A Soundstage! Christmas

December 1996

We at Soundstage! are one big happy family. We have common interests (tubes--no solid state), common goals (meeting our deadlines with a few minutes to spare) and are spread out all over North America--making Christmas and the exchanging of gifts a logistical nightmare. So here's our solution, agreed upon by all family members (a bit of holiday hum-buggery aside): a cyberspace gift swap. You know--pick a name, choose a gift for the pickee and then describe the thought behind it. And best of all, because it's just for pre-tend, no returns!

So whose names did we draw?

Dave Duvall to Todd Warnke

If my cyberspace gift could really manifest itself upon your doorstep, I'd be sending you the Audio Alchemy DDS PRO transport via UPS next hour delivery! This baby would fill out the full I2S connection and let you experience the transparency and focus that I have come to expect as the standard. As a stocking stuffer I'd send another length of the Audio Magic Mystic Reference I2S cable, that you dug and I am now burning in and starting to hear good things from.

"All I want for Christmas is my two front channels", Todd screamed (typed) to the satellite of audio worldwide webdom. To insure that those channels were forever listenable, I also gift upon you a life long supply of LOW NOISE (don't ever waste your bucks on the standard grade) Sovtek 6922 tubes for your Audible Illusions L-1 preamp. Nothing like the feeling of security of being able to pop in a pair of 6922's in the second the magic is gone from an old set!

Merry Christmas from one audio junkie to another!

Doug Schneider to Jim Saxon

Jim Saxon lives down in Costa Rica. How he managed to swing that I still don't exactly know. According to Jim, Costa Rica is close to, but not quite Paradise. From my eyes, it is Paradise. I doubt that Jim has ever seen what we experience each and every year: 10 foot snow banks, freezing rain that turns roadways into skating rinks, temperatures so cold you can freeze important exposed body parts off in 10 seconds or less, snowfalls so heavy you can lose your loved ones in seconds, and the list goes on and on.

So from Canada, I'd first like to send him a dumptruck full of snow, right in his front door, with a big shovel so he can tunnel his way out as I have to do many mornings. Once he's made it past that (or he waits for it to melts), he'd find some of Canada's finest, make that The World's Finest, high-end gear dumped into his front yard. Perhaps some speakers from Swan, Totem, Mirage, Coincident Technology, or Energy. For digital source, a transport and DAC from Sonic Frontiers. If he wants to go analogue, then how about a Delphi turntable from Oracle. And finally, without a doubt, amplification would be the Blue Circle BC-2 monoblock amplifiers and BC-3 preamp.

For this world beating system I'd give him an assortment of Canada's finest music including Sarah McClachlan's 'Freedom Sessions,' Blue Rodeo's 'Five Days in July,' and The Tragically Hip's 'Day for Night.' Oh yes, and a 12 pack of our best export beer - Big Rock 'Traditional Ale' to bring it all together.

Marc Mickelson to Mike Fenech

Like any resourceful girl or boy around this time of year, Mike Fenech began lobbying for his Christmas gift weeks ago--and it comes in a set of two, each weighing in at 300 pounds and having ProAc on their grilles. Maybe next year Mike, because this year I have something just as impressive that won't give Santa a double-hernia: the magnificent Timbre TT-1 DAC (in silver, so as not to confuse it with a lump of coal, which it definitely is not). What more can I say about my all-time favorite digital component? It's true to the music, and not in any way that obscures detail. Smooth, sweet, delicious--in short, no fruitcake.

This year I'll be stuffing stockings--of audiophiles and others--with Terry Evans' Puttin' It Down, on Audioquest. I normally abhor audiophile recordings, but this one is great. It's butt-bumpin' music expertly played and sung. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh all in one.

Jim Saxon to Marty Keane

New Yorkers know more than the rest of us. They have to in order to survive on the mean streets of Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx--even Queens, nowadays. During the sixteen years I lived and worked in New York City, I came to appreciate the survival smarts of New Yorkers. As a na´ve Pennsylvanian, I learned that a New York native was safe where I was in danger, was making money as I was losing it, was picking up the girl while I was going home empty-handed. Consequently, I respect and admire New Yorkers but I have had enough of them for one life.

When I first saw that Soundstage! published a writer billed as New York Marty, I grimaced. Even in cyberspace the New Yorker rules. It took me three months to get up the gumption to read Marty Keane’s first Meridian installment. I expected brash certainty mixed with cynicism and third-party put-downs. Happily, I was wrong again. In print, New York Marty seemed reasonable, low-keyed, almost friendly. I eagerly awaited his follow-up, and waited and waited and then --waited. Finally, I gave up and wrote my own Meridian follow-up, which was pre-empted when New York Marty finally got his second act together. Impetus in hand, I kept writing until our fearless leader published my prose. Indirectly, I owe my present journalistic status to a New Yorker. It is only right, then, that I should send Marty Keane a Christmas gift in appreciation for all he’s done for me.

The problem is, what do you give to an audio armadillo? Check out Marty’s system. It’s all armor, no weak-spots. In this regard, Marty shows his provenance as a Noo Yawka: Never show weakness. From his speakers, the irreproachable Von Schweikert VR-4s, to his Solidsteel equipment rack, this man is unassailable. As Marty points out, his system comprises a "lot of great mid-priced equipment and it creates beautiful music." I’ll bet.

My only recourse is to use brute force. Since the sound of the VR-4s will continue to bloom with great high-priced equipment, I will send Marty a pair of Pass Aleph 2 monoblocks ($6,600) to replace his over-achieving McCormack DNA-1 Deluxe amplifier. Next to the Krell-Egglestonworks combo, the Pass-Von Schweikert match-up is my second all-time favorite system. And I am not alone in liking Pass with Von Schweikert. I have very strong reason to believe that Mr. VS himself uses Aleph 2s to motivate his loudspeakers. Single-ended, pure class A Aleph 2s are rated at 100 watts per channel, but are closer to 180 per on a short-term basis. Driving the Von Schweikerts, they provide unshrinkable dynamics, holographic imaging and purity of tone that are hard to resist, even if you’re just passing through the listening room. In fact, you can appreciate the sound from upstairs or out in the garage--even the imaging. Trust me on that one.

Since New York Marty probably lives in an apartment, his neighbors should really take to the new sound. I can see their happy faces as the Aleph 2s send massive amperage to the VR-4 woofers, which hertz so good down to the low 20s. In fact, New Yorkers being inveterate demonstrators, they may even host a salute to Marty in front of the building. Let’s hope no one has a rope.

Unfortunately, the addition of the Pass Aleph 2 monoblocks will throw Marty’s whole system out of balance. He will then face bracket creep. Prideful symmetry will be his financial undoing, as he replaces preamp, DAC, cables etc. in order to match his new amp/speaker combo. Since I have nothing against New York Marty except his superior intelligence, I will watch with token amusement as he struggles with the price of being a human armadillo. Merry Chistmas, Marty. Wait until next year.

Mike Fenech to Dave Duvall

For our good friend Dave the Working Man, I offer a little bedroom system to help relax him after a hard day's work. Not any system mind you, but an extremely musical one: The Exposure XX integrated amp, the (very new) Exposure CD player, and Epos ES-12 speakers. It's smooth and articulate, with as tight a bass AND midrange as he'll ever hear. So when Dave puts on the ol' hard hat and begins the night shift, mommie won't be complaining about any lack of 'rhythmic coherency'. Atta boy, Dave.

As a stocking stuffer, Dave gets Spain's 'Blue Moods of Spain' CD. This is in case Dave finds himself all alone this Christmas Eve, without even a visit from Santa in the works. Spain is a quartet fronted by Josh Haden, son of jazz great Charlie Haden. The cover is very reminiscent of certain classic jazz album covers I'm sure most folks will recognize. (See their website at http://www.restless.com/spain.html to find out what I'm talking about.) Dave will no doubt appreciate the laid back bluesy-jazz approach of the music here. Recorded on an tube based, analog system, the deep emotional mood of the songs come through in a way Dave, in his lonely late-night setting, will find easy to relate to. Com'n Dave, put the gun away. Things will get better. Hey lookie here...the Army-Navy game's on tomorrow!

Greg Smith for Doug Blackburn

Sure, like I'm gonna pick out something for Doug Blackburn from what I've reviewed. I think Doug's last collection of "tweaks" cost as much as my whole system. Wait, I know. What Doug could really use is a set of the CD releases from those crazy German remastering gurus at Zounds. If you think he's a Noisy Audiophile now, just wait until he has 77 minutes of Blue Oyster Cult to crank up! I will show some restraint in picking titles; after all, their catalog does include a whole disc of Bee Gees, and I'd rather get coal in my stocking than that.

Good recordings improve your system no matter how (in)expensive it is, and the artists Zounds has been picking have previously possessed some of the worst CD sound in existence. You can use them for all sorts of other things, too. Doug has given some suggestions for finding a good dealer before. Me, I just take the Zounds' Allman Brothers CD along. if I ask to hear "Whipping Post" on their reference system, the good dealers join right in (bad ones call the police to get me hauled away). And finally, don't forget that if you really want to celebrate Christmas, their Animals collection can be used to hear if "Little Town of Bethleham" really does go better to the tune of "House of the Rising Sun".

Doug Blackburn for Craig Schilling

Hmmmm, Christmas Present Lotteries can be so... challenging. At least I've MET Craig Shilling and know his musical tastes. Since Craig's a rabid hunter and gatherer of all types of recorded and live music, I know that he prefers to spend money on music more than he likes to spend money on equipment. So this Christmas, I think Craig deserves a hardware upgrade that will just launch him into musical ecstasy... should it be a CD player? a preamp? an amp? speakers? cables/wires? Let's see... Craig's already got a well matched-up system, everything works well together. Can't do anything to upset the synergy since I don't want undo Craig's enjoyment of music. That means any upgrade has to fit into the remaining parts of Craig's system and sound just as (or more!) musically enjoyable without upgrading everything else. Kind of hard to do with a preamp or amp. Cables/wires are personal preferences best left to the system owner to select. So that leaves CD players or speakers... I'm not all that impressed with the quality/value of commercial CD playback devices (players, transports, DACs) because you can modify what you already have and make it sound better than most new digital components. So that leaves speakers...

OK, lots of choices out there but Craig likes all kinds of music and won't tolerate a speaker that favors acoustic music or classical or classic jazz or electric rock - he wants it all. And the speaker has to "fit" the rest of his system. Craig is using Vandersteen 2s now, an excellent choice, possibly the very best choice in its price range (circa $1,500 US with base). I know!! I'll give him the updated Vandersteen 3A with the big Sound Anchor rear brace!!! It'll be PERFECT. The 3As will work great with the rest of Craig's system because of the "Vandersteen Family Values" built into all the Vandersteen speakers. The 3As will play all types of music with panache and realism yet they are a major sonic boogie upgrade from the 2 series Vandersteens. Craig'll love the bass extension to below 30Hz and the kick the extra bass extension has puts a real "You___Are___There" feeling in the listening experience. The midrange purity can raise neck hairs while listening to better recordings, but listening to lesser recordings is still a pleasant experience. The highs... well the highs are just amazing in the 3A incarnation of the Vandersteen 3 series. And for a stocking stuffer... bi-wire OCOS speaker cable for most tube amps or a nice bi-wire set of XLO for "natural" sounding solid state amps or some Cardas Cross for the more rip-snortin' solid state amps (and some tube amps too). Craig's really gonna like the sound of this setup!

NY Marty Keane for DAS Doug Schneider

What do you get the "boss" for Christmas? This is not an easy task. If he doesn't like it, he can censor me. He can banish me from Soundstage!. He can throw me off the internet. He has power. He has friends. He has powerful friends. What do you get him? The only answer, what he won't get for himself - because it costs too much.

When I first met Doug, we both lamented the day we gave up on analog. We were both very young and naive when we chose the CD over the LP and we'd both like to go back. But money keeps us from our dream. Well, if wishes were money, Doug would get his. How about a nice VPI TNT turntable for the big guy? And because it's Christmas, we'll give him the Mark 3 with the flywheel, not the Junior. And because we like him, we'll throw in the Shelf, from Black Diamond Racing, for some extra vibration separation between the world and the table/arm. And what about that arm? Because he's the boss, he can have the VPI JMW Memorial Tonearm with a van den Hul Grasshopper cartridge. Wow! Lest we forget, he may need a phono preamp. I'd bet good money that he doesn't have one lying around. C'mon Santa, be a good soul, and give him an Audio Research PH-3 with all that good stuff.

We can't just spend twelve grand American on the boss. He's going to need some tunes. Let's get him some Pearl Jam on vinyl and some old Coltrane and some old, heck, everything. Because everything sounds better when it sits on a turntable. At least this dream table, that is.