Feature Articles & Reviews
The first speakers with high-end pretensions that I ever owned were the Magneplanar Tympani 1Ds, bought at a hippie place in Dallas called Hungry Ear (you can imagine their logo). The Maggies measured 6’H x 4’W x 1”D and made great bass down to about 40Hz, after which they disappeared from action. The manager of Hungry Ear loved the 1Ds, but he was also a bass fan. Taking an idea from Bud Fried’s IMF Professional Monitor, he loaded two KEF oval woofers into a stout transmission line and suddenly had the quickest, deepest bass imaginable. Granted, building the folded transmission line into a subwoofer box was a feat bordering on engineering genius, but his speakers magically brought that 20-40Hz octave seamlessly into play. At 40Hz, the manager’s sub needed only about 1W to make 100dB at 1m, but he drove it a lot harder than that by using an Audio Research D-150 power amplifier. It made absolute thunder -- something like 120dB at 25Hz. There was one small problem: They were huge. He should have called them the EarQuakes.
But people didn’t buy subwoofers in those days. Finally, he focused on designing and building a stereo pair of speakers, each of which had a woofer system almost as good as his subwoofer, and which he matched to a half dozen or so planar magnetic panels. Then, like most speaker designers, he kept changing them and changing them. If he’d just stuck with his EarQuake sub, he could still be selling them.
Anyway, I couldn’t afford the EarQuake. For that last octave of low bass, I would have had to pay about $7000, which today would be equivalent to about $25,000. Yeowchhh! So I followed the received wisdom of the time: If I could position my main speakers at the precisely correct angles in the perfect locations, I would magically unlock the bottom octave. It’s hard to disprove such a statement -- thus my hundreds of hours spent on knees and elbows, shoving my speakers into different places, tilting them to just the perfect cant. Do you see why I’m such a fan of Audyssey’s room-equalization software?
I tell you all this ancient history because the subject of today’s communiqué, Wisdom Audio’s Sage Series SCS powered subwoofer ($4000 USD), is the first sub that I’ve used that reminds me of the EarQuake.
How to run a company: a modest proposal
Oppo Digital is a fascinating company that should serve as a model for how to run a business in these ever-changing times. In my other job, of writing about wine and food, I see so many companies doing things exactly the wrong way that having the opportunity to watch Oppo gives me a little bit of professional joy.
To help you understand why Oppo’s philosophy is so successful in the audio/video business, here are two examples of how to fail in the wine business. A glance at these numbers will quickly reveal the genius of Oppo’s strategy.
The posh price strategy: attack the high end
Wine company A is owned by a successful physician who is tired of medicine and loves drinking wine. He (this type of financial brinksmanship is almost exclusively a male pursuit) invests $1 million in establishing a small, 20-acre vineyard, another million to build a tiny but functional winery, and a third million to build a flash tasting room that his other doctor friends will ooh and ah over. Five years or so later, if he’s lucky, he’ll start to get about 2500 pounds of grapes per acre. That will give him 3000 cases, or 36,000 bottles. The basic costs for bottles, corks, and labels for 36,000 bottles run just under $75,000. The annual debt retirement on $3 million is about $300,000, with another $150,000 in annual operating costs. That means that just the basic costs of filling each of those 36,000 bottles with wine is $14.58. Add 30% for marketing, and the per-bottle price jumps to $19. Add the profits to the distributor and the retail store, and you end up with a minimum shelf cost of $54 per bottle. If the winemaker wants to make $10 profit on each bottle, the shelf cost jumps to $80.
But who will pay the luxury price of $80 for a bottle of unknown wine? The doctor and his overpaid PR firm will pursue reviewers with a vengeance trying to get someone to write that his wine is a bargain at $80. But I, one of those reviewers, got calls from ten other wineries that day (as I do every day) with “bargain” $80 wines. Which is how we end up with a doctor who, after five years of effort, has poured $5.25 million down the drain. He’s probably now divorced, with a winery he’s trying to sell to another silly doctor, and still stuck working in a job he’s sick of for the rest of his life.
Lest you think this an uncommon tale, I assure you: Based on my 15 years of writing about wine, it happens at least five times more often than do the establishments of successful wineries. We call our doctor and his friends “gentlemen farmers.” It’s the winemakers’ version of a very old joke: How do you make a small fortune in the wine business? Start with a large fortune.
To fans of the Big Bang: So you’ve assembled this incredible home theater and now you’re looking for movies to watch. You’ve done the big explosions and the death-defying race scenes. You’ve seen the 3D stuff come flying off your screen. You’ve shown your buddies the close-up collisions from NFL Films. The whole "big bang," "oh my God!" school of filmmaking holds no more surprises and is now, frankly, boring.
To rabid fans of Turner Classic Movies: You’ve seen the complete works of the great directors John Ford, Howard Hawks, Preston Sturges, and Billy Wilder. Your primary love is for Alfred Hitchcock, not only for his sense of mystery, but for his films’ kinky, psychosexual undercurrents. And you’re certain that no one is making good movies anymore.
I’d like to unite these two disparate strands of today’s film market by introducing you to Darren Aronofsky.
Almost everyone has heard of at least one of Aronofsky’s films, though ticket sales for most of them have been criminally low. The director’s five feature-length films are Pi (1998), Requiem for a Dream (2000), The Fountain (2006), The Wrestler (2008), and Black Swan (2010). Each of Aronofsky’s movies features the intensity sought by Big Bang fans, but accomplishes its powerful effect by building the tension and raising the stakes. Imagine James Bond’s poor body making its way through torture, car wrecks, gunshots, stabbings, beatings, explosions, falls, and unending sex -- but none of it really matters, because we know that our hero will live to star in the next Bond flick. Aronofsky provides far more crushing stimuli -- he pushes his heroes and heroines into places where they must make wrenching decisions that could result in the loss of their minds or their lives.
Aronofsky’s first feature-length film, Pi (the title is actually π), is a philosophical, mystical, science-fiction thriller beautifully filmed in black and white for less than $100,000. Despite that paltry budget, it’s hardly a cheap film. It’s about Maximillian Cohen (Sean Gullette), a man who’s quite smart -- in many ways, like some of Aronofsky’s Harvard classmates. He’s locked himself away in a computer lab, where he slaves away at his theory that he can convert all of nature -- as in God -- into a mathematical formula. Soon, representatives of both Wall Street and organized religion come calling, trying to beg, borrow, buy, or steal his work. The depth of Cohen’s thought is also the depth of his potential for losing his mind, and that’s where the film’s tension is rooted. Which would you choose: enlightened insanity or intolerant sanity? The grainy black-and-white photography adds to the sense of impending doom, and it all adds up to something a lot scarier than a car chase.
The world of high-end home-theater processors and receivers has been moving along at sweeping speed, often whipped from behind by HDMI, the fight for supremacy between Dolby and DTS, and, oh yes, the little issue of profits. Companies like Onkyo, Marantz, Pioneer, Denon, and Yamaha have been launching new products annually, telling us with each new iteration that we can’t live without the new model’s features, and that the model we bought last year is now destined for the local landfill.
This dizzying race to the Shangri-La of home-theater perfection has been such a challenging competition that only the big-bank-account Japanese companies have been able to stay in the fight. Time after time, we’ve seen the companies that produce the truly high-end products just give up on the marketplace. Some just stopped making them, or froze their production on outdated technology (anyone still prefer component video to HDMI?). Great makers I depended on for years for my own system -- I’m thinking mainly of the Jeff Rowland Design Group, and any company run by Nelson Pass -- just avoided the concept altogether.
The folks at Anthem have been almost singular in holding the torch for upscale, high-end home-theater products. They’ve played the annual upgrade game almost as exhaustively as have the big Japanese companies. By planning ahead and successfully predicting the direction the industry would take, they’ve been able to create whole series of receivers, ranging in price from $999 to $1999, that have an impressive percentage of the sound quality and convenience of their category champ, the Anthem Statement D2v A/V processor ($8500 USD). How do they do it? Like those bright people who designed the Sony PlayStation 3 with enough horsepower to make it through several years of updates, the Anthem engineers made their processors with enough computer power to implement their own version of automatic room correction from the very start.
When Anthem developed their new juggernaut receiver program, they were able to include the same proprietary Anthem Room Correction (ARC) system already included in all iterations of their processors. In my opinion, properly implemented room-correction software has a greater influence on the final sound of a home-theater receiver than any amplification, be it preamp or power amp -- assuming, of course, we start with sufficiently powered, well-designed amplification.
Last month I began my search for the ultimate in high-fidelity recordings online, and examined several companies that offer downloads of truly spectacular quality. This month, my search continues . . .
The motto at iTrax is "We don’t have millions of low-fidelity tracks but we do have the best-sounding ones." They also have something you won’t see elsewhere: You can choose from as many as 17 different formats, ranging from two-channel 192kbps stereo MP3s to 24-bit/96kHz PCM audio in 5.1-channel sound with a choice of an audience perspective or the illusion of sitting right on stage among the musicians.
Because iTrax believes that analog recordings are inferior, they carry only performances that are digitally recorded at or above 24-bit/88.2kHz. They work with a number of labels, but the main one is AIX Records, most of whose releases are recorded in the hall at The Colburn School, in Los Angeles.
I had a lively discussion about all things musical with Dominic Robelotto, AIX’s senior audio engineer and associate producer. As some of you may know, AIX’s philosophy is pretty specific: "The way that we record and produce music is a very pure process," Robelotto said. "We choose amazingly high-quality microphones, preamplifiers, A/D converters, and the music is captured at 24-bits/96kHz. From there it stays in the digital domain until it reaches the end user’s DAC. This gives us pure, transparent sound."
Why not 24/192 or 32/384?
Although the death of the Compact Disc has been widely predicted, most people -- even rabid audiophiles -- still get their music from CDs. The real fringe element are the vinyl junkies, and thanks to their never-ending proselytizing, vinyl sales are actually growing. (The sole item on my teenage nephew’s Christmas list was “Vinyl!”)
You can spend some significant change on a CD player or phono system. In our sister journals SoundStage! Hi-Fi and Ultra Audio, we often report on CD players costing over $5000, and occasionally over $10,000. And the price of a turntable-tonearm-cartridge-phono-stage combo can easily top $100,000. Raise your hand if you think one of these exotic pieces of audio art can make it possible for an LP or a 16-bit/44.1kHz CD to smoke a high-definition file of at least 24-bit/96kHz resolution, played from a digital download via computer. My hand is still down.
In the last few months I’ve really drilled down on the sounds of hi-def recordings, spending time with most of the best labels: 2L, AIX, Gimell, HDtracks, iTrax, Linn, Naim. Each has its strengths, but all are obsessed with providing sound that mirrors the master tape -- and when the label has supervised the recording sessions themselves, they’ve fixated on getting the master tape’s sound to be as clear as arctic ice water.
The CD has been a commercial reality since 1983, and while early it was promoted (by Sony) as embodying “perfect sound forever,” it has also long been denigrated by some audiophiles as unlistenable. The vinyl brigade has been worse, describing the CD and digital recording in scatological terms.
The truth is somewhere in between. The current thinking amongst serious audiophiles is that the CD’s 16-bit/44.1kHz digital sound just won’t cut it. Instead, the consensus seems to be that a 24-bit word length and a 192kHz sampling rate are sufficient to keep the noise and distortion lower than the inherent capabilities of the playback equipment. Still, there are some who believe that too much data is never enough, and are pushing for 32/384 recording and playback.
Most people who buy digital downloads usually buy compressed files (usually MP3) at bit rates of 128 to 320kbps, but most often at 256kbps. I’ve never been a CD apologist and I won’t start now, but when music lovers choose MP3 for its portability, low price, and instant gratification, regardless of sound quality, CDs start to look pretty good.
But with the appearance of multiple websites offering digital downloads of files that sound clearly better than CDs, those of us who care about sound can trudge forward into a musical future that will sound better than the past. For a while, it looked as if we’d be doomed to crappy-sounding 128kbps AAC files from the iTunes Store. Here are a few stores that offer a happier future.
Linn Records: www.linnrecords.com
Linn Records won Gramophone magazine’s Label of the Year award in 2010 -- a high honor indeed. After spending some time with a large assortment of Linn recordings, I understand why. Even back in the beginning of Linn the (vinyl) record company produced shockingly clear, amazingly present recordings. These days, Linn still makes magic with the jazz musings of Claire Martin and Carol Kidd. They even stray into prime electronica with William Orbit. But their meat and potatoes are recordings of classical music.
I was blown away by John Butt and the Dunedin Consort’s recording of J.S. Bach’s Mass in B Minor (Linn CKD-354), available in seven different versions. Now, I’m just as sad as the next person about the loss of the local record store, but how on earth could any of them afford to stock seven different versions of a single classical recording? Linn can because it’s a cloud store. I chose the versions with the lowest and highest resolutions: 320kbps MP3 ($11) and 24/192 Studio Master ($27).
The sound of the MP3 was startlingly good. Butt conducts the closing section, Dona Nobis Pacem, with unusual fire and momentum for a text about peace. But he also conveys a romantic feeling guaranteed to choke up even those who think themselves inured to Bach’s charms. The MP3 version is so good that, had it come on a CD, I would have been more than happy -- $11 is thus a bargain.
The 24/192 Studio Master recording is definitely better. The air around the instruments and singers is more apparent, and the decays of sounds seem like the real thing. Is it worth more than twice the price? Well, how much did you spend on your sound system? If you’re enough of a tweaker to have bought nice cables, then spending an extra $16 to have this marvelous-sounding recording should be a no-brainer.
The other question: How much data-storage capacity do you have? The Studio Master in FLAC format is huge, about 18 times the size of the 320kbps MP3. If you have a 2GB iPod Shuffle and are using Apple’s crapalicious headphones, don’t bother with the Studio Master. If you have 20TB of storage and a $10,000 system, you’d be crazy not to get it. Linn offers the 24/192 Studio Master version in both FLAC and WMA formats. Pick FLAC -- it’s an open source and likely to live. WMA, probably, but who knows?
Linn also distributes a couple dozen other labels, all of which seem to follow Linn’s dictum of preserving the actual sound of the event without glossing over or romanticizing it. My favorite is Just Music, whose roster includes Jon Hopkins and Digitonal. Hopkins’ Opalescent (TAO006), which costs $24 in its 24/44.1 version, reminds me of Global Communication’s 76:14, which I consider the pinnacle of electronica.
I corresponded with Jim Collinson, digital manager of LinnRecords.com, to find out more about Linn’s philosophy and what’s happening at the label -- such as, how many customers buy hi-def downloads? “Currently, over 80% of our customers pick the Studio Master downloads,” Collinson said, “and many customers who start with MP3 or CD quality end up moving up to Studio Master quality, too.”
Evidently, the public is also getting the message about FLAC: “Most of our customers choose FLAC. As an open-source technology, we believe that this is the best way to store and future-proof a valuable music collection. The tagging and metadata possibilities for FLAC are amazing too.” In fact, Linn intends to offer new and interesting tagging opportunities for their classical buyers. Collinson wouldn’t give details, other than to say it would be soon.
Asked about the future, Collinson said that Linn believes in 24/192. It’s easy to understand why. Storage is getting cheaper and bandwidth is opening up, which leaves only the issue of cost. Like every other download service, Linn charges a supply-and-demand-based premium for hi-def recordings. Just as the prices of Blu-ray Discs have dropped to just above DVD's because of the lower manufacturing costs made possible by increasing sales. Likewise, as soon as everyone else has figured out a way to market 24/192 files, their prices will be more in line with those of CDs and MP3s.
Linn is one of the few companies that offers the entire chain, from recordings to speakers, and they take great pride in doing their job well. As Collinson said, “championing high quality in every part of the chain, from performance right through to reproduction in the home, is the goal.”
Naim Label: www.naimlabel.com
I first heard the impact a Naim component could make on a system’s sound some 25 years ago. The Nait integrated amplifier had no right to sound as good as it did. It was small, underpowered (I thought), and its visually apparent value bore no relation to its cost. But it sure did sound good. And though the folks at Naim would be the first to tell you that their goal is to create a listening experience that “is not about ‘bass’ or ‘treble’ or ‘stereo image,’ but about forgetting the illusion of reproduction and connecting with the music,” I would tell you that I heard the magic whenever the music included a plucked double bass. The woodiness of that sound, the impact in my chest, the pure sense of reality -- it all made me come to attention. Yes, the whole sound was glorious, but the bass . . . Well it’s like asking if you prefer the pancakes or the syrup. I want it all.
While Naim might quarrel with my fixation on the low end, see if you don’t agree. One of their main artists is the legendary jazz bassist Charlie Haden, who for 50 years has anchored an amazing variety of recordings, from the most avant-garde to anachronistic hoedown country twang to seductive, heart-on-sleeve soft jazz. Naim offers a series of duo recordings Haden made for them between 1997 and 2007 with Italian guitarist Antonio Forcione and pianists Chris Anderson and John Taylor. Each is beautifully recorded, and played with the depth of feeling and effortless expertise that come from years of playing before audiences and, more important, with other talented musicians.
Haden’s standout Naim recording is his disc with Anderson, None but the Lonely Heart (naimcd22), which costs $27.99 in 24/96 FLAC or WAV format. Anderson, who died in 2008, was a New York City player who was mostly unknown in his own town. A debilitating illness prevented him from spending the time in clubs required for a jazz player to reach a certain level of fame, but to his cohorts he was a legend. Anderson had the ability to toss off romantic lines that Fred Hersch would envy, and season them with an occasional funky touch à la Thelonious Monk. Haden’s playing roots the tempo and key changes, giving Anderson room to open up. The sound includes close miking for Haden, a medium-distance perspective for Anderson, and lots of room ambience. Check out “It Never Entered My Mind” to hear what a combined century of experience can bring to a recording.
Simon Drake, general manager of Naim’s recording division, explained their strategy: “Our approach is to handpick the music we love, music that we feel represents our passion for sonic perfection as much as creative quality,” he says. “Excessive dynamic compression kills the life and soul of a recording, and there is too much of it in modern production techniques. The ‘loudness war’ is spoiling dynamics. Excessive compression (especially the lazy digital kind) and making things loud for loudness’s sake is not a theory we subscribe to.”
Even Naim’s MP3s sound great. It turns out they rip them themselves, using the engine from the Naim Audio HDX. Like Linn, Naim offers a choice of seven formats (LP, CD, MP3, 16/44.1 WAV, 16/44.1 FLAC, 26/96 WAV, 24/96 FLAC), but over 70% of their downloads are 24/96. Asked about FLAC vs. WAV, Drake replied, “We are now confident in saying [that FLAC files] are both audibly and technically lossless.”
Drake says that, unfortunately, most consumers still don’t know what “24-bit/96kHz” means. In fact, Drake says that “awareness of the capabilities of 24/96 is not widespread enough in the music industry, let alone amongst the listeners! Even worse, quality-concerned artists are also becoming rarer! If the artist doesn’t have a passion for pure sound, then their music is unlikely to be given the same level of attention in sonic production. You would be surprised how many studios are still recording in 16-bit around the world! The sad thing is, the artists (and the record companies!) do not know any better.”
My belief has always been that a properly tuned analog tape deck that can record on 2” tape at 30ips is about as good as any recording medium gets. Since Drake has access to so much top-drawer equipment and his own master tapes, I asked if he agreed. “When it comes to music, I myself prefer to listen intently with my ears, and not with numbers alone. Ultimately, if the music isn’t recorded well in the first instance, it will not matter at all how you choose to listen to it! Digital is getting better and better, and provides an accessible easy solution for the modern music consumer, and the sooner we can get people listening to better-than-MP3 quality . . . the better!”
Also like Linn, Naim makes a complete line of high-end audio equipment, so I wasn’t surprised to hear Drake’s idea of home music-reproduction nirvana: “If I had to recommend one way to listen to our digital music, it would be through a reference-spec two-channel Naim system with the new Naim NDX as digital source, with a NaimDAC, via a uPnP share of our 24/96 music on a networked computer or storage device, in a big comfy chair with a glass of fine wine.”
Sounds good to me.
Next month: Part Two.
. . . Wes Marshall
One Tool to rule them all, One Tool to find them,
One Tool to bring them all and in the HT darkness bind them
In the Land of My Home Theater where the Shadows used to lie.
My apologies to J.R.R. Tolkien, but that’s what I thought when I first used the new Logitech Revue, the tool that finally makes sense of Google TV. Suddenly, we’ve taken a very big step forward in the everlasting war to integrate all the things people like to do at home. (Well, most of them.) At least I didn’t title this the Revue Review.
Google TV, in case you’re out of the loop, is software from the Google megalabs that is a frontal attack on Microsoft Windows 7 and anything else that’s intended to be a ubiquitous, all-encompassing computer operating system; i.e., one that will work with everything else in our lives that uses something like a computer (phones, tablets, appliances, cars, games, etc.). Whichever company wins that race to convergence will be quite powerful. Of course, governments generally don’t like to see so much power concentrated in a single area, unless it’s their own halls, but that’s another issue.
While Google has done a good job of jabbing away at Microsoft’s hegemony, when Google TV was announced, most pundits just scratched their heads and asked, "Why?" The Revue begins to make sense of the notion.
The Logitech Revue ($300 USD) is a two-piece system comprising an attractive gloss-black box and a lightweight but full-size keyboard that includes a mouse pad. Also integrated into it is Harmony remote-control technology. The Revue can control a TV, DVR, and home-theater preamplifier-processor or receiver.
The system is simplicity itself. All it requires is an HDMI cable in and another out, plus a wired or a wireless link to a broadband Internet connection. Setup takes just a few minutes and is brainlessly easy, unless you run into a problem with Internet connectivity (I didn’t), in which case you’d have to get some numbers from your network.
Logitech’s One Tool to rule them all ambitions had already driven them to buy Harmony. But they still needed some magic, and found it in agreements with Google TV and DISH Network (see later). The former provides a gateway to cloud computing, the latter two-way integration with all of DISH’s entertainment options, thus rescuing the Revue from the simple TV-plus-Web paradigm that has been widely rejected by consumers.
In fact, we don’t yet know what the Revue will ultimately be capable of because it’s an open-platform architecture. That means that app developers now have a new playground to gambol about in. It’s probably safe to say that none of us knows what the Revue’s best use will be even six months from now.
Despite Google’s generosity in developing and offering to us useful software for free, some pundits like to examine even the cheek teeth of gift horses. The New York Times’ David Pogue, a man usually as reliable as winter in December, missed the point of both Google TV and the Logitech Revue. He wrote, in the November 17th Times, that "The point of all this is to bring Web videos to your TV set." He went on to point out that "no matter how many times the industry tries to cram Web+TV down our throats, the masses just don’t swallow." Pogue even complained about the $300 price tag, dismissing the Revue as "steeply priced."
I like Pogue’s writing very much, but we don’t see eye-to-eye on this. Here’s why I think the Logitech Revue is one of the great bargains in home theater.
A nice example: My dear wife got me an iPhone for Christmas. Of all the things it can do, its second most commonly used feature (after making and receiving phone calls) is one we never expected. I keep it beside us when we watch TV because of all the times we look at each other with a question that could be easily answered by using the iPhone to do a Google search. Where have we seen an actor before? What other movies has this director made? In what year did Astaire and Rogers part ways? How old was Miles Davis when he appeared in Scrooged? Anything.
I do the same in the morning when we read the paper. Gosh, honey, that’s interesting news about the Tuamotu Archipelago. Where is that again? Google Maps to the rescue. That damn Joe Scarborough must be lying. What was the repayment from GM? Let’s check CNBC. Such questions may seem trivial, but once you get used to having immediate answers, a lot more questions start to occur to you.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could find a simpler way of finding those answers? No matter how much I like the iPhone as a phone, its Internet capabilities will forever be stunted by the size of its screen and the slowness of using its keyboard. Couldn’t we have a handy keyboard that we could just type the question into and get an answer right there on the TV? Without stopping whatever’s on TV? Without having to turn off the TV or switch inputs on the receiver? Just type away and find the answer?
But wait -- what if my question about Miles generated an automatic search for any TV program with him in it that would be available during the next ten days? How about if you could then set the DVR to record the show with a single press of a button? Even better, what if the device also checked for Davis recordings on my DISH DVR and the honkin’ big hard drive attached to it? Wait! What if it checked my music collection for any and all recordings by Miles? What if it did all these things immediately, without my even having to formulate a question?
Have you ever seen the wealth of Miles Davis clips on YouTube? Wouldn’t it be nice if we also got an automatic search for his videos there? Or maybe the question about Astaire and Rogers turned up a showing of Top Hat on Turner Classic Movies. Can’t remember which channel TCM is on? Just type TCM and it gives you a link straight away.
We all know the promise of picture-in-picture (PIP). It’s great for Sundays, when we might want to follow two games on two different channels at the same time. But that’s two of the same medium. What if you want to watch some hoops, maybe Boston vs. Miami. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to check stats on your fantasy team at the same time you’re watching the game?
And one last thing: Can we find a tool that’s so simple to use that the most technologically challenged person in your household could operate it with impunity?
The combo of the new Logitech Revue with Google TV and a DISH DVR hits all these targets with ease, and many more.
My wife is a good example. She often loves the TVs I review, but always hates learning how to operate them. Once she memorizes a remote control, she doesn’t want to have to learn another. She took one look at the Revue, and I immediately recognized her expression: Oh, no, not another thing to learn. But three days later she was insisting that I buy the Revue. She even asked me to mention to all technophobic spouses out there that the little time it takes to learn how to operate the Revue is time well spent. Now I don’t have to look for the keyboard. I just have to find Emily -- it will be with her. What’s more, she wants me to get a second one so I won’t bother her by occasionally asking to borrow it.
Here’s an interesting concept. While writing this article, my computer massively crashed. My wife was using her computer, so that left me without. Brainstorm! I used the Logitech Revue and Google Docs and was writing again in no time. Do we even need computers? I think there might be a few workarounds that would make them obsolete.
Is the Revue perfect? The Times’ David Pogue stated that the Revue is potentially "interesting to technophiles, but it’s not for average people," and that it "takes an enormous step in the wrong direction: toward complexity."
I entirely disagree. The best technology is simple to operate and keeps its complexity out of the spotlight. That doesn’t mean the technology itself isn’t complex. It means that the complexity is there for anyone bold enough to want to plunge below the surface.
In the world of music, the best synthesizers come with thousands of presets. These sounds are often designed by top musicians who have a scientist’s knowledge of how they work and an artist’s ear for beauty. Most buyers never go beyond the presets because they’re stone-simple to use and perfectly usable. On the other hand, artists are often interested in inventing their own block-rockin’ beats, and the tools are there.
Some sports cars offer transmissions that can act like a manual or an automatic, such as Ferrari’s road killer, the 599 GTB Fiorano F1. With its 0-62mph acceleration of a mere 3.3 seconds, top speed of 202mph, and V-12 engine, is it too complicated? Well, my mother-in-law could go get a gallon of milk in one, though she probably wouldn’t be testing its limits. It has crazy-powerful and complex technology, but it’s very simple to use. The $300 Revue is not in the same technological class as a $750,000 Ferrari, but you get the point: external simplicity, internal sophistication.
Beyond all this, Logitech is upping the ante with the TV Cam ($150), an HD device for having a video conversation with anyone else who has a webcam. I know, boring -- everyone can do that. But here’s the fun difference: Each caller can tune in to a TV show, then make the phone call, and they can watch the show together. Think of what Brett Favre could have set up! More important, the TV Cam allows separated loved ones to spend some time enjoying together whatever entertainment drives their fancy. And Logitech informs me that the cost per minute, even for a connection to a far-off land like New Zealand, is $Zero.
DISH adds to the stake its Sling Adapter ($99), which connects you to TV Everywhere. It hooks into the DISH DVR and makes anything stored or playing on the DVR available to you anywhere in the world. All you need is a 3G or WiFi signal.
The Revue can also handle other wireless devices, which frees up your USB ports. You can even use your iPhone or Android to control it. Nor should those of you worry who don’t have a DISH DVR (my choice among all the possibilities). The Revue works with most any cable or satellite box. (They have a list on their website; check your model.) What you lose by using a box other than DISH’s is a little time. DISH is so integrated that many tasks can be accomplished with a single keystroke; other boxes might make you go through two or three strokes to complete the same task.
Within moments of installing the Revue, Emily and I were sold. The first thing to grab me was its range. We live in a big, spread-out Texas house, and no matter where I went in it, the Revue’s keyboard maintained a strong connection to the base station. The commands are easy to learn, and whoever designed the GUI has a brilliant sense of adornment without overstatement. Everything is easy to find, and once you feel confident about what you want and don’t want, you can edit out unneeded buttons or categories.
Do we really need all this? It’s not as if plenty of entertainment options aren’t already available to us. But I don’t think the Revue should be looked at as a mere entertainment option. Instead, it’s a seamless way to integrate all of our entertainment options.
One night, rather than just cozy in with a movie, Emily and I decided to search out anything we could find about Beat Generation icon Neal Cassady, and especially the years he spent with author and Merry Prankster Ken Kesey. We read, watched, listened. A lot of what we found came from YouTube, but we also found photos, articles, book excerpts -- even a link to a very nice documentary, The Jazz Baroness. The story of Pannonica Rothschild (aka Nica), this was a serendipitous finding -- not the greatest film ever made, but one I’m so happy to have seen. I wouldn’t have found it without the Revue and Google TV.
Then we went to on to some of our favorite jazz singers, folks who are unfortunately somewhat unknown to the general public -- which was what made finding all the clips of Mark Murphy, Blossom Dearie, and Jackie & Roy so much fun. I even found an obscurity from the 1980s that I loved then but hadn’t seen in years. In fact, the (apparently) fourth-generation low-speed VHS-sourced copy video of "What About Me" by the Moving Pictures looked just as bad now via YouTube over a top-quality JVC projector as the original version had looked back in 1981, watching MTV broadcast from the wretched OnTV over my decidedly low-def big-screen Sony 7220 projector. It was so nostalgic.
Speaking of Sony, they’re hedging their bets. Up till now, their PlayStation 3 has been my favorite media integrator. But now they’re offering a TV and a Blu-ray player with the Google TV technology. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Google TV fitted into the PS3 sooner rather than later.
In any case, we’re finally getting the opportunity to easily integrate all media. The Logitech Revue makes possible the ultimate couch potato scenario: Push the little magnifying-glass button, type in whatever grabs you, and away you go down the rabbit hole of breathtaking multimedia convergence.
For $300, and given the joy it delivers, the Revue is a steal -- and the perfect Christmas gift. If I seem a little breathless in my excitement, regular readers will know that I’ve been barnstorming for just such a device for ten years now -- a device that makes possible control, throughout the entire house, of every form of media we have. Finally, it’s here.
. . . Wes Marshall
Model: Logitech Revue
Price: $300 USD.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.
6505 Kaiser Drive
Fremont, CA 94555
Phone: (800) 231-7717
Fax: (510) 713-4780
Sir David Lean (1908-1991) is one of the more curious examples we have of directorial greatness. Only a few dispute the fact that he made great films, but even his fans vehemently disagree about which were good and which were awful.
I was recently in a video shop. Remember those? They were places where people would go to buy or rent prerecorded movies -- kind of like another obsolete shopping venue, the "record store." Luckily, my home town of Austin is jammed with people who think visiting such anachronistic places is kind of cutting-edge, if in a wistfully sentimental way. "Oh look, Gracie, these were called albums. Can you believe that people would listen to ten songs in a row by just one group? Crazy!"
Consequently, in Austin, we still have plenty of options. But with the advent of iTunes and Netflix, not to mention the "Used" section of Amazon.com, video shops and record stores currently exist less as stores and more as private clubs where we can run into other folks who are fascinated by the same things. We always had these opportunities before. My sister-in-law met her husband of 27 years because he and I struck up a conversation about Swedish composer Tor Aulin. Pretty obscure, eh? I thought any guy who knew his Aulin must be all right, so my wife and I introduced them.
The point is, we had these places where we could congregate with like-minded souls. We could learn from each other and discover new areas to target our interests. That guy turned me on to music I still listen to today -- things like Vangelis’s L’Apocalypse des animaux, Arnold Bax’s Tintagel, Sir Arthur Bliss’s Things to Come, and Sir Michael Tippet’s Suite for the Birthday of Prince Charles.
But the beauty of the system was that the record store and video shop accidentally subsidized such gatherings. Amazon doesn’t do that. Instead, cloaked in anonymity, its "Customer Reviews" offer pithy annotations that are more often indicative of the writer’s biases than helpful reviews.
Anyway, as I said, we still have a group of folks who celebrate the antiquated ways, preferring to lay their hands on a moldy LP cover rather than pushing the one-click-shopping button. This is how I happened to be having a live (as opposed to electronic) conversation about David Lean.
"Oh yeah, I love Lean," this person said, "but only his English works."
It’s important to understand that, in Hollywood terms, the league of Lean’s dedicated fans is small, and those who do fall into that category can be a contentious lot. For many critics, Lean’s work reached its zenith in the decade after WWII and dropped off precipitously thereafter. Their favorite films were largely made in England on relatively small budgets. Two of the best were adaptations of novels by Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948). These films, shot in atmospheric black-and-white, were chock-full of intense melodrama and heartbreaking anomie, all aimed at maximum heartbreak. And they worked. Both should have at least been Oscar contenders. (The 1946 Academy Award rightly went to The Best Years of Our Lives, while the ’48 Oscar should have gone to The Red Shoes or The Treasure of Sierra Madre).
Lean’s collaborations with Noël Coward were both successful. Brief Encounter and Blithe Spirit (both 1945) each showed a deft touch and a keen artistic vision. Lean continued this trend with Madeleine (1950), Hobson’s Choice (1954), and Summertime (1955). David Thomson, in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, noted that "Those early films have pace, flourish, and a modesty of scale. And then slowly, Lean became the prisoner of big pictures, a great eye striving to show off a large mind."
And there you have the criticism from the intelligentsia. In the jargon of today, they think Lean "sold out." He went to the dark side. He went Hollywood.
Another way to understand this is that Lean began to make films in which huge events played out over vast expanses of geography. Because of the distances involved and the huge historic backdrops, he gained a reputation for being a maker of film "epics," a style that condescending critics often accuse the great unwashed (i.e., the general public) with preferring.
Count me among that great unwashed. I think Lean’s masterpieces are the films he made from 1955 to 1965: The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and Dr. Zhivago (1965). That run of films is matched in quality by only a very few directors: certainly Ford and Hitchcock, maybe Hawks or Kurosawa. Good company, for sure.
But had Lean sold out and switched to epics? Not really. It wasn’t the epical quality of Lean’s films that drew huge audiences, but the heart-tugging tragedy of the lives of the characters. As George Stevens Jr., a director himself and a student of film wrote in his book The Great Movie Makers of Hollywood’s Golden Age, "Lean’s stunning vistas and breathtaking spectacles are etched in our memories, yet the true power of his work comes from his characters. He presents us with breathtaking exteriors, yet it is the interior lives of people revealed in intimate moments that engage us and move us."
The most contentiously debated of these three films is Dr. Zhivago. Even diehard postwar supporters would agree that Kwai and Lawrence are masterpieces, but Dr. Zhivago, based on Boris Pasternak’s novel of that title, is often dismissed as a soap opera or melodrama. This story of poet and physician Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif) and two women -- his wife, Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin), and his mistress, Lara (Julie Christie) -- is certainly dramatic. But those who call it a melodrama ignore Lean’s masterful blending of historic clashes and tragic romance. Historically, Zhivago covers a lot of ground, from Imperial Russia to the First World War, the Russian Revolution, and into the 1950s. Yuri and Tonya come from money and have all the advantages. Lara, who has only her stunning beauty to carry her through her sad life, becomes the toy of three men, the grotesquely nasty Komarovsky (Rod Steiger), the ascetic revolutionary Pasha (Tom Courtenay), and her one true lover, Yuri.
On the release of Dr. Zhivago in 1965, Bosley Crowther wrote, in the New York Times, "No matter how heartbreaking he has made the backgrounds of the couple appear -- with the doctor torn from a promising practice and from a lovely, loving wife by the brutal demands of the revolution and with Lara left on her own after a girlhood affair with an older lover and a marriage with a revolutionist. No matter how richly graphic these affairs have been made by Mr. Lean -- and, believe me, he has made them richly graphic; the decor and color photography are as brilliant, tasteful, and exquisite as any ever put on the screen." The historical scenes paint the external world in villainous colors, while the personal scenes draw an almost puritanical distinction between passion and fidelity, between fervid obsession and kindhearted fondness. Instead, Lean seems to focus on the angst of confusion and the brutality of love.
It’s all somewhat curious, coming from a man like Lean. As David Thomson, who knew the director, described him, "It is worth stressing that Lean was a charming egotist, endlessly handsome, and in pursuit of women, and achingly hopeful when he spoke. He was a spellbinder."
Lean was born into a strict Quaker family that would not allow him to see movies, or even pin up pictures of bombshells like Louise Brooks or Norma Shearer. After an undistinguished stay at school, he went to work in the family business, but after seeing Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., in The Mark of Zorro (1920), Lean decided he wanted to work in films. At first, he served tea and performed other gofer duties. But he worked his way up until, at age 26, he was allowed to edit films. Given his struggles during this apprenticeship, perhaps he wanted to stuff his films with every possible device.
Lean, who appears to have been of the same dominating temperament as the English public-school upper-class bullies who force incoming new students into personal service, was brutal with actors. Sarah Miles, his star in Ryan’s Daughter, claimed in the Telegraph that Lean, enraged, pushed her down a flight of stairs.
It is reported that Alec Guinness and Lean squabbled viciously during the filming of Dr. Zhivago, in which Guinness played Yevgraf. Guinness said Lean was rude and abusive while "acting the part of a super-star director." Peter O’Toole, who suffered Lean’s abusive style during the filming of Lawrence of Arabia, turned down the role of Yuri Zhivago, having had enough. O’Toole got his revenge in 1980, when he modeled his characterization of megalomaniacal director Eli Cross, in The Stunt Man, on Lean. Presumably, Sir David was not amused.
Actor James Fox, who worked with Lean on A Passage to India (1984), has a different opinion. "You cannot say this man was not good with actors," Fox said. "He was straightforward. He was something of an old-style autocrat, but there have always been great autocratic directors. He wasn’t modern, he was imposing, which distanced people from him. But he had enormous respect from his crew."
Lean was certainly aware of his reputation as an autocrat. Roger Ebert wrote, in his Awake in the Dark, "At the Cannes Film Festival one year, [cinematographer Sven Nykvist] said [director Ingmar] Bergman was talking with David Lean, the director of Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago. ‘What kind of crew do you use?’ Lean asked. ‘I make my films with 18 good friends,’ Bergman said. ‘That’s interesting,’ said Lean. ‘I make mine with 150 enemies.’"
Still, Lean could somehow create the most starry-eyed romances. Harry Knowles, the quintessential guy-next-door, wrote on aintitcool.com (10-24-01): "Jesus what an evil movie DR ZHIVAGO is! It gets you introspective as all hell. It makes you ponder the issues closest to your heart, and it makes you doubt the direction of your life. These are not trivial things. They are of the most dire consequences. It’s about you. Where you are . . . I love this film because it forces me to look at myself. It is fuel for the soul. It makes you want to love, no matter how hard it may be, no matter what you must climb and endure, love is there . . . somewhere, and you must find it. Why? Because it’s why we breathe, why we exist from one instant to the next."
But Lean also had the ability to create an iconic vision that could help cement a young actor’s reputation. Just as John Ford had blessed John Wayne with one of film’s great introductions, in the opening scenes of Stagecoach (1939), Lean made Omar Sharif an instant star with his long, wide introductory shot of the actor galloping on camelback across the glittering desert in Lawrence of Arabia. While Sharif’s career eventually foundered, the dewy-eyed, Egyptian-born star remains a romantic draw and is still popular, not only with the ladies, but also among the Islamic and Arab populations.
What makes Dr. Zhivago so popular is the sheer angst of the love affairs. The ménage à cinque creates myriad opportunities for finding and losing lovers, and the most entertaining is the relationship between Lara and Komarovsky. Rod Steiger was always best as a bad guy, and after studying with Stella Adler at the New School in New York City, he was willing to do what was necessary to get the reactions he needed. He pulled two unscripted stunts during his scenes with Julie Christie. Watch her reactions in these scenes and you’ll see either the best acting in the world or one very surprised actress. In the first, she slaps Steiger and he immediately -- and unexpectedly -- slaps her back. The second is during the kissing scene: As she struggles to get away, Steiger roughly inserts his tongue in her mouth, something she neither expected nor appreciated.
The film’s principal ménage à trois is a piece of tortured beauty, with the chaste Chaplin and the sizzling Christie vying for Zhivago’s suffering heart. Zhivago was the ultimate 1960s date film -- theaters filled with teenage and young adult moviegoers, holding hands and crying into wadded tissues. But it wasn’t just the sad romances that drew crowds. The larger-than-life photography helped as well. Lean’s camera direction is superb throughout Zhivago. The close-ups of Christie and Chaplin are luminous, dazzlingly elegant, exquisitely lit. The outdoor scenes, many shot on soundstages, have real life. And though the film was originally shot in 35mm Panavision, it was later blown up to 70mm, an obvious tribute to the steady hands of cinematographer Freddie Young and the uncredited Nicolas Roeg (who later directed Walkabout).
Dr. Zhivago has been a huge hit in all video formats, and the 45th-anniversary Blu-ray edition is no exception. The picture is gloriously transparent, Maurice Jarre’s music is lively, and the ambient sounds are well placed for such a studio-bound film. Warner Bros. has provided their usual wealth of extras, with helpful commentaries by Sharif, Steiger, and Sandra Lean, the director’s sixth and final wife. The second disc is a standard-definition DVD loaded with fascinating stories about the cast and crew and the making of the film.
Austin, my hometown, is lucky to have a large, old repertory cinema in town that screens Dr. Zhivago at least once a year. If you ever see it that way, it will take your breath away in ways this Blu-ray edition can only suggest. From the battle scenes to the love scenes, everything is more real. It’s a must for every movie lover.
At the centenary of Lean’s birth, in 2008, screenwriter Ronald Harwood (The Pianist, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) wrote an elegant panegyric in Lean’s memory for Time Out. "I am well aware that Lean has many detractors who accuse him of superficiality, of creating spectacle without depth, of oversimplifying complex historical events. These criticisms are tainted with envy. Lean was an outstanding filmmaker whose movies reached vast audiences. The combination of box-office success and artistic excellence inevitably causes grapes to taste sour. In what is after all a popular art form, Lean was a popular artist, a master craftsman whose contribution to the cinema was and is of the highest order."
. . . Wes Marshall
My system, as it stood last month, was the RME Fireface 800 digital processor, Dell XPS de garbage computer, Digidesign RM-2 speakers, a Gallo TR-3 subwoofer, and lots of CDs. The first order of business was to replace the Dell. That’s when I discovered Rain Recording.
We’re getting out onto a skinny branch of what listening to music from a computer can mean. The folks at Rain serve professional musicians (and the occasional gifted, well-heeled amateur), especially those who are crazy for the delicacies and intricacies of music. By that I mean professional sound people in the fields of film scoring, music mastering, live performance, you name it. Rain makes computers that are rugged, rack-mountable (thank heavens), and quiet.
And powerful. Mine is an Ion 64, about a year old. Rain has much more powerful machines now, but I still have Windows 7, 64-bit Professional, AMD Phenom 9850 Quad-Core Processor, 8GB of RAM, and direct input from and output to the Fireface 800 via a FireWire 400 cable to the PC, which offers a direct digital feed to my speakers, or an analog feed at whatever rate I care to use. The current equivalent of my model runs about $2500. Want more? Rain’s new Ion Studio uses the Intel Westmere Xeon 6-Core brain, with 24GB of RAM and 6TB of high-performance storage. Now that will make some music. For about $6000.
For another $299, Rain includes a dealmaker offered by no one else I’m aware of: Raincare Encompass. Ever had one of those terrible experiences where your computer crashes, and each support center you call blames it on someone else? I call Dell, they blame it on Cakewalk. I Call Cakewalk, they blame it on Kontakt. You get the idea. This will never happen to me again. I just call Rain and they help me -- no blame game, just let’s get it fixed. I can’t tell you how much joy this single feature has brought me. But on top of that, it is impressively quiet and built with the quality of a musical instrument, which is what it really is.
Rain offers another service that’s vital for folks who want to stream high-resolution recordings from their computers: They test other people’s products, name names in terms of what works and what doesn’t, and thus help avoid costly problems with incompatibilities. A nice touch.
The next decision was where to store my music files. I began by using whatever cheap hard drive I could get, and ripping 320kbps MP3 files. This worked just fine for casual background listening. But after losing a hard drive or two, I decided to move up in quality to Seagate FreeAgent Pro. They had the best warranty for the price and size of drive, and I could choose among eSata, FireWire, or USB connections. And everything is backed up nightly, automatically.
Two English publications also have hi-rez sound on their radar. Gramophone has a monthly column about where to find good classical-music downloads; and for those who believe, as I do, that professional gear offers a good alternative for a home music system, then Sound on Sound offers excellent reviews of professional music-monitoring equipment aimed at people who lack unlimited expense accounts.
I strongly advise that you rip or download your music at the highest possible resolution. The cost of digital storage continues to drop almost as quickly as the cost of processing devices. Currently, 2TB hard drives go for about $100; each will hold about 65,000 songs in the WAV format, or a bit over 300,000 songs as 320kbps MP3s. Either way, that’s a lot of music; don’t skimp with lossy rip rates.
What all true audiophiles seek is the holy grail: a sound source of whatever format that sonically matches the sound of the master tape. With cheaper storage, faster download rates, and higher-definition recorders all hitting at once, a few startups have begun offering downloads of genuinely high quality.
One site where I spend entirely too much time is the Internet Archive. Some generous bands who allow stealthy tapers to capture live shows also allow them to make their recordings available to other fans for free. These have various quality levels, but this site was one of the first I found that offered 24-bit recordings for download. Charlie Hunter Live at the Knitting Factory is a 24-bit, FLAC-encoded (i.e., lossless) recording with amazing percussion sound. Track 4, "Improv," features a percussion solo that completely negates any preconceived notions ("Omigod, yuck, another drum solo!"), and offers a stunning close-up perspective of quietly tapped and bent instruments, some tuned, others spreading into a bed of sound. The solo lasts only 2:30, but what a great test of a system’s resolving abilities. And of earth-shattering importance for those of us willing to admit to a tendency toward Deadheadedness, the Internet Archive is the repository of the most extensive collection of live Grateful Dead material on the Web, including over 1000 concerts in hi-def sound. If you’re so inclined, search out the meticulous 24-bit recordings mastered by Charlie Miller, many of them originally made by Betty Cantor -- for Dead fans, that’s the gold standard. And thank you, Lord, it’s all free.
Two other places where I spend entirely too much time are www.linnrecords.com and HDtracks’ 96kHz/24-bit Store. Linn calls their Studio Master recordings "the highest-quality music file available." Puffery? I’m not sure. Try their recording of John Butt and the Dunedin Consort’s performance of J.S. Bach’s Mass in B Minor (Linn CKD-354). Butt uses Joshua Rifkin’s concept of just one or two singers per choral part, instead of the usual 20 sopranos, 20 altos, etc. The clarity is lifelike. In the Dona nobis pacem (track 27), the complex choral parts are perfectly defined; at 2:05 in, the trumpet’s quiet entrance foreshadows the arrival of the timpani in a gorgeous paean, converting -- in a way I’ve never heard before -- a plea for peace into a triumphal, almost royal announcement of victory. Great sound and great performance in one recording. That’s rare.
William Orbit’s My Oracle Lives Uptown (Linn AKH 351) is offered in a 24-bit FLAC file. I had on hand an MP3 mix from eMusic, who rely on MP3 files with bit rates from 190 to 250kbps. Track 2, "Purdy," makes a good comparison: At 2:50 into the song, a synthesizer rolls in. Ten seconds later, there’s the faint sound of a woman inhaling. Sexy. In the lossy MP3 formats, the burr of the synth sounds is carved off by the compression and the inhalation is buried in the mix. On the 24-bit FLAC, it raises the little hairs on the back of my neck. And Pink Floyd fans should listen closely to the end of the song, where Orbit quotes "Echoes."
Unfortunately, Linn has seen fit to omit The Blue Nile, their finest group ever. Their spectacular recordings cry out for the hi-def treatment, but they’re nowhere to be found on Linn’s site. We can only hope. All Linn purchases include hi-rez cover art, inlay, and booklet, and Linn works with several other labels, including some -- Channel Classics and Fonè -- that make dependably superb recordings.
HDtracks offers infinitely more music than does Linn. To start off, HDtracks has many of the top classical labels: Naxos, Telarc, BIS, ASV, Dorian, Chandos, ECM New Series, and dozens more. In terms of jazz, they have the top jazz label, Concord, as well as Impulse!, and smaller labels like American Clave, Sunnyside, MaxJazz, ECM, and Chesky (including, hallelujah, Dave’s True Story!).
Linn’s store is also quite a bit more expensive: I’m listening to Orbit’s Oracle, a 72-minute, 24-bit/44.1kHz FLAC file that costs $24; and Bach’s Mass in B Minor is $27 for a 102-minute, 24/192 FLAC. HDtracks has Dave’s True Story’s Sex Without Bodies, a 48-minute 24/96 download, for $18.
I’ve also downloaded from eMusic, Rhapsody, Wolfgang’s Vault (a favorite), iTunes, Amazon, Windows Media, and many others. All use lossy systems, which I find perfectly adequate for background music, so long as I keep my MP3 files running at the top rate of 320kbps. It’s only when you listen carefully at high playback volumes that the differences between 320kbps and higher resolutions become apparent.
Unfortunately, many of these services don’t offer 320kbps files. Most use Variable Bit Ratios (VBR), which average 220-250kbps. Wolfgang’s Vault even brags about how its VIP members (count me in) "get 192kbps streams, double our standard bitrate. You will love the quality difference and please don’t blame us if it prompts you to buy better speakers." While the statement is laughable, the music is sublime: a collection of recordings from Winterland and the Fillmores East and West, rescued from the personal collection of the late impresario Bill Graham. If bands like Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers Band, and Miles Davis grab your interest, Wolfgang’s Vault has a serious collection of previously unreleased live broadcasts. Those old enough to remember the King Biscuit Flour Hour will also find a treasure trove.
With all this music available, the final choice was a music player. That market is crowded. iTunes has some quirks I don’t like -- for instance, when I try to highlight files, if I go one file too far, instead of just backing up, I have to start over. WinAmp has almost as many add-ons as an iPhone, but the advertising bothers me, although it does have one specific use for Deadheads. Rhapsody lacks a decent search function. And it always feels to me as if Windows Media is trying to take over my whole computer.
The winner is the Gold Version of MediaMonkey. Their community of brilliant experts seems to be waiting by their computers at all times, day or night, just hoping to answer my vaguest questions. I can catalog my entire collection, not just what’s on my computer. And 24-bit/192kHz is no problem; in fact, MediaMonkey is HDtracks’ recommended music player. There are enough skins to give you any look you can imagine. And when I called a helper at Raincare Encompass, I received a knowing nod of approval -- even he uses MediaMonkey.
The only other program I occasionally fall back on, because it really is the best ripper in the universe, is Exact Audio Copy. For poorly recorded live recordings, or those few occasions when I feel the mastering engineer did a bad job on a CD, I rely on Sound Forge and iZotope’s Mastering Effects Bundle. And I use a Monster Pro 3500 power conditioner ($300) to protect my investment.
So there you have it: RME Fireface 800, Rain Ion 64 computer, Seagate external hard drives, Digidesign RM-2 speakers, Gallo sub, the best sources of downloads I can lay my hands on, and MediaMonkey. It took a lot a sweat and tears to get to this point. I can’t claim it’s the greatest computer-based music-playback system on earth, but it certainly works for me, and delivers a lot of joy, day after day. May you love yours as much.
. . . Wes Marshall
Jeffrey W. Fritz, our editor-in-chief, recently sent out the following missive to SoundStage! Network writers: "As most of you know, we’ve gradually expanded our coverage of computer audio and will continue to do so in the future. If you have computer-audio capability and we haven’t discussed it, please let me know what your setup is."
Why this was exciting news for me requires a little explaining.
I am a very lucky guy. Almost 40 years ago, when I decided on writing as a career, the conventional wisdom was that you should find an underserved area and make yourself the expert in that field. But what was I going to choose? Breeding patterns of South Australian wallabies? High-performance, forged-alloy crankshafts? Women’s belts? There are surely people who feel ardently about those topics, but I wasn’t one of them. Rather than spend my life writing about something I found boring, I decided to pick a topic that seized my curiosity.
I was in college, and my passionate interests were girls, music, and stereo equipment, in that order. As a serial monogamist, I thought it inelegant to write about the girls. Plus, the most exciting parts of the discussion might make me an outcast in polite society. (I began writing five years after the Summer of Love, but social mores were still zippered pretty tightly.) And when it came to audio equipment, I’d spent a couple of years working in the top high-end shop in Dallas, so my working knowledge was stronger than most. However, the opportunities were very limited. Audio, High Fidelity, and Stereo Review were the main players. I had never seen a copy of Stereophile, and The Abso!ute Sound was brand new.
Music. Now there I had some expertise, at least in rock’n’roll, from Dion through Pink Floyd. Ditto for classical music, one of the areas of my major. So music it was.
But I was newly married to the best and last subject of my exercise in serial monogamy, and had to make more money than most music journalists do. Even today, any music writer pulling in over $1000 a month can count him- or herself pretty darn successful. But that’s hardly enough to support a family. So I finished graduate school and became a psychotherapist. Freelancing, I wrote for any publication that loved music and would pay me. All my money and spare time went to music.
Dreaming of the day I might be able to scratch a meager living out of writing, I kept my pen in the game. Over time, several august music and audio journals hired me to write articles or columns here and there: on the national side, Downbeat, Stereophile, Audio, and Film Score Monthly; and regionally, fun magazines and newspapers such as Buddy Magazine, Texas Jazz, and the Dallas Observer.
In late 1998, the day finally arrived. In the years up till then, I’d developed an interest in wine, and the Austin Chronicle took me on as their wine writer. Later, in early 2001, I began reviewing films for the SoundStage! Network. I started to write about wine for such major newspapers as the Dallas Morning News and the San Francisco Chronicle. A book deal followed, which in turn became a PBS TV series. Magazine editors started to call. It was still a meager living, but I was putting food on the table.
I never lost my love of music, and love to make my own music, though the latter is amateurish at best. Starting at about the same time as my full-time writing career, I switched most of my music from hardware and audio tape to computer hard drives. The best recording and digital audio workstation softwares I could afford were from Cakewalk and Sound Forge (Sony). Good-quality monitoring equipment was a necessity, which meant bypassing computers’ inadequate soundcards and hunting down some top-quality monitor speakers. And because, on a writer’s salary, I couldn’t afford two computers, I wrote in my music studio. Each day, I would carry in a day’s worth of CDs and blissfully write while listening to them.
At the time, the practice of listening to music streamed from computers got no respect. Still, I knew there was something special going on -- the acoustic music I was making myself sounded true from the monitors. In fact, because I wasn’t adding EQ, reverb, limiting, compression, and all the other tricks of mastering engineers, it often sounded better. The chain was input through AKG C-3000 and Shure SM57s microphones and several synthesizers (by Alesis, Roland, and EMU) into a Mackie 1202 VLZ-Pro mixer. From there, using the shit stock soundcard of my Dell computer (don’t ask me which, it is thankfully long gone from my memory), I went back to the Mackie and out to some huge but delightful-sounding monitors, the JBL LSR28Ps.
My struggle up the ladder of high-fidelity sound began with upgrading the soundcard. First came the Echo MIA, which brought a substantial improvement in sound, as well as 24-bit/96kHz capability. But even with the Echo MIA, I was bothered by the knowledge that there was so much electromagnetic crapola going on inside the computer. So I decided to get the soundcard out of the computer and away from all that activity. The best I could afford at that time was the Roland-Edirol UA-100, a piece of equipment that England’s Sound on Sound magazine (still the best for those interested in computer-based sound) called "one of the first serious USB MIDI and audio interfaces." With 20-bit A/D and D/A conversion and ASIO drivers, the sound quality jumped three or four levels.
So all day long, when I wasn’t making my own music, I was listening to CDs using a Pioneer DV-414 DVD player plugged into the Mackie-JBL combo. I wasn’t using a hard drive for the digits because the drives were just too small to hold an extensive collection of ripped WAV files; CDs were the best I could get.
The next step up involved a Dell XPS computer system: much faster, bigger hard drives, easy-to-add expansion cards; I could use external USB hard drives and add space for audio files. Two small problems: the computer was garbage, and Dell didn’t care.
Then I tried to find D/A conversion that would beat the Edirol. After much examination of new release sheets, reading reviews, and listening (thank God Austin is such a music city -- almost anything is available), I fell head over heels in love with the RME Fireface 800 ($1999 USD). It reminded me of when I changed from the Apt-Holman preamp to the Jeff Rowland Design Group Consonance: huge difference. The RME created a much more open soundstage. With recordings that image well -- such as William Mathias’s Dance Overture, with David Atherton conducting the London Symphony (CD, Lyrita 328) -- the system is as transparent and as pleasing to listen to as any other preamp or D/A converter. (The RME handles both functions, and also has excellent microphone preamps and the best A/D conversion I’ve heard.) Close your eyes and the musicians are placed in perfect order on a soundstage that includes height, width, and depth information, most startlingly in the opening 30 seconds, when the first violins and glockenspiel play across the room and the horns appear over the shoulders of the violins. It’s uncanny. Also, listening to 24/96 signals from AAS’s Tassman synthesizer, there’s a roundness to the bass, especially the splatty driving bass sounds so beloved of dance-music DJs.
RME also includes an incredibly flexible software-based mixer that offers 28 input, output, and playback pots. It takes a day or two to learn to operate, but once you do, it’s very adaptable.
The JBLs were next to go. They were just too huge to be looking at 4’ from my face. After an exhaustive search in which I tried everything from the best professional active monitors (Adam Audio, Dynaudio, Genelec, JBL, Mackie, Meyer Sound, PMC, Quested, Tannoy, Westlake), as well as some monitor-size hi-fi speakers (B&W, Lipinski, Meridian, ProAc, Sonus Faber). The two speakers I most wanted I couldn’t afford. I'm a huge fan of English active monitors, especially ATCs, so I naturally gravitated toward ATC’s SCM20ASL. Unfortunately, at $8000/pair, they were out of my league. The other speaker I loved was PMC’s AML1, at $8500/pair -- even more, but wow, what sound.
Then I read a reviewer I trust -- Hugh Robjohns of Sound on Sound -- on the new active speaker from Digidesign. Their RM2 is designed and built by PMC. Robjohns wrote, "My two favourite benchmarks for this size of monitor are the stunningly impressive PMC AML1 active two-way, and the remarkable K+H O300 active three-way. While I’m not sure the RM2 quite matches the AML1’s resolution, it’s not far off at all, and it would certainly give the O300s a challenging time. . . . I was actually quite taken aback at what these Digidesign speakers are capable of delivering."
Me, too, once I’d heard them. The Digidesign is now, and has been for the last two and a half years, the speaker I listen to 8 to 10 hours per day, most every day (unless the warden lets me out for a temporary vacation). I have them in a nearfield arrangement, and where most people place studio monitors at about 45 and 135 degrees, I have mine closer to 30 and 150 degrees, pointed with the tweeter axes crossing just behind my head as I type, and directly at my head when I lean back to rest. When I got these installed, I went straight for Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. I was looking for the woodiness of Paul Chambers’ bass and the spit of Davis’ trumpet in "So What," and Bill Evans’ delicate caress of the piano in "Flamenco Sketches." All were there, as well as more pronounced bass than from the JBLs. They also allowed me to listen through some of my own mixes and hear everything more precisely. But the most amazing trait of the Digidesign RM2s is that, right up until they’re playing loud enough to overload my room (yes, they do play that loud; the spec says 113dB, and I’m inclined to agree), they seem to just disappear with almost all music. The only recordings they can’t pull that trick with are the lousy "stereo" mixes of the 1960s, in which all instruments are shoved into the left channel, all voices into the right. Those mixes still sound like the crap they were when first released.
The only fault of the RM2s was one they share with all small monitors: no bottom octave. So I added a compact but quite powerful subwoofer from Gallo, the TR-3 ($1000). It operates from 40Hz down and does the job quite nicely.
Now, with the RME and Digidesigns on board, I decided to get rid of the Dell XPS. The computer was noisier than hanging on to a 747’s wing during takeoff, and the vaunted ultra-service from upgrading to Dell’s XPS system was a joke. No one could ever help me beyond the mantra of "You need to reinstall Windows." So, after two years of fighting Dell, I started looking for a replacement. That’s when I discovered Rain Recording.
To be continued . . .
. . . Wes Marshall