December 2007

Stocking Sonics: Holiday-Season Gizmos for your Favorite Jazzbo

Were JazzTimes about four times as thick and totally devoted to audio and home theater topics, we would still not have enough room to cover all the new gear that comes out each year. For such a “niche” industry, the world of high-performance audio is an amazingly diverse one, and it delivers shockingly good equipment with surprising consistency. This is what makes it all worthwhile—that constantly improving state of the art, that extra nudge closer to a really believable “live in the living room” musical experience. Each year we get just a little bit nearer to what one magazine calls “the absolute sound.”

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Roth Audio Cocoon MC-4 iPod Dock and Tube Amp
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Sonist Concerto 2 Speakers
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Air Tight Acoustic Masterpiece AM-201

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So now, it’s year’s end and time to round up some of the strays that have not made it into these pages in the last 12 months. Too bad we don’t have another hundred pages or so—we could really have some fun!

With each passing day, the iPod/MP3 world is becoming bigger—much to the dismay of those who care about quality sound. And though I doubt most jazzbos out there will commit their entire collections to their telephones, there is no denying that having a reasonable portable music source can be lots of fun. Now, to satisfy those who at least want better sound from their iPods, several new amp/docking stations have come on the market. Interestingly, a couple of the more unusual ones emanate, at least in name, from the U.K. What makes them unusual? Well, in contrast to the ultramodern digital nature of the iPod itself, these are each tube-driven.

Both the Fatman iTube ($749; www.fat-man.co.uk) and the Roth Cocoon MC-4 ($749; rothaudio.co.uk) are branded and marketed by British firms with proven track records in the field of designing tube gear, in Fatman’s case, tube-mixing consoles and other components used in recording studios. Each unit includes an iPod dock for ease of connection, but will also allow for feeding a CD player, or other audio devices; the Cocoon even offers an S-video output for viewing of your iPod video and photo content through a television. Of course they both include a full function remote to control both the amplifier and the iPod. On the superficial level, I have to admit both boxes are quite stylishly designed and will certainly attract more comments than some of the plastic junk aimed at iPod-totin’ music fans.

Coincidentally, each is rated at 13 watts per channel—not gobs of power, but enough to fire up many excellent efficient speakers. Fatman markets an iTube package that includes speakers for an additional C note, but the amp has been known to produce decent volume with many different floor-standing speakers, so don’t let the low power level scare you away. However, do take care in speaker selection; some will barely whimper with only 13 watts, while many will roar.

Fatman and Roth are pushing the improved iPod sound offered by their respective tube units, each stressing that the sonics of the iPod, even playing compressed files, will benefit greatly from the warmer sound tubes generate—all reports I’ve heard back this up. Earbuds are great for some circumstances, but for more serious iPod listening, for an office or kitchen audio system, the Cocoon and the iTube would be great choices … build a system around one of these, assemble some killer playlists in iTunes, crank it up and let loose. These products might be hard to find in your local dealer, though the dealer networks are widening; if you have trouble finding one near home, they are each available from Amazon.

Last month we covered the other end of the convenience spectrum in audio gear, the analog side, which revolves around those dusty old records. If yours are in less than pristine shape, make sure you have some way of cleaning them other than a shirtsleeve. Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs (mofi.com), the audiophile LP and CD folks, also package some inexpensive analog cleaning accessories including a very effective record-cleaning brush. Combine that with their Super Deep Cleaner for your records and their LP-9 Stylus Cleaner for your phono stylus and you will improve your playback quality immediately. You could spend more, but why?

Last issue we also mentioned the absolutely gorgeous sound of the Shelter family of phono cartridges (axissaudio.com), which, for the money might be about the best solution for LP playback out there. Again, you can spend much more, but why? You can also spend less, but you will get less. I’ve been lured back to vinyl like a Greek sailor to a siren via the resolution of these cartridges, the Shelter 301 and 501 specifically. For an unbelievable upgrade to your LP gear, consider a new cartridge; chances are it’s been decades since you’ve bought the one you are using—your ears will be forever grateful.

One of the downsides of owning one of the currently in-vogue flea-powered amps, that is, amps which produce anywhere from a couple watts up to 11 or 12, is the difficulty in finding good-sounding speakers efficient enough to produce lifelike sound levels. If an amp such as this is not matched with the proper speakers, you might get only a faint whisper of music before the amp breaks up into fits of grainy, gritty distortion.

Well, music fan and speaker designer Randy Banks took this problem by the horns, so to speak, and has solved it wonderfully with his two Sonist Concerto speakers (sonist.com), each capable of disturbing the neighbors with only three little watts of glorious tube power. Banks was kind enough to loan me his Concerto 2 standmount speakers ($2,495) for a few months and I was finally able to really appreciate the quality of my Fi X 2A3 amplifier which is, yep, a three-watt monster. I also tried them with a couple of other tube amps, the DIY HiFi Supply Lady Day (DIYHiFiSupply.com) and the Shindo Montille (toneimports.com) and had a wonderful time basking in the warm glow of the tubes and the exciting music. Banks is a big believer in the sonic properties of horn speakers, though such speakers often have more negatives than positives—however, when properly implemented, they can sound jaw-droppingly real. Banks coaxes the good stuff horns can do from his somewhat more traditional drivers by mounting them behind a two-inch baffle, and that two-inch recess into the wood, called a wave guide, allows the drivers to possess many of the very good qualities of horn speakers. But since he is using a paper-coned woofer and a very high-quality ribbon tweeter (ribbons are very, very fast and produce transparent high frequencies without the problems inherent in more typical “coned” tweeters), the lows go quite low and the highs quite high, but most importantly, they preserve proper balance from top to bottom. The beefy heft of these speakers belies their relatively small size, and that solidity helps maintain the coherency of the sound, as does the fact that Banks places the woofer a bit more forward in the baffle than the possible two inches (the tweeter is placed back the full two). This maintains coherency because the sound from the woofer and the tweeter will arrive at your ears at the same time. If those two frequency extremes are heard even microseconds apart, the ear detects the confusion and the sonics suffer accordingly.

As I said, the Concertos were lots of fun to audition and made great music no matter what amp I had pushing them. The Great Jazz Trio—Hank Jones, Tony Williams and Ron Carter—recorded a number of LP sides for the Japanese East Wind label, and each is both a sonic and musical masterpiece. The first in a series recorded at New York’s jazz mecca, Live at the Village Vanguard features what is perhaps the most dynamic recording of a club date I’ve ever encountered. Through the Sonists, it was crisp and alive, astonishingly realistic with no traces of falseness, stridency or boominess. The bass was likewise amazing, especially from such small boxes, and delivered Tony Williams’ high-tuned bass drum with plenty of punch and kick-in-the-chest rhythmic drive. Carter’s bass was evenly balanced and upfront with plunging lows and properly percussive attacks, always tuneful and never sluggish. Overall, the gobs of detail in those grooves were delivered in a highly musical manner—let’s just say these speakers were a blast to listen to.

Then I played another bass legend, Paul Chambers, from his Mosaic Select box set. PC’s bowing on “Yesterdays” was rich, imbued with the perfect level of rosiny scratchiness—you could almost feel each individual horse hair exciting the strings—creating the impression that he was playing just for me, in my very own room, all the more incredible when you remember the disc was recorded 50 years ago. The Sonists possess the ability to paint a totally credible, totally satisfying in-home musical experience. If you enjoy the sound of low-powered tube amps, the Concerto 2s should be on your very, very short list.

Well, you might just need a suitable tube amp to match with the Sonist speakers, and over the years we’ve looked at several standout amps including the PrimaLuna ProLogue (upscaleaudio.com), the Rogue Audio Cronus (rogueaudio.com), the Almarro 318 (almarro.com), the DIYHiFi Supply’s Lady Day 8-watt monoblocks, and many other worthy units. Now, from one of Japan’s leading tube amplifier manufacturers, Air Tight—perhaps the Mercedes of Japanese tube gear—comes the Acoustic Masterpiece AM-201 integrated amplifier ($3,500; axissaudio.com). It produces 22 wonderful watts from eight EL84 output tubes, a tube long regarded as one of the most sonically pleasing and musical on the market—their relatively modest power and size hides an intrinsic quality many larger, more popular tubes just can’t match. The Air Tight design crew put much thought into this amp to create an affordable yet nearly state-of-the-art component. To save money, the crew had some of the components manufactured in China, and we music lovers are the beneficiaries. Rarely can we buy gear of this level for such a reasonable price. Were this amp to wear the Air Tight badge, I’d wager it would sell for two or three times the going price.

But again, make no mistake: This is not some cheap knockoff; rather, it is built to stringent Air Tight specs and engineered to last. Its build quality far exceeds what you might expect, and all individual components are topnotch and solidly assembled. There are no printed circuit boards; in an amp of this pedigree, hand-done, point-to-point wiring is the norm which ensures the purity of the sonics—PCBs are a big no-no since they can add significant noise to the sound. All connections are gold-plated, and the styling is slightly retro with the tubes protected yet well ventilated by a wood-grained cover over the chassis.

The verdict? Well, my spouse does not want me to return it. In fact, she almost beat me up when I told her it was going to have to go back—she liked it that much. That speaks volumes since we all know women have better ears than men. In any case, the Acoustic Masterpiece is just that: a high-performance, tidy package of audio dynamite whose 22 watts should be able to handle most speaker loads, but as always, it’s best to investigate compatibility.

I used the amp to power a number of different speakers including the Sonists, but did most of my listening through the new DeVore Fidelity Nines (devorefidelity.com) that will be reviewed in full next issue. Keith Jarrett’s new release, My Foolish Heart, is another piano-trio tour de force, and quite well recorded as always. “Oleo” is one slick tune, and as Jarrett, DeJohnette and Peacock nimbly navigate the quick turns and tumbles—they make it seem like child’s play—the AM-201 doesn’t miss a beat. It ably keeps up with these living legends, such that my feet would not stop tapping in rapid time with the music. Bass was present, taut and deep, Jack’s cymbals shimmered just the way they do in person thanks to the accurately portrayed highs, and the exquisite, magical, glowing mids projected a solid, authoritative piano sound that left no doubt as to what kind of instrument was being played and what sort of room it was recorded in. Tubes just have a way of transmitting the emotion and excitement of music, particularly in the midrange. The RM-201 hit all of this right on the money.

Having just seen Pat Metheny, it only seems fitting I should check out some of his music in the context of this review. From one of my faves, Trio Live, I listened to “Question and Answer,” one of the tunes he played yesterday somewhere in the middle of Kansas. Yeah, the music sounded great, but what really convinced me of the AM-201’s ability to convey realism was not musical: During this tune, the crowd yelps and screams during key points within the solos. With each outburst, I found myself startled, and kept looking around the room to see who was yelling! That’s how accurate and lifelike this amp is, especially with the very revealing DeVores. I honestly felt like I was in the room with the band since the ambience of the venue was so well sculpted around my ears.

After living with the amp for several months, I can say it is a product that could satisfy all but the most dedicated audiophile jazzhound. For most of us, however, combining the Audio Masterpiece with a great pair of speakers will launch our ears into audio nirvana.

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