Newsletter #01 from 2006

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Well hello again.

This is the June 06 newsletter. You didn’t miss the May 06 issue - because there wasn’t one. Okay – to set the scene, when I started this one, England were on the box playing Sweden in Germany. Not my kind of thing. I'm writing this while listening to The Jayhawks “Hollywood Town” CD. Terrific. Not played this one in quite a while. Now on it’s fifth play in a row. I’ll leave it to someone better to describe the music. You can check it out here:

A fine introduction to The Jayhawks and their music

This free online resource, Allmusic is fantastic. It’s never let me down. Every time I’ve ignored this advice, I’ve been disappointed and ended up reselling back on eBay. Every time I did accept their guidance, I was never disappointed. It’s not so much that they direct you toward great music; rather that if there is a band or artist you like, the AMG guide will tell you which clunkers to avoid from that artist or band’s output. Okay, moving on ………

Recent other CDs in VERY heavy rotation here in the past few weeks include:

  • David Lindley and El Rayo-X: “Win This Record”
  • Fazil Say: “Black Earth”
  • Joni Mitchel: “Hejira” – primarily for the extraordinary Jaco the bass player
  • JS Bach: “Transcriptions of Concertos after Vivaldi and others” – Ivo Janssen
  • Six Organs of Admittance: “School Of the Flower”
  • The Silos: “Laser Beam Next Door”
  • Iain Mathews and The Swinelakers: “Live in Germany”
  • Daphne’s Flight: “Daphne’s Flight” – an early outing for Christine Collister and female chums.
  • Elgar Violin Concerto: Hilary Hahn.
  • Patricia Barber: “Verse”. I though this was pretentious nonsense on my first listen. I was wrong. It happens. Now it gets played every week.
  • Schubert: “Piano Sonatas D.058 & D.959” - Mistuko Uchida

Bootlegs:

I'm not endorsing the practice. I'm just telling you what I’ve come across and I'm listening to!

  • Suzanne Vega: “Little Big Woman”. The live version of Tom’s Dinner is a killer. It really is.
  • Also quite a few live Linda Ronstadt recordings, mainly of her in concerts in Japan. Terrific. Surprisingly great recordings and blistering performances too.

The not quite so good, but far from bad either:

  • Richard Thompson with Danny Thompson: “Live In Crawley 1993”. I saw these guys live at the Barbican London earlier this year. Extraordinary is too ordinary a word. I had hoped this recording from 1993 would capture the spirit of that event. It didn’t quite. If you get the chance, try and see them do ‘Ghosts In The Wind’ live. That one song is worth the price of admission alone.

This month’s “he/she could have been better served by their manager – surely?” award goes to:

  • Hayley Westenra: “Pure”. Undoubtedly one of the finest voices I have ever heard. But she’s wasted on a bunch of instantly unmemorable songs. The cover of ‘Wuthering Heights’ is both unnecessary and weak. But ………. wow ……… she really has the voice. Might be worth checking other recordings.

This month’s “brought a tear to my jaded eye” award is split between:

  • The Jayhawks: “I’d Run away” from their superb ‘Tomorrow The Green Grass”
  • Barb Jungr’s ‘Heartbreak Hotel” off the magnificent, stark, compelling and highly accomplished ‘Love Me Tender’

The Listen Carefully & simply-STAX musical evenings – the story so far:

Some of you may know that on an experimental basis I’ve been holding musical evenings here. This is not, repeat not a sales event. I'm strictly off-duty and nothing is for sale and equipment is only discussed in conjunction with the music.

So a group of people were invited and would you believe it, we all sat and talked about recorded music. We listened to each other’s chosen recordings and we discussed what we liked. All of us were introduced to music that we’d never previously heard and lists were complied. The events were far from solemn. Loads of wine was drunk, inroads were made into piles of food and the home-made Lemon Meringue pie won out by a short head from the home-made Coffee & Walnut cake. But it was close on that one. Real close!

If Mrs P agrees, we may do a few more later in the year. No hi-fi was sold on these nights. And that’s exactly the way I wanted it to be.

This month’s hero:

No contest. It’s John Cahill. A truly wonderful guy with an inspirational view of life and a love of all types of music. He’s very perceptive. He quickly figured out why I didn’t like Flamenco music. It was all that shouting and foot stamping. Strip all that out and you are NOT left with an emasculated sound. Try “Strunz & Farrar Live” and you’ll see. The guitar virtuosity is spellbinding.

John has an audio system that really shouldn’t work. In a tiny attic room, near man-sized Wharfdale somethingorother plus a breathed on Musical Fidelity Nu-Vista 3D CD machine and Gamut amplification. It works. It’s superb. There was detail without harshness and amazingly the speakers really did, to use a well-worn cliché disappear. He’s done a lot of experimenting and wasted (his term) a lot of money – but he’s got there. Anyway ….this is what John wrote after the musical evening:

The music I bought was:

Surinder Sandhu - Saurang Orchestra World music; almost like a film score with elements of Indian; Classical; Jazz and Rock.

Peter Gabriel - Passion Music from the Last Temptation of Christ. A great film score that takes you on a journey into Deserts.

No problems around the e-mail link for me the whole idea of sharing music is great like you I am more into music than Hi-Fi; mainly see HI-FI as way of getting the best most realistic sound possible; but it still the music Ilisten to and not the system.

Thanks again for your kindness

john@hilt.org.uk

Internet thuggery masquerading as gladiatorial combat? Probably!

One of the most unpalatable aspects of the growth of the internet are the strange and occasionally disturbing phenomena of online-forums. Some of the most odious comments I have ever seen are in some UK-based audio ones. There is my view something quite insidious going on there. Look at some of the threads and you’ll notice a theme. The same contributors evangelising about the same makers – most of which seem to have brand names comprising just 4 letters, and I don’t include Sony. They do so with the zeal of a convert and the intimidating stance of religious fundamentalism.

Forum members who post a comment that might call into question the benefits of a Mk2, a new plug, a new cable and so on are sometimes vilified in the forum to an extraordinary degree. Foul language is not uncommon. Take a look for yourself – and then question who’s pulling the strings here.

Call me a cynic, but my suspicion is that some makers who superficially condemn the overt zealousness of some of their supporters are delighted to have stumbled on a free powerful source of promotion for every overpriced piece of nonsense they release to an increasingly credulous section of the public.

Jimmy Hughes:

Okay – right – as you know from last night’s mailing, Jimmy’s now on board, and not before time too. I’ve given him no editorial direction. He’s written more words than me. Many more and better ones too. Hopefully his next column will be his views on certain aspects of classical recordings, both performance and pressing quality. We’ll see. Meanwhile I'm finalising negotiations with one of the world’s most outspoken and knowledgeable reviewers. With a bit of luck he’ll be on board in the not too distant future too.

In and out (repeat as necessary):

Just like many of you, the hi-fi curiosity bug has never really left me. I was for a while preoccupied with buying giant receivers from the 1970s. I collected quite a few and invariably the tuner sections were far more satisfying that the amplification sections. Anyway, in the last month I disposed of my last two. So it was goodbye to my mighty Yamaha 2020 receiver and goodbye to my Marantz 2265b. Both have gone to kind homes and both owner and receiver are doing well!

I acquired a STAX CA-X preamp. Not unpacked it yet and have on loan a STAX DAC-X1t plus an Accuphase PS-500 to drive it. I’ll be reporting on this in the next newsletter. Looks very promising indeed. I’ll partner it for the time being with a friend’s pristine Micro Seiki CD2 CD player (all 22 kg of it) as a transport – using the very latest Stereovox digital cable.

Mk2 – hype or what?

Before setting out my own views on this, it’s worth addressing a few facts – to set my answers in context. No audio maker, however benign their utterances and however clever their PR are in the charity business. Everything they do is done to make money – purely and simply. The two channel market, the only market I have intimate knowledge of, is shrinking. Some believe it’s in terminal decline. Whatever the truth, the fact is it isn’t expanding. Consequently makers must seek ways of clinging on to their market share while facing threats from at least three directions.

First, they are in competition with their established competitors i.e. those who have clung on despite all the odds and in some cases have thrived too. Then they are in competition with the ‘freds in sheds’. These are fledgling makers who build one example of one product and get the prototype reviewed as a favour by an easily influenced reviewer and after that, are rarely heard of again. This is competition because in the eyes of the established makers, it diverts attention away from their own offerings.

Finally, there are the major technical intellects who are only temporarily small. By this I mean the brilliance of their design and the quality of the financial backing means they’ll be a serious presence albeit in a small market in the not too distant future. Ayre being one that springs to mind. Brinkmann is another. The established status quo, or cartel of established makers and their distributors really don’t like that at all. Not one bit.

One method of clinging on to market share is to issue the Mk2 version. Let’s be cynical here. Take a basic reliable carefully engineered design, make a few mods, shove it in a new box and call it a Mk2. In such situations, the buyer’s investment in achieving the miniscule improvement isn’t good value. It happens. It’s not the whole story though.

In contrast, STAX have very recently issued Mk2 versions of their valve energisers, the 006t and 007t. As a responsible retailer I have listened to these and have advised my customers that a move to the Mk2 isn’t worth it as the changes are primarily cosmetic plus the fact that STAX made it clear that they had to change their supplier of switches and they were forced through circumstance to redesign the input switching. None of the STAX info available to dealers indicated any substantial sonic improvement. All credit to STAX then.

Some companies adopt a very reasonable upgrade policy so that a Mk1 can be upgraded to a Mk2 at reasonable expense. Ayre do this. Their policy is to avoid product redundancy and consequently you see very few of their items on eBay. There’s no second-user hysteria about serial numbers and so on. In contrast, I looked at eBay just now and there are 113 items of Naim equipment for sale in the UK.

On the other hand, if you look at companies which for their supporters have the very highest brand image and don’t rely on hype to get noticed e.g. Mark Levinson, Cello, Stellavox, Burmester, Goldmund, Lumen White, Shelter phono cartridges Beveridge, and so on, they make very few models and those models are very rarely seen on the used market. I suspect that quietly and without fuss they’ve taken the view that their loyal owners are not ‘walking wallets’ and in some way they are ensuring that those units out in the field are being kept up to date.

Now let’s consider another approach – that of Musical Fidelity. On a number of occasions I have felt that they have garnered very unfair criticism, some of it quite disgraceful on some audio forums for their policy limited edition issue. MF are one of the British audio arena’s most successful organisations and in that typically British way, jealousy is generated in some quarters. Very rarely do MF offer Mk2 or Mk3 versions. It happened on some the X-Series units but in general they prefer to build a limited run of a product line and then discontinue it and replace with another entirely different unit. There are sound financial reasons for this, for both the maker (beyond the scope of this text) and the buyer.

The depreciation on MF equipment (the amount a private seller might loose when selling to second user) is very low. Great news for the owner. In contrast, you might find that monitoring for comparative purposes the depreciation of say Linn, Meridian and Conrad Johnson amplification is an education in itself. This free resource enables you to do this:

So having said all this, what is the answer? First – be cautious. A Mk2 may indeed be different, but there’s no guarantee that the difference will translate into an improvement in your system with your musical tastes. Next, bear in mind that as each successive version is issued, your existing version will decrease in resale value. Many of the more mature makers adopt a policy of continuous albeit unannounced improvement. SME re the SME-V being a case in point. Be sceptical. Ultimately, to whose benefit is the Mk7 or whatever? The maker or you? Perhaps both – but in which order?

So what about the Mk2 STAX gear?

My initial views on comparing the Mk2 versions of the 006t and 007t to the Mk1 versions was that there was no sonic difference whatsoever. Now that the Mk2 versions are run-in here (because previously I’d heard them straight out of the box) there is a small improvement in ambience and top-end detail. It is quite small though. So ………

I'm not advising my 006t Mk1 and 007t Mk1 owners to consider trading in against the mk2 versions of either. It doesn’t represent a good value move.

Meanwhile ….

There is no indication that the 717 is going to be revised. It remains my biggest selling energiser and being a pro unit in the fullest sense of the word - including a very useful facility not found on any other STAX energiser – it has it seems a long future ahead of it.

The “I got it wrong” section:

Yes, the STAX 3030 debacle. To cut a long story short, I had publicised the apparent fact that the 3030 (never a bigger seller here and not big for Symmetry either) was discontinued. I’d been given this information late last year by Mr. Shin-Ichiro Hamano, global representibe of STAX. He also foretold the demise of the 4040 system. the 007t and the 2020 system. He was correct about these 3, but not it seems re the 3030. Or perhaps I got it wrong. It does happen.

Anyway, the 3030 is alive and kicking. In my ignorance of the fact, I decided to go ahead with the 3010 STAX system as the logical substitute. Details can be found here:

Personally speaking, although the 202 earspeakers that are standard with the 3010 system are slightly inferior to the 303 earspeakers that come with 3030 system, the energiser that comes with the 3010 is a class A solid state and in some resects a worthy junior to the mighty 717. To my ears, this fine energiser with the 202s is a musically more satisfying sound being more crisp and faster than the 3030.

My entire first shipment of 3010 systems was sold out in 2 days. As is usual, 28-day Buy-without-risk / Sale-or-Return was offered. Not one 3010 system has been returned to me.

Quote of the month:

I'm indebted to Mr. Jim Mason from Holt in Norfolk. He’s recently upgraded from 404s to Omega-2s. He said “it’s like floating on clouds of beautiful music”. Quite so Jim – and thank you.

Hey – this looks promising:

It’s early days – but I'm very pleased I bought two Townshend VSSS equipment supports. Yes, the improvement to my Brinkmann VRS (Vinyl Replay System) was immediately noticeable and worth the money. BUT the biggest surprise came from digital replay. I have a 7-shelf VSSS and all my Ayre gear (pre, integrated, 2 x digital and phono stage are on it) while the Ayre power amps squat on the floor.

I heard detail through my Thiel CS1.6 loudspeakers I’d only previously heard through my STAX Omega-2/717 combination and my utterly wonderful Lumen White Silver Flame loudspeakers. Max says it’s all down to the DAC being properly isolated. All I can tell you – it works.

This weekend I’ll try this VSSS-mounted combo into the Lumens using my newly acquired STAX CA-X preamp and the STAX DAC X-1t.

An unabashed plug for another “good guy”

Progressively I'm updating the online photos. Frankly the ones STAX supply are none too clever. My photographer is Paul Stewart. He does outstanding work for bargain basement money. No posturing or artistic hysterics. No pretentiousness. He knows what he’s doing and he’s quick – but not careless. His site is well worth checking out.

The ‘no-way’ section:

I’ve thought about this and no, there will not be a simplySTAX/Listen Carefully online forum. I’ve looked at numerous audio forums lately. I’ve been appalled and discussed at what I’ve seen on occasions. Talk about ‘the nutters only come out at night’. Some of the insane comments, the bitchiness, the vindictiveness and the jihad-like zeal of some evangelists for some UK brands is a disgrace. I can’t run the risk of it happening here. And I don’t have to run the risk. So I won’t. Case closed.

I don’t just listen to music ‘ya know!

I read books too. And now it’s time for another unashamed and sincere plug for a great bookshop that does excellent mail order services. They are The Palmers Green Bookshop. Telephone 020 8882 2088. same thing as usual i.e. I have no commercial relationship with them at all.

To date, they’ve never failed to obtain a book if it’s still in print. Their prices are no more expensive than Amazon, and sometimes less – and they really care. Decent old fashioned service and courtesy in an increasingly indecent and discourteous world. Your contact there is Joanna ‘blues-wailing’ Cameron. And all the other staff are as efficient and courteous too. Incidentally, a great place to while away an hour or two if mail order isn’t ‘your thing’. An oasis of tranquillity. Evening events include poetry readings.

That’s it for now. I'm pretty sure I missed something out here, but it’ll have to wait. Yawn.

Bye for now.

Howard.

 

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