Santa’s Bag

Back in the mid-’60s, I passed countless nights dreaming of Santa’s sleigh piled high with new Ludwig and Gretsch drums, A. and K. Zildjian cymbals and-most unrealistically-shiny new McIntosh stereo equipment. The drums and cymbals materialized eventually, but the stereo-the most I could hope for was a hundred-buck Sylvania, just like the one my high-school pal, former Blakey and Scofield bassist Dennis Irwin, picked up on sale at the mall. Though the box we had in common was not the best, the music Dennis played for me was: he pushed me off a cliff into the world of jazz and I never looked back.

The early lesson: If you would like Santa to bring you the sound equipment you want, you might just have to wrap the box yourself. But since we don’t want to appear overly self-indulgent this time of year, it might be a good idea to keep our own special gifts priced within the reasonable range so as to not be too conspicuous in our consumption.

So what might we consider when making up this special wish list? Giant speaker systems and projection televisions might be a bit much for a stocking stuffer, or even under the tree. But there is much in the world of system improvements (tweaks), small speaker systems, “audiophile” recordings (both digital and analog), portable music players and much more to consider.

In this last category some of the most popular items these days are portable MP3 players (covered in the June 2001 Sound Advice column). Some to consider are Iomega’s 31311 HipZip digital-audio player that offers interchangeable 40 megabyte pocket Zip Disks (about the size of a matchbook), allowing storage of up to 40 minutes of MP3 music files on each, and Creative Labs’ Nomad IIc, whose 32 megabytes of onboard memory offer about 30 minutes of music, but can be expanded with additional Smart Media cards. But since many of us jazz folks are still wedded to our CD collections, you might want to consider this handy combo device: the Philips EXP103 Expanium portable MP3-CD player, which will play not just your favorite Blue Notes and Verves, but those personal MP3 compilation CDs you burn at home. SONICblue’s similar RioVolt portable MP3-CD player is another good choice that is making waves within the industry. For an old-fashioned, plain and simple portable CD player, look at Panasonic’s SL-SX282C or Sony’s DE551 Discman-you can’t miss with one of these. None of these portable devices will set you back more than $150, and most are under a C-note.

Going back indoors, I’ve heard from a number of friends and readers lately who want to add a second set of small loudspeakers to their existing systems, either to create a rudimentary surround setup for watching films or to put music into another room in the home, say a kitchen or bedroom. Sticking within our holiday budget is not really a problem-there are some wonderful choices in the under-$500 range that will do the job nicely. Paradigm, Energy, Monitor Audio and AAD make a box or two worthy of consideration. But in this price range, I think PSB offers the winner: the PSB Alpha B at only $249. I have a pair of the original Alphas and all I can say is that they are f-u-n! You may not get the highest degree of resolution at this price, but what you get from the Alpha Bs is music and lots of it-impressive bass and treble, but most importantly the midrange is right on, delivering believable vocals and dynamic instrumental attacks. My raving is opinion, yes, but it happens to be shared by lots of critics, dealers and consumers. Remember, do some listening before you buy and get what makes your favorite recordings sound best.

In the March 2001 column I wrote about tweaks designed to improve the performance of your amps, speakers and so on. Since many of these items can make nice stocking stuffers, I’ve taken a firsthand look at several additional products that might be of interest to those of you who might want to squeeze every bit of music out of your audio and video rigs. This sort of thing seems like sonic voodoo to a lot of people, yet those very same folks will spend hours selecting a specific mouthpiece reed or guitar cord, in effect, tweaking their axe, so there must be something to all this.

AudioPrism has long been a leader in this area; its products have impressed even the most dubious listeners and have stood the test of time. You may have heard about painting the edges of your CDs with a green marker; the green color, in effect, controls stray laser light that might induce jitter and other distortions into the playback. More than 10 years ago, AudioPrism researched this phenomenon and developed a safe, effective marker just for this purpose. The CD Stoplight pen can treat about 100 CDs for around $20 and the effects are real: you get cleaner highs and increased clarity over all. Taking this one step further, some years ago AudioPrism introduced the CD Blacklight II ($39.95), a thin disk coated with a layer of green phosphorescent material that, when charged under a light source and then placed atop a CD as it plays, will bathe the playing disk with green light which absorbs stray laser light; in addition the disk itself adds a damping effect that further aids in a more precise read of your CD by the laser.

Mapleshade Records, praised for its amazingly lifelike recordings, particularly in the jazz arena (Walter Booker, Clifford Jordan, Walter Davis, just to name a few), has achieved an uncanny level of musical realism, in large part by tweaking its equipment (based on a two-track analog tape machine) with new cables, solder and so forth. Label owner Pierre Sprey has now decided to share the results of his labor by marketing interconnect cables and speaker cables, among other products, based on his findings. I recently added some of Mapleshade’s Clearview Ultrathin II interconnects ($85/pair) between my CD player and preamplifier and between the preamp and amp. After installing both pairs of wire, I put on one of my favorite “test” CDs, Tribute by the Keith Jarrett Trio, and was surprised at the added detail and bass oomph. Jack DeJohnette’s snare and bass drum accents came through even punchier and tighter than ever. Mapleshade also offers a deluxe version of this wire, the Double Helix II ($240/pair), that offers even more improvement in the low end. After listening to these new cables for a while I substituted Mapleshade’s Golden Helix speaker cable ($85/eight feet) for my usual stuff, which I’ve always enjoyed for its smoothness. Well, the Golden Helix retained that smoothness but added yet another level of clarity to the mix. All these cables come with a 30-day money back guarantee, so you can give them a try with no risk. Chances are, you’ll not want to return them.

Sprey has also worked on vibration-control devices to help increase rigidity in the speaker-floor (or speaker-shelf) interface and to isolate other components from signal-distorting vibrations. Mapleshade’s solution revolves primarily around brass cones placed under your components. I used a combination of Mapleshade’s Heavyfoot cones ($65/three) and Surefoot cones ($38/three) under my speakers and amplifier and achieved noticeable results: again clarity was increased, but the stereo image was also better defined, giving Jarrett, Peacock and DeJohnette a better sculpted piece of the sonic landscape; their instruments were just more “there” with the cones.

Like AudioPrism, Mapleshade has also approached tweaking the CD itself, but has gone in a different direction involving the surface of the disc. The label’s proprietary Mikro-Smooth acts as a fine polish to smooth minor imperfections in the surface of the disc, decreasing jitter and increasing clarity. I used some on my treasured Jarrett CD that had developed a small hiccup. Well, the hiccup is gone and the disc does indeed sound better. One bottle of this stuff ($16.95) treats nearly 300 discs and is worth trying for sure. Another product Mapleshade features is Optrix, developed by a chemist to clean CDs of manufacturing residues, reduce their inherent build up of static electricity and add a protective coating to help prevent that aforementioned laser-light contamination. Both of these cleaner/enhancers can be used on damaged CD-ROMs and game CDs as well and can often revive previously unreadable discs. All the Mapleshade stuff can be browsed at www.mapleshaderecords.com.

Another area that almost always needs some attention is the power we use to drive our stereos. Whose system hasn’t been buzzed by a nearby hairdryer or power drill? Well, rest assured, there are solutions. AudioPrism offers a number of paths, but one I find interesting is its innovative Quietline Noise Reduction System, a series of plug-in modules that act as a shunt filter to reduce the noise and interference in the very electrical circuit you plug your equipment into. A set of eight modules runs $225 and they are plugged into all the surrounding spare plugs near your system to attenuate radio-frequency interference inducted from the atmosphere and electromagnetic interference from computers, digital clocks and the like in your home. It’s like starting with a clean slate in terms of current, and as you know, garbage in, garbage out. The effect of these things is real. To browse the complete AudioPrism line, check out www.audioprism.com; however, you need to visit an authorized dealer to purchase.

A fellow named Richard Gray has been working on the power-noise problem in New Orleans and has developed a solution that covers other bases as well. The Richard Gray’s Power Company 400S ($750) is a very heavy, well-constructed black box that acts as an inductor that effectively stores energy to be readily available when the AC power in your home dips, even minutely; when that happens the 400S steps in to “fill in the electrical hole” created by the dip, guaranteeing your components a steady supply of clean juice in just the right amounts! Acting also as a surge protector, the 400S is another good solution for the problem of noisy AC lines. I tried two of these in my main system and the improvements were dramatic: tighter bass, more pop in attacks, better defined instrumental tones and a clearer picture overall. Speaking of which, I also tried the RGPC 400S on my 32-inch Sony TV and the colors suddenly became richer, truer and the image was clearer. RGPC also offers a larger unit, the 1200S ($2,000), which packages the power of two 400Ss and offers 12 heavy-duty outlets, enough to cover all your stereo and home theater needs. If you can, audition one of these Richard Gray Power Company devices to see just what clean power can do for your system. But since they are a bit outside the price points of this column, wait to buy until after Dec. 25.

Lest we forget, all this fancy-schmancy equipment is designed to help us hear music better, but we often ignore the music itself. So here are a few musical suggestions for under the tree that just happen to make a point of extracting the most sound from their particular medium. As mentioned above, Mapleshade has some fantastic recordings that come as close to putting live music into my living room as I’ve heard. Check out Walter Davis Jr.’s In Walked Thelonious, a fantastic tribute to Monk, or Clifford Jordan’s much-lauded Live at Ethell’s, considered by many to be one of the most natural sounding jazz albums ever produced. Mapleshade has just released a wonderful new CD, Piano Voices, by Consuela Lee, Spike’s aunt-a comforting, yet invigorating set of piano explorations of her own compositions and a handful of Ellington.

Last month we talked about SACD and XRCD at length and I want to put in another good word for the JVC XRCD reissues of old Prestige, Riverside and Contemporary sides; remember that these XRCD discs will play on any standard CD player. I keep listening to the handful I have for two reasons: the music is indisputably among the best out there, and this music has never been heard like this before, not even on the original vinyl. Listening to Miles Davis’ Bag’s Groove featuring Sonny Rollins and albums by Monk and Milt Jackson is a sheer delight, and Bill Evans’ classic Waltz for Debby communicates better than ever, and with unequalled intimacy, the genius of this, well, genius.

And for you vinyl heads, this is the time to order those great Mosaic reissues before they disappear. Mosaic produces a limited number of each release and then it is gone forever; browsing their Web site, www.mosaicrecords.com, reveals a number of treasures still available. And a number of other Web sources offer tons of vinyl; see the August 2001 Sound Advice column for more on the vinyl resurgence, but if you can’t find it under your couch, here are some of the sources we listed in that issue: Music Direct: www.amusicdirect.com; Elusive Disc: www.elusivedisc .com; Acoustic Sounds: www.acousticsounds.com; Red Trumpet: www.redtrum pet.com. All of these feature generous supplies of LPs and CDs to suit everyone’s taste and budget.

Me? It’s out of my own personal budget, but I’m hoping Santa’s listening: I am wishing for that Art Audio Diavolo tube amplifier I wrote about a couple of months back. I can’t think of any single component I’ve heard before or since that made such a dramatic impact on my ability to connect with the music. I’m collecting soda bottles and empty cans right now and hoping that by next year I can buy one.