Friday, January 31, 2014

Collector's Weekly with Commentary

This is the first of an ongoing series of commentaries on the international classical LP market that we'll be titling "Classical LP Week".  Up until now, I've just been posting copies of the Collector's Weekly top 40 lists, but now we hope to make this a little more interesting.  We'll be commenting on the latest Ebay auctions and will also keep you informed about deals or steals on other web sites.  We are strictly independent and are not affiliated whatsoever with any LP sellers or dealers, so rest assured that there will be no financial conflicts in our commentary.  The purpose of this is to share our humble insight into the current state of the classical LP market, which is clearly alive and well.
1) Columbia Sax 2315 Ed1 Beethoven Violin Con. Oistrakh Cluytens Nm - $510 (6 bids)
2) Brahms - Double Concerto, Fournier & Oistrakh Columbia Sax 2264 - $477 (1 bid)
3) Huge Lot Of Over 900 Classical & Opera Record Lp's Vg To Nm Plastic On Each One - $465 (1 bid)
4) Bach: Sonatas & Partitas For Solo Violin/szigeti/original Vanguard/scarce/nm - $375 (6 bids)
5) Decca Sxl 2078-80; Ed1 Wbg; Puccini; Turandot; Borkh-tebaldi-del Monaco; Ex+ - $363 (1 bid)
6) Enrico Mainardi - Bach Suites For Cello Solo - 3lps Eurodisc Nm - $349 (1 bid)
7) David Oistrakh Trio / Beethoven / Columbia Sax 2352 B/s - $313 (3 bids)
8) Decca Sxl 2215-7 Die Zauberflote (the Magic Flute) Karl Bohm - Complete - Mozart - $305 (13 bids)
9) Andre Navarra Unaccompanied Bach Solo Cello Suites Calliope 3 Lp Box Mint Rare - $305 (22 bids)
10) Sax 2530 Blue/silver Beethoven Quartets Nos 4 & 5 Drolc Quartet Columbia Stereo - $256 (11 bids)
11) Columbia Saxf 162 Stereo, Leonid Kogan, Beethoven Violin Concerto, French Sax - $254 (6 bids)
12) Michele Auclair - Bach Violin Sonatas - 2lp Japan Lexington - New - $251 (2 bids)
13) Fabrizio De Andre € - $229 (1 bid)
14) Michael Rabin Violin Encores Mosaics Leon Pommers Piano Capitol P 8506 - $198 (1 bid)
15) Vox Organ, " Z " Legs, Stand - $175 (1 bid)
16) Classical Vinyl Lp Collection - 120+ Records - Mainly Sxl, Asd & Sax - $172 (16 bids)
17) Columbia Sax 2263 Blue/silver Janos Starker Dvorak Cello Concerto Phil. Susskind - $153 (4 bids)
18) Eduard Melkus Biber Violin Sonatas Of The Rosary Archiv Sapm 198422/23 German - $150 (1 bid)
19) Bach Cello Suites 1 - 6 - Enrico Mainardi - Eurodisc 3lps - $150 (1 bid)
20) *** Tchaikovsky * The Sleeping Beauty # Ansermet - Decca Sxl 2160-1-2 *** - $108 (7 bids)
21) Byron Janis / Rachmaninoff Concerto / Rca Living Stereo Sd Lsc-2541 1s/1s Tas Lp - $105 (4 bids)
22) Ludwig Hoelscher Solo Cello Portrait Of A Soloist Sample Copy Mps Basf Mint - $103 (2 bids)
23) Leonid Kogan Violin Paganini Bruck Mitnik Piano Columbia1562 Cx - $101 (3 bids)
24) Associated Organ Builders Manual 2 Church Organ - $100 (1 bid)
25) Heifetz Beethoven Sonatas For Violin Rca Victor Lm 6701 / 5 Lp Set Box - $100 (1 bid)
26) Weller Quartet / Beethoven / Decca Sxl 6148 Wbg Ed1 - $100 (1 bid)
27) Tchaikovsky 1812 Limited Edition Super-cut Uhqr Pressing Telarc Dgqr-10041 Japan - $100 (1 bid)
28) Fabrizio De Andre In Concerto Pfm 1st Press Lp Venezuela - $99 (1 bid)
29) Columbia Ed.1 Sax 2276-7 B/s Beethoven Otto Klemperer Symphony No.9 Choral Nm - $92 (5 bids)
30) Wilson Audiophile Enescu Sonata Abel Steinberg Nm - $89 (2 bids)
31) Tchaikovsky Rimsky - Korsakoff Classic 45 Rpm Lsc-2323 Still Sealed Unplayed - $85 (1 bid)
32) Beethoven: Sonatas For Cello & Piano/kempff/fournier/dgg Tulip Box/scarce/nm - $85 (1 bid)
33) Mischa Elman Encores/violin Recital/uk London Ll Ffrr/scarce/nm - $81 (2 bids)
34) Furtwangler - Beethoven 9 - Bayreuth 1951 - 2 Lp Box Hmv Set Walp 1286/87 - $80 (4 bids)
35) Oistrakh Tartini Deviltrills French 1st Columbia 33 Fx 654 Dowelspine Nearmint - $80 (1 bid)
36) Ansermet / Beethoven Symphony No 7 / Decca Sxl 2235 Wbg Ed1 - $75 (1 bid)
37) Clara Haskil Markevitch Beethoven Klavierkonzert 3 Lp Ex+ Hi Fi Stereo Og 835040 - $75 (1 bid)
38) Darnok Brahms Sonate Piano Violin Edith Peinemann Demus Nm - $68 (10 bids)
39) Rare: Csd 1499 Jacqueline Du Pre: Bruch Kol Nidrei: Music For Viola And Cello - $68 (7 bids)
40) Artur Rubinstein / Beethoven Moonlight Sonata / Rca Living-stereo Sd Lsc-2654 - $67 (6 bids)


Here's the week's roundup of top priced Ebay auctions.  Plenty of goodies on the list.

Among the Columbia SAXes for sale, once again the Oistrakh Beethoven is going for more than $500.  Insane pricing, considering that this shows up a pretty good deal on Ebay.  I picked up mine about 10 years ago for less than half the price.  The bidders are suckers on this one.  The Oistrakh Fournier Brahms Double is also going for around $500.  I picked up my blue/silver copy on Ebay a few months ago for $3, which shows that if you look at the right time, you can find the right bargain.  SAX 2352 is back again.  A rarity, perhaps, but certainly not worth its price sonically.  I reviewed this one last year and was so not impressed with its muffled sound and constricted sound stage that I sold it off.  The same goes for the Drolc Quartet.  This was the UK issue of the US Epic release.  I've listened to those Drolc albums on Epic.  They are nice performances with average sound, and the SAX I have is no improvement.  The Janos Starker SAX is at just above $150 but will most likely go for more than $300.  I've not heard this one on LP but would be interested in hearing any owners' comments.

A few interesting Deccas but none of the heavy hitters are up this week.

Another copy of Andre Navarra's Bach Cello Suites is going strong.  I've heard this on CD but not on LP.  These seem to always sell for a good deal.

Michael Rabin's Mosaics would be a nice find, though I'm not sure it's worth $198.  And there's a single bidder on this one!

The joke on this list has got to be the Artur Rubinstein Living Stereo LP of the Beethoven sonatas.  $67?  Really??

Label, Label on the Wall, Who's the Fairest of Them All


As threatened in the taking the Sound Floor post I am going to write about my current views on the labels. My system has been in too much flux to give accurate sound reviews, but was stable and broken in until just recently. I was able to get in some decent listening before doing the big upgrade two days ago. I'll need to work on EMI pressing matrix soon.  The commentary below (MW) will include my thoughts as well as those of my co-blogger, Aqlam (AQL).

The Fairest Label:

By fairest I mean best sounding. The answer of course is EMI, but there are other fine labels so lets go through them:


MW: The originals are not bad with good bass. Aqlam and myself like many in the CS 6200s particularly. They have nice timbre and good bass extension, but not the most control. They can have decent noise floor performance. I've listened to some of the Salvatore favorites in the latter Decca's and they have better noise floor performance, but still not fantastic in my book. On my system they are plagued with hints of a somewhat recordy sound. I need to listen to a few of these on a friend's Quad system that has brought new midrange life to the related Lyrita label which I'll discuss next.

AQL: London/Deccas can sometimes be a mixed bag, but overall they are excellent.  The earliest London/Deccas didn't have the greatest clarity and dynamic range and were sometimes plagued with bright treble, weak bass, and distortion.  There are a few exceptions to this, such as Fjeldstad's Peer Gynt with the LSO and Argenta's Espana album with the LSO.  What is interesting, though, is that the later reissues (wide band FFRR as opposed to wide band FFSS, even the Stereo Treasuries) of some of the earliest London/Deccas can sound finer that the originals.  Yes, it's true.  I've done several A/B tests and have concluded for myself that original is not always better.  Salvatore agrees with this entirely.  Distortion, if present on the original, is generally absent on the reissues, and the treble is less pronounced with deeper bass extension.  Mid- to later Deccas as MW alluded to are often more pleasing to the ear. 


MW: We need to get back to these and I've got a boat load of Lyritas on hand. At this point I am now favoring Nimbus pressings (best noise floor) with EMI pressings a close second (good noise floor too, but perhaps a touch bright). The Decca pressings have good midrange, but all but the latest have that recordy sound alluded to above. What blows my mind is that the Decca pressings, which were also recorded by Decca engineers, do not sound like Decca recordings. This needs to be investigated. The Lyritas are consistently good and might be the best label on average, but none of the records achieve greatness -- just ask maestro Salvatore of Supreme Recordings fame. A friend's quad system has really done a number with Lyritas in the midrange. They have been very, very good in this department. I need to get to the bottom of what the Quad system is doing to give a fair evaluation (and try to get that sound on my own system). At this point, on Quads the Lyritas are a bit more special and they may deserve more credit from the maestro and here.

AQL:  I'm in agreement with MW here.  I haven't done much experimentation with the different Lyrita pressings, so I can't comment as much as MW.  What has always impressed me with Lyritas is the super quiet surfaces, huge dynamic range, exceptional clarity.  I haven't found a Lyrita with sound quality that I didn't covet.  The CD transfers are no slouch either and seem to preserve these qualities.  Repertoire is pretty much focused on 19th and 20th century British music, but it's fine music, so who cares?


MW: Golden era RCA (1958-1963) and the audiophile reissues are the best pressings. Unfortunately, most of these have poorly controlled bass and not much of it. The best were originally recorded by Decca. And, the RCA UK LSB pressings were Decca pressings (it would be fun to hear a LSB of a Decca recorded RCA, if such an animal was released). These records have great timbre ("living strings") and many have hints of decent noise floor performance like the early Decca. So, they are competitive with Decca with sometimes better timbre. Acoustic Sounds has some new reissues coming out which I'd like to hear. The Classic Reissues get a lot more bass into the picture with more bass control, but clearly the master tapes are the limiting factor. The Classic Reissues did not achieve much in the noise floor department. I hope the new Acoustic Sound reissues improve this. I believe they will be quite a bit more dynamic in the bass.

AQL:  I started my record collection 13 years ago hunting down Living Stereos in used book stores and online.  I've had the opportunity to own or listen to almost all of them from the golden age (having avoided most of the Dynagrooves) and can say that they are also a mixed bag.  There are some really exceptional ones (Reiner's Also Sprach Zarathustra, Fiedler's Gaite Parisienne, The Reiner Sound, Reiner's Iberia, Munch's Daphnis et Chloe, etc) that continue to knock my socks off when I listen to them now.  Many of the rest, though, have decent but not exemplary sound.  The great ones have an incredibly natural sound with very nice hall ambience.  Like MW, I would like to test out the Acoustic Sounds reissues, which Jonathan Valin has raved about.  The price of these is quite variable on Ebay, too.  Powerhouse records tend to still sell for a lot (when was the last time you saw an original Royal Ballet Gala sell for less than several hundred dollars?), though there are several diamonds in the rough that you can find for a bargain.  I just got a fantastic copy of LSC-2282, Munch conducting Debussy's Images, for under $20 shipped.  So, if you are patient and look, you will find.


MW: Easily the fairest label of them all! I've got quite a few pressing comparisons to do once the system stabilizes. At this point I will say this. EMI master tapes have the most controlled and extended bass of any major label. On a well done system they just soundstage better with good toe tapping bass. On noise floor the label as a whole is tremendous.  

The original vintage pressings on Columbia SAX and EMI try in this department. The semi-circle ASD achieves a very nice controlled bass and better sound then the gold and cream as the musical line is more involving. The Magic (Notes) SAX is not very good overall while the later Notes (in a box) label can be better, but veers towards brightness. The EMI SXLP and CFP reissues of the Columbia SAX material are a safe bet.

You don't really start to get the great noise floor performance until the seventies pressing and recordings. Many of the reissues of the vintage material have much better noise floor performance and handily exceed even the London reissues of their golden area material. You'll never make it to noise floor nirvana, but add the excellence (tube dynamics) of this vintage material and you really have something quite nice.

The interesting period to me are the early 70's recordings along with some of their reissues. The Rostropovich Lutoslowski is a Salvatore Demi-God and should be on the cusp of his top Divinity category.  The bass control and superb noise floor yield amazing sonics and soundstaging. The Poulenc Organ Concerto on ASD from this period is another strong performer with a wonderful bass foundation and strong noise floor performance (and a no show on the Maestro's list unbelievably). The later pressings even into the mid-eighties of any EMI material are strong contenders too.  I've got to do much sorting out of this excellence.

The ugliest EMI reissues are from the Electric Recording Company. So beautiful, but such an ugly price ($500). I've been researching the recording technology used for EMI, but have little on LP mastering. The Electric Recording Company's 1965 lathe and chain is very interesting and might be an awesome choice for preserving much of the vintage flavor of these earlier recordings. I doubt their Beethoven Kogan sounds the same as the original (its probably better). All the same I am leaning towards the 70's and early 80's pressings for their superior noise floors. I also am very partial to semi-circle ASD, to which a 1965 lathe might be closest. I have great hopes except the price of admission has nearly dashed them. An ugly business decision that may spark quite a bit of enmity given that with the stereo issues Electric Recording Company could probably sell many more copies than the 300 copies at $500 each. I suspect they will make their money if the product delivers. Perhaps there success will spark improvements in reissues that will filter done to more sanely priced product lines. I hope I run into a well healed audiophile who has a few.

AQL: I've already commented a bit on EMIs in my ongoing review series of the Columbia SAX records and the EMI ASDs, so I'll keep things short here.  MW loves these records, and he has good reason.  Many of them are of excellent quality.  Many of history's greatest interpretations of classical works were recorded for EMI, and the artist roster had dynamite name after dynamite name.  That being said, Columbia SAXes are a mixed bag, and in my honest opinion, their prices have been grossly overexaggerated on Ebay and the dealer market.  Here, sound quality absolutely does NOT parallel price.  I have listened to over 100 of them.  Some astound, others disappoint.  It has more to do with rarity, and then perhaps some degree of collector insanity.  They are cool to look at and have very fine covers.  I was on a George Szell buying spree last year, thinking that there was something really exceptional about the SAX issues as opposed to the US Epic ones.  I was wrong.  There is no difference.  The Epics cost you $1-5, the SAXes $100-500+.  Like MW, I learned (the hard way) that some of the later reissues, SXLP and CFPs, can sound absolutely wonderful and often better than the originals.  They are 1/100th the price at times and will save you money to buy more records, which means more good music to listen to.  EMI ASDs are probably better on average than the SAXes and have a more extensive catalog.  White/gold first pressing vs semi-circle second pressings vs postage stamp laters pressings is always a collector's question.  There is no right answer to this.  Different people will also have their own opinions of which is the best pressing.  There are some superb white/golds and some that are horrible (many of the early Beecham ASDs).  I own several semi-circle reissues of white/golds that I cannot imagine sound inferior at all to the originals.  To make matters more complicated, there are postage stamp reissues of the white/golds and semi-circles that also sound superb.  Again, the Beecham early ASD recordings are given much better sound on these reissues, so I would certainly not discount these.  They are also far cheaper and will not burn a hole in your wallet.

Harmonia Mundi:

MW: Many of these populate the top echelons of Salvatore land. The pressing variations are much like Lyrita in that they are all good and no one knows which is best (sorry, I've got a ton of these but my pressing variation is lacking). They are deserving of their high marks, but this label is too minor to be Fairest of them all. Salvatore would probably rate it so, but I suspect with further listening of my collection I will have unearthed a murder's row of EMI that will easily eclipse this label. Harmonia Mundi has very, very interesting recordings with even more interesting sonic pedigrees.

AQL:  MW has the advantage here.  I've only really listened to Harmonia Mundi CDs, which are some of the finest digital recordings out there right now.  I will have to land some of the LPs to be able to make more informed comments.


MW: I've got the Salvatore Demi-God Debussy Images, but it doesn't quite hang with the top EMI's. There are nice later Dutch pressings of Mercury (Golden Imports) and some London material. Alleged weak bass on the whole for these pressings. I've been listening some to these, but overall not one of the top labels, but close.

AQL: I've been a long time fan of Philips for their super quiet surfaces and very clean, dynamic sound.  Only recently did I begin to understand a little more about the different Philips pressings.  The coveted ones have typically been the early Plum Hi-Fi stereo labels, though I suspect this is more of a collectors' preference.  Some of these can sell for a decent price, but they never reach the stratosphere of the collector's market like Deccas or EMIs.  Some of them were European issues of US Columbia records with frequently different covers.  I thought there might be some improvement in these Philips issues, but in fact, I have once again been disappointed in this regard.  They do not sound better than the US Columbia records and may even sound a little worse.  They are certainly NOT worth the extra price.  Just find the analogous Columbia 6-eye or 2-eye recording, and you will most likely be pleased, especially since you will have paid 50 cents to $5 rather than $30-100.  Some of the later Philips are highly sought after for their performers.  The recordings of Arthur Grumiaux, Henryk Szeryng, Ingrid Haebler, Clara Haskil, and so forth can sell for a lot of money.  They are beautiful recordings and very nice sounding records, but do yourself a favor and don't spend more than $10-15 on one of these LPs.  Better yet, buy them as a boxed set (e.g. Szeryng's Mozart violin concertos, Grumiaux's Bach Sonatas and Partitas) and you get more music for a better deal.  Some of the outstanding Philips recordings are the ones that don't sell for much.  I'd say that the Haitink Debussy recordings are a must hear (MW and Salvatore agree).  These go for cheap.



MW: The original FR pressings were done by RCA and offer the most beguiling sound. RFR color back is not bad too. In the final analysis, Mercury is a minor label despite the love heaped on it by some audiophile writers. Bass control is not great which really limits Mercury's potential.

AQL:  There are a handful of really great Mercuries, but most of the rest are average.  I mean this with no disrespect to the pioneers of the label who really worked hard to maintain the standards of the label, but compared to the best out there, only select entries in the Mercury catalog stand up to the competition.  Those that do, though, are really something.  Many of the recordings of Dorati and the LSO or Paray and the Detroit Symphony are very good to excellent.  Take SR 90313, a longtime TAS list contender and probably my favorite Mercury.  You'll be hard pressed to find a more dynamic, more natural sounding record of this French music, and that is not even mentioning the interpretation.  What also set Mercury apart from the rest in the 50s-60s was their dedication to recording American repertoire.  I've really enjoyed some of the recordings of Howard Hanson and the Eastman-Rochester orchestra.  Not that these recordings are superb audiophile quality -- some of them are -- but they contain music that is worth exploring.  I used to own 100+ Mercuries.  I now own about 10 of what I think are the best.  The CDs actually can sound much cleaner than the originals, so give them an audition, too.




Columbia and Epic:

MW: I've not listened to the various Columbia pressings in some time, so no comment except that I always liked the recordings not of New York and Philadelphia which seemed to have the worst sound.

AQL: Great performances, mediocre though sometimes good sound.  Columbia had an excellent lineup of performers and orchestras (Isaac Stern, Philippe Entremont, David Oistrakh, Glenn Gould, Bernstein and the NYPO, Walter and the CSO, Stravinsky and the CSO, Ormandy and the PO, Kostelanetz and the  -- oops, how did that get in there?) but somehow their engineering didn't seem to match the caliber of RCA and Mercury in the US or any of the European labels.  Many of the recordings have a more immediate presentation without the natural hall ambience that made many of the golden era classical recordings, well, golden.  This may have been an issue with recording venue, but I suspect that microphone placement also played a role here.  The chamber music recordings don't suffer from this problem quite as much as the orchestral ones.  That being said, there are a few choice picks.  The Bruno Walter Beethoven symphonies are rather nice, especially in their 6-eye incarnation, and the Pastoral has longtime been a TAS list favorite.  As mentioned earlier, many of these were issued on Philips label and currently sell for a lot more.  They are not better sounding, so don't be fooled.


MW: The originals were pressed by RCA and have a nice Westrex tube cutter sound. The Analog Production reissues are much better with amazing noise floor (why can't anyone else do this with the other labels) and dynamics. The uncontrolled bass restricts even these reissues, but otherwise they are quite Fair (meaning unbelievably good in this article.)

AQL:  Need more experience here, but I've got a few on my shelf that are recent purchases that I need to sample.

Vox (Turnabout, etc.):

MW: The later Vox are of some interest particularly the Vox Boxes. Dr. Rudolph Van Gelder even did the pressings on the early VOX (nice, euphonic, tubey bass). The last pressings have some surface issues, but this reviewer needs to dig through for the Aubort/Nickrenz recording team records and see what they can do. Reissued on reference recordings mastercut series which I'd like to hear.

AQL: Some of these are the hidden gems of the classical music world.  Many if not most of them were done of lesser known artists and ensembles, but that's okay.  Everyone needs a chance to shine.  Some of Alfred Brendel's earliest recordings were for Vox before he made it to the limelight and then was picked up by Philips.  I was very surprised to see RVG's name on these recordings, especially since I always associated him with the legendary Blue Note and Prestige recordings.  He apparently did some of Voxes chamber music and solo recordings.  I haven't heard many of these, but many of them are in mono.  The ones to explore here are the Aubort/Nickrenz albums of the 1970s.  Case in point:  the Skrowaczewski recordings with the Minnesota Orchestra of the Ravel complete orchestral works are perhaps THE most natural sounding recordings of these works that I have ever head.  Not to mention that they have huge dynamics and superb clarity.  I got my boxed set for $11 on Ebay 6 months ago and have never looked back.  These are bargains.


MW: Generally not good, but I need to peruse the collection some more. The prolific later pressings had polished stampers which reduces lp noise, but also seemed to polish away treble detail. Early pressings are interesting and hard to find, but the few I have are only very good at best.

AQL: Some of the DGs are great.  They also recorded lots of great artists and conductors.  Karajan and the BPO.  Fricsay.  Bohm.  Jochum.  Kubelik.  Ferras.  Kempff.  Schneiderhan.  Fournier.  Amadeus Quartet.  Argerich.  Trio di Trieste.  Performances really shine.  No one will argue with the quality and intensity of Mravinsky's recording of Tchaikovsky's last three symphonies on DG.  Sound quality, though, is highly variable.  I haven't exactly noticed that the "Tulips" early pressings sound superior to the thinner vinyl reissues.  In fact, the reissues often sound better -- cleaner, less surface noise, no distortion.  There can often be significant distortion on the early DG LPs.  One recurring problem that I have also encountered is their noisy surfaces.  Not sure why exactly, and even after cleaning on a VPI, many of them still have more static pops than I would expect for a near mint looking record.




MW: I got a relisten in to an early Nonesuch the last few days. Superb harmonics if a tad aggressive in the treble (American Decca pressing). Hints of decent noise floor performance and utterly quiet virgin vinyl surfaces. The later pressing were done by Robert Ludwig and latest ones by Masterdisk. I am due to peruse these as some of the later work might have strong noise floor performance. Of course, this label has very interesting material.

AQL: MW has got me beat here.  I just don't own many of these, but that is more due to ignorance than choice.

Reference Recordings:

MW: An audiophile label that has had enough classical output for a paragraph here. The later pressings were done with an updated version of the mobile fidelity Stan Ricker equipment. They have strong bass and control, but noise floor is not quite there.  Perhaps a few too many integrated circuits have cooled the sound. Reference recently started putting out records again and these new pressings have unbelievable bass control and dynamics.  I don't own one, but I'll try to have a listen. These and I think the later Analog production releases are closely related. Both have huge quantities of low tight bass that is impressive.  The earlier Reference LPs use a variety of pressing technology. My favorites are the Nojima plays Ravel and the Menotti/Barber Violin Concertos (Ricci!). These have a very natural sound reminiscent of some of the better attributes of RCA and Decca's best.

AQL: I have not heard the LPs, but the CDs have exemplary, often demonstration quality sound.

Wrap Up:

Hopefully I've not missed a significant label (comment and I'll add them). I apologize for the somewhat haphazard nature, but my system has been evolving in leaps and bounds recently so it has made it hard to make definitive statements, let alone proper LP sonic ratings. The recent black gate upgrades are already half broken in (some used caps in the mix) and the results are so good that I am accelerating my planned upgrade schedule as clearly more black gates are in order. Of course this will continue my reviewing reticence. I'll update this posting as my thoughts evolve.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

MusicWeb International Reviews

Many apologies for not putting forth any recent LP reviews!  While it has been over 3 months since my last formal review, please rest assured that more will be coming.  This happens to be a particularly busy time of the year for me from the academic standpoint, and I just have not had enough time to devote to writing for this blog.  For those of you who also listen to and/or collect CDs, I'm listing some links to a number of reviews that I've recently written for MusicWeb International, just in case you might be interested:

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Taking the “The Sound Floor”


I’ve been away from writing reviews on the site because my system was undergoing major sonic shifts affecting my LP’s relative sound rankings. The major change was the use of low ultra-low noise LT1028’s for my ancient LF353N integrated circuits in my crossover which I’ll detail later.  I wrote the rough draft of this in November and just as I was about to finish my subwoofer amplifier decided that it needed the same attention as its crossover.  It did this by failing without any visual evidence.  I’ll get into the details later, but the amp has now been through two stages of changes with more to come.  These involve the storied Black Gate capacitors.  The sound is stable and much improved now so I’ve decided to get back to this article.

“The Sound Floor”:

The great Arthur Salvatore of Supreme Recordings fame is the father of this mythological audiophile concept.  See the Salvatore Sound Floor.  It is the dominant sonic attribute in determining an LP’s greatness.  It is only mythological in that the typical Electrical Engineering precepts and measurements do not corroborate the findings.  It is audio science (another mythological concept).  By that I mean those with experienced ears can discern the effects on sound and convey those findings.  High End Audio engineering is both art and science, but only because the conventionally not measureable art has not been properly explored.  What follows is an initial delving into the subject.

Salvatore states that the Sound Floor is a related, but very different concept from signal to noise ratio and noise floor.  Salvatore attributes sound floor to shortness of signal path combined with good noise floor performance.  My own recent experiences in this area have led me to a more conservative approach.  In essence, I believe noise floor and signal to noise ratio do well explain much of this phenomena.  One also needs to look at bass control as a major factor.  Dynamics and timbral accuracy also are of great importance.  I would submit that these four, sound floor, bass control, dynamics, and timbral accuracy are largely independent sonic attributes.

I own quite a few of the top Supreme Recordings from the divinity and demi-god lists.  Though always excellent records, I did not think they were great.  My tune has changed recently due to an unexpected improvement in my system from a recent modification.  My system has a separate active crossover for its bass/subwoofer section, the integrated circuits of which I just upgraded.  The final switch from LF353N’s to LT1028’s (adapted) made a gigantic improvement in my noise floor and suddenly the Salvatore Gods came alive. (It blows my mind that this solid state component was the weak link in an all tube system outside the subwoofers, but it was an additional gain stage.)

The Gods that came alive were sound/noise floor performance.   One can hear with most of these Salvatore discs their blatant superiority in this area.  Backgrounds are black, treble has the finest detail, and you can just hear that the sound is more alive.  Alive, not in an immediate, or dynamic sense per se, but just in a “Sound Floor” way which is all about the blackness of background allowing subtle detail and micro dynamics come to the fore.  Sound floor is a very addictive sonic attribute to be sure, especially since it is hard to put your finger on exactly what it is doing, let alone describe it.  It is all encompassing and Mr. Salvatore’s list of Supreme Recordings is principally driven by it and is an impressive codification of what is available (Salvatore might be the large criosphinx above while this reviewer's thoughts might be the eagle in his presence).

A Brief Interlude:

As mentioned in the prelude above, I also have been forced to finally address my venerable Electron Kinetics Eagle 2A amplifier (a great subwoofer amp).  After 25 years of flawless operation, one of the main 80,000uF filter supply caps failed, taking out the bridge rectifier.  I had been planning to get the recap kit for the amp for some time, but since I’d taken the trouble to make a crude schematic many years ago I decided to roll my own capacitors.  The failed cap was the priciest and I was lucky that my good friend Dr. T had a free pair of Hitachi 140,000uF (yes!) and a dremel tool to assist my hack saw in cutting down the posts and screws to fit in the Eagle chassis. 
The bigger change was the IXYS hexfred bridge rectifier.  I believe this was a significant upgrade and was responsible for the bulk of the change in sound.  The change was further improved noise floor performance.  The refreshed larger caps I suspect accounted for a little tighter bass, but it also might have been a bit slow.  So, the quest for replacement and upgrade of the remaining capacitors began.

After much research, I realized that the quantities and prices for the Super Gold ARSA Silmic II caps I was looking for on eBay were adding up, so I decided to investigate Black Gate Capacitors which I had ruled out.  For those unaware, Black Gate has been out of production for nearly ten years.  They were true audiophile electrolytic capacitors using graphite particles based on a patented design. 
I researched the heated debates tinged with religious fervor (Dr. T electrical engineering types versus the “Audio Fools”).  With the Black Gate promise of dramatically lower noise floor, I was sold given the strides I’d been making in this area.  My Eagle is unlikely to ever be replaced in my current speaker system, so I saw no reason not to spend a few more bucks on such a deserving amplifier.

At this point, Black Gate C Series Capacitors have replaced four 2.2uf ($10 each) and two 47uf 50v ($25 each) caps.  The next stage will be eight 22uF PK Black Gates ($5 each) and two 1000uF FK’s (very hard to find, used only $10 each!).  The final stage (which will involve some engineering help) will be to replace the single channel LF351N’s with LT1028 (TO5 cans on hand now).  The LT1028’s will need bypass caps from plus to minus and I’ve acquired some more unobtainium in the form of a pair of 0.1uF Black Gate NX Hi-Q capacitors ($15 each).  I’ve also got a pair of the 22uF PK for a position in my active subwoofer crossover.  I’d like to get eight filter supply caps for the crossover if all this goes well, but that is stupid money at $125 each and over five times the already controversial original retail prices.

It has taken some time for just the Black Gate C Series Capacitors to break in (and it has been as arduous a process as described elsewhere).  They have delivered in big ways.  Always in the past cap changes have been subtle and nothing to get overly excited about especially given that fresh caps do improve the sound some.  Well, Err, ah, Black Gates are a whole new ball game.  The esteemed Martin Colloms claims they are better than most polypropylene film capacitors.  All I can say is that they completely obliterate the typical garden variety electrolytic (and I suspect handily trounce the likes of Oscon, Silmic, Cerafine, etc.). The noise/sound floor is hugely improved (likely some synergy here with the IXYS bridge and LT1028s) and everything else is like a dream.  My reservations about the LT1028 bass being too lean have been obliterated.  The perceived slowness of the massive Hitachi filter caps; obliterated.  Not only is noise floor performance greatly enhanced, but a tube rightness has been restored to many of the vintage LP’s in my collection.  It is as if the Eagle amplifier, while improving greatly in bass and treble dynamics along with control and definition, also has become more tube like (bridge rectifiers and Black Gates).  (Pardon me, but it is old hat with these speakers, but I’ve consistently found that changes in how a system projects bass affect the entire perceived sound including the midrange and the treble.)  I am excited to continue recapping as the Black Gates have been game changers.  If all goes well with the continued changes I will be able to recap large parts of my line and phono stage power supplies with black gates for original retail price (five times or more the price of a typical electrolytic, but peanuts compared to other capacitor upgrades like V-Cap Teflon.)

And now back to Sound Floor:

Where might I demur from the Salvatore mythos?  Well, I also got a big boost on the digital front (for which I care little) from these changes.  I recently acquired a pioneer Blu-ray player for its superb DAC’s.   These Wolfson DAC’s sport a 117 dB signal to noise ratio (never mind the budget ICs behind them and extensive circuitry).  Hardly high end, but I could easily hear a nice difference on this with some of the Silvestri CD’s from the EMI artist set reviewed on this site.  True, not as good as the Salvatore Gods, but one wonders with some pricier, lower noise ICs backing the Wolfson what might happen (of course the master tapes, would be 68 dB at best).  Here we have a very long signal path after the Wolfson with far too many stages and yet the noise floor numbers do translate.  (As an aside I'll mention that the gap between vinyl and CD has widened with all of these improvements, especially the black gates.)  In summary, I would say that the Salvatore mythos misses out on identifying this truly as only a noise floor phenomenon while blending in some other principals of component selection (shortness of signal path).  We need to also discuss bass control, dynamics, and timbral accuracy.

For me, bass control is probably the second most critical component sonic attribute.  If the sound chain (both recording and playback) does not define the bass well, instruments are not fleshed out.  Without a proper bass foundation, perceived treble clarity and extension also will suffer (an acoustic phenomenon). With a tubey bass or ill-defined bass, one can achieve some interesting sound effects particularly in the midrange and often this is the golden glow we hear with tubes and early stereo tube recordings.  (EMI by far has the tightest bass of the golden age labels).  It can be very nice and one may optimize a system for these recordings, but the ill-defined bass will undermine more modern recordings.  An example would the original Vanguard Plow that Broke the Plains or the Analog Production reissue (review forthcoming).  Despite some great things going one with this LP when the massed strings come in at the end of this piece, one is left with an ill-defined blob of strings.  Nothing can rescue this as it is on the tape, but fortunately most of the LP sounds quite magical with this tubey signature.  I suspect dynamics might even be enhanced by this coloration, but this may be an advantage of perhaps higher voltage tube circuitry in the signal path which would aid dynamics.  The great Salvatore’s inclusion of the Vanguard Plow makes me wonder if his reference system is exemplar in low bass and definition.  My preliminary listens to many of the EMI on his list indicates they are under ranked (yeah EMI!)

Timbral accuracy fleshes out the overtones of instruments and is a fine detail often lost due to imperfect turntable motor performance and other vibrations throughout the sound chain.  Here, Salvatore’s shorter signal paths (tubes based circuits) come into play with less opportunity for vibrational mayhem.  Remember, any AC signal puts out a field.  Vibrations can interact with these fields and the AC signal will be affected.  Many theories abound on Capacitors and other components and I will not detail something this well known.  Inherently, the length of solid state chains even with good noise floor performance tends to have negative impacts in the timbral area from a host of issues.  Fortunately, solid bass is key to instrumental definition, so often solid state can achieve adequate timbral performance.  This is a most confusing area as tube recordings with ill-defined bass sometimes have a heightened sense of harmonics that while often a beautiful coloration, does not match anything heard live in my experience.

Dynamics are also important.  To be sure macro dynamics are well known and of importance (Salvatore).  This is one of the hardest things for a playback chain to achieve.  However, often overlooked are micro-dynamics.  It has been a while since I’ve thought much of it, but generally here is an area where tubes often have advantages.  At best a solid state device can deliver double its rated power at for a dynamic peak.  For tube units, ten times the rated power might be possible.  This has much to do with the liveliness of tube based chains.  Generally, the Salvatore Gods may have some micro dynamic weaknesses due to their generally solid state recording chains.  Things like ½ speed mastering can help.  (Unfortunately, more power always means worse noise floor performance.  Higher sensitivity speakers also project more noise.  Balance is needed.)  The Black Gate capacitors are strong in both types of dynamics and this might be attributed to their patented design’s alleged speed of power delivery.

I have much listening and comparisons to do in the upcoming months.  Unfortunately, the arduous Black Gate break in period for the upcoming changes is going to make this a trying period for review.  I am still leery that there may be a point with Black Gates where one reaches the point of too much of a good thing, hence the need for a more plodding methodical approach.  I may do a general post on my current thinking on Lyrita, EMI, Decca, RCA, etc. rather than detailed reviews for which I would like to have a more stable reference system.  I will also have to update some previous postings and review as these awesome sound floor improvements have been great for some LPs while others have experienced much less improvement (the reviewed Nonesuch stands out.)

UPDATE (1/31/2014):

I was reading up on 300B tubes (need a new set) and I found discussion of the signal to noise ratio of these amps.  Apparently, the 300B and any directly heat triode drivers have almost unmeasurable noise.  The downfall is the other tube stages in these amps which brings them into the measurable range.  The 300B is a noise floor thoroughbred.  This explains why I am hearing big noise floor improvements in my solid state sub-woofer section from the changes discussed above.  It is clearly the weak link versus the rest of the amplification which is all directly heated triode.   By the way, the final cap upgrade is now in and already has made a very strong sonic impact on the noise floor with amazing sound despite needing more break in.

UPDATE (3/3/2014):

The second wave of Black Gate Capacitor upgrades broke in quickly as some were used, so last week I moved on with the Black Gates in the crossover and also replaced the diodes with Schottky diodes ($2 total). With the Black Gates through the worst of their break in period now, it is clear how powerful the impact of the Schottky has been on the noise/sound floor. Immediately on first listen it was clear the Schottky had completely cleaned up some hash in the treble with better soundstaging, but their was also a hint of dryness to the sound and other affects that were not musical. The improvement was more dramatic than I anticipated, but in hindsight the crossover being an earlier amplification stage should be a greater determinate of the sound. After settling in, the changes have made all of my tube based recordings improve nicely despite their limits in noise floor performance as a solid state signature has been removed from the system (i.e. crappy diodes and crappy electrolytic capacitors).

The Schottky impact has been to not only reduce noise floor, which it did some, but it has also clarified the bass region (not really tighter or more impact, but clarify). In the words of psuedoscience, the lack of any ring or overshoot with the Schottky seems to have done more than just improve the sound floor. It has stopped a ringing in the bass that has allowed more clarity in their definition. This has translated into finer detail and texture all the way into the treble. Typically this is what you hear with noise floor improvements, but there is more improvement here and in the bass by a magnitude at least than what one would expect just from noise floor. I wrote in one of the Lyrita reviews that it made nimbus pressings sound like the more defined EMI pressings. I proclaim this the Schottky effect which in short is a leap forward in clarity due to the abscence of ring and overshoot. (My good friend Dr. T, the electrical engineering PHD who "pities the fool who tweaks" need not see this, but does get dragged into design decisions so he'll hear it eventually.)

How does this impact are four sonic attributes and our understanding of the elusive Salvatore "Sound" floor? First, I think the lack of solid state diode distortion and stellar good old electrical engineering noise floor is critical to the sound floor. Maestro Salvatore would disagree sharply in that he also favors shortness of signal path which I have no doubt is true, but the fact remains all of the monumental gains in my system have been from addressing noise floor issues with solid state components with no shortening of signal path. Clearly noise floor is a huge component of the sound floor.

Bass definition continues to be another huge factor as time and time again recordings with bloby ill-defined bass are unable to project clean and pristine high frequencies. The same can be said of systems with poor bass control. Add in the bass clarity of the Schottky effect and we see the importance of low frequency foundation.

Dynamics and Timbre also appear to be very interrelated with the sound floor and removal of distortions like the Schottky effect. Do not be fooled by false timbral accuracy that some tube chains produce as an affect of poor bass definition. There is something very real here with the distortion characteristics and microdynamics of tubes. I reference an article of interest for tube and sound floor lovers that explains their superiority; The Hidden Harmonics behind THD

The Fifth Parameter:
This is kind of like the Fifth Element (watch the movie).  I have been scratching my head over how the Quadophile has been getting such amazing midrange performance and I believe this parameter accounts for much of the Quad advantage. The parameter is the sound of the room, a big part of which is smoothness of bass response. The planar Quad has amazingly smooth in room bass response. I measured plus or minus a db at most test frequencies. I recently went through a measurement process with Acoustic Fields and found that my response was fairly flat in this area for a dynamic speaker, but it still pales compared to the Quads. I am tip toeing into the area of room treatments and may use some of the cheap plans Acoustic Fields provides to build their $1000 plus treatments (225 pound bass trap is one and a quadratic diffuser another.) This will be down the line behind some non-Audio projects I'll be doing, but already some preliminary experiments with room acoustics have yielded promising results.

Getting these room parameters right can do big things. A weird one I experienced recently was closing the doors at the back of my room.  By the measurements I thought that having the doors open would yield more 20 Hz reinforcement while garnering less reinforcement around 30-40 Hz. With orchestral LP's doors open (opened up a closet too) did not sound improved.  By closing all the doors I got much better hall presence and bass slam.  That is a very big change. I'll note that for home theater style bass, often having all the doors open gives an airier/nicer sound. Acoustics is complicated!

I suspect that getting the low bass response under control (and other acoustical nasties) may have similar impact to the almighty Sound Floor. It makes sense as accoustical irregularities in the bass and elsewhere will obscure detail. Dennis Foley of Acoustic Fields has a very entertaining series of videos for those who are not acoustic engineers. 

Note: In no shape or form do we recommend products, but free advice this writer likes. Caveat Emptor!