Quo vadis, ‘analog’? Or, how I learned I’m not spending thousands on a losing proposition

Next year, 2015, I will celebrate forty years as an audiophile. I didn’t know I was an “audiophile” back in 1975 when I purchased my first “stereo” for the amount of $500—a daunting sum for an eighteen year old mail room clerk supporting his family. I was a “hi-fi nut,” a “stereo guy,” in the parlance of the times. That simple system, consisting of a Scott receiver, Kenwood turntable, and two Altec loudspeakers, gave me a lot of pleasure over many years and helped me discover a lot of great music. I’ve become very nostalgic for those early “stereo” days. Recently, I found the big brother of my Scott R74S receiver on eBay and almost impulsively purchased it out of sheer indulgence; I’m always amazed at how expensive these Golden era receivers go for on eBay.

Music is the raison d’être of our hobby. There’s no other reason why anyone would (or should) be an audiophile in the first place. It’s the burning desire to create the experience of the live performance in the home—the “perfectly realized illusion,” as I’ve described it elsewhere—that drives us every single day. Every purchase, every upgrade, every tweak, every adjustment, is made for one reason and one reason alone: to enhance the enjoyment of the music we love and bring us closer to the live performance.

A major purchase late last year finally allowed me to achieve a long time goal of mine: to have separate, dedicated analog and digital music systems—using the same B&W 804S loudspeakers. My digital music system consists of an Oppo BDP-105 connected straight in to a Bryston 3B-ST power amp, using Nordost interconnects and speaker cables. My analog system consists of an old, but upgraded, single-speed Linn Sondek LP12, purchased used, that came with a Japanese Grace G707 tonearm already mounted and connected to a pair of Mitch Cotter silver phono cables. I purchased a Sumiko high-output moving-coil cartridge to complete the package, and had it professionally set up. The table is fed through a Clearaudio Basic phono preamp to an old Classé Model 30 line preamp that’s connected to a pair of vintage (refurbished) McIntosh MC30 tube power amplifiers on semi-permanent loan from a good friend (and fellow Ford enthusiast) in Michigan. I use Nordost interconnects and dedicated Anti-Cable loudspeaker cables. Occasionally, I’ll connect the Oppo to the McIntoshes for that special audio experience only tubes can provide. Not too shabby, I’d have to admit. It’s been a long and winding road from my Scott, Kenwood, and Altec days.

I’d always wanted to separate the two intractable “sects” in this religious audio war. I had been, after all, an insufferable analog snob and hold-out until 1990. I hated compact discs and digital recordings and never thought—never believed, actually—that digital would ever measure up. Never the twain shall meet.

Boy, was I wrong.

Next to the California Audio Labs DX3 (the CD player that actually got me to like listening to CDs), and the absolutely indispensable PS Audio Soloist dedicated A/C port, the Oppo BDP-105 is probably the most revolutionary audio component I’ve ever had in my system. It’s been a jaw-dropping experience to listen to music with it. It plays everything: CDs, SACDs, HDCDs, DVD-Audio, Blu-ray Audio discs, MP3s, Apple Lossless, WAV, high-resolution FLAC files, DSD files, and, of course, movies. This thing even makes crappy, lossy MP3s sound better than they deserve.

However, it’s the high resolution digital content I’ve listened to over the last few months—Blu-ray Audio discs, 24-bit FLAC files, DSD files—that has compelled me to question and reevaluate everything I’ve believed to be audio truth since I started in this hobby.

Take Wagner’s Ring, for example. In the good old days, I owned the Solti, Karajan, and Böhm versions on LP. I listened to them many, many times, especially the Solti, a marvel of sound production and engineering thanks to John Culshaw. All three had pretty fine European pressings as I recall: UK London FFRR, German DG, and Dutch Philips, respectively. Currently, I own five versions on Compact Disc and DVD, Solti’s on Decca and Keilberth’s on Testament being my favorites. Thanks to the fantastic anniversary edition released last year, a Blu-ray Audio version of Solti’s Ring is now available: the complete tetralogy on a single disc! I know these operas. I’ve heard them dozens of times. I saw Walküre at the Met. I love this music and I’m very familiar with the Solti recording. When I plopped that Blu-ray Audio disc into the Oppo and pressed play, it was like a thunderbolt: the level of orchestral and vocal detail, the musicality, the soundstage, and the sheer power of this massive score had never been presented to me like this, not on LP, not on remastered CD. To say listening to this Blu-ray Audio disc gobsmacked my audio paradigm would be an understatement.

Here’s another example: I’ve owned the great Boston Symphony Orchestra stereo recording of Maurice Ravel’s Daphnis et Chlöe conducted by Charles Munch—one of my “desert island” discs—on LP, CD, and the Living Stereo SACD. One of the greatest compositions of the 20th century, and one of my all-time favorite pieces of music, I know it like my own skin. The BSO recording, justifiably famous, and beautifully recorded, has long been a reference for me. I can say without reservation that the SACD, to my ears, is the best of the three. Musical, huge soundstage, the BSO in its glory days. I have yet to hear the 24-bit/174kHz FLACs that are in my queue to buy. These will, in all likelihood, top the SACD.

The preferred high-resolution format from most labels is the 24-bit FLAC file. I have several that have made an impression on me. From Linn Records: a very short excerpt of Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint, adapted for percussion instruments, makes you think the performer, Kuniko, is right in front of you, live; and an achingly beautiful St. Matthew Passion with voices so real, so clear, they are almost heavenly. From LSO Live (courtesy of B&W Society of Sound): a superb—and probably not well known—Valeri Gergiev Mahler cycle (including a marvelous 9th), and a well, fantastic, Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique conducted by the late Colin Davis.

What really, finally convinced me that I was in a whole new ballgame was what I heard from the brave new world of DSD audio files. I downloaded some free DSD 64 files from 2L, a small Norwegian boutique label, primarily because of their classical selections. I listened to movements from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.32, Mozart’s violin concerto in D major, Haydn’s String Quartet Op.74, Schubert’s String Quartet No.14 (my favorite, Death and the Maiden), Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence, and an aria from a Vivaldi cantata: they are nothing short of breathtaking. They sound like real music in a real space, with none of the unmusical harshness and digital fatigue I’ve hated as long as I’ve listened to digital.

What I’m hearing from all of these high-resolution digital formats, and DSD in particular, is truly remarkable. That infamous promise—“perfect sound forever”—made way back in 1983, may have indeed been finally kept.

All of this bloviating begs the question that gets to the heart of my conundrum: Do I need a new turntable to bring the LPs I play on par sonically with these new-fangled high-resolution formats I’m listening to that sound so damned good?

There are turntables currently being sold that cost well over $100,000—the Walker Proscenium, Clearaudio Statement, and Continuum Caliburn, being the most highly regarded. Then there are the turntables priced in the $10,000 to $50,000 price range—VPI’s new $30,000 direct-drive, a fully-loaded brand spanking new Linn Sondek LP12 for around $20,000, tables by SME, Basis, Avid, DaVinci, etc. And finally, the “entry level” price range I’ve researched for myself—turntables ranging in price from $1,000 to $6,000 from Clearaudio, VPI, Rega, Pro-ject, Music Hall, etc. Please note that I’m not factoring in tonearms (if needed), cartridges, cable upgrades, phono preamps, new preamps, etc. All necessary links in the analog chain.

So where are you going, “analog”? Or rather, where are you trying to take me? Save for the most expensive and resolving systems—systems I have not heard and can only dream of hearing—won’t the inherent imperfections and limitations of LP record playback, well known to all of us, still be there for me? I’m not minimizing the incredible achievements of these turntable designers and inventors in the least, but you have to admit that the cost of quality analog LP playback—getting the most music out of those pesky grooves as perfectly as possible—is pretty steep. (To be fair, dCS and Esoteric digital gear ain’t cheap, either.)

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, if the truly amazing resolution and musicality I’m hearing out of my modest digital system, from uncompressed DSD files being played from a hard drive, can only be matched by an analog system requiring at minimum five or six thousand dollars (the entry-level cost of quality analog LP playback), or a serious investment on my part equal to that of a four-door sedan, an SUV, a Ford Shelby GT500 Mustang, or a Porsche Panamera, then hasn’t the medium made itself irrelevant to a ‘real-world’ audiophile like me with a ‘real-world’ budget?

Yes, I have lots of LPs, and yes, I have LPs that I thoroughly enjoy playing, and yes, I have LPs that will never, ever be released on any digital format, and yes, I have LPs that I probably couldn’t part with, and yes, I’m still emotionally attached to every last damned one of them after forty years. In the end, though, do they matter if I just can’t get the juice out of them with the system I have?

Sometimes, as Gertrude Stein quipped, there is no there there.

All that cold hard cash can purchase a hell of a lot of high-resolution downloads, Blu-ray Audio discs, and SACDs—and a music server or two.

There are so many irreconcilable differences that this time, I’m loath to say, the trial separation may end in divorce.

(This essay was originally published on PS Audio’s late, great weblog, PS Tracks.)

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The Furtwängler Conumdrum

The very talented young conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic  Orchestra, Gustavo Dudamel, is in a bit of hot water.

His silence on the topic of the popular uprising against the socialist government of Nicolas Maduro in his home country of Venezuela has not gone unnoticed. Maestro Dudamel may, in fact, support Maduro and may have (tacitly) supported the late unlamented socialist Hugo Chavez. Nevertheless, he is witnessing a massive, sincere, angry outcry by his very brave fellow countrymen protesting the regime’s socialist policies. To his shame, Maestro Dudamel has not commented on the Venezuelan people’s fight against tyranny. If he is a fellow traveler, shame on him. If not, then he’s just the latest sad victim of what befell Wilhelm Furtwängler so many years ago. It would behoove young Maestro Dudamel to remember he was principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra during the entire Nazi era. The bloody stain of his association with the barbarians of the Nazi Party remained with him until his death and continues to this day.

(Read The Devil’s Music Master: The Controversial Life and Career of Wilhelm Furtwangler.)

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Tomorrow, live from Leipzig, Mahler’s greatest symphony

The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra will broadcast a live online performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony conducted by Riccardo Chailly. The concert, live from Leipzig, It will begin around 5 AM EST, 2 AM PST on Sunday, September 8.

Gewandhaus Orchestra to broadcast live performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony

Riccardo Chailly will conduct Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, streamed online this Sunday, September 8

The Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig is to broadcast its ‘Great Concert’ live this Sunday, September 8 at 11am CEST (12 noon BST) via Arte Live Web. The online performance will feature Mahler’s Ninth Symphony conducted by the orchestra’s principal conductor Riccardo Chailly.

In 2011, Chailly and the Gewandhaus Orchestra began recording live performances of the complete Mahler symphonies for DVD release on Accentus. Thus far Symphonies Nos 2, 4 and 8 have been released; Symphony No 4 was named Gramophone’s DVD of the month in our August 2013 issue and you can read Peter Quantrill’s review here.

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The Mac is dead. Long live the Mac.

As I reported ten days ago my old iMac died after giving me six years, eleven months and ten days of service.

Notwithstanding the two hard drive crashes, and a dead SuperDrive after two years, I think I eked out good value from the computer, overall. After some serious diagnosis by an engineer friend of mine, he discovered that the power supply had literally burned up in one section, scorch marks and all, and had left scorch marks on the interior surface to where it was attached. The power supply took the video controller and video display with it, so for all practical purposes, the iMac is unrecoverable. I was told it may not even be worth salvaging for parts.

I purchased a new i7 Mac Mini to replace my rig — I’m currently in the process of configuring it and of course, copying over the old files and preferences — and a 27-inch Thunderbolt display that is absolutely amazing: It’s the single best monitor I have ever used with my PCs or Mac, as good as the best large-screen TV currently on the market. HD media looks, well I can’t be hyperbolic enough about it.

Thank you Apple.

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Of Macs and Men, part deux

Back in 2011 I experienced the second of two catastrophic hard drive crashes on my late 2006 vintage iMac. I was able to replace the hard drive and it worked until some time very early this morning after 2 AM when the the old bugger finally gave up the ghost. I tried all the methods of recovery I could come up with, including a System Management Controller reset, unplugging it and plugging it back in. Nothing. Nada. Zilch.

In all fairness, I think I received real value since it is almost seven years old. I’ve never had a WinTel PC last as long.

RIP, faithful Mac. Your replacement will be here very soon.

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The Perfectly Realized Illusion: why high-end audio matters

One day, in the late nineteen-seventies, I visited my local high-end audio salon, Sound Components, in search of my favorite classical record magazine Gramophone. As I walked in, I was stopped in my tracks by a piano recording that was so lifelike, so real, that I had to sit down to listen to it through its conclusion. I was hearing the slow movement of a Mozart piano sonata played by the legendary Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau — a pianist I had the privilege of hearing live in Miami playing Liszt. This was an off-the-rack Dutch Philips LP playing on what was, arguably, one of two or three super-high resolution, stratospherically expensive — for then — two-channel audio systems: the Mark Levinson HQD system with, if I recall correctly, a Linn Sondek LP12 turntable as the source. The speakers used in that system to reproduce the midrange, where most music exists, were two pairs of the legendary Quad ESL-57 electrostatic loudspeakers, probably the most neutral transducer ever designed.

Being very familiar with the sound of a real piano at home and in the concert hall, that recording on that system was a revelation. Not because of the obvious allure of the gear, or anything like that; what impressed me was the perfectly realized illusion that Arrau was there in the store, in the flesh, playing Mozart on his Steinway, for me, and the two store employees who were having their fast-food lunch. It is not hyperbole to say it was paradigm-shifting in its impact and that it forever changed the way I listened to recorded music. It is the reason I am an audiophile today, in a constant quest to improve the sound that approaches what is heard in a live performance.

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I purchased my first audio system in 1975 at one of Miami’s discount audio shops: a 40wpc H.H. Scott receiver, a pair of Altec bookshelf loudspeakers, and a Kenwood turntable with a Shure M95 cartridge. My $500 system was simple for its day. It wasn’t expensive, but it wasn’t cheap, either, especially for an eighteen-year old earning subsistence mail-room wages. That system gave me enormous pleasure for many years, allowing me to discover all sorts of great classical music and, my solace during the disco years, jazz. The day I bought that system, if memory serves, some guy was talking to the owner and some of the salesmen and showing off photos of Audio Research amplifiers and Magneplanar Tympani loudspeakers. I had no idea what the hell they were but I remember the guy describing the system. They looked very cool to a newbie just starting his audio adventures.

It wasn’t until the advent of the compact disc in 1982 that I even started giving a thought to changing my components. I was perfectly happy with what I had since I could not afford anything new. The CD was touted by Sony and the record labels as “perfect sound forever.” Personally, I thought they sounded like shit: they were shrill and lifeless simulacra of what had once been recordings of music. They were not in the same universe as a British EMI or Decca pressing, a London FFRR, a Philips from Holland, or a pre-1964 Tulip-clad DG.

I was an analog holdout of the worst kind. I continued buying LPs and stubbornly refused to buy any CDs, to the utter amazement of my friends who had all jumped into the digital pool. By 1987, as supplies of vinyl dwindled at my local record stores, my LP collection stagnated. Due to enormous cuts in LP inventory — the infamous “black diamond massacres” in the monthly Schwann catalog — and a lack of any new releases on LP, I finally surrendered to digital.

The first CDs I purchased were Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, in a live performance by Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic that was recorded the same year I had heard them play the very same work at Carnegie Hall in October of 1982, and Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run, the quintessential rock album, with my favorite rock song of all time, “Thunder Road.” I justified my betrayal of analog because that specific Mahler performance was not available on LP, and because I had worn out the Springsteen LP.

The dreams of Levinsons, Linns, Audio Research, Quads, Ampzillas, Phase Linears, et al, remained just that: dreams and fantasies that poor audiophiles have. I bought my first CD player, a $300 Yamaha model, because it was the best sounding of the ones I had heard that I could afford. After a year, when its drawer mechanically failed, I took it back to the store where I had purchased it and they generously exchanged it for a brand new Denon CD player. I took the occasion to upgrade my receiver as well, also a Denon. Not high-end, but not a system you would buy at K-Mart, either. The digital sound was satisfactory, not great, but I still had almost a thousand LPs to satisfy my musical avarice.

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The deaths in 1989 of Herbert von Karajan and Vladimir Horowitz, and in 1990 of Leonard Bernstein, all of whom I had been fortunate enough to hear perform live before their passing, was in a strange way a harbinger for what the nineties would become for me as a music collector. I came to the sad (and wholly incorrect) conclusion that LPs were no longer going to made or sold. I decided to replace as many of my prized LPs with CDs as possible. In 1992 I sold about eighty percent of my LP collection to a collector in Melbourne, Florida. He bought the whole shebang, less a couple of hundred I could not part with, for about $700. Despite my misgivings about digital sound, I was finally going to cross the digital Rubicon. In my mind there was no going back: I even gave away my turntable. “He that puts his hand to the plough, and looks back, is not fit for the kingdom of heaven.”

In those early days, I never enjoyed CDs as I had enjoyed my LPs. I knew this was a medium that was here to stay and I had to adapt or perish. In order to get the most out of CDs, I started experimenting with different options I would read about in Stereophile, The Abso!ute Sound, or Audio magazines. In 1993 I swapped out my very long-in-the-tooth Altecs for a pair of PSB Alphas, good bookshelf speakers that were very inexpensive and had been very well reviewed. They sounded so much better than the Altecs in just about every way.

Two years after that I purchased the Audio Alchemy DAC-in-the-Box digital-to-analog converter. I was hopeful that this little device would convert the digital stream from my CD player and improve it before reaching my receiver. It was the best money I had spent since going over to the dark side. My CDs finally started sounding better. The harshness was not gone, but I could actually listen to an entire CD without that “digital fatigue” that so plagued the early discs and machines. I found that a good disc transport (my Denon) and a good DAC were the way to go to actually begin to approach improving digital sound.

In 1998, I swapped my pair of PSBs for a new pair of Bowers & Wilkins DM302s. These small (and inexpensive) masterpieces of loudspeaker design, while superb in midrange, don’t go comfortably below 60Hz. However, just by changing my loudspeakers an amazing thing happened: these little speakers were so revealing that CDs I had thought sounded OK, started sounding like crap. What I once thought were good recordings and/or digital transfers, weren’t so hot after all; great recordings (Harmonia Mundis, Audiofons, MFSLs) were amazingly good, better in fact, than I had heard them before. Close but no cigar. This proved to me that digital had enormous potential if done properly.

(I still own those little 302s and use them very successfully, thirteen years after I purchased them, as my left and right front speakers in my 3.1 home theater. With a good subwoofer like my B&W ASW-650, these are killer loudspeakers. I can’t tell you how many people with mass-marketed home theater brands ask me why watching a movie in my living room system sounds so much better than theirs…)

My purchase of the B&W 302s led me to conclude that I needed to examine every single link in the chain to find out what could be improved upon. Did I need a subwoofer, or maybe a pair of full-range loudspeakers? Was my Denon CD player pushing all of those ones and zeroes out properly? Was a better transport the solution? Should I upgrade my cables? Should I see a shrink?

I decided to buy excellent gear, as needed, but used (or as the salesmen say, “pre-owned”), or reduced in price to where I could afford it. With a wife, a young kid, a mortgage, two cars (one car payment), an old house that occasionally sucked money out of us like an Oreck vacuum cleaner, I had very little (if any) discretionary funding to satisfy my hobby — a hobby that as we all know can cost in the high hundreds of thousands — even millions — of dollars if taken to its extreme.

Starting in 2001 I started my quest in earnest. I purchased a DAC made by California Audio Labs: the GAMMA. A highly regarded piece of gear that, for the price it was being sold for, would be a bargain addition to my system. That DAC made a very tangible improvement in my system. CDs that I considered references sounded very, very good, in fact, they sounded better than they had before. I retired the DAC-in-the-Box.

A serendipitous conversation with one of the guys that worked in the classical and jazz departments at a local record store I’d been haunting since the seventies led me to the next upgrade. He asked if I would be interested in buying his spare CD player, a California Audio Labs DX-2. It wasn’t one of the highly regarded vacuum tube players CalAudio made; nevertheless it was a top-notch high-end CD player he would let go for $300! I jumped at the opportunity to hear what this player would do in my system. I was more than a little shocked at the difference this one component made. What I heard when I played my favorite CDs proved to me that digital was not the devilish invention I once thought it was. Every one of the reference CDs I played sounded fresh and musical, and closer to analog than I had ever thought possible out of that shiny little 5-inch disc. I rarely used the Gamma again since the DX-2’s sound was excellent.

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Then, like a patient relapsing from a rare, debilitating, tropical disease, I developed a bad case of analog fever. I really, really wanted a turntable again. Not an Audi or a Porsche or a Harley. I wanted a turntable. Again. My wife described my condition as some sort of weird audiophile mid-life crisis and muttered something like, “you’ve gone completely nuts.”

Like Galileo, who had recanted his scientific discoveries, I had recanted my love of analog. I was desperate to say, “but it does move!” I wanted to rediscover that emotional bond we all have with our favorite music. So, in 2002, going on ten years without having an analog source in my system, I bought a new turntable I could afford: a Rega Planar 2 with an RB250 tonearm and a Grado cartridge. It wasn’t the best sound, but it was better than what I had had in the past I could now listen to the 200 precious LPs I had refused to part with. Of course, it also meant that I would have start to buying vinyl again. Dear Lord, I thought, I’m mad!

My favorite analog references are an LP of the eighth symphony of Shostakovich with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andre Previn (on HMV), and Bizet’s Carmen conducted by Leonard Bernstein (on DG). My favorite digital references are a Mahler First and a disc of William Walton’s orchestral music, with the Florida Philharmonic, conducted by James Judd, both on Harmonia Mundi, and an album of solo lute music from the German Baroque, all engineered by Peter McGrath. Any one of these recordings, recorded, engineered and produced with singularly accurate and natural sound, will really give you an immediate yea or nay on whether your system (and especially your speakers) are up to snuff or not. Unfortunately, as good as those references sounded, my beloved little 302s could not deliver that the bass I had come to love in the concert hall. Now I had to upgrade my speakers to match the quality coming out of my CAL Audio.

I hate paying full price for anything when there are deals out there for the asking; you just have to have the guts to ask. Recently resurrected South Florida retailer Sound Advice was a Bowers & Wilkins dealer for a long time. After being bought by Tweeter Etc. in 2001, they stopped selling B&Ws for, what I was told, was a long-standing dispute between the two companies. I walked in to their store near my home looking to buy loudspeakers with a cast-in-concrete budget. My choices were limited by price and wattage, or so I thought. The salesman informed me that all floor models were for sale since they were no longer selling B&Ws. In other words, everything had to go. Not wanting to waste an opportunity presented by the audio deities, I auditioned all of the speakers on the floor and settled on a pair of B&W 604S2 loudspeakers that they sold to me for less than half-price and a little over my budget! For being at the right place at the right time I improved the overall sound of my system to new heights.

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I kept listening and listening and kept tweaking the my system. I added a pair of Parasound separates to replace my Denon receiver. It was a little underpowered for driving the 604S2s. I bought them new, at a very reasonable price. The lesson being that with a minimum of cash, anyone can build up a decent system: my Parasound pre- and power amps, my DX-2 and Gamma, and my Rega. And, of course, PS Audio interconnects.

In 2005 I upgraded to a Classe preamp I purchased used, and a Bryston 3B, also used, that is a workhorse. Since then I’ve gone through two Marantz SACD/CD players and a couple of different DACs.

As for analog, I finally fulfilled a long-time dream and bought a Linn Sondek LP12. It has an old tonearm and a new high-output moving coil cartridge. The prodigal listener who had mistakenly abandoned analog was determined to do it right this time. It’s a wonderful piece of equipment. My LPs sound like never before. Ever hear Toscanini’s Beethoven Symphonies on German pressings? Or the Harnoncourt Brandenburgs on Telefunken? Wonderful. And there’s nothing like Sinatra on vinyl.

In early 2008, through a fortunate circumstance, I was able to budget for a new pair of loudspeakers. I auditioned a pair of Magneplanar 1.6s with my Bryston amp. What speakers! In the end, though, I wisely decided against driving these magnificent speakers with my underpowered amp in my cramped room. One day, maybe. I opted instead for a pair of B&W 804S speakers. (Discounted, of course; old habits die hard.) These speakers, above all else, have revealed to me just how much bass I’ve been missing on my recordings. The bass drum smack in the last section of The Firebird is close to what I’ve heard in the real world. They are wonderful loudspeakers.

The last two tweaks I have made have been small, but have been very significant in what they have brought to the synergies in my system.

I purchased Nordost Blue Heaven Flatline interconnects to replace my Mapleshade Audio and Monster Interlink 400 interconnects. And I can tell you the hype about Nordost is true. They truly open the soundstage and what comes out of the Oppo BDP-105 is so much better resolved. I wouldn’t have believed these cables could do so much unless I had heard it myself.

I did not expect a tweak I made to my system to make as much of a difference as it has. PS Audio sponsored a contest a few years ago whereby a limited number of folks would get a PS Audio Soloist A/C Outlet if they wrote an email and explained why they needed it. I, of course, never looking a gift opportunity in the mouth, fired off an email and was generously selected to receive one in exchange for a write up. Of all the things I have done over the years to improve my system, changing my crappy electrical outlet for this one has had the overall effect of — and forgive me for not being able to describe it more precisely — using a Squeegee on a dirty windshield. There it is. Everything I play through my system sounds crisper and more alive since I added the outlet. The hum is gone. LPs, CDs, my reels, radio, my optical connection from my Mac. Everything sounds cleaner and quieter than in it had before. Paul McGowan isn’t kidding when he tells us how important clean A/C power is.

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So, here I am, 38 years later, still buying LPs and CDs. These days I also download high-definition tracks and play them through my Mac to my DAC, on my iPhone or iPod. I own over 2,500 CDs, over 1,000 LPs, and about a terabyte of music on hard drives. I’m not as rigid in my thinking as I once was; this old dog is willing to learn new audio tricks, after all.

Is buying all of this gear and spending money on tweaks a complete waste of time and money? Couldn’t I get the same result with regular off-the-shelf stuff? No. I want to recreate what I heard so long ago, that perfectly realized illusion of great musicians playing just for me in my home. Why do I participate in this crazy hobby? Simple: the tears I shed whenever I hear the resignation in the Adagio of Mahler’s Ninth, or the love for his wife in the Adagietto of his Fifth; the power of Beethoven’s Eroica, and Grosse Fuge; Mozart’s Don Giovanni; the golden sadness of late Brahms; any Chopin; the anger of Verdi’s Requiem; the almost indescribable beauty of Puccini’s La Boheme; Bernard Herrmann’s score for Fahrenheit 451; the goose bumps I always get when Stan Getz begins “Here’s That Rainy Day”; Sonny Rollins attacking the notes in “St. Thomas”; when Paul Desmond and Dave Brubeck play anything together; Bruce Springsteen singing “Thunder Road”; Pink Floyd lamenting their friend in “Shine on You Crazy Diamond”; the amazing music of pre-revolution Cuba.

Despite all of our enthusiasms, the gear is always secondary; what the equipment does for us, in the end, is give us the wonderful gift of music.

(Originally published July 8 2011 on PS Audio’s late, great weblog, PSTracks.)

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A (very) short introduction to Cuban Music

Beginning with the settlers in Cuba who came in with the second wave of colonizers, the musical life in Cuba was always rich. Cuba, as the colonizers discovered, was populated by three Indian tribes—the Siboney, the Taino, and the Guanatabey. The first hundred years of Spanish rule on the island resulted in these populations being decimated by disease or attrition. None of their music has survived history; contemporary sources, primarily Bartolomé de las Casas, thought it “sweet sounding.”

The major influence on the music on the island at that time was, of course, religion. Liturgical music was the dominant form in Europe and the colonists emulated these forms. The first major composer born in Cuba was Esteban Salas. He composed the typical liturgical music of the day and was good enough at his craft to be recognized as a major composer.

At the same time of this initial burst of homegrown creativity, a new influence would arrive in Cuba that would have the lasting and dominant effect on its musical development. The arrival on the island of thousands of African slaves from many cultures — North African Moorish and Central African Yoruba and Lucumí—would, over the next three hundred years, create an unparalleled number new musical rhythms and forms. The Africans “assimilated” into Cuban culture, outwardly professing faith in Roman Catholicism, while retaining and practicing their native customs and religions, and playing their unique and rhythmic music.

These displaced peoples, over many generations, would bring about the literal birth of “Cuban” musical styles through the ubiquitous way their music was heard on the island. Their original instruments and rhythmic patterns — primarily the clave — became the heartbeat and backbone of Cuban music.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the influence of these native rhythms was so great that a new rhythmic form was created in Cuba—the Habanera. The Habanera rhythm became immensely popular in Europe and was all the rage. Composers of serious music in Cuba began using the Habanera rhythm in their compositions. Composers such as Saumell were taking European forms like the French contredanse and incorporating Habanera rhythms. This contradanza became extremely popular on the island and put Cuban music on the cultural map of Europe, Composers in the 1800s, having these native rhythms in their blood became more and more famous. Saumell, Espadero, Cervantes, White, among many more, were highly regarded as prototypical Cuban composers of serious music.

The development of “serious” music, however, was also paralleled by the music of the black citizens of the island who continued to play and develop their own music. Starting in the middle of the nineteenth century “popular” and “serious” music would come together with the introduction of the danzón. The danzón was a modification of the five-part (ABACA) or seven-part (ABACADA) suite form. Miguel Failde was the “inventor” of this form and introduced in Cuba in 1869. The traditional suite was changed to a six-part suite (ABACAD). This form allowed dance orchestras and ensembles the luxury of composing one basic theme (A) to be repeated, a second theme (B) that was slower, a set of theme and variations that could be quickly “composed” by taking bits and pieces from the popular tunes of the day (C), and finally, a set where the musicians would be allowed to improvise (D) until the “dancing” had to be stopped. The danzón (ABACAD) form became the backbone of the popular forms that were to dominate Cuban music over the next century.

At the start of the twentieth century, all of these preceding influences would coalesce into what has become the most influential popular form of Cuban music: the són. After four hundred years of musical development, and the creation of many unique rhythms and instruments, the són became the driving force in the development of the rich legacy of Cuban music.

(My long essay, Louis Moreau Gottschalk and the Rise of Cuban Music, is available on Kindle for $2.99.)

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