Feature Articles & Reviews
Do you get tired of reading reviews with namby-pamby recommendations that sound as if the writers have worked full time to ensure that they can find a way out of their statements at a later date? It happens all the time in the world of wine criticism (my other job). For example: “This wine has a pleasing aroma of stewed plums and candied lychees with a hint of leather and Tellicherry black peppers. Rating 88.” What does that mean?
As other stores pull them from shelves, Waterloo Records promises to “not abandon” CDs.
-- Austin American-Statesman, February 8, 2018
This headline of a story by reporter Jake Harris caught my eye. In this age of mass murder, corruption, scandal, and sexual innuendo and assault, here is a major American newspaper devoting time and space to our little buddy the Compact Disc. For the past 147 years, the Statesman has been the primary newspaper of Austin, Texas, reputedly the “live music capital of the world,” so the statement carries some authority. Waterloo Records, an iconic record store on Lamar Boulevard, has a history of thumbing its nose at music-industry insiders in support of its local customers, and for the last 35 years Waterloo has been the heart of the local music business. In fact, the store has won the vaunted Best of Austin award from The Austin Chronicle every year since the store’s founding, in 1982.
Here we are, closing in on the end of another year. It’s been a doozy, with political storms equivalent to the 1960s, seemingly endless gun violence, and nightly reports of sexual abuse by entertainment bigwigs and national politicos. On the positive side, we’ve had a breadth and quality of music that spanks the intellect and caresses the spirit. We’ve even had some wonderful films, though you’d have to be Sherlock Holmes to find them.
Life changes. People move up, they slip down. They get kicked out, they get invited in. One day they rent, the next day they own. If they’re lucky, someday they’ll own the house of their dreams, and be attached to the humans and pets of their dreams. If they’re really lucky, they’ll have a place where they can listen to music.
A couple of years ago, I was working on a story about Roon and its use as a database tool for recording studios. As I talked with one engineer, he mentioned that studio monitor speakers -- especially those made by Barefoot Sound -- had achieved such a high level of quality that musicians and engineers could now hear the functional equivalent of a straight wire with gain from recording studio to control room. Pro-audio magazines and websites were passing along a lot of similar buzz about Barefoot monitors, especially from musicians, many of whom requested -- even demanded -- having Barefoot monitors in the control rooms of the studios they worked in. Over the last decade, Barefoot’s monitors grew in reputation until one model, the MicroMain27 Gen2 ($10,495/pair), became the recording industry’s de facto standard.
Everyone who pays regular attention to the world of audio and video equipment knows the name Oppo Digital, Inc. Here at SoundStage!, we’ve been fans since 2006, when Roger Kanno and I reviewed their first two DVD players, the DV-970HD ($149 USD) and the OPDV971H ($199). Both players became instant Reviewers’ Choice winners. Since then, Oppo has released a string of impressive silver-disc players that have resided at or near the top of critics’ lists of recommendations.
For the past 20 years, I’ve been preaching that buyers of audio gear in the mid- to upper price levels should spend some of their shopping time appraising the professional marketplace. In the beginning, I had to recommend jury-rigged systems with huge audio interfaces that had multiple microphone preamps, various digital inputs and outputs, and inputs/outputs that most audiophiles have never used. (Got any balanced TRS 1/4” cables in your storage box?)
Does the name Billy Woodman ring a bell? Although he may not have been involved in any of the audio components you use at home, it’s very likely that Woodman designed some of the gear used in recording the music you listen to. All over the world, many of the finest musicians and audio engineers make their most crucial judgments of their work by listening to it through monitors made by ATC, the company Woodman founded in 1974. Beck, Kate Bush, Coldplay, Mark Knopfler, Diana Krall, Tom Petty, Pink Floyd, Lou Reed, Supertramp, Jack White -- all have depended on ATC monitors to get an accurate idea of what’s really on their master recordings. If you’ve ever enjoyed records engineered and/or produced by T Bone Burnett, Bob Ludwig, Mark Ronson, or Doug Sax, or in the studios of Electric Lady or Telarc, or Sony’s massive SACD remastering facilities, you owe some of that pleasure to Woodman’s stunning speaker designs. Even at Abbey Road Studios, right next to the Bowers & Wilkins monitors you always see advertised, you also see ATCs.
Whenever I start getting snobby, the only one who loses is me. You’d think I’d learn. After all, it happens with enough regularity that I ought to be able to recognize the warning signs.
In my last column, I wrote about the wonderful Channel Islands E•200S two-channel amplifier. But what really got me excited was Bruno Putzeys, the Belgian designer of the Hypex UcD module used in the E•200S. Putzeys has been in the audio world for several years. He started at Philips, where he worked extensively in labs, experimenting with input stages, power types, and supplies. Unfortunately, as soon as he came up with a great design, he was confronted with a multinational conglomerate’s tendency to do nothing when presented with a new idea.