April 23, 2008

A Visit from Philip

Anyone who has experienced one of Philip O'Hanlon's demos at CES knows how committed he is to music reproduced with über fidelity. Philip, the former US Halcro distributor and current US Luxman distributor, is well connected in both the audio and music industries, and he's the person to talk to about high-resolution formats. He often has music that no one else has, and the equipment he represents is always first-rate, even if, with Halcro in particular, it's not exactly to my liking.

Philip visited me shortly after CES, and he made another trip to mi casa a couple of weeks ago. "Where I come from, you never visit empty-handed," Philip told me, toting music, beer, and other noteworthy goodies with him. On his second trip, he lugged a pair of ginormous Luxman B-1000f mono amplifiers and a C-1000f preamp. I'll be reviewing the amps and using them with the preamp. If all of the stars align, I'll be able to hear it all fronting a pair of Wilson Audio X-2 Series 2 speakers, which are scheduled to arrive in late May.

Philip also brought along something special -- a modified ReVox PR99 reel-to-reel tape deck and some thoughtfully made tapes from The Tape Project. These are duplicated in real time from a second-generation master, which makes them akin to a 2.1-generation master, as the they are created with utmost care and sonic authenticity in mind. The tapes must be played on a deck that supports half-track, 15ips playback and with the IEC equalization curve engaged, which is where the modifications come in. The Tape Project recommends starting with a Technics RS-1500-series deck because it supports quarter- and half-track playback and three speeds, but other models are also suitable for modding. The people at The Tape Project can fill you in.

The tapes are appropriate for royal presentation. They come wound on specially made metal reels and in boxes befitting their very limited quantities. The price will cause sticker shock -- $329 each, not including the price of the deck on which they need to be played. The per-tape price is lower, $200 each, for people who subscribe to the series. The selection is very small right now, about a half-dozen titles, but there are some worthwhile recordings in the release queue, and Philip has let me know that Quinton, a European label, is also offering titles compatible with Tape Project specifications.

Philip always has great music with him, much of it received from friends in the music industry who know about his fidelity fetish. After listening to some high-resolution digital, after the modded ReVox PR99 had warmed up, we put on a Tape Project demo tape and celebrated the increased speed, resolution and naturalness. The digital music, courtesy of a Luxman DU-80 universal player, sounded great, but the analog playback improved upon it in obvious ways.

Eventually we came to a cut on the sampler tape from the seminal Sonny Rollins album Saxophone Colossus, which The Tape Project has just released. "St. Thomas" is the first cut on Colossus and it's immediately recognizable. But this time, Rollins' sax and Max Roach's drum work displayed blistering speed, literally readjusting how I will use the word "immediate" to describe sound from this point forward. I've heard "St. Thomas" on CD and LP many times, but here it was completely transformed, the 52 years since the original recording date at Rudy Van Gelder's studio melting away.

After the cut ended, Philip and I looked at each other dumbfounded. We knew we had heard something very special. We then played the cut a few more times, swapping out the interconnects from the tape deck to the Luxman preamp each time. We could easily discern the differences among the cables, an illustration of how pure the sound was.

Philip will be visiting again in a couple of months to retrieve the Luxman amps -- it's surely cheaper to pick up these behemoths than shipping them. He has promised to bring an even better-sounding tape deck and the full version of Saxophone Colossus.

My listening time is more and more scarce these days, and this has me thinking more and more about investing in a Tape Project-compatible deck and a few of these very expensive, and very impressive, reel-to-reel tapes. Quality over quantity, as they say.

...Marc Mickelson

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