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Holiday Treats

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Is it just me or are we jazz fans just a little bit harder to buy gifts for than most folks? As jazz lovers we’ve already proven that we’re much more discriminating than the average Jill or Joe, more than willing to accept that 15-CD box of Monk’s Riverside sessions, or the newest audiophile LP pressing of Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, or something as simple as the recent Seven Steps to Heaven Miles Davis box set.

But maybe I can help the JazzTimes readership with some audio ideas for this season’s gift giving. We’ll make it easy to drop subtle hints for those in your personal universe who are at a loss for an appropriate gift for someone like us. Just leave this magazine open to these pages, but be sure to use a bright highlighter and appropriately placed Post-It notes to indicate what would roll your snare. Maybe they’ll get the message. If not, there’s always the “From: Me, To: Me” tag.

An easy place to start is with tweaks, those little things designed to help squeeze the maximum performance out of an existing system. These include vibration-control devices, AC power-line conditioners, equipment stands and racks, room acoustic treatments and other items of audio voodoo. Yeah, there’s a lot of snake oil out there, but the basic premise behind each of these genres of doodads is worthy of consideration; the problem is determining what works and what doesn’t, and how to get the most for your money. That’s where a good dealer comes in, maybe a couple of dealers. Consult with them, question them and if they don’t have what you want, check out online sources such as RedTrumpet.com, MusicDirect.com and AudioAdvisor.com.

There are hundreds of different vibration-control products on the market, and most are designed to isolate components from even the slightest movements caused by loudspeakers, components or other room sources. Other kinds of devices create a more rigid connection between a component and its base, typically utilized to solidify the sound-production capabilities of speakers. Prices for these range from a few bucks to a few hundred, while in the case of specially constructed bases, into the thousands. Look for manufacturers like Black Diamond Racing, Audio Points (Star Sound Technologies), Bright Star Audio, Stillpoints, Golden Sound DH Cones and Pads, Sound Anchors, Mapleshade, Mobile Fidelity and many others. If you want to experiment without breaking the bank, try Vibrapods for about six bucks each. Place four under each component-they come in several sizes to match the weight of your equipment-and you’ll at least be able to sleep at night knowing that roaches walking across your kitchen floor will not interfere with the sounds of the latest Scofield jams.

I’ve used a wall-mounted turntable shelf for years, and it is a particularly effective method of isolating the highly vibration-sensitive table from heavy footsteps and other interference transmitted through nonconcrete floors. If your home has wood floors, a solid component stand will also do wonders, especially if you have tube gear. Some terrific and effectively stable equipment racks and speaker stands come from Target, Sound Organisation, Sanus Systems, PolyCrystal, Billy Bags, Sistrum (Star Sound Technologies) and many others. Some extreme audio nerds, with pier and beam wood construction in their houses, go so far as having a small concrete slab constructed at the point where they position their equipment so that no amount of partying or jazzercising will disturb the playback of their favorite sides.

While not touted as isolation racks, some of the smartest audio furniture ideas I’ve seen are the modular units produced by Salamander Designs. The company’s Synergy series starts out with a modest single cabinet-about 20 inches high and 24 wide-priced at about $250; they’re available in several wood finishes in addition to basic black. It features three shelves supported by sturdy aluminum corner posts. Doors, side panels, drawers, wheels, feet and even lighting and plasma-set mounts (for twin and triple width cabinets) are all add-ons. Start out with a basic unit and it can grow along with your system, your budget and your needs. First-rate construction ensures these things will last generations.

Perhaps the most neglected, but often most important part, of any audio system is the space in which it resides. The size of the room, the shape, the height of the ceiling, the position of windows and furniture, type of wall coverings and, of course, the placement of the speakers themselves, all have tremendous impact on the performance of any system, large or small. Some of these factors cannot be altered, but many can be tweaked to help control undesirable reflections of the sound caused by hard surfaces such as tile floors and large expanses of uncovered hard walls or glass windows, undesirable boomy bass that occurs when speakers are placed too close to a wall or corner, or an acoustically dead room resulting from massive upholstered furniture, thick pile carpet and walls of heavy, thick drapes. Some of these are easy to solve: pull the speakers away from the walls and corners-experimenting with speaker placement can be the one most important step in improving an audio rig. Uncovered glass can be covered with simple curtains, closed when serious listening is underway. An assortment of textile wall hangings can help control reflections off the sidewalls, but don’t ignore the walls behind and directly in front of the speakers, these spots are too often overlooked when trying to control a room that is too live. If you have a dedicated sound room, or you don’t mind “decorating” with some alien-looking devices (at least for the average living room), then check out the line of acoustical treatment products produced by Echo Busters; they’ll certainly be conversation starters when your nonaudiophile friends drop by. Echo Busters has something to remedy every part of the room: for the walls to tame those unwanted spurious reflections, for the corners to help control that bass, even for the upper corners where two walls meet the ceiling. Be sure to consult your dealer, however, to get experience-driven pointers before embarking on this sometimes mysterious path.

I covered the Apple iPod a few months back, and the outstanding Tivoli Model One radio ($99.99) in December ’02-now the two come together in Tivoli’s iPAL portable radio ($129.99). This is the Tivoli Portable Audio Laboratory, the coolest, highest-fidelity, battery-powered radio on the market-optimized for the iPod. The result is a kick-ass portable speaker for Apple’s incredibly successful digital music playback system, and you get an amazing AM/FM tuner thrown in as well. iPod users with an outdoor bent will want this baby for sure; of course its cosmetics blend perfectly with Apple’s ultrahip white styling. Tivoli has also introduced a number of other products including the Tivoli Model Three ($199.99), an AM/FM clock radio that certainly outclasses all those cheesy plastic jobs, and the Model CD player ($199.99), a compact CD playback option for the basic mono Model One or the souped-up stereo version of the radio, the Model Two ($159.99). These are all excellent choices for adding music to kitchens, offices, workshops and bedrooms, and most come in an array of colors. The engineering of Henry Kloss, the brains behind Acoustic Research, KLH, Advent and Cambridge Soundworks guarantees a quality product that will outperform the competition at a price that’s easy on the pocketbook.

Though the CD, and now in growing numbers, the MP3 and its cousins, have practically supplanted every other mass-market form of music playback media, there is an ever-expanding core of listeners and fans who continue to derive enormous pleasure from the good old LP. In fact, every turntable manufacturer I’ve spoken with over the last several years has indicated that sales are steadily growing-some say by leaps and bounds. The fact that new designs and models of turntables are introduced at every audio show I attend indicates that vinyl is here to stay.

In addition, to satisfy the software appetite of these dedicated LP junkies, a surprisingly generous bounty of vinyl reissues grows each year at a rate unimaginable 10 years ago. Jazz fans have particular reason to celebrate: most of the companies involved in LP reissues make jazz one of their highest priorities. Classic Records has gone so far as to replicate some great old Blue Notes in the original 10-inch format and have reproduced the look and feel exactly-the only difference is that the sound is better. Also check the releases by Mobile Fidelity, Analogue Productions, Sundazed, Mosaic, Get Back, Rhino and even some of the major labels that flirt with vinyl from time to time. A great stocking stuffer would be one or several of those Classic issues of the Blue Note 10-inchers, not easy to find, but lots of fun-try the Web sites cited above.

Though it won’t fit in most stockings, a new turntable might be in order to spin those new discs. Some very respectable tables can be had in the $500 range. Ray Hall’s Music Hall MMF 5 ($566/cartridge included), Roy Gandy’s Rega P2 ($495) and his Rega P3 ($695) and the Pro-Ject 1 Xpression ($429/cartridge included) are probably the leaders in this price category. When you get to the $1,000 to $1,500 level, all of these fellows are still represented, but you also begin to find products by Nottingham Analogue, Clearaudio and Roksan, among others. Inching up slightly, you encounter a wonderful, solid table made by VPI, another longtime leader in high-end turntables-their biggie goes for around $10K-whose VPI Aries Scout ($1,600) is lauded as one of the best bangs for the turntable buck.

Sometimes it’s just not practical to crank up the system-it’s too late, there’s someone asleep in the house, or you want to listen to something that will raise the hackles of others in your vicinity. That’s when a good pair of headphones comes in handy. Perhaps the most affordable of the many exceptional sounding phones available is the Grado SR60 ($69), regarded as one of the best buys in the business. But also consider the Grado SR125 ($150) for improved sound and a more comfortable fit. Sennheiser is another name long respected for designing astonishingly good headphones, and the company recently updated its classic models as well as introduced others. The HD580 ($259.95) offers natural and dynamic sound and does wonders for acoustic jazz. The Sennheiser HD650 ($499.95) is the company’s top-of-the line headphone and envelops your ears in crisp, accurate sound with plenty of tight, pleasing bass.

If you’re looking for earbuds for your portable devices, try the Shure E3c ($179). The raves keep coming in for these “micro-speakers,” which weigh in at less than an ounce but produce an amazing level of musical quality with low distortion and good tonal balance. They come with a variety of eartips in different sizes and materials to ensure they conform to your ears, but they can also be equipped with custom ear-molds from an audiologist for a perfect, personalized fit. Etymotic Research ER-6 Isolator earphones ($139) do a great job of isolating outside noise and reproducing your tunes flawlessly, at least for an earbud. They come with two types of eartips, a carrying pouch and a shirt clip.

Since a holiday gift list is purely speculative if not outright fantasy, let’s go all the way-all the way within reason. I believe that nothing reproduces vocals, chamber music and jazz, acoustic jazz anyway, as a system built around vacuum tube electronics. But for the past couple of years my personal system has had a digital amplifier as its root-about as far from tubes as one can get. Therefore I think it would be fun to receive a second, more modest system, complete with tubes, to allow for those late-night dips into the lushness that transistors just can’t achieve.

I would choose one of the several compact, affordable integrated amps, which incorporate tubes into their design. Like the Unison Research Unico ($1,695), which is a tube hybrid, meaning it employs those burning bottles in its input section and transistors in the output stage. Or the Antique Sound Lab AQ1001 DT ($1,495), which is a 50-watt, retro-looking beauty. Could be the Prima Luna ProLogue Two ($1,345/ available from UpscaleAudio.com), a similar product to the Antique Sound Lab, but engineered by a Dutch firm and manufactured in China. The Jolida Model JD 302B ($950) with 50 wonderful tube watts per channel is another option. Needless to say there are many others.

The CD player I’d consider would probably be the Arcam DiVA CD73T ($699), but the Rega Planet ($945) would be a very nice way to go as well. Last, but not least are the speakers. Since I am speaking of modest, or relatively so, I’d like to keep them around a grand. First choice would be the Canadian Totems I mentioned last month, either the smallish Rainmaker ($900) or the ultrasleek Arro ($1,100); either one makes jazz really come alive and any of the amps above would generate more than enough power to drive them. Another good choice is the Meadowlark Audio Swift ($1,195), a bit larger than the Totems, but equally enjoyable. The Paradigm Reference Studio 20s ($800) are surprising for their price and size, more of that Canadian ingenuity. PSB has completely redesigned the Image series and they are sounding better than ever. The bookshelf B25 ($449) or the floor-standing T45 ($749) would both sing in this system. And slightly out of the preferred price range are the Reference 3A Dulcets ($1,695), a compact, elegant speaker that, like the name suggests, produces some very sweet music indeed.

There are many other excellent choices, but we can’t spill over onto the next page. A system as described here would be soothing and warm, like a rich cup of hot chocolate on a holiday evening.

Originally Published