Feature Articles & Reviews
Three years ago, I wrote “What About Us? Post-Holiday Gift Ideas to Give Ourselves.” The thought behind it still resonates for me. We’ve just been very generous with family and friends, most of whom were kind enough to reciprocate in . . . kind. But unless you were very lucky, it’s unlikely that you got everything your soul desires. So I recommend that you reserve January as a great time for a little auto-largess (or a lot).
Start with some little stuff . . .
A few years ago, some very nice people gave me an Apple iPad Mini. I love the shape, the speed, the weight, but the model they gave me has one downside -- a storage capacity of only 16GB. But even that is way more than enough for my selected use: it makes a hell of a universal remote control. Virtually every electronics company now releases iPad and/or iPhone apps for their products. Given the numbers of components working their way through the Marshall household, having the easy and intuitive Mini available seems a blessing. They cost about $250 these days, a bit more than a universal remote, but less than a lot of the Tiffany trade items that seem to come standard with multi-million-buck McMansions.
The iPad Mini works nicely with the Roku 3. If you’ve been holding out on buying a Roku, here’s your excuse to buy one. I can hear it now. “Oh, Wes, I heard the Amazon Fire is really great. Plus, Gary Busey is so insane, and he’s finally making some money over that thing where you can talk into it and it will do the search.” Well, I have all of them, and yes, the Fire’s voice search does work very nicely. On the other hand, Roku has eight gazillion channels, some of them hilarious. Of course, more and more TVs offer similar stuff. If all you need are the major players like Netflix and Hulu, any smart TV will grant you access. But none of them has the Roku’s beautiful GUI, and though searching with Amazon Fire might be a touch easier than with the Roku 3, that all changes if you use an iPad.
And when you’re selecting the channels you want for whichever service you buy, don’t miss Warner Archive Instant. They drill deep into the Warner Bros. vaults to deliver such classics as Dr. Kildare, Surfside 6, and the Our Gang comedies. In most cases, there are good reasons why these movies and TV shows are obscure, but some of them are amazing finds. The Man from U.N.C.L.E., anyone?
How about some music?
Thousands of “Best of” lists are floating around the Internet trumpeting new music. Here are a few things I liked from various genres. Give them a listen on Spotify or Amazon.
Folk/world music: Dougie MacLean: Till Tomorrow (24-bit/192kHz FLAC, Linn Records). There are a few artists whose every release I automatically buy, and Dougie MacLean is one. A Scots singer, songwriter, and storyteller, he wrote “Caledonia,” Scotland’s nominal national anthem. On Till Tomorrow MacLean sings some of the best songs from his 40-year career, backed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, conducted by John Logan. The sound is delicate and beautifully recorded. Just try to keep a dry eye through the whole thing.
Rock: The War on Drugs: Lost in the Dream (CD, Secretly Canadian #SC 310CD). Check out “An Ocean Between the Waves,” propelled by a bed of swinging drum machine beats and Gnu Psychedelic synth washes, culminating with a guitar solo of the rarest type: one you wish lasted longer.
Country: Willie Nelson: Band of Brothers (CD, Columbia/Legacy 88843019212). Willie. Billy Joe Shaver. Jamey Johnson. Could it be possible that this trio of wild-ass country eccentrics could be contained by one great-sounding record? On Nelson’s first album of (mostly) originals in years, he gives two slots to Shaver, one of history’s greatest country poets. Head straight for “The Git Go,” with a tough-minded lyric from Shaver and wry vocals from Johnson and Nelson. This track alone would make Band of Brothers a classic. Luckily, the rest of the album is just as strong.
Classical: John Luther Adams: Become Ocean; Ludovic Morlot, Seattle Symphony Orchestra (CD, Cantaloupe Music CA21101). Try to remove yourself from the debate about whether or not John Luther Adams writes classical music. Yes, this music moves forward in great, long washes of sound that could be misconstrued as new-age noodling. Instead, it’s beautifully written and a complex devil to play. Congratulations to the Seattle Symphony board of directors for having the courage to commission this 42-minute work.
A little reading, perhaps?
Last month, we lost two of rock’s great crazy sidemen, and though their voices are forever lost to us, their words are still available and well worth reading:
Bobby Keys, with Bill Ditenhafer: Every Night’s a Saturday Night: The Rock ’n’ Roll Life of Legendary Sax Man Bobby Keys (Counterpoint Books). Keys was the wild man in the Rolling Stones. He started playing with Bobby Vee and Buddy Holly, later joined the crazed aggregation of Leon Russell and Joe Cocker on the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour, and then the even crazier lost-weekend collective of John Lennon, Harry Nilsson, Keith Moon, and Ringo Starr. His greatest fame came from his many years with the Stones, including the famous scene, in the documentary Cocksucker Blues, of him and Keith Richards tossing a TV from the 10th floor of the Los Angeles Continental Hyatt House. Reportedly, Keys once drank most of a bathtub full of Dom Perignon Champagne, infuriating its intended recipient, the prancing Glimmer Twin. Bobby Keys was 16 days from his 71st birthday when he died, of cirrhosis, in Franklin, Tennessee, on December 2.
Ian McLagan: All the Rage: My High Life with Small Faces, Faces, the Rolling Stones and Many More (Bookbaby). To call McLagan a sideman is to damn with faint praise. After all, he’s one of the few artists who was twice inducted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame: once as a founder of Small Faces, and then again, after Ron Wood and Rod Stewart joined the band and, no longer a group of short guys, changed their name to the Faces. After Stewart had “Maggie Mae” and Wood became the fifth Rolling Stone, McLagan ended up as a sideman to the Stones, Joe Cocker, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, and Bonnie Raitt, to name a very few. McLagan had a stroke at his home outside Austin on December 2 and died the next day. He was 69. A hero to Austin musicians, he was a jobbing player right to the end, doing two or three club gigs every week he was in town.
The serious stuff: the equipment
I’ll end with the expensive stuff. I’ve been proselytizing about nearfield listening for a while now, most recently in my May column. Have you discovered it yet? Once you’ve tried it, it’s impossible not to love it. By sitting closer to the speakers, you get a better approximation of what a recording engineer is hearing. Because the distance is only 3’ to 6’, the contributions to the sound by your room’s walls and other boundaries are substantially reduced. You might have noticed how much our band of writers care about imaging. Our parent organization, after all, is called SoundStage! Well, nothing on earth offers as good a soundstage as nearfield listening.
The variable that drives some audiophiles crazy is that if you’re going to listen in the nearfield, you need speakers that are small and (usually) have two closely aligned drivers. Luckily, those are always the best-imaging speakers. Recording engineers are hesitant to use three-way speakers in the nearfield because the separation of the drivers becomes problematic. So forget about nearfield listening with pairs of, say, Magico Q7 or Rockport Technologies Arakkis speakers. Those monsters have their place in a mastering studio -- I sure wouldn’t turn down a pair -- but to really strut their stuff they need a very large, well-controlled room. In the house we just vacated, my main listening room was an 18,000-cubic-foot space with enough damping to stop smearing due to late reflections of soundwaves. I never did find the speaker that could overload that room. But most of us listen in spaces closer to 2000 cubic feet (e.g., 12’ x 17’ x 10’), and, worse, we’re often commanded, by the False God of Interior Design, to place our speakers against one wall and ourselves against the opposite wall. Nothing could be worse!
Instead, a smaller pair of active two-way speakers, widely separated and toed in toward the listening area, will produce some of the most immersive sound possible. Since the speakers are closer to your ears, their soundstage isn’t ravaged by room modes. You can also beat the subtractive influence of air. Ever wonder how bad that effect is? Remember, with every doubling of distance between speakers and listener, the sound level decreases by 6dB.* A speaker’s efficiency is usually specified in dB measured at 1m with 2.83V (i.e., 1W). Let’s say you have very efficient speakers that provide 88dB/W/m, but limp along at 82dB/W at 2m, and an anemic 76dB/W at 4m (about 13’).
Of course, none of us has the perfect listening room, so your room’s modes and the number of speakers in your system will alter the equation in unpredictable ways. The bottom line is that the additional power needed can get extreme. Say you wanted to get 100dB peaks at your listening seat -- less than you’d hear at the opera. You have to double the watts to get a 3dB increase in sound. If you start by sitting 13' away, you'll be getting 76dB with 1W. You’d have to double the watts eight times to get 100dB. That means you’d need a 256Wpc amplifier -- and you really should have some headroom for transients, so a 1000Wpc amp wouldn’t be out of the question.
But in the nearfield, now . . . if you were at 1m (about 40”), that same speaker would give you 100dB with just 16W. Sit closer and you need much less power. I currently own a pair of small, active two-way speakers -- Focal Solo6 Be’s -- with a 150Wpc amp driving the midrange-woofers and a 100Wpc amp driving the tweeters. They can produce a clean 113dB at 1m, and are so well matched that I can separate them by up to a 120-degree angle without losing any center-image solidity.
In May, I listed some of my favorite components in various price ranges. But if you’d prefer advice on turnkey systems, here ’tis, in four categories. You’ll need access to ripped music, downloads, or streaming, and a good file player is necessary. Currently, my favorite is Media Monkey ($50), but I have great affection for JRiver Media Center ($50) because it slots so easily with my current fave software for complex room correction, Audiolense ($257). The other room-correction program I highly recommend, Dirac Live ($484), has been getting very aggressive in their research, and their solution covers everything flowing through your computer, independent of type or brand of player. Whether you sit in the nearfield or against the back wall, I consider use of one of these programs to be essential.
System 1: $450 ($745 with subwoofer)
Speakers: PSB Alpha PS1 powered speaker ($300/pair)
Speaker stands: Some old textbooks or cookbooks. ($0)
Source: Streaming audio from your computer through an AudioQuest DragonFly DAC ($150)
Subwoofer: MartinLogan Dynamo 300 ($295)
Granted, $745 isn’t chump change, but it does indicate that the price of admission to the world of nearfield listening needn’t be too hurtful.
System 2: $2559 ($4409 with subwoofer)
Speakers: Dynaudio BM5 Mk.III ($1460/pair)
Speaker stands: Dynaudio speakers supplied with IsoAcoustics speaker stands
Source: Oppo HA-1 headphone amplifier ($1199)
Subwoofer: Dynaudio BM14S II subwoofer ($1850)
This is a serious outlay for most of us, but you could have a very nice system without the sub, then buy one later. That drops the price to $2559, and you’d still have an outstanding system. Oppo’s HA-1 is a high-quality headphone amp that can also serve as a DAC and preamp. Adding a nice set of cans would make the system even better.
System 3: $5450 ($6650 with subwoofer)
Speakers: Focal Solo6 Be ($2700/pair)
Speaker stands: IsoAcoustics ISO-L8R200 ($150)
Source: Lynx Hilo with Thunderbolt ($2600)
Subwoofer: SVS PC12-Plus ($1200)
How good is this system? For the vast majority of music lovers, it’s everything they’d ever need.
System 4: $16,720 ($21,020 with subwoofer)
Speakers: ATC SCM25a ($10,500/pair)
Speaker stands: IsoAcoustics ISO-L8R430 ($220)
Source: PS Audio DirectStream DAC ($6000)
Subwoofer: JL Audio Fathom f113 ($4300)
I could be recommending things like the Antelope Audio Rubicon Atomic A-to-D/D-to-A preamp-DAC ($40,000), or the magnificent subwoofer from Magico with the prosaic name QSUB-18 ($36,000). But while I used to think the ongoing pursuit of distant-axis asymptotic improvements to be incredibly important, not anymore. I spent hours adjusting the stylus angle and offset on my cartridge and tonearm. My wife has great expertise in measuring the distance from my ears’ auditory meatuses to the outside far corners of speakers. I bought magic potions that made my connections sound sweeter (!). If I’ve just stepped on a toe, sorry -- I’m sure there are honorable people with enough money and free time that they can spend those valuable assets in pursuit of ever-smaller improvements. Some people are more attracted by the hunt than by the achievement.
I owned a set of ATC SCM50a speakers for 18 years. I’ve been lucky enough to have had access to a number of fine alternatives, and I never felt the need to change. On the day I relinquished the ATCs to their new owner, I was still convinced that there were only a very few (much more expensive) speakers that were substantially better. Plus, having a heritage of commercial studio backing, the SCM50a’s were built like brick shithouses -- these reasonably sized monitors (28” x 14” x 21”) weighed a backbreaking 108 pounds each. And never, nada, not even once, did they go down or need a repair. If you can’t tell, I highly recommend ATC to anyone who asks. PS Audio started life making great equipment at reasonable prices, and it’s now great equipment at any price. As for JL Audio, they make subs that are stout, dependable, and provide some of the best bass you’ll hear or feel. System 4 is a setup that should make any audiophile proud.
. . . Wes Marshall
*For an accurate description of how sound level changes with the distance from the source of the sound, see the brilliantly written website “Damping of Sound Level (Decibel dB) vs. Distance.” Unfortunately, the site’s quality of design is inversely proportional to the quality of the information, but the fellow is German, after all.