Oh, the hi-fi equipment and music I have known.
When I was about four, just about the time lasting memories are formed, my father took my mother and me downtown one Saturday so we could buy a Grundig console hi-fi. You know the type: polished walnut with huge speaker grilles on the front and a couple of smaller ports on the ends. A turntable and AM/FM/shortwave radio. We opted to not get a reel-to-reel tape player, which meant there were two huge bins for LP storage, with more room inside a folding door at the bottom of the unit.
My father was a big-band fan, so he pumped out lots of Benny Goodman, Dorsey Brothers, and Artie Shaw, but he had catholic tastes, so he also played lots of my brothers’ LPs: early Elvis, Buddy Holly, and the Kingston Trio. It was a great education on how to keep your ears open for anything that touched your soul.
The Grundig moved with us to a larger house in 1966 and stuck around until the early ’70s -- long enough for me to hear how Jimi Hendrix, Cream, and the Rolling Stones sounded coming out of that big box.
During my last year in high school, I saved enough money to buy myself a sleek little Sony integrated amplifier I still own, a Dual 1219 turntable, and a pair of Acoustic Research AR-6 speakers. By then, my taste in music had matured to include Chicago blues, the Allman Brothers Band, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane. My father and I had briefly parted ways on what was listenable: I detested the kitschy Hawaiian music he had drifted toward; he complained about the incessant moaning of “that guy with the headache” -- Muddy Waters.
When you grow up with music as an integral part of your life, you tend to take the sound of it for granted. Sure, I noticed the difference when I listened to music on the cheap stereos that were predominant at parties in the late ’60s and early ’70s, but sonics didn’t hit home to me until I came home from a two-month trip to Europe in the summer of 1973 -- the longest I had gone without hearing recorded music. It was so striking that I still recall the first thing I dropped the needle on when I returned: Hot Tuna’s First Pull Up, Then Pull Down. Papa John Creach’s violin arced out of the ARs like electricity, and Jack Casady’s bass has never sounded so fulsome. How could two months without music change your perspective like that? It was a revelation.
That Christmas, my mother decreed it was time to part with “the coffin,” so it was so long, Grundig; hello, Tannoy Mallorcan speakers, Elac Miracord 760 turntable, and Pioneer SX-626 receiver. The Pioneer was probably a bit meek, but everything sounded good through those Tannoys.
When I got my first journalism job in 1977, the first things I purchased were a pair of Bose 901s, a Thorens turntable with a Stanton cartridge, and a massive Sony STR-7800SD receiver that pumped 125Wpc. Pure ’70s power, baby. It was like having a muscle car in your bedroom. Needless to say, if you wanted something appropriate to blast Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run on, this was it. If this setup was too powerful for the bedroom at my parent’s house, it was ideal for the huge living room of my first apartment, which I shared with two friends from the campus radio station where I hosted several shows. We all had large LP collections and a love of loud music, and the Sony/Bose connection was the hit of many a party.
Times and tastes change, so in the mid-’90s I switched directions and swapped out my entire system for an NAD 304 amplifier, an NAD 514 CD player, and a pair of Energy bookshelf speakers. I was reviewing recordings for DownBeat magazine by then, and seeking to reproduce music the way the average reader/consumer would.
When SoundStage! founder Doug Schneider launched his “System One” column, I started thinking about changing things up again. My father’s Tannoys had come my way, but they were aging and mismatched with my trusty NAD components -- still doing the job 20 years down the line. So, again, I decided to make a major change. After weighing Doug’s advice, I swapped out my NAD 304 for a D 3045 integrated, ditched the Tannoys for a pair of Q Acoustics 3050i floorstanders, and rediscovered my vinyl collection by way of a Fluance RT83 turntable with an Ortofon 2M Red cartridge.
I kept the NAD 514, undecided about how much I wanted to invest in a technology that some feel is as outmoded as a gas-powered V8 engine. After 30 years as a music critic I have no shortage of CDs, despite occasional purges. But, while the mail used to bring dozens of CDs a month, the flow is now down to about an equal number per year, and good luck to you if you’re looking to recycle unwanted discs. At both of my last two day jobs -- working as part of creative agencies that numbered about 75 people each -- I offered to share the wealth. Despite an age range of 22 to 60 at each of those jobs, no one had a CD player -- at least not that they would admit.
In 2019, 46.5 million CDs were shipped in the US. It’s not a bad amount, but a far cry from the 939 million shipped 20 years earlier. So why does NAD -- and numerous other manufacturers -- keep making them?
Greg Stidsen, chief technology officer for Lenbrook International, the parent company of NAD, PSB Speakers, and Bluesound, says NAD has actually seen an increase in sales over the past few years.
“What we find today is that the customer for a new CD player is a music lover who is often replacing an old or broken one and wants to purchase something premium that’s going to last, and NAD fits that niche,” he said when I asked him.
As a benchmark for this new column, I decided to swap out the 514 for one of NAD’s latest -- the C 538 that, like the 514, is reasonably priced, around $350. Introduced in 2018, the C 538 uses a Wolfson WM8741 24-bit DAC chipset, as well as operational amps and a high-precision Crystek clock module to reduce digital jitter -- all technology that has advanced significantly since the advent of my 514.
“There have been many improvements in the parts available due to technology advances in the semiconductor business, and our knowledge of digital circuits has also advanced considerably, so we know how to use these parts more effectively,” said Stidsen. “The 514 uses a two-sided PC board with a lot of ‘through hole’ parts, whereas the C 538 uses a multi-layer PC board with surface mount parts. Not only is the C 538 PC board more reliable (because it is robotically assembled with high-precision machinery), but the signal paths are also shorter and more highly optimized. Key parts like DACs and Op amps have also improved dramatically and are more integrated and on smaller FABs.”
Stidsen says the power supply is the other major difference. “The 514 used a linear supply (a premium toroidal trafo), whereas the C 538 uses an active switch mode design that has better regulation across a broader range of operating conditions. The active supply has the additional benefit of being suitable for all world regions since it can adjust automatically for differing AC mains voltages.”
As far as comparing actual specs, the C 538 provides +/-0.5dB frequency response versus +/-0.2dB for the 514, a signal/noise ratio of ≥110dB compared to >100dB, and 100dB of channel separation versus ≥90dB. For context, the C 538’s big brother -- NAD’s C 568, which retails for about twice the price -- offers frequency response of +/-0.3dB (ref. 0dB 20Hz to 1kHz) and +/-0.5dB (ref. 0dB 5kHz to 20kHz), a signal/noise ratio of 118dB, and channel separation of >90dB.
Stidsen says all the advances made since the 514 came off the line add up to a faster, cleaner sound.
To put all this to the ear test, I decided to focus on a disc that has long stood out as the best combination of recording and technology I’ve encountered over the past 25 years: the 24k gold pressing of Miles Davis’s cornerstone 1959 masterpiece, Kind of Blue (Sony Legacy CK64403) It’s also the recording I’ve probably heard more than any other, so every nuance and note are ingrained in my head. I still remember the night in 1994 when I got the gold pressing because it revealed so much more detail than either my LP version, purchased in 1973, or the Columbia Jazz Masterpieces CD that was released in 1987.
As the best-selling jazz album in history, Kind of Blue has been reissued countless times. And of those, I own two besides the gold disc: the 1992 CD, which was notable for a pitch correction to the original master tapes, and another from 1997, which included the sole alternate take that was completed. For warmth and clarity, the gold disc tops them both. I know the music can sound even better; once, in Montreal, in the company of another Davis aficionado, I listened to a 180gm vinyl version on a hi-fi costing well in excess of $100,000. But what kind of difference can you hear merely by updating your aging CD player? As it turns out, a lot.
Kind of Blue was recorded on two dates in the spring of 1959 in Columbia Records’ famed studio at 207 East 30th Street in Manhattan. Located in a former Greek Orthodox church, the room was renowned for its sonics. Quincy Jones raved about its “pure acoustic sound,” and veteran Columbia executive Mike Berniker, who produced numerous Barbra Streisand albums in the studio, told journalist Ashley Kahn, “There was a grandeur to the sound -- a size and scope that you don’t find from very close miking.”
Drummer Jimmy Cobb wrote: “I always liked that big church because it had such a beautiful sound.”
Cobb’s perspective is particularly interesting since the biggest revelation from the gold CD is how dominant the Telefunken U-49 microphone above the drummer’s position is. Particularly during the opening minutes of “All Blues,” you can literally envision yourself above the kit, even as you can hear the breathing of saxophonists John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley, their fingers lightly moving on their horns in anticipation of their entry.
That incredibly rich, realistic soundstage is always a powerful draw with that gold CD. After the drawer of the C 538 slid closed, that soundstage revealed itself in its glory, but with a new depth and something else, as well. Cobb’s drums have never sounded this present. I could feel the weight of the stick in his left hand as he hit his snare drum and the bite of his cymbal strikes. That put a smile on my face because Cobb -- who died in May at the age of 91 -- was often dismissed as a “soft” drummer due to his work on Kind of Blue sounding so painterly and restrained. People forget he also had to accompany Coltrane when the tenor giant launched into one of his 30-minute soliloquies on the bandstand. For that, Cobb told me, “You had to be strong and in your prime.” The sound that comes through with the C 538 puts the lie to that “soft” rap.
So much has been written about Kind of Blue -- including two entire books, by Kahn and Davis biographer Eric Nisenson -- that it’s daunting to briefly summarize the recording or to add anything new to the discussion. But here’s a 2020 spin on it: Kind of Blue is the ideal recording for our time because it is, at once, both intimate yet physically distanced.
As noted, some of engineer Fred Plaut’s mike placement takes you close enough to hear musicians breathing. Yet you never forget that the music is being captured in a large space; you get a true sense of where the musicians were standing and how much room was around them. Many observers have opined that the popularity of the recording relates to the use of modal scales rather than traditional Western harmony, suggesting that listeners who aren’t normally attracted to jazz love Kind of Blue for reasons of simplicity. But none of the music Davis -- or, in the case of “Blue in Green,” possibly pianist Bill Evans -- wrote for the album is simple, and Coltrane’s solos are as mathematically complex as anything else he played at the time.
I think the reason Kind of Blue has outsold most jazz recordings (as Kahn notes in his book, Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece, it’s difficult to determine sales figures for some parts of the world) is probably as complex as one of those Coltrane improvisations. But I make the case that the unique sonic landscape plays a huge role.
Take “Freddie Freeloader” as an example. A 12-bar blues Davis dedicated to a jazz scene maker named Fred Tolbert, the song is the only one of the five on the album to feature pianist Wynton Kelly rather than Evans. On “Take 4,” the only full performance, Kelly fills the left channel with a crisp, buoyant solo -- one that seems somewhat atypical for a blues -- and then comps masterfully behind Davis’s solo. As was the style in the time, the leader’s instrument is mixed into both channels. Coltrane then surges into the left channel with a clarion phrase that rapidly turns in on itself, and then again. As with essentially every Coltrane improvisation from this time, it is remarkable both for how much he says and -- knowing how discursive he would become in the ’60s -- how succinct he is.
Coltrane and Adderley had developed a powerful kinship by early 1959, along with a way of blending their disparate saxes and voices so hand-offs between them were virtually seamless. That achievement gives added prominence to the alto’s entrance in the right channel and heightens the sense of studio physicality.
Played through my Q Acoustics speakers, I can’t pick up two interesting sonic facts Kahn highlights in his book: Plaut’s urgent knob twist following Coltrane’s unexpectedly plangent first notes on his “Freddie Freeloader” solo and the subtle echo that Plaut and others familiar with the 30th Street Studio would create by mixing a separate reverb track into the center channel. Switching to my Sony MDR-7506 headphones, I can hear the engineer effectively riding the gain, and the huge room shimmers ever so slightly.
And I’m hanging out over Cobb’s drums, digging it all.
. . . James Hale