I haven't kept up very well with my resolution half a year ago to write about topics other than photography once a week on Sundays. What usually happens (I hope this doesn't betray my utter lack of foresight) is that I'll think of some appropriate topic during the week, and think to myself, well, it's not Sunday, better wait till Sunday, and then on Sunday I either can't remember what it was I wanted to write about or it seems like there's not enough time to write about it. I guess you can tell from that that I don't have many weeks' worth of post topics already prepared and queued up for publication (although I have a couple of nice book reviews from Ctein that will go up soon, possibly tomorrow).
Anyway, breaking with tradition to return to tradition, here's an off-topic post covering a few recent audio products I like.
I personally went from listening to music on my computer just using its sound card and built-in speakers, to trying to improve the musical output of my computer, to simply hooking up my hard drive to my main stereo. I now use a single preamp that includes a USB input from my computer (it has its own DAC) and a tubed line input from (oh, I can hear the howls already)...a phono preamp. No CD player; I listen to digital files and vinyl. The latter only occasionally, the former most of the time, but I enjoy having both.
If you're looking to improve the sound from your computer, especially if you need the portability, try the excellent Audioengine A2 powered computer speakers (they also come in white). They're tiny—only 6 inches (15.2 cm) high—and cheap, only $200. Curiously, some of the complaints about Micro 4/3 cameras might be echoed when talking about the A2's, in that they're no substitute for full-sized speakers and yet they're miles ahead of most of the drek that passes for outboard computer speakers, some of which I find literally unlistenable. While they might not be the thing for a permanent installation, they're very portable. And they sound wonderful. (You will need to replace that soundcard, or get yourself at least a cheap non-oversampling [NOS] DAC.)
Audioengine makes bigger speakers and of course the obligatory "sub-" woofer (almost all computer "subwoofers" are simply woofers—nothing sub about 'em), but the little 15-watt-per-box A2 is the sweet spot. One word of warning: the volume knob turns the speakers on, and there's a three-second delay before the signal starts. Don't crank the volume knob up when you turn them on and you don't hear any noise! Oh, and you might want to site these directly on your desktop—normally tiny speakers will sound a little better if you get them closer to ear level, but in this case the boundary reinforcement doesn't hurt.
Best thing about them? They make MP3 files sound better than they have any right to sound. And who needs equipment that "reveals all the limitations of the source" when you're listening to MP3s?
UPDATE: Yes, Soundsticks are nice too.
'Phones—head-, not cell-
If you prefer to do your listening a little more privately (and even more portably), the new "i" (for improved) versions of the old Grado headphones are still outstanding values. In a field just chock-full of fly-by-night companies, the business started by inventor Joe Grado is still run by a Grado—Joe's nephew John. Also very unusual is the fact that the entire lineup of their headphones are each easy recommendations at their widely varying price points. I'd probably pick the $150 SR125i as the sweet spot, but not by much—everything from the $79 SR60i to the former top-of-the-line RS1's are fine performers and good value (there's now an RS1i and a much more costly flagship model, the GS1000i, but I haven't heard 'em. I remain skeptical that anybody needs to spend $695 on a pair of headphones, never mind a grand.)
Of course, be warned—buy a decent set of headphones, and you're half a skip away from needing a headphone amplifier. And from there it's a short step to spending all your time on Head-Fi, and we'll never see you here at TOP again.
We get esoteric and start having fun after the break...
I need to be careful here, because I could write a short book about this. I have a very small category of personal possessions I might refer to as estate-sale items—not because I got them at one, but because they'll be sold off at mine! After having spent all the intervening time—God willing there'll be a lot of that—clutched in my hot little hands.
So here's an "estate sale" item that's a real weirdo conceptually, and that you've almost certainly never heard of. It's called a "Dynaco Stereo 70," just like the amp that was sold either assembled, by David Hafler's Dynaco, or as a "DynaKit" you could put together yourself, back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth (i.e., before my time). But it actually isn't a Dynaco Stereo 70. A little background: real, meaning old, ST-70s can still be purchased today—in fact, there seems to be a thriving subculture of folks restoring and reselling old ones, some of whom vie with each other to pretty them up with automotive paint in wild colors or even chrome plating on the transformer tops and so forth. I've seen pink ones and purple ones and yellow ones. The candy-apple red restoration pictured here is for sale on Audiogon right now (asking price $575 or best offer. Remember that number).
Then there are at least four outfits selling new, redesigned driver boards, which can take the restorations to a new level sonically (the original amp was built to a price point, and the original input board cut corners pretty drastically).
Finally there's this: a guy in Massachusetts named Bob Latino, who sells an amp kit he calls a "Dynaco Stereo 70." But it's not a Dynaco or a restoration at all—it's a replica. It uses 100% new parts—there's not a single piece or part on Bob's amps that comes from an old Dynaco. Not even the chassis. But it's not an exact replica: it also uses the modern VTA70 input board designed by Roy Mottram and sold by Tubes 4 Hifi; new, beefier transformers; and all modern parts, including modern speaker binding posts. There's an optional cap upgrade, too.
They say the kit has admirably clear and easy-to-follow instructions, so if you can solder, you can have a brand new tube amp for as low as $619 before tubes. A guy named Arnold Matthews has put a set of assembly pictures on Picasa, which are kind of fun even if you have no intention of ever building a piece of electronics.
Bob's own photo of his assembled ST-70 replica kit, seen here with KT-88 tubes. Note that the Stereo-Mono switch is a dummy—the amp's not wired for mono, because the circuitry for the switch degrades the sound.
No interest in a kit? Then you basically have two options: you can pay Bob $226 to do all this wiring and soldering for you, or you can pay some high-end audio company $3,000 to get an underpaid worker in China to do it.
Bob sells a whole raft of variations and options. There are two basic amps, the 35-wpc Stereo 70 and the 60-wpc VTA 120. Each can be ordered with or without tubes and with or without various options, and either as a kit or completed. Make the call on the kit question yourself, but I suggest that you definitely get the cap upgrade. Note that these amps are not self-biasing, either, so you'll need a voltmeter—about $30 at Radio Shack.
Does it have any flaws? The input jacks—on the front of the unit, Dynaco-style—are too close together for today's interconnects, and I'd be happier if it had a IEC power cord jack rather than a captive length of lamp cord.
And how does it sound? Not "tubey" in one sense—no rolled-off highs, no flabby bass. It just sounds like a really, really good full-range amp. Dead quiet, too, both mechanically and through the speakers. The Latino Dynaco ST-70 replica sounds tube-like in some senses, though—it's got that rich, lush, ravishing, grainless, fathomless, soulful, dimensional midrange that makes people swear by tubes. There is something about a great tube amp that doesn't leave you wanting anything more. I just absolutely love it.
And note that even with all the goodies, designed in the good ol' U.S.A. and hand-built in Massachusetts, it still costs less than almost any garden-variety commercial built-in-China budget tube amp. Decent though many of those can be.
Oh, and one more thing: dealing with Bob is a pleasure. He's extremely businesslike. He answers emails pronto, and he built my amp in just two days (although you shouldn't hold him to that schedule).
Music is a matter of personal taste, of course. Still, the "Jazz Notes" section of my late newsletter still draws the occasional comment even today. I know that a lot of people aren't interested in jazz, but I've been on an intense jazz kick for at least the past three years. Almost to the point that I don't listen to anything else. I keep wondering how long it's going to last.
Jazz is funny—it actually means different things to different people. Here's my definition:
Jazz, n., 1. A difficult, intricate music composed on the fly by virtuoso instrumentalists in temporary combinations interacting with each other; 2. Stale, soporific instrumental background music composed by formula and played by rote, used as sonic wallpaper by people who don't much like music.
I mostly like the first type. I'm sure when I talk about "jazz," some people think I'm talking about the second type—radio jazz, also called "easy listening"...the very phrase strikes horror in my heart. For the most part, I would as soon listen to the refrigerator hum.
Bridging the gap, you might say, is a new record by a phenomenal new talent: Melody Gardot's "My One and Only Thrill." It's gorgeously pretty—actually easy to listen to, though not "easy listening." Like Norah Jones, it's deliberately old-fashioned music to people my age and younger (I grew up on the Beatles and the Stones, etc.): full-on jazz vocals, with, um, strings, even. (I hope you won't let that last chase you away.) But it's just intensely beautiful, and the aptly named Melody's voice is one in ten million. If you have things like Etta Jones and Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday in your record collection anyway, you'll appreciate Melody Gardot.
I've also been enjoying a Wayne Horvitz record called "Sweeter Than the Day." Okay, now listen up and see if you can follow this: There's a Horvitz band (one of many) called Sweeter Than The Day, which is allegedly the acoustic version of Zony Mash (another Horvitz band), despite which, there's a Wayne Horvitz album that's billed as "Zony Mash unplugged," that used to be called "American Bandstand," until Dick Clark's people sued him and he had to change the name of the album to "Forever." But the "Sweeter than the Day" I'm talking about is an album, and the artist is listed as "Wayne Horvitz," and I'd go figure out if the Sweeter Than The Day band personnel actually play on the Wayne Horvitz album Sweeter Than The Day, except that I'm tired now, and need to go rest my head.
Anyway, you know those albums that you just don't like at first, but that have the ability to grow on you, and then just keep growing on you more and more? Sweeter Than The Day is like that. I didn't even care for it the first time I heard it. Now it's in heavy rotation, and I just like it more and more each time I hear it.
Finally, a landmark of sorts, albeit one that pop culture will completely overlook. This might actually be on topic for the site, in that the cover is (apologies to the photographer) remarkably bad—it's a nondescript snapshot to begin with, and after that it received Photoshop treatment so ham-handed it might almost qualify for Photoshop Disasters. But the music is what counts. Remarkably, the Stanley Clarke Trio's "Jazz in the Garden" is Stanley Clarke's first ever acoustic bass record! Clarke has been a leading fusion bassist since "School Days" in 1976, has played with pretty much everybody (probably most notably as a member of Chick Corea's Return to Forever) and has scored dozens of films. But he's never done an acoustic bass record before now.
It was worth waiting for. Luscious composition, straight ahead hard-bop, played by masters. The whole record save one cut is brilliant and fascinating. A complete surprise to me is Hiromi, on piano—she's really good. The only cut I didn't like was "Under the Bridge," a cover of a song that didn't need covering, like the many, many pop songs with which fusion artists traditionally tried to throw a line across to popular audiences (whether for the audience's sake or the musicians' own, I don't know). The cut gets cooking in the middle there, but all in all it mars the album. The sound quality, too, like the other two records mentioned here, is top notch. And it's even available on vinyl. (Heh heh heh. I can hear the neologues yelping from here. I don't have it on vinyl, though. I downloaded it.)
Hope your Sunday is nice and lazy, and that you get some rest and respite. Let's do this again sometime.
Featured Comment by Cyril: "This is spooky—I just bought a pair of white AudioEngine A2 this morning...and a few hours later they pop up on T.O.P.
"The sound coming from these little things is hard to believe!"
Featured Comment by Seth Glassman: "I love building those amp kits. It's peaceful and contemplative, an opportunity to really go crazy on the layout of the wires and such, with nobody nattering over my shoulder at me. And when it fires up the first time (with no flames, one hopes, although I've done that too) it's quite a thrill. It's the same thrill as I imagine building one of Norm Abram's projects on the New Yankee Workshop, though without the huge tool investment and the risk to my fingers."