Tag Archives: hi-fi

Vinyl review : Rick Astley – Whenever You Need Somebody

Artist – Rick Astley

Title – Whenever You Need Somebody

Format – Vinyl LP

Label – RCA

Year – 1987

Yeah, I know, old meme is old and we’ve all been rickrolled over 9000 times already. We really don’t need to talk about Rick Astley any moar, but as far as i’m concerned, haters gonna hate. So while I haz your attention, I’m gonna ask a question: Has anyone really been far even as decided to use even go want to do look more like? Because….um..uhh….okay, that’s enough obligatory 4chan memes (but I did briefly consider writing this entire post in Impact).

In case you have been living under a rock for the past three years, Rickrolling was an internet fad where you trick people into a clicking a link to the YouTube video of “Never Gonna Give You Up” by Rick Astley. The purported humor lies in the intense eighties-ness of the song and the general incongruity of suddenly viewing a scrawny red haired Englishman awkwardly gyrating in front of a chain link fence instead of that funny cat video your friend promised. This prank was intensely popular throughout 2008; it became the theme song for Anonymous (the ad-hoc group of Guy Fawkes mask wearing basement residents who surface in public to protest Scientology, of all things), the target of online poll spamming to get it played at Mets games, and finally culminated in Astley himself lip syncing the song during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

I gotta be honest , I’ve only listened to the first half of this record so far and I don’t really plan on even attempting the B side unless under extreme duress or extreme intoxication. Like all of Astley’s oeuvre, it consists of competent but uncompelling dance-R&B constructed on synth equipment that sounds charmingly dated to modern listeners. But even before Rickrolling was a thing I unironically enjoyed “Never Gonna Give You Up” and to this day maintain that it is a corny but solid pop song, despite all the jokey baggage it accumulated thanks to Family Guy and the Internet.

Rick Astley's Whenever You Need Somebody vinyl LP plus liner notes

Like most mass-market LPs, this album comes on thin, floppy vinyl. The inner sleeve is printed with lyrics, credits, and several B&W portraits of the man himself. Drop the needle on Side A and that opening drum fill we’re all too familiar with bursts out the speakers with surprising depth. In fact, the tracks I’ve listened to so far have a fairly rich and detailed sound for something that was likely recorded on some crummy 16-bit Sony DASH machine. However, it’s still difficult to judge the sonic properties of electronic music like Astley’s because drum machines and synths don’t “exist” in an acoustic space, they are dumped straight to their recording medium instead of being miked in a studio.

In about 10-15 years when we’re all grown up, Rickrolling will officially count as nostalgia. If you have this album on vinyl by then, you can put it on during one of your yuppie wine & cheese parties and smugly revel in the fact that you just Rickrolled your friends…IN ANALOG! The guests geeky enough to remember the joke will briefly laugh and reminisce about various other dumb memes from a youth wasted online, while those who don’t get it will just shrug and go back to their Pinot Noir. To prepare yourself for that day, Amazon has used copies starting at just under five bucks , or you could probably find it at your local record store like I did.

NEXT WEEK : “Bed Intruder Song” split 7″ with Eduard Khil

Music: C

Sound: B-

Vinyl review : Crucial Youth – The Posi-Machine

Artist – Crucial Youth

Title – The Posi-Machine

Format – White Vinyl LP

Label – New Red Archives

Year – 1988

I first heard of Crucial Youth back in middle school, from a friend whose uncle was in the band. I managed to find a few MP3s on Napster, downloaded them, had a laugh, then forgot about them. I came across this LP on eBay a few years ago and just now decided to give it a review. Basically, Crucial Youth was one big parody of straightedge hardcore, featuring hilariously overblown songs about brushing your teeth, eating a balanced diet, and not masturbating. Active in New Jersey in the mid through late 80’s, they were a pretty good antidote to overbearing punk bands preaching militant asceticism, and pointed out just how silly the whole thing can sound to an outsider.

Tracks on this album include “Caffeine”, a warning about the dangers of legal stimulants (“STAY A-WAY FROM MEEEE WHEN YOU’RE DRINKING YOUR CO-FEEEE!!!”), “4 Food Groups”, a primer on healthy eating, and “Cross at the Green (Not In between)”, an informative lesson on crosswalk safety. The music itself is unremarkable, intentionally amateurish hardcore somewhere between Cro-Mags and DRI. Vocalist “Joe Crucial” delivers appropriately trite lyrics in a honking bellow (a commenter on another website described it as “Ian MacKaye with a 47th chromosome”) that consist of gems like:

“When you smoke pot / what have you got? / I’ll tell you what / Not a lot!”

album cover + record for Crucial Youth - The Posi-Machine

Hardcore albums in general aren’t known for their impressive sonics, and this record follows the rule. The guitars groan and drone in the distance while thin, spitty drums dominate the mix. Great sound isn’t the point of this record though, it gets its satirical message across just fine.

This album comes on “milk white” vinyl and has cover art depicting the band and their crew gleefully steamrolling glam rockers and Quincy punks. I’m not sure if it originally came with the “Crucial Youth comix” or if these were in a zine, but my copy didn’t have them. A seller on GEMM.com is offering it for almost 60 bucks, which means I got it for a steal at 10 from eBay. If you want the CD, Amazon has it for 14 dollars and it’s probably remastered so the sound will be improved. Buy it to troll your sXe friends with, or just as a vaguely amusing satire of a scene that desperately needed it.

Music: C+

Sound: D

SACD Review : Pixies – Surfer Rosa (Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab remaster)

cover of surfer rosa mfsl sacd

Artist – Pixies

Title – Surfer Rosa

Format – Hybrid SACD

Label – 4AD

Year – 1988 (original) , 2007 (remaster)

When the topic of the Pixies comes up, I’ve actually heard some indie fans scoff and call it “entry level”. Fuck that opinion. Yeah, everyone’s seen Fight Club and we all know how Kurt Cobain admits he was basically ripping off the Pixies for most of Nevermind, but you can’t dismiss how pivotal this album was in the context of the 1980’s. Before this album, American indie rock was dominated by jangly R.E.M imitators, stodgy post-punk (yes, I know I just previously reviewed Mission of Burma), or hardcore bands that finally learned to play their instruments. Surfer Rosa defined the sound that carried through to the 90’s and was unfortunately beaten to death by the middle of that decade. The album isn’t perfect (“Tony’s Theme” is a painfully lame piece of filler), but the first seven tracks are unforgettable classics.

I’ve had this album on vinyl for a while but it has a really bad warp that affects the first couple tracks on each side. I figured I should get a more listenable version of it, so I went with the Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab SACD. For the uninitiated, a brief intro to SACD and MFSL: SACDs (Super Audio CD) are basically hi-resolution, dual layer CDs. Think Blu-Ray, but for music. The first layer contains the SACD recording, which is stored at a whopping 2822.4 Khz sample rate .The second layer contains the standard “Red Book” recording at 44.1 Khz, which works in any CD player and can be ripped to a computer. In order to get the improved sound of a SACD, you need a compatible player.

Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab has specialized in audiophile-grade remasters of rock albums since their inception in the late 70’s. They start from the original master tapes and produce an excellent new version true to the intended recording and not all compressed and shrill like modern attempts at remastering (louder=better!!!!111). There is currently a dearth of rock music on SACD, as most of it is classical and jazz, but MFSL is definitely filling the gap. Surfer Rosa is the first non-classical SACD that i’ve bought, as well as the first MFSL release.

So how’s it sound, Mike? Amazing. I started with high expectations which were more than fulfilled. Every song has a distinct sense of ambience and reverb, I really get a sense of the recording space. The drums sound like an actual drum kit and not a bunch of detached, percussive strikes. Joey’s guitar screams and squawks without sounding unpleasantly harsh, and Frank’s strained shrieks are maddeningly detailed. I heard little things that I hadn’t noticed on previous CD and vinyl versions; bits of feedback, string squeak, and a creaking chair during the studio banter at the end of “Oh My Golly!”.

Surfer Rosa SACD unpacked

The only letdown was the packaging. I had expected a plastic case but was instead served a cardboard sleeve (which at least had a protective slipcover for the disc). If you want to own a quality physical copy of this landmark album, I would definitely recommend this version. You can get it from Amazon for about 27 bucks. Even if you don’t own an SACD player yet, this is worth getting because you’ll still get some of the sonic benefits of the remaster on the CD layer.

Music: A-

Sound: A+

An affordable hifi stereo system for vinyl

One of the major topics of this blog is affordable audio, so i’ve decided to put together a reasonable priced system for playing vinyl records. These recommendations are just starting points, and I would encourage you to substitute components for any vintage or used stuff you might find. You can always upgrade later, the point now is to start spinning records as soon as possible.

Basically, a hifi stereo setup involves three parts: the source(s), amplifier and speakers. There are a variety of other sources possible (CD/SACD players, iPods, computers, etc) but for now we’ll stick to a turntable. You probably already own a MP3 or CD player anyway.

Pro-ject Debut III

Turntable – Pro-ject Debut III

This is the table I currently use, and I highly recommend it. Professional reviewers agree that it is a perfect entry level turntable for those curious about vinyl. Unlike other, more expensive turntables, it’s pretty much ready to go right out of the box and comes complete with a cartridge (the needle), tonearm, dust cover, felt record mat and attached L+R and grounding cables. The MSRP is currently $349, and there is a $499 version that includes a USB output so you can rip your records to your computer and convert them to MP3. Amazon has it, and they can also be found at Magnolia outlets (which are often located in Best Buy stores).

Topaz AM10

Amplifier – Cambridge Audio Topaz AM10

The signal from a turntable must go through a preliminary stage of amplification before it can go to the main amp. This might be accomplished with a “phono stage” like the NAD PP-2 , which I use, but it is an additional expense, takes up more space and uses more resources. The solution is to use an amplifier that has an integrated phono stage, like the Topaz AM10. I haven’t listened to this particular amp, but Stereophile’s Stephen Mejias recommends this and it is the cheapest one of the four he lists in the linked article. In addition to the phono stage, it’s small, light, looks cool, and has a front input to plug in your iPod. Amazon’s got it for 349 dollars , and it’s probably your cheapest, easiest bet for beginner hifi amplification.

Polk Audio TSi 200 - cherry finish

Speakers –

For beginners, floorstanders might not be the best idea, simply due to their size and expense (although you wouldn’t need to buy speaker stands). Bookshelf speakers are the optimal entry level solution. The problem with speakers is that they are the most subjective in terms of sound quality; what sounds good to me might sound awful to you. This is why it’s kind of difficult to recommend a good speaker without listening first, but sticking with established brands that specialize in making speakers is a good start. This means avoiding crap from Sony or Yamaha, which might be cheap but are of poor quality. Bose speakers have an undeserved reputation for quality thanks to aggressive marketing, but they are the laughing stock of the audiophile world. The Polk Audio TSi200 is available for about $300 a pair, or if you need to go cheaper then the Klipsch B-2 Synergy is only a bit over $180. Either of these would work fine for a hi-fi-curious individual. A set of speaker stands can be found at most any big box store for 20-30 bucks, or you could DIY up some of your own.

Pricing:

Turntable – $349

Amp – $349

Speakers- $180

Cables and other accessories – $50

Total: +- $928

I hear ya, that’s hardly pocket change. But as I mentioned in the beginning, this is only a suggestion. The best deal and the most important purchase is the Pro-ject turntable, I can’t really think of a better value for the money. The speakers can vary, if you already have a cheapo pair then use them to begin with. The amplifier is optional as well, in fact, if you browse vintage or thrift stores you shouldn’t have a problem finding a decent integrated amp. Most older (pre-1990s) amps that you’ll likely encounter have a phono stage; if it has an input on the back labeled “PHONO” then you’re good to go.

Every system has humble origins, and once you get into vinyl you’ll be hooked.

Machina Dynamica : audiophools or master trolls?

In my first entry, I mentioned that among the more ridiculous hi-fi products are “bags of magic rocks that enhance your system’s sound”. These special stones are Brilliant Pebbles, one of the fine products offered by Machina Dynamica, a company with an infamous reputation in the online audiophile community. They specialize in intensely dubious “tweaks” backed by incomprehensible pseudoscience, such as a chip that upgrades the sound of CDs with the power of quantum physics, a Casio clock radio that affects A/V equipment through the aether, and my personal favorite, the “teleportation tweak”, where you pay sixty bucks to call MD up and have them play a 20 second series of “sharp, mechanical pulses” over the phone (your gear doesn’t even need to be on, but it helps!).

Anyone with a functioning brain stem would naturally be skeptical of these extraordinary claims, so we might go ahead and assume this is all one big troll; a jab at some of the more bizarre thing audiophiles really do to their system (like cable elevators or cryogenically treated speaker wire ). The Machina Dynamica website doesn’t make it easy to actually to purchase their products; you must manually enter the item and price into a PayPal form. Additionally, the product descriptions are full of  absurd technobabble and the site’s proprietor lists his credentials as:

Education: Aerospace Engineering (theoretical fluid dynamics, propulsion, statistical thermodynamics, nuclear physics, indeterminate structures). Undergrad thesis: Design of propulsion system for interplanetary travel utilizing momentum transfer mechanisms in highly magnetic metal crystal bombarded by high-energy ions. Work experience: NASA satellite operations & radar data analysis; aerodynamics of high-performance aircraft; reentry vehicle dynamics; radio and satellite communications; spread spectrum communications. He incorporated Machina Dynamica in 1998.

An hilarious troll, right? Maybe not. This guy actually sells this stuff, and people buy it. Hi-fi sites have reviewed the products and his Audiogon profile is full of positive feedback. If this is a joke, this guy is laughing en route to the bank.

Someday (when I have the cash to waste and I am drunk enough to make it seem like a good idea) I just might buy those Brilliant Pebbles and test the power of the placebo effect. If I spent over 100 dollars on a jar of aquarium gravel , you better believe I’m gonna delude myself into hearing an improvement. If I like them, maybe i’ll get a rock tumbler and start my own tweak business.

A boy named Charlie Brown

CD Review : Vince Guaraldi Trio – Jazz Impressions of a Boy Named Charlie Brown

A boy named Charlie Brown

Artist – Vince Guaraldi Trio

Title – Jazz Impressions of a Boy Named Charlie Brown

Format – CD ( AAD )

Label – Fantasy Records

Originally released in 1964, CD released 1989

This CD somehow found its way into my collection from one of the many roommates I had in college; lost and unclaimed among the multiple move ins/outs. According to Wikipedia, it is the soundtrack to a 1963 TV documentary about Charles M Schulz’s Peanuts comics, which lead to the 1965 animated Christmas special (that was followed by dozens of forgettable sequels).

The album includes “Linus and Lucy” , a song which all Americans hear roughly a billion times every holiday season yet still somehow retains its charm. The rest of the CD is in an identical vein: cocktail hour jazz piano made by, and for, white people. Which isn’t to say that it’s bad, just that I get the feeling that I should be drinking a martini and lounging on Dutch Modern furniture while this plays.

As for the sound, the double bass booms and buzzes, the hi hat spits out of the left channel and Vince’s piano glitters (but not too brightly) to my right. The whole CD seems to be recorded fairly hot and with not as much dynamic range (the difference between the quietest and loudest parts) as I’d like. It’s nowhere near modern loudness war levels, but it isn’t great either. Overall, the recording is still engaging, so it’s worth throwing on during a classier shindig or if you just want to kick back with some single malt scotch.

Amazon has it for fourteen bucks, but lists it under a slightly different title for some reason. Check it out if you want some accessible jazz for your collection.

Music: B-

Sound: C+