Summer on the Porch with Tom Petty and the Audio Pro Addon C5A Wireless Multiroom Speaker

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Category: Art+Tech Art+Tech

September 2021

Whether the credit is due to his Florida upbringing or his longtime residency in California, singer-songwriter Tom Petty had an incredible knack for writing summertime anthems. Songs like “Even the Losers,” “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” and “The Waiting” had extra resonance when played on a car radio on a sultry day, and there was something related to yearning and the quest for freedom in many of his songs—or those he cowrote—that naturally led to the open road or the beach.

Tom Petty

For me, it was “American Girl,” that, along with Bruce Springsteen’s “The Promised Land,” was my soundtrack for the summer of 1978. Petty’s song had been a hit the previous year, but I’d just discovered it and had it on repeat as I drove around aimlessly at night. My girl had dumped me. I was broken. I related both to the desperation Petty’s protagonist felt as she listened to cars hissing past like surf breaking and to Petty’s desire to reconnect with her.

As John Mellencamp, a peer of Petty and Springsteen, sang a few years later: “You make it hurt so good.”

Making heartache palpable—and bearable—was one of Petty’s great gifts as a songwriter, and heartache often feels more acute when the days are long and the nights are hot.

Throughout his long career, Petty’s music always seemed best suited to the summer. So, seeing him and his band, the Heartbreakers, playing outdoors on a beautiful summer night in 2017 has become a fabulous memory: Petty was in top form, it was the first concert for my companion’s teenage son, and the huge crowd was ecstatic. The memory turned bittersweet a few weeks later when the singer died from an accidental drug overdose.

Since his death, several collections of Petty’s work have been released, including Angel Dream: Songs and Music from the Motion Picture “She’s the One” (Warner Records 0963624883081)—12,000 copies of which were in June’s Record Store Day drop. The music is also available as 24-bit/96kHz FLAC files.

Once again, it’s ideal summer fare, wrapped in heartache.

James Hale

In 1996, when he started the She’s the One project, Petty found himself in an uncomfortable situation. Although he had just come off his most successful tour to date—a run that had included 99 shows in 1995, in support of the album Wildflowers—he was struggling to overcome the dissolution of his 22-year marriage to Jane Benyo and questioning his agreement to provide music for director Edward Burns’s romantic comedy, starring Jennifer Aniston and Cameron Diaz.

As Benmont Tench—the Heartbreakers’ keyboardist for 40 years—told journalist Andy Greene earlier this year, Petty felt overwhelmed by the film project and, with time running out, decided to take his band into the studio to record songs he thought would fit. Unfortunately, Petty hadn’t yet hired a drummer to replace Stan Lynch, whom he had fired in 1994, so Curt Bisquera was drafted for most of the recordings. A percussionist was added to some tracks, Lindsey Buckingham from Fleetwood Mac added vocals on a couple of performances, and Beach Boys cofounder Carl Wilson made an appearance. The core trio of Petty, Tench, and guitarist Mike Campbell also improvised some pieces to be used as interstitials in the film.

Even with those additions, Petty came up short for a full-length album, so he pulled in some tracks that had been dropped from Wildflowers and released the 15-song album on August 6, 1996, as Songs and Music from the Motion Picture “She’s the One.” The album made it to No. 15 on the US charts and has sold some 500,000 copies worldwide.

Ever the perfectionist, Petty didn’t reflect fondly on the album.

“It’s not really an album,” he told writer Paul Zollo. “It’s just a bunch of things thrown together.”

In his interview with Greene, Tench opined that his late bandmate may also have felt some of the mixes were rushed in the sprint to meet Burns’s deadline.

Looking back over her father’s catalog, the soundtrack project also stood out as an unsettling anomaly for Adria Petty, who curates his estate’s recordings along with her stepmother, Dana York Petty, and longtime Petty sound engineer Ryan Ulyate.

In 2020, the team pulled some of the material back to add to a collection called “Wildflowers” & All the Rest, leaving Angel Dream an even thinner collection of Petty originals and cover songs. Yet, they didn’t want to fully abandon the project since it included versions of exceptional songs like “Angel Dream” and “Walls,” so they looked for archival recordings from the same era that might make a good match.

The search led the team back as far as 1992, for “One of Life’s Little Mysteries,” a quirky song that takes its cues from sources as diverse as the British music-hall tradition, Cole Porter, and The Beatles. While it seems like something of an outlier on the reimagined Angel Dream, it does serve to balance two greasy-sounding roadhouse rockers that were plucked from a July 1993 session.

Audio Pro

Although the bawdy “Thirteen Days” is a J.J. Cale song, both its lyrics and Petty’s delivery would make any listener swear it’s by Bob Dylan. A rock’n’roll road song with a great sing-along chorus, “Sometimes we make money/Sometimes I don’t know/Thirteen days, five to go,” it features great wordplay (rhyming “New Orleans” with “jeans” and “Baton Rouge” with “booze,” for example) and the Heartbreakers, with Lynch on drums and the late Howie Epstein on bass, dig into it with maximum gusto.

Likewise, Petty’s “105 Degrees,” recorded the following day, is a rollicking, stripped-down rocker that showcases everything that was great about the second Heartbreakers incarnation: the tight connection between Lynch and Epstein, the way Tench could weave in a piano or organ line, and Campbell’s extraordinary versatility on guitar. It also highlights Petty’s notable gifts as a singer. Like Dylan, he had a voice that was not traditionally pretty, but he got enormous mileage out of his nasally Southern drawl, and “105 Degrees” also illustrates how he could shift the meaning of his lyrics by subtly altering his delivery.

Those two 1993 rockers make terrific companions for “Climb That Hill” and “Zero from Outer Space,” two urgent-sounding tracks Petty cut with Bisquera on drums.

One of Petty’s solutions to bringing other songwriters into the soundtrack for She’s the One was to have his band perform some covers, including “Asshole,” a song Beck had introduced on his album One Foot in the Grave (1994), and a version of Lucinda Williams’s “Changed the Locks.” The latter might’ve been written by Petty (or Campbell, his frequent cowriter) with its ironic lyrical stance and snarling guitar riff, so it feels tremendously comfortable in their hands. The Beck song seems like a gem Petty had turned up, considering “Asshole” is so different from “Loser,” Beck’s only hit to that point, and the album Odelay, which introduced the musician to a much wider audience, was yet to be released. Tench says that he and Petty were astounded by the harmonies Beck was using in his material, and in the structure of “Asshole” Petty managed to find some Beatlesque elements, which are highlighted in his version of the song.

Following the Beck song on the original 1996 album was the power ballad “Supernatural Radio,” and, in pulling the mix together for this new release, Ulyate found an extended outro that takes the song into surrealistic jam-band territory.

Some of that vibe is echoed on “Grew Up Fast,” which toggles between a shimmering verse and a hard-hitting chorus filled with the kind of venomous put-downs Petty could deliver so well.

Still, for all the irony, arch humor, and slamming riffs on Angel Dream, the tunes that dominate stem from Petty’s deep well of humanity and his ability to bare his emotions in song.

Filled with harmonica and jangly guitars, “Walls (No. 3)” has one of Petty’s best heart-on-sleeve choruses, while “Angel Dream (No. 2)” is a gorgeous, acoustic love song that compares with some of Springsteen’s gentle, Western-themed compositions.

Some of the things that tie the song to Springsteen are the fingerpicked guitar, the chord progression that carries a hint of Max Steiner’s music for John Ford’s films, and the shot of Irish balladry. These elements are blown out even more on the final track, “French Disconnection,” an instrumental recorded by Petty, Campbell, and Tench in April 1996, but previously unreleased. Sweet and slightly sentimental, the performance is an unexpected treat, like a glass of bourbon on the porch after dinner.

It’s the kind of pretty, heartbreaking music that sounds especially good on the porch on a summer’s evening, just as the rocking “Thirteen Days” would be a hit at any barbeque.

Back when She’s the One was first released, you might have slipped the cassette version into a boombox or cranked the volume up on the CD playing on your hi-fi inside the house. Today, we have multiple options for taking the music outside.

Audio Pro

I decided to sample it on an Addon C5A ($329, all prices in USD), a multiroom-capable portable speaker from Sweden’s Audio Pro that provides the choice of digital streaming via Wi-Fi, Ethernet, or Bluetooth 4.0, or analog playback through a pair of single-ended RCA inputs or a 3.5mm stereo input.

Weighing in at three pounds, the C5A measures about 10″W × 5″H × 6″D, and has a sturdy leather strap that makes it easy to transport. On its front baffle, it has two 0.75″ tweeters and a 4″ woofer, and there’s a bass-reflex port on the back, as well as a single-ended RCA output for a subwoofer and the RCA stereo inputs. The internal class-D amp is rated at 40W.

All of that matches the older C5; the A announces this machine’s capability to access Amazon’s Alexa for voice control—a function that has never interested me. The C5A also supports Apple AirPlay and Spotify Connect.

Audio Pro

From an aesthetic standpoint, the most striking thing about the C5A is the gorgeous, brushed-metal control panel on the top, in front of the carry strap. The control panel has input and volume pushbutton controls, plus four preset selectors. Using the equally elegant smartphone app, you can assign these presets to a variety of online streaming sources or radio stations. The app also provides basic treble/bass controls and an alarm clock/sleep function.

A thinner, matching brushed-metal panel sits toward the back of the speaker’s top, and carries an LED volume indicator, two small buttons to control the Alexa microphone, and the mike itself.

Audio Pro

Setup is intuitive and quick, although Audio Pro’s attempt to stuff four languages into the pocket-sized printed manual makes for a frustrating user experience. It’s easier to just dig in and explore the controls and features.

To test the C5A’s sound against several other speakers I decided to focus on Petty’s “Climb That Hill,” which opens with a spare accompaniment and delicate vocals and builds to a scorching Campbell solo driven by Bisquera’s assertive kick drum. Petty once complained that She’s the One had been “dumped” by his record label. Tench reflected to Greene that his friend might have just been naïve about how a soundtrack album would be treated, whether or not it was by one of the world’s biggest rock stars. But Petty might’ve had a point, considering a song as prototypically Petty as “Climb That Hill” didn’t become a hit.

Audio Pro

To establish a benchmark, I cued the song up on my Fluance RT83 turntable to play through my NAD PP 2e phono preamplifier, NAD D 3045 integrated amplifier, and Q Acoustics 3050i floorstanding speakers. Immediately, Campbell’s rhythm guitar established its dominance with a dark, gritty tone. The guitarist has so many instruments in his arsenal that I won’t hazard a guess at what he was actually using, but it had the heft of a Gibson Les Paul. Petty’s voice sounded strong and full of emotional nuance; as always, a voice like no other in rock. Bisquera’s drumming covered a wide dynamic range—from what sounded like a muffled tom-tom (or maybe a snare) to a bright snare, spare cymbals, and that booming kick drum, it epitomized the big, close-miked sound of the ’90s.

To be honest, I had no idea what to expect from jacking the turntable and phono preamp into the C5A. I had never routed a turntable through anything but a traditional amplifier before this.

I was pleasantly surprised. Petty’s voice was as clear—if slightly less nuanced—as through my standard rig, and the opening drum movement by Bisquera sounded fine. On closer listening, though, I realized I could no longer tell if Campbell was hitting those big chords on a Les Paul or something notably less muscular, like a Fender Telecaster. Campbell’s second rhythm guitar part had more presence and detail, but the soundstage was constricted. Overall, the song now sounded less dramatic, sort of like watching a solar eclipse through a pinhole camera. At the end of the song I realized there was also a noticeable hum coming from the C5A. Still, if you wanted to play LPs on the porch—and probably not at a volume that would anger your neighbors—the little Swedish box would do just fine.

Audio Pro

On to the 24/96 FLAC file on the Vox Music Player on my Mac, which I sent via Wi-Fi to one of the Sonos Play:1 speakers (discontinued; $199 when available) in my house. I might just as well have tuned into a classic rock FM station. The soundstage was disappointingly compressed, and it was difficult to distinguish between the individual drums in Bisquera’s set. Campbell’s guitars—even the short, sizzling solo near the end of the song—lacked punch.

Switching to the C5A, the drums gained clout, but the opening guitar still lacked power. Again, the second guitar part had more heft, but Campbell’s solo just didn’t pop the way it should. In sum, Petty’s vocal delivery was forced to carry all the dynamics in the song. My verdict was that the C5A was only marginally better than the Sonos, in that it did allow Petty’s voice to sound like it should.

Out of curiosity—realizing I was introducing an orange to my apple comparison—I switched to the Audioengine 2+ active desktop speakers (discontinued; $249/pair when available) I use while working at my desk. To avoid rewiring my system, I just left the no-name 3.5mm cable I normally use in place rather than going for a higher-resolution USB connection. Immediately, the drums and guitar made their presence felt again, the drama of the song was reinstated, and Petty’s original vision for “Climb That Hill” came back into focus.

James Hale

Mind you, the C5A is more versatile and portable than my Sonos speakers, and much more convenient than moving a pair of active desktop speakers out to the porch or patio. So, unless you’re looking to shake the neighborhood, the C5A would do quite well. It’s an elegant little box with a polite sound, and certainly a fine contender for playing some summer sounds at its price point.

. . . James Hale
jamesh@soundstagenetwork.com