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Sonic Grab Bag

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This edition of Sound Advice isn’t so much a year-in-review as it is a year-in-what-wouldn’t-fit-the-previous-nine-columns column. So many good audio products, so little space.

Henry Kloss

If you have been listening to music since the early ’50s to the present, your experience somewhere along the way has been touched by the genius of Henry Kloss.

Kloss, unfortunately, passed away early this year, so we will no longer be graced with his constant stream of innovations. To wit: the truly legendary Acoustic Research company, responsible for the AR1, 2 and 3 speakers (the first-ever acoustic suspension speakers), the AR turntable and the AR amplifier, all of which are still venerated for their simple, classic and damn-good sounding design. As if that were not enough, Kloss went on to create KLH and the Advent Corporation, both lauded for great sound from, once again, simple, pure designs. In fact, the Advent speaker was the standard by which other affordable speakers were measured for nearly a decade in the seventies. While at Advent, Kloss also developed the first cassette player to incorporate the Dolby noise reduction system, transforming the cassette from an office dictation device into a serious instrument for the conveyance of music. Pretty neat trick.

In the late 1980s, Henry Kloss was co-founder of Cambridge SoundWorks, which was originally conceived as a way to sell good sounding, value-loaded speakers directly to the consumer through the mail, made even more affordable by cutting out the middleman. Cambridge is still going strong but now offers retail locations around the country to augment its mail-order business.

About two years ago, Kloss introduced his last design, an utterly fantastic monophonic radio, the Tivoli Model One ($99.99). Reminiscent of KLH’s classic radio, the Model One utilizes technology found in cellular phones that allows reception found only in much more expensive component tuners-get ready to pick up those distant stations you’ve been almost reaching-and a sophisticated speaker design that delivers unbelievable bass and highs from a three-inch ported driver. Much, much smaller than a breadbox, only 4 1/2 inches high, the size is deceptive. The Model One radio kicks proverbial butt! And if you must have stereo, you can shell out an extra 60 bucks for the Model Two ($159.99), a stereo version that includes a second matching box. There is even a small subwoofer available in case you want more bass than this baby already pumps out. This is the perfect unit for listening to jazz on the radio, particularly if the station you want is normally hard to tune in; just remember that FM has a limited reach and is “line of sight” broadcasting, so there are limitations, even with a tuner section as sensitive as the Tivoli.

If you are extremely mobile, consider the Tivoli PAL-Portable Audio Laboratory ($129.99). It features the same tuner as the Model One, but it’s housed in a waterproof rubberized box which itself is loaded with a rechargeable battery pack. You can plug in your portable CD or MP3 player and have a great sound system for the beach or for those quiet nights camping when you feel the need to drown out the crickets and coyotes.

Analysis Plus Cables

On several occasions I have written about the importance of good wire to achieve maximum performance from your home entertainment system. This is one of those “snake oil” subjects according to many doubting Thomases and Tomasinas, but the fact remains that stepping up from that cheap lamp-cord speaker wire and those five-buck interconnects can really make a difference in your system’s sound. On the other hand, I am not in the school that advocates spending thousands of dollars on wire-unless your budget allows it-but Lord knows it is easy to spend that much without really trying. I have recently listened to systems in which the cabling alone cost more than my Honda Civic. But with careful shopping, it is relatively easy to come close to the performance of megabuck cables without selling the farm or the car. In past columns we have discussed the positive merits of affordable wire from Mapleshade Records, DiMarzio, Tara Labs, Kimber Kable and WireWorld, among others.

A relative newcomer to the wild world of wire is Analysis Plus, a company founded by guys who were previously performing electronic and electromagnetic simulation and analysis for a number of high-profile manufacturers including Motorola and Ford Motors. One day, they flicked the little spinners on their beanies and decided their analytical and simulation devices could help them design the ideal wire for high-end audio applications. The result is an oval-shaped woven wire with a hollow core, the design of which they claim eliminates much of the signal loss and interference found in more traditional round and rectangular cables.

For the past few months I have been using some Analysis Plus cable throughout my system (the positive synergy of using one cable brand exclusively is usually a good thing) and it has made a noticeable difference in a number of areas including tightness of bass, precision of imaging (the placement of instruments across the virtual stage) and a pleasant smoothness in the mids and highs, all definitely without sacrificing an iota of resolution. In fact, the ability of the system to resolve details like the resonance of a sax bell or the bright clear ringing of a cymbal is frightening. My CD player is connected to the Bel Canto integrated amp using the Analysis Plus Copper Oval-In ($269 per one meter pair) and my speakers are being fed via a pair of the Oval 9 speaker cables ($347 per eight-foot pair).

This may seem extravagant for wire, but as I continue to preach, music is important to readers of this magazine, and a few hundred bucks to get more pleasure out of the hundreds or even thousands of CDs and LPs in those hard-fought-for collections is money well spent. But don’t panic: It is possible to spend a bit less and still get a pretty good dose of the Analysis Plus benefit. The company’s Oval 12 speaker cable is only $175 for eight feet, and the Oval One interconnects are $89 for a meter pair. Of course, it is just as easy to go up the ladder, spending $1,999 for the top-of-the-line Golden Oval interconnects or $870 for the Solo Crystal Oval Eight speaker cables.

Analysis Plus also offers power cords to replace those cheap stock cords that come with most components, an upgrade recommended by most savvy sound savants because better cable allows a higher-quality AC current to enter your equipment. There is also a line of video cables designed to improve the signal from your high-performance DVD and VHS players, one area often overlooked by many enthusiasts. Most good dealers will allow you to try cables in your home system before buying and can recommend the best cables in your price range that will integrate well with your system.

Bel Canto D-to-A Converters

Now, since CDs are not going anywhere for the foreseeable future-even if SACD really catches on, Red Book CDs will still be part of our lives for many, many years to come-the quest of most audiophiles is how to make the most of the admittedly limited encoding available from mountains of discs amassed over the last 20 years, before perfect sound was found to be not so much that. Many high-enders have opted for separate digital-to-analog converters since the late ’80s because engineers of those products have researched the weaknesses of standard CD devices and have made great strides in correcting many of those problems. But the $5,000 to $20,000 price tags on the really good units placed them out of reach for most of us “normal” music lovers. But in the past couple of years, advances in digital technology have allowed prices for D-to-A converters to fall dramatically while, inversely, the performance has risen to levels not even thought possible five years ago.

Bel Canto, whose digital amplifier I raved about last month, is one of the new leaders in the production of extremely effective and relatively affordable D-to-A converters. Its new DAC2 ($1,300) replaces an earlier version, the DAC1, which had critics everywhere slackjawed with amazement. Bel Canto’s approach is to utilize upsampling, converting the original 16-bit/44.1 KHz digital sample to a 24-bit/192 KHz sample. This, in and of itself does not add quality to the sound because what information is there is what is there and no device can increase resolution beyond what is on the disc. But these guys have learned some new tricks.

“Most errors in the digital domain occur on the ‘edge’ of the signal,” says Bel Canto’s John Stronczer. “Upsampling simply pushes the edge farther away from the original data, allowing us to do the necessary filtering outside the audible realm. In other words, all the real filtering and processing happens in portions of the frequency spectrum that just can’t be heard. We try to get all the errors, such as jitter, out of the signal path so the original bits can be heard as they were intended to be heard without audible degradation.”

Well, whatever it does, it works. When fed the signal from my CD transport (or from the digital output of a standard CD player) the DAC2 extracts details I’ve never heard before from CDs I know intimately. But that is just the beginning. It also sheds all those nasty digital artifacts like harsh highs, strident midrange and flabby distorted bass. Instead, the music flows like honey, just like a really good LP-a roundness and fullness not normally heard from CDs-and the sound is not as fatiguing as that from most traditional CD players. As a result, night after night I find myself sinking into the sofa, bathing in music that is involving, liquid, compelling and just downright fun.

“My mother loves it,” exclaims Stronczer, and I have to say I second that emotion. The DAC2 brings otherwise dead CDs to life and offers hope to those of us who have suffered under the impression that our music collections have been sentenced to eternal damnation in an insufferable inferno of digital blahs. Take hope, jazz lovers, for there is comforting light at the end of this glaring chasm.

A recent e-mail from a reader addressed the vexing question of whether or not he should upgrade to SACD. This reader settled on a moderately priced SACD player to accommodate that urge, but purchased an outboard D-to-A processor to hotrod his already massive disc collection. He reports back that this offers the best of both worlds and the DAC is, indeed, bringing the spark back to his music listening.

Triangle Ventis Loudspeakers

A couple of months ago we took a look at two amazing speaker values from the French concern Triangle Electroacoustique, but now it’s time to hit the top of its line. The Triangle Ventis are, for what they deliver, another absolute steal from across the pond. How they can pack so much quality and performance into such a modest box at such a relatively modest price is beyond me. But across the board they do so, from the wonder-pup $1,195 Zerius to the big dog Ventis priced at (only!) $3,995.

Damn, you say, that is twice what I spent for my entire system. Well, if you love music, you figure out a way to make it work, right? But what can you expect for your hard-earned jack?

The strongest aspect of the Ventis is their ability to reproduce an absolutely lifelike midrange (important because that’s where most of the action is in music) and an amazingly pure high end. The result is a sound that is open, transparent and convincing. I have long been a fan of planar speakers like the Magneplanars discussed in the September issue because of their natural, open sound, normally achievable only through flat-panel designs. But Triangle has managed to do the almost impossible from a conventional, or almost conventional, box speaker. Aside from using proprietary drivers and specially designed tweeters, it has placed one of the two tweeters in the rear of the box to fire against the back wall, creating a sort of dipole effect which is what makes planar speakers, which likewise radiate forwards and backwards, so special.

The Ventis also feature quick, accurate, tight and pure bass through the use of three six-inch woofers, which, because of lower mass, can more nimbly move the same amount of air as a much larger single driver, and faster bass is better bass.

The overall result is a well-balanced sound that can only be described as breathtaking.

On “Milestones” from Bennie Wallace’s Moodsville (Groove Note), Lewis Nash’s brushes radiate the texture of wire brushes on a drumhead, light, crisp and dynamic, his cymbals clear with a crystalline chime to them and his drums resonant with the natural ring of not-overdamped heads. Mulgrew Miller’s piano comes out rock solid, each note well-defined and clear without any of the smeared or bunched tones reproduced by less-refined speakers. And Wallace’s horn is open and airy, properly breathy, displaying all the appropriate overtones of a tenor, even the high components we sometimes forget about because many speakers just don’t get them right. The Ventis’ ability to get this and other details so often lost is uncanny.

In every session auditioning the Ventis, music comes alive, and images blossom into three-dimensions, with all appropriate resonances and subtleties that one normally only hears when live players are in the room. I keep reporting on the ability to hear an instrument’s resonances because I don’t recall noticing them with other speakers, at least not in the way the Ventis delivers them. It is just this sort of detail and aural cueing that that inspires goose bumps when we experience live music. We don’t really pay attention to these things in that context, they just are, but the Ventis is able to deliver that sensation in spades. When given a component as accurate as this speaker, the ability to hear “into” the recordings becomes a sirenlike effect that makes it hard to turn the damn things off. The Triangle Ventis is an engineering marvel that can deliver the experience and thrill of live music in the living room as I’ve rarely heard before. For the money, I can’t think of another speaker that performs this well-these are a must-audition for serious jazz listeners.

Reader Mail

I get regular e-mail from JazzTimes readers shopping for new equipment or trying to tame problems in an existing system, and I welcome any and all questions about home-entertainment issues. Feel free to drop me a line at the e-mail address below and I will do my best to help in suggesting ways to squeeze more from your music and from your budget.

Originally Published