September 2008

Gearing Up, Getting Down: New Toys for the Changing Seasons

Fall is the time for regrouping, for preparing to hunker down during the more sedate winter season. It’s a good time to see what’s on the market that may be new to us, maybe something worth stashing in our nests for the winter. So, with fall on the way soon, let’s look at a few recent arrivals on the scene: a pair of innovative speakers, a bit of A/V dynamite in a small package, and some astonishing “software” which is anything but soft.

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Arcam Solo Movie 2.1 Integrated Player/Amp/Tuner
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BG Radia Z-92 Loudspeaker

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Arcam (audiophilesystems.com) is one of the U.K.’s most respected designers and manufacturers of audio and video kits. They come up with brilliant, often outside-the-box engineering solutions to producing exceptional musical equipment, and, like Rega and a precious few others, actually maintain all their production facilities in the British Isles. And though their technology is near the top, their pricing isn’t, so investing in a piece of Arcam gear is just that, an affordable investment—it’s designed to last for decades, not years, in addition to producing that top-of-the-pack performance.

A few years back Arcam introduced the Solo series of integrated player/amp combos created to offer a one-box solution for those with limited space, but unlimited desire for quality. The recent addition to the Solo line, the Solo Movie 2.1 ($2,499), offers the perfect combination of audio and video features for the spatially challenged music lover. Though it consumes less than a few inches of shelf space, the Solo delivers the goods for a glorious 2.1 channel home theater setup in an extremely major way.

On the video side, the Solo plays only standard def discs, but it does possess an internal video processor to upscale your DVDs to 780p or 1080i video resolution, and sports HDMI outputs to convey that instantly upgraded HD program material to your HD set. On the audio side, it plays both standard CDs and SACDs, as well as many MP3 discs and other formats, with aplomb. Did I mention it also includes a 50-watt per channel stereo amplifier and an AM/FM tuner, and offers a subwoofer output if you decide to add a bit more bottom to your speaker system? All this in a box the size of a traditional CD player, and all imbued with that legendary Arcam level of quality.

Speaking of which, even the owner’s manual for this baby is over-the-top good. Unlike some such materials, which, these days, are often no more than computer printouts of one or two unhelpful pages, the Arcam manual thoughtfully explains every minute detail of setup and fine tuning for the Solo in a deluxe “perfect bound” book, and I applaud them heartily for this level of classy customer service. The sheer simplicity of this box, and the helpfulness of the manual, made optimizing the Solo’s setup a breeze, taking only a few minutes from the time I removed it from its box until I was watching a flick, and that time includes running through the on-screen setup routine in which the screen format, speaker sizes and so on are selected.

How did the Solo perform? On a standard def set, the video quality of this machine seems impeccable. With Arcam’s zeal for pushing the tech envelope, I have to believe the HD performance is stellar. I enjoyed many films, and lots of music video stuff, including a mind-blowing samba set by Paulinho da Viola from Brazil produced there for MTV. He’s Brazil’s greatest living samba composer and, in my opinion, greatest samba performer as well. The Arcam brought forth all the visual detail my humble screen could handle, while the audio section reproduced every tambourine jingle and every plucked cavaquinho note or strummed chord with verve, as well as all the wonderful nuances of Da Viola’s vocal stylings. Having seen him live more than a dozen times, I can attest to the Arcam getting everything spot-on.

Running the Solo through its audio paces with my usual audition discs ranging from Keith Jarrett to Jerry Gonzalez, I was never disappointed in the Solo’s ability to consistently deliver tonally accurate music, evenly balanced from top to bottom, without committing any noticeable errors in performance. I slapped in the SACD version of Anthony Wilson’s Our Gang disc and was treated not only to great playing but to great playing reproduced even better. The ability to play SACDs makes the Solo that much more appealing.

Is it the last word in resolution? No, but it isn’t marketed as such. As the stalwart foundation for a high-performance compact home theater or music system that can deliver exceptional sound and video for a relatively low price, the Solo Movie 2.1 really can’t be beat. Like all Arcam products, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

For sheer transparency, speed, accuracy and clarity, it’s hard to beat the sound of planar speakers. No, they are not necessarily the ultimate answer for full-range response, but for reproducing mids and highs, they certainly rank among the top transducers. I used to be a planar guy and loved the sound of my very large Maggies; problem is, they want lots of power and current, and my predilection for low-powered tube amps these days unfortunately cuts me out of the planar herd.

One way planars have been employed to make a speaker more amp-friendly is by using the planar speaker to cover the only area they do best anyway, the mids and highs, and let a more traditional cone driver handle the lows. MartinLogan is perhaps the most well known and most successful company to employ this solution.

But ML is not the only manufacturer dedicated to using some sort of planar technology in its hybrid speaker designs. Out in the Nevada desert, some crafty engineers have been tinkering for nearly two decades with planars. BG Radia (bgcorp.com) offers a wide variety of planar models, including some very large full-range models. But for those needing a more practical solution, they’ve introduced several hybrids using a woofer of some sort to handle the bass chores, while their patented Radia Planar Ribbon technology handles the rest. This design comprises a small ribbon tweeter mounted coaxially in front of the planar midrange driver. The Z-92 ($2,499/pair) represents the top of their hybrid Z-Series of speakers, which utilizes this technology. The 92 is a slim floorstander finished in handsome wood veneer, a fine-grained natural maple in the case of the review sample, which includes two six-inch woofers for the bass and the above-mentioned Radia Planar Ribbon for the remainder of the audible spectrum.

I employed the Z-92s with my reference 15-watt Shindo amp and the terrific Arcam Solo mentioned above—the speakers seemed to be happy regardless of which amp was in use. Listening to the excellent RVG/Prestige reissue of Where?, Ron Carter’s first solo outing on which he played bass and cello, accompanied by the likes of Eric Dolphy and Mal Waldron, the Z-92s did a fine job conveying all the rosiny qualities of Carter’s frequent bowing, tonal qualities that live principally in the midrange. His cello was full, round and deep, always revealing its true character as a cello, low and profound, without going overboard. Carter’s bass, meanwhile, was portrayed as a deep, necessary foundation with its low, musical tones, while gobs of attack on the string came through to ensure the instrument its place as a nearly percussive locomotive force driving the music along. Yes, the rich woody tone of Dolphy’s bass clarinet (my god, what an instrument when in the hands of this master) was reproduced properly and seductively.

On Jerry Gonzalez’s Rumba Para Monk, the all-important clap of the congas was there, but so was the resounding, low resonance of Gonzalez’s lower-pitched drums. Cowbells clavéd authoritatively and Larry Willis’ piano vamped with vigor, never missing a beat, nor an ounce of timbre. This disc is full of thick percussion and high, piercing trumpet, and not a hair was out of place, not for a second. My only complaint was that, at times, it seemed like the tonal balance of the speaker was tilted a bit much toward the high end, but that could be an effect of insufficient break-in, which can sometimes take more than 300 hours on a planar speaker; my samples had, maybe, 200 hours of play time. If this speaker is under consideration for purchase, make sure your dealer has logged at least 300-400 hours on his or her demo pair in order to hear these at their best.

Last winter we raved about a new reissue series of Blue Note LPs debuting by Music Matters (musicmattersjazz.com) which returned to the original Blue Note master tapes, cleaned them up only as much as necessary and cut the LPs at 45 rpm instead of the tradition 33. Cutting at the faster speed gave each second of music more real estate in the groove and allowed for easier tracking, less chance for errors—that additional vinyl simply makes better music. The results were stunning and each successive release in the series only gets better.

Well, now the pot has been sweetened yet again. Chad Kassem and his gang at Acoustic Sounds (acousticsounds.com), legendary for their Fantasy reissues on LP, have just launched a parallel series of Blue Note 45 rpm LPs featuring a totally different selection of titles, so, luckily, there is no duplication. We music lovers come out the winners; now there will be more than 100 of these absolute gems in total from these two sources. First releases in the Acoustic Sounds series include Dexter Calling by Dexter Gordon and Capuchin Swing by Jackie McLean. Titles by John Coltrane, Horace Silver, Joe Henderson, Lee Morgan, Art Blakey, Cannonball Adderley, Lou Donaldson, Paul Chambers and others will ship over the next year or two, and each one promises to deliver the same “ultimate” level of reproduction as the first two. No need to dwell on the level of performance of the music itself. Each title is a certifiable treasure of American jazz, hand-picked from the Blue Note vaults.

And they did that literally. Remastering geniuses Kevin Gray and Steve Hoffman were handed the actual two-track original masters to this amazing material, complete with Rudy Van Gelder’s hand-written notes on each tape box. This is the real deal. Gray and Hoffman did minimal manipulation of the tape and have managed to capture a sound that they insist is practically indistinguishable from the original tape masters. And upon listening to these LPs, I’d say those masters are pretty friggin’ fantastic, sonically speaking; the music, well, sings for itself. No compression, little if any EQ and a clean transfer have allowed the music to burst forth as never before. Certainly no CD issue of this material even comes close, though Kassem tells me he will also be issuing SACDs of these titles sometime in the future—they may be available as you read this—so we’ll have to wait and see. (By the way, Music Matters will likewise offer a parallel CD series to its LP titles, but the format will be XRCD, and thus playable on any player, with sonic quality nearly equal to SACD. But I’d still put my money on these LPs; as good as SACDs can be, they still don’t equal the sensation of excellent vinyl—and it doesn’t get any better than this.

My one complaint with the Acoustic Sound series is the packaging: at 45rpm it requires two discs to contain all the material of a standard 33 1/3 LP and it seems that a gatefold package would be in order for these discs instead of the single-pocket jacket offered here. This is the one area where the Music Matters issues really excel; their packages are gatefolds with some beautiful Francis Wolff photos adorning the interiors.

How do they sound? As already mentioned, they are unquestionably the finest-sounding issues of this material yet. They possess unequaled liquidity and smoothness, and are full, rich and effortless. The music becomes palpable, and I don’t see how they can ever be improved after this version. The sound is simply galvanizing. It is open, totally uncongested as some LPs of this era were, or at least later LP and CD issues were. They are dynamic, with tons of drive, such that you can feel the energy and musical tension of the studio. These and the Music Matters Blue Notes make buying a turntable something to consider with some seriousness—after all is said and done, more than 100 Blue Note titles will be available in this format and that is just the beginning of today’s new vinyl riches. I guarantee you’ve never heard this level of musical realism: detail and definition are second to none, and the soundstaging and imaging are jaw-droppingly holographic.

Listening to these becomes a certifiable “beam me up” moment and, best of all, the sonics are so “grabbing” they make you pay attention to the music again—they are totally compelling. Fire up the browser and order these and the Music Matters LPs right now before they disappear forever.

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