, special singles, and early releases of remastered albums available and only available at the stores themselves.  But also, record stores that sell used vinyl will sometimes haul out some special collections and their best stuff for that day, so it isn't a bad time for used record shopping either. 

Nothing says Record Store Day like Poutine - parked
outside of "Record Archive" waiting for hungry shoppers ...
It's going on NOW as we write this, as in "why are you reading this?  If you are in the US or UK, get thee to your local record store!"

Sometimes record stores have a band playing, sometimes they have food (see picture for one example), sometimes they have both.  Sometimes none of that.  But what they will have is dozens of albums and singles (this year probably over 200 titles, we didn't count).  We noticed a large number of CD's as well, for the people who don't (yet) have a turntable.
This year's haul

But, here is our advice on how to approach it:

1.  Get there early.  I know.  This sounds like some sort of hipster version of Black Friday.  It's not that.  There are people that camp out to be of the first to get inside when the store opens.  Don't be them.  This is about music and running across a particular surprise - we think it spoils it a little bit by waiting all night to buy something, but that's just us ... however, though, trying to get to the first store within an hour of it opening isn't a bad way to start.

2.  Don't scrutinize the list picking targets.  Many record stores won't get many of the "limited" pressings, and limited editions are usually obvious (picture disc, or single, or a big label saying this is 345/500 right on it).  Just get there reasonably early and go through the records looking for bands you recognize, and see if there are versions you might think it is fun (they always seem to have one to two David Bowie singles in picture disc format, and some albums that are a single on one side by the original artist and a cover by another artist on the other side - which we have altogether too much fun trying to find.)

Strange Single found at RSD!  1 track on inner groove at
33 1/3 and the rest looking like a broken record
(A single released by Paramore for those keeping score!)
3.  Keep in mind it's a lousy way to do "music discovery."  The albums you'd want to hear by an artist you might discover might be re-released on RSD - but if so, it'll be available later, too, so there isn't much of a hurry on them.  Most of the time, a RSD release is an obscure live performance, or a bunch of "B-sides" that will be of interest only to dedicated fans or record collectors.  But if you'd want to get the "Lou Reed Covers James Taylor" special RSD box set (edition of 200), don't let us stop you ...  We have a singles rule, though.  For a single, if you see something that looks like it could be fun - grab it, why not?

4.  Go to more than one store.  But before RSD scrutinize the local record shops open in your area that are participating.  Expect to go to 2-3 of them, because the mix or records they will get will be different.  We always hit, in our city (Rochester, NY):  Record Archive, The Bop Shop, Needle Drop Records, and, if we're feeling really ambitious, House of Guitars (possibly the best selection and least organized music store we've ever seen.  Added bonus is that they are one of the top guitar shops in the US ... so you never know who you will run into in the "music instrument" section of the store).

Of course, the above is roughly how we do it.  Some folks target one or two albums and try their hardest to find it, which could satisfy the treasure hunter.  There really ins't a wrong way to go about it if in the end you end up with a disc or two you like and had a little fun in the process.

We think that RSD adds to the growing "culture" of Vinyl, and if you can, participate!  Get out there!  Go now!  Shoo!