Album Review: Ella and Louis on 45 rpm Vinyl

Ella and Louis – in glorious mono, on 45 rpm record from Analogue Productions

Back in 1957 the Verve Jazz Label released the first of three recordings by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. Simply titled Ella and Louis, this mono release stands out as a truly exceptional recording in Jazz history.

Gently swinging and full of romantic songs, this album whisks you away into a “you are thereperformance. While Ella and Louis’ singing are the main attraction, the Oscar Peterson Trio (along with Buddy Rich on drums) create a rhythmic backdrop that swings and embellishes at all the right places. With songs like Tenderly, Can’t We Be Friends, and A Foggy Day, this 45rpm reissue from Analogue Productions* captures all the magic of the original recording session.

Dancing Cheek to Cheek clearly demonstrates how these two jazz vocalists playfully sing with each other. Whether its Armstrong’s soft chuckle or Ella’s quiet “oooh” , these micro dynamic details demonstrate the intimacy that will leave you with goose bumps.

Isn’t This a Lovely Day is probably my favorite track on the album. The Oscar Peterson Trio plays so tastefully behind Ella and Louis. A perfect example is Herb Ellis accenting Armstrong’s vocals with gentle guitar picking. Once Ella sings out and sustains Louis Armstrong’s trumpet follows obediently with improvisational replies.

From the moment the needle hits the vinyl this record pulls you in and turns off your worries. Without a doubt, this record falls on my desert island list!

*Analogue Productions specializes in the original production and reissue of folk, pop, rock, jazz, and blues recordings on vinyl. More importantly, they work with original master tapes and cut records at 45 rpm for the best fidelity. Look for Ella and Louis Again – coming out on 45 June 5, 2012.

-Happy Listening!


A Great Album Revisited

Bill Frisell/gone, just like a train

One day I was looking through the CD section of Tower Records* when some album artwork caught my eye. Bill Frisell/ gone, just like a train  with album art by Jim Woodring  was just begging to be listened to. Being familiar with Jim Woodring’s art prompted me to take a chance on this album. Bill Frisell is often classified as a Jazz guitarist, but his sound is full of folk, blues, and rock influences. More importantly is how Frisell weaves these styles together with a gracefulness that is soulful and sweet.

With Victor Krauss on bass and Jim Keltner on drums, Bill Frisell (guitar) creates an intimate and mysterious sound that carries the listener away. Guitar notes echo by and shift in pitch while a solid upright bass keeps moving along. Jim Keltner (drums) maintains the syncopation while adding his own signature to this wavering soundstage. Without mistake, this see-saw of sound and melody is enchanting while also very familiar.

The first track, Blues for Los Angeles**, starts off like as a train building steam. Slowly, but steadily this trio pulls out for the long drive.  Rhythmically being held in check by Keltner and Krauss allows Bill Frisell to paint the town with his powerful guitar improvisations. Soon we are greeted with huge bluesy guitar tones that pour out of an enchanting and deep stereo field. Careful not to overplay, Frisell manages to strike a tasteful sustaining of notes and silence just where it fits the music.

Another great track, Lookout for hopestarts with a repeating bass line while the drums slowly slip into the beat. Not long after, Bill Frisell plucks a few notes, then begins the melody. You are carried through this journey with steady deep bass and drums that scatter and realign the song’s direction. That direction of music, so well maintained by Frisell, allows these musicians to explore the haunting melody.

Other tracks, such as Verona, Egg Radio***, and Girl ask Boy (part 1 and 2) have a familiar blues/folk influence while also keeping a uniqueness all their own. The bottom line is that Bill Frisell delivers with this album on all fronts. Musicianship is grade A, song writing is amazing, and the recording is exemplary.

*Tower Record was a retail store that sold physical media that contained music recordings for the public to buy.

**Song sample here

***Song sample here

Record Store Day 2012


Record Store Day, Tomorrow!

Record Store Day  was created to celebrate the independent record stores here in the US and abroad.  Maybe you have a record player in the closet, or a dusty Hi-Fi system.  Time to tune-up and dust off that record player. Once the needle hits the vinyl you’ll have an “aha” moment!  There is nothing quite like the sound of music translated through the vinyl medium. For this momentous occasion, record labels and artists have made special vinyl (yes, and CD) releases.

-You can find a list of record store day releases here

Green Amplifier Technology Comes of Age


This is the "Greenest" thing I have.

Power Amplifiers for Hi-Fi stereo systems come in a variety of types. Audiophiles often prefer tube or solid state amps, while some like hybrid amp designs.  Having used both tube and solid-state amplifier designs has given me an appreciation for both approaches. Class A, AB solid state*, and tube designs are often the most used amps for high end music playback. I’ll admit that tube amp designs can impart a beautiful tonality on the music, but sometimes the added harmonic content is too much for my tastes.

Although Class D (pulse width modulation) amps have been around since the mid 70’s, they have been mostly used in consumer grade electronics and live sound installations. Many of the home theatre-in-a-box and recent iPod sound docks** also use Class D amplifier technology.

Being energy-efficient, physically small, and running cool makes class D amps very attractive to the consumer market. High end audio companies also took notice. Companies like Lipinski, Bel Canto, NuForce, Wyred for Sound and CI Audio have all worked at making the most musically satisfying class D designs.  The ability to drive most speaker loads and exert extreme control over the speaker drivers make class D very attractive indeed.***

Sonically, I have experienced mixed results with audiophile class D amps. While quiet, fast, and revealing, they can also sound a bit dry or stark. Comparing these current generation class D amps to Class A and AB designs has kept me from recommending any one class D amp for audiophiles.

The Dutch Masters?

A small company in The Netherlands, Hypex, has taken control of the current class D amplifier scene. Hypex  builds many OEM Class D subassemblies that make their way into audiophile amps. A new generation of this Class D amplifier called Ncore is supposed to “surpass the best linear amplifiers – in every way,” according to Hypex. Luckily, 6moons (audio review site) had a chance to try these new modules and speak with the designers. You can read the full article here.

  1. * Audio Amplifier designs explained here.
  2. **Hypex is also known for designing the Class D amp and power supply found in the Bower &Wilkins Zeppelin iPod dock.
  3. ***This is refered to as the Damping Factor of an audio amplifier.

Speakers that Sound Natural


(EXHIBIT A: EOS HDphoto courtesy of Green Mountain Audio 

Green Mountain Audio has been producing fine loudspeakers out of Colorado for some time now. Over the past several years I have been lucky enough to test drive the Eos HD in my system.

The Eos HD is a 2 way time coherent* monitor which employs a 1st order crossover design. This is achieved when the tweeter and mid range speaker driver move in unison or synchronously. Being made of a composite marble material helps dampen cabinet resonances while also allowing the designer to shape the cabinet in more acoustical appropriate ways.  Bottom line: The Eos HD produces music with excellent imaging/localization and a transparency that is truly amazing.

Happy Listening!

*The best comparison I can give to experiencing time-coherent speakers is listening to a DAC (digital to analog converter) with extremely low jitter through headphones such as the Sennheiser HD-600.  Since most headphones have one driver per channel, time coherence is built into the design. While a good pair of headphones and a DAC can reproduce digital music with great results, the experience is very different from sound produced over loudspeakers.

Note: I was able to hear the Lindemann BL-10 at T.H.E. show last year and was very impressed with the sound of this 2 way  speaker (employs a simple crossover design for minimum phase). I have not had extensive listening sessions with the Lindemann, but hope to review it in full in the future.

Happy Listening!

Ripping your CD collection into iTunes


XLD ripping software places ripped audio in iTunes music folder

If you are about to embark on ripping your entire CD collection to your external HDD (maybe a SSD, cool!) and question iTunes reliability, you are not alone. iTunes rips CDs to your internal or external hard drive with features such as error correction. While this may work, iTunes fails to offer any report or validation that you have indeed ripped your CD without error. If you’re about to rip hundreds or thousands of CDs like I did, you may want to investigate other methods.

XLD* is a Mac OS based CD ripper that uses AccurateRip technology. XLD has been around since 2006 and has undergone many updates and enhancments. Not only dos it rip CDs accurately with detailed reports, it also seamlessly migrates your ripped CD into your iTunes music folder. It also supports metadata so your album art and titles are found and married to your CD rip.

-Happy ripping

*XLD is a free software download. If you enjoy the quality of this software you are welcome to donate.

File format support: aiff, wave, apple lossless, flac, mp4 (2 types), LAME mp3, Ogg Vorbis, WavPack…..

Is Your Album Transparent?

Your favorite music served up on various formats

Hi-resolution downloads have been on the audiophile scene for a while now with mixed user feedback. Companies like iTrax and HD Tracks have provided what they claim are high-resolution audio files for customers to purchase and download.  HD Tracks has been accused of selling upsampled digital audio masters instead of truly transferring the audio in real time from the master tapes. iTrax, on the other hand is adamant about their HD music downloads being authentic.  iTrax focuses on recent recordings made using new HD recording technology (i.e. 24 bit 96Khz Analog to digital converters used to convert the microphone preamp).

While HD Tracks has investigated the dubious upsampled audio, it is hard to keep track of how different mastering houses/record labels actually deal with the audio in their studios.  HD Tracks does not inform the customer about how or where the audio is from (save for one release so far). iTrax, for the moment, seems to be much more transparent about how their audio is dealt with. Older analog master tapes can be transferred to high-resolution digital audio files, it is up to us to demand that the process used is fully disclosed.

I notice a lot of discussion (web forums) about the HD Tracks releases and whether or not the files are real or merely upsampled. As an engineer, I can appreciate the scrutiny.  What I find curious is that these forum discussions seem to be concentrating on the science of the data. Sure, I care about that, but let’s actually use our ears and listen.  Did they do a good mastering job?  Was the music uncompressed but brittle?  Well, I personally am looking for a great rendering of a master recording.  Just because it is uncompressed does not mean it is better. While compression/EQ can be done too extremely (modern pop recordings), it can also be ignored to the point of being just as sonically tasteless.

Not only do we (the customer) not know who is engineering all these high definition reissues, we are also unaware if mastering took place or what exactly is going on. We the consumer must also realize that record label executives, distributors (like HD Tracks, Mobile Fidelity, Analogue Productions, iTrax), request different mastering techniques. Bottom line: different reissue labels will approach mastering differently. It is up to us to educate ourselves, and support those reissue labels who are sonically transparent about their mastering methods.

Audiophile Album Reissues

This brings me to another point about audiophile reissues. Often times I am disappointed to hear that audiophile labels don’t use EQ, compression, or anything.  Do they use a mastering engineer?  The only recordings I find that need little if no mastering are very well recorded orchestral music and small jazz ensembles.

It is unfortunate that the loudness wars of the 90’s have misinformed people about what mastering is all about. Through my investigation into audiophile music releases I came up with some thoughts:

  • The Vinyl record has certainly made a comeback – as it should.  Aside from having the ability to apply EQ for vinyl mastering, compression is dealt with quite differently. The physical limitations of the vinyl LP do not allow for too much compression, or the grooves will overlap when the cutting is taking place. Even more, vinyl demands care and attention when cutting is done.
  • This is not to say that vinyl records cannot be mastered poorly, those records certainly exist. It is just that in recent years, I have found a good number LP reissues that tastefully render the sonic qualities of a recording.

Know your record label

Great recordings in hi resolution exist, it is just important to request that these labels disclose the techniques and tools used.

Now go listen to an album! Repeat…

On the turntable:  Ella and Louis (mono45 RPM), Echospace Detroit

Computer Hi-Fi

Achieving bit perfect playback with zero interference is the goal, right? I will use this post to explore my findings with computer based stereo systems. Here’s some of the equipment I tested out.

For this test I used an Apple Macbook Pro for my audio playback system. The Macbook Pro supposedly has better RFI (radio frequency interference) rejection than the Mac Mini. PC’s are also possible playback computers, but this article will relay my Macbook pro experiences.

Building a Hi Fidelity computer based audio server/player can often present some challenges. While iTunes organizes music well, it doesn’t play it back with the highest fidelity. Enter the software developer. In recent years we have seen a variety of playback software come onto the audiophile market. This software, such as Pure Music** and Amarra allows iTunes to open and be used as a GUI while pure music handles all the audio processing. Features like RAM memory playback, upsampling, and turning off handshaking allows digital music to be reproduced with less artifacts/jitter.

Computers are notorious for producing noise. Not only do the fans make acoustic noise, but also the graphics card, processors, and other components produce power line noise. This hash is transmitted down USB, Firewire, and other ports that transmit DC power. The sensitive clocks that produce the sample rate in these USB/Firewire DACs are affected by the noise transmitted down the busses DC leg.

The German-made Yellowtec Puc 2* USB audio interface converts USB to AES for the Crane Song Avocet DAC. Providing clean power to the USB powered AES interface is of utmost importance. In order to tackle this issue I first start by separating the digital and analog audio gear. Shunyata hydra 2 units are used for this purpose. The DAC/Monitor controller gets AC power from one hydra 2, while the stereo amp is plugged into the other Hydra 2. If I had the ability, I would place each of the Hydras on their own dedicated AC circuit. Furthermore, I have the computer on a separate circuit with a surge protector.

Other products exist from companies like AQVOX that allow you to lift the DC power from the computer and insert a separate power supply for your USB device.

I will continue to relay my findings as I explore this topic more. Stay tuned…

The Yellowtec sounds best when operating on internal clock, as do many converters. The Puc 2 also benefits from clean power via the previously mentioned methods.

*The Yellowtec Puc2 is asyncronous and can be locked to an external word clock via AES-3 connection. The Benchmark ADC-1 was tested and provided rock solid clock to the Yellowtec Puc 2. Rock solid when locked to 44.1 and 88.2 via AES-3 signal from ADC-1. At higher sample rates, the Puc2 seems to prefer its internal clock.

**Pure Music sounded best when used in 64 bit mode and power of two upsampling enabled. For redbook CDs that were 44.1 SR, upsampling to 88.2 via Pure Music provided the best sound. The 88.2Khz Clock was provided via the Yellowtec Puc2. DSP functions on Pure Music “off” except for upsampling/meters off and in “Less is More” mode.

*** All USB ports on the macbook and mac mini are not created equal. Some of the ports share other busses such as isight, IR, and bluetooth. You can also disable the IR receiver in system preferences.

A usb cable that separates the DC power leg from the data wires with spacing and shielding is recommended. I use a Wireworld usb cable with this key design feature.