January 2009

Editor's Choice

Among the worthwhile lessons you will learn by watching a few episodes of Antiques Roadshow, the PBS program on which all manner of collectibles are appraised, are the importance of keeping original boxes, the meaning of the words "patina" and "provenance," and why your heart should start racing if you see a "Tiffany" mark. Begun in 1837 as a stationery store, the firm that would eventually become Tiffany & Co. established new aesthetic standards for jewelry and decorative items of all kinds. Find an authentic Tiffany art-glass vase or electric lamp and you've found a treasure that could be the start of a healthy retirement nest egg. What makes Tiffany items so valuable boils down to one word: quality. They are often the finest products of their type, and this translates to rabid collector interest and soaring auction prices. The Tiffany name has become an adjective that means the very best that a category of items has to offer.

I reviewed a number of significant audio products in 2008, including a speaker and amplifier that are the very best their categories have to offer. The Wilson Audio Alexandria X-2 Series 2 is the best speaker I've heard, while the Lamm ML3 Signature is certainly the finest single-ended triode (SET) amp I've encountered and among the very best amplifiers of any kind. What's more, these two products seem destined to be used together, so acutely do their strengths blend to create a sonic whole that's greater than their considerable parts. I had a couple of blissful summer months using the ML3s to drive the X-2 Series 2s, a combination that I honestly felt privileged to hear.

Yet, if I'm going to be vigilant about picking the very best product I encountered in the past year, the one that gave me the most musical enjoyment, the Wilson Audio speakers and Lamm amps have to fight for second place. A year ago at this time, Joe Harley and Ron Rambach, the driving forces behind the Music Matters reissue label, were delivering their first two titles: Art Blakey's The Beat and Horace Parlan's Speakin' My Piece. A year later, Music Matters has released a dozen more titles, all classics from the Blue Note jazz catalog, and those first two, along with two others, are already sold out.

What makes the Music Matters releases special -- very special -- is a confluence of things: historic music, extreme care in everything done to deliver the final product, and the tremendous enthusiasm of Joe and Ron. "There had been so many other reissue programs with Blue Note that we felt like we had better have something really worthwhile to add, or why bother," Joe Harley told me. Blue Note releases sell no matter the format, a point made abundantly clear by the comprehensive RVG reissue program for CD, but Joe and Ron were committed to delivering LPs that were superior to any that came before them.

First, they settled on Steve Hoffman and Kevin Gray at AcousTech, the mastering facility located within the RTI pressing facility, for the mastering and cutting of each release. This brought with it some interesting benefits, including the fact that AcousTech maintains an all-analog signal path, something the makes good sense when you're reissuing LPs. Furthermore, "AcousTech has the huge advantage of being able to take freshly cut lacquers over to be immediately plated at RTI’s plating facility," Joe told me. "Every hour the lacquer is allowed to sit without plating results in audible information (particularly high-frequency) loss. Now, this is no longer a problem."

Second, Joe and Ron settled on 45rpm playback instead of 33 1/3. The faster speed means less information is packed into every inch of groove, or as Joe put it, "Running at 45 means you can do these transfers wide open, with no limiting." Each release would therefore comprise a pair of LPs instead of just one, requiring either a double-wide jacket, which requires thin, flimsy stock, or a gatefold, which is what Joe and Ron chose. Making this work visually demanded some creative thinking. Blue Note LPs have an established look: Reid Miles' classic covers up front, and the track listing and liner notes on the back. Joe and Ron came up with the perfect solution for what to put in the center, one that would please even the most fervent Blue Note aficionados. "We spoke with Michael Cuscuna and arranged to get exclusive use of the great treasure trove of Francis Wolff photographs.... Many of these photos have never been seen before." They also strove for authenticity when it came to reproducing the covers: "When possible, we use the original negatives to 'rebuild' the cover artwork rather than just doing what most reissue companies do, which is to just run a scanned copy of an existing jacket."

The end product of all this planning and toil has been consistently remarkable. This well-known music comes alive on the Music Matters LPs, which improve on the sound of so many reissues and even original pressings, and the packaging is glossy, substantial and definitive. I'm not alone in thinking this. As of last month, the Music Matters subscriber list, those people who have committed to buy every release, was 560 strong. This means that, with only 2500 of each title pressed, more than 20% of each release is spoken for right out of the gate -- if this number doesn't increase. Sixty-four titles were planned, but it's clear that Joe and Ron would like to reissue even more. "Ron and I have loved the Blue Note catalog most of our lives. Finding worthy material for release is not a problem." With the late addition of the Eric Dolphy classic Out to Lunch, which was added a couple of weeks ago, it looks like neither is ready to call it quits.

This is terrific news. Not only do I not want to see the end of this series, I can't stop playing the LPs that are already available. One or another of the Music Matters 45s is perpetually planted on my turntable. I've been lucky enough to hear a number of the test pressings, and let me say that there are some impressive titles coming up, including a few that will make admirers of mono playback swoon.

Music Matters has created LPs that could justly bear the Tiffany name, and I won't be surprised if in a decade someone shows up at an Antiques Roadshow taping in Toledo or Ft. Lauderdale with a couple under his arm to be appraised. These LPs are my pick for the best product of 2008, and for the most important reason: No matter how great-sounding the equipment, the music is what matters most.

...Marc Mickelson