Two Days At Audio Advice in North Carolina

For the second time in two years I was invited to participate in North Carolina retailer Audio Advice's "Music Matters" customer appreciation event. No doubt some of you have attended a similar type happening at your local audio retailer—if you're fortunate enough to have one in your area.

Representatives from the store's brand line-up set up shop in the demo rooms, invited guests go from room to room in twenty minute shifts. In between the demos there's food and wine and some time to shmooze with other attendees, store employees and fellow audio enthusiasts as well as with the manufacturer's spokespersons (note in the photo the excellent demographic mix of old(er) and young.

I had nothing in the room to sell other than enthusiasm for good sound in general and for vinyl playback in particular. The store's owner and founder Leon Shaw and Phil Melton, who does the marketing and brand promotion tell me they like having a journalist in the mix and though it can be a grueling four hours I leave energized by the experience.

Audio Advice has two good sized stores—one in Raleigh and one in Charlotte. They do a great deal of custom install work but Mr. Shaw tells me the high end segment has really taken off over the past few years. The record-setting attendance this year made that evident. In Raleigh the room shown in the photo was packed for all eight sessions I ran.

The equipment set up in the room to which I was assigned included a Linn Sondek with Akiva cartridge, a Linn Linto phono preamp, an Ayre integrated amplifier and Ayre D/A converter and a pair of Vandersteen Treo loudspeakers. Cables were from Transparent, power conditioning from Shunyata Research.

I played part of a track off of the new Analogue Productions reissue of Masterpieces by Ellington a spectacular sounding 1950 mono recording by Duke Ellington and his orchestra originally issued in 1951 on Columbia's "Masterworks" label. Then I compared a $50 double 45rpm Music Matters AAA reissue of Larry Young's Blue Note classic Unity with the $20 edition sourced from a 192/24 bit file released by Blue Note. No contest as to sonics and packaging but the $20 series helps young people, most of whom can't spend $50 on a record.

Then I switched to vinyl rips that included the comparisons of "Scheherazade" and Dylan's Gospel available on this website. The immediate feedback was fascinating. Most preferred the Analogue Productions reissue but the ones preferring the original pressing were adamant about it. When I asked people why they preferred one or the other women at two different sessions both had the same reason for preferring the reissue. Both said "That's more what a real orchestra sounds like", which produced knowing affirmation from men in the audience.

I also played excerpts of the Coup d'archet and Electric Recording Company Johanna Martzy Bach solo violin reissues and there it was almost unanimous for the latter, which listeners said had a more sonorous tonality and greater string "sheen" as well as a greater sense of the space in which the recording was made. Finally I played some vinyl rips I made and everyone enjoyed those and heard how a great "front end" can bring a system to life.

At the Charlotte store the next evening I met some of the same folks I'd encountered two years ago along with many new faces. The system was far more modest: a VPI Scout with Grado Sonata cartridge and Musical Surroundings Phonomena II MC phono preamp, the same Ayre D/A converter, a powerful Bryston integrated amplifier and a pair of B&W floor standing speakers retailing for $3500. So the entire system (vinyl only) came in at around $13,000. Not inexpensive but also not expensive in today's high performance audio world.

As last time, I was in a conference room not a listening room and attendees sat around a large table—less than 100% conducive to getting great sound, yet after the Duke Ellington track many listeners said it was the best sound they'd heard all night despite the far more expensive set-ups in many other rooms. That LP just killed people, especially when they found out it was recorded in 1950. A few returned to hear the Larry Young LP a second time, saying that was the best sound they'd heard. I think mine was the only vinyl playback room.

I also played the original versus the Light in the Attic Dylan's Gospel files also posted on this site. Everyone preferred the reissue for it's wider dynamics, more spacious soundstage and more convincing EQ, though some thought it a bit bright. I asked listeners to pay attention and tell me if they heard anything unusual between the two versions. No one heard the tambourine on the reissue that's not on the original. Not one listener—until I told them to listen carefully to the left channel at the beginning of each file. Then some but not all heard the tambourine on the reissue. Watching the reaction on the faces was a highlight for me—something revealed "missing in plain sight". "That's why I get paid the 'big bucks' for doing this job" I joked,

Finally, towards the end of the evening I started playing the file of the "Tommy" lacquer at ridiculously high SPLs (the Bryston's "clipping" light came on and I ran to the front and lowered the volume) but everyone absolutely loved that and those really great sounding files made that system absolutely rock. Those attending the last session (some were 'repeat customers') left transformed, I am quite sure—myself included. That system really sounded fantastic at a total cost less than a set of interconnects in my system (not that you'd have any difficulty telling one from the other).

What it proved was something Linn founder Ivor Teifenbrunn contended when he introduced the first Linn Sondek: the source quality is critical to the final sound. If you skimp there, you're wasting your money on the rest, no matter how good. That's somewhat less critical in the digital age but the files from a costly vinyl front end made the point.

It was an exhausting, yet energizing two evenings. It was also fun going out afterwards for late dinners with "the industry" guys, who included Aerial Acoustics' Michael Kelly and Brad O'Toole, Audio Research's Dave Gordon and Transparent Audio's Bill Peugh. Bill reminded me of something I'd either forgotten or wasn't aware of until that moment: back in 1982 when I bought at Christopher Hansen Audio my first piece of really high end gear—an Oracle Delphi II turntable with Magnepan univpivot arm—it was Bill who wrote up the order!

Just a few weeks ago I set up that very turntable for an old friend of mine who got it from the person I'd sold it to in 1990 when I bought a VPI TNT. And so it goes, around and around...

Zardoz's picture

and hate that I couldn't arrange my schedule to attend this year.

Keep earning those "big bucks".

Good listening,

Joe Crowe's picture

Great seeing a reference to the mad Scot. Outside of diehard vinyl aficionados the audio world has (conveniently) forgotten the contribution he made to music reproduction. I have matured beyond my wet dream lust for an LP12 of 1974 but still cherish the philosophy. The source is all and I shake my head at young "audiophiles" I know who would rather upgrade speaker cables than a cartridge. We claim the Tiefenrule is less critical in the digital age but it is actually just as if not more important. What has changed is the point considered the "source". Given the relative inter-generational transparency of digital the source has become the point at which sound, either a performance or an analogue recording becomes bits. The more accurate this event the better the eventual product. Even if it ends up as red book a 192/24 recording is going to give us a superior result all else being equal. Future formats and improvements will not change that. Good source good music.

tube dog's picture

I own all 12 of the 331/3 Blue Note reissues and they are excellent. I hope they continue doing more Blue Notes.

Toptip's picture

"...but the $20 series helps young people, most of whom can't spend $50 on a record" -- not sure about that, they probably try it on Spotify first, if ever: I had never heard this music before but as an experiment I played to my sons' entourage (a roomful of 14 and 16 year olds, half very into music). Within minutes they all snuck away, with quizzical looks like who can possibly like this? We shall see what the future holds for jazz...

amarok89's picture

There's plenty of time. "Younger" can also mean those in their 20's. I'm 57 and although I had dabbled in jazz over the years the $20 Blue Notes have helped get me really into it. I have already filled a milk crate with new jazz records (Blue Notes and others) since March of this year. That low price series helped me out a lot and now I am really hooked. I have several of the 33-1/3 Music Matters that came out earlier than the $20 Blue Notes and I realize the difference in sound between the two. But I am getting a lot of enjoyment out of the cheaper releases and there is still a long way to go. Maybe jazz isn't the right music to aim towards kids as young as you say, but the $20 releases of rock, pop, indie and whatever sure can get them into vinyl. I am all for that.

Michael Fremer's picture
If you tried feeding them some gourmet cheese or other "adult taste" food, they'd run too. For some it takes time and for others they will never like jazz. That's fine. It's not for everyone, nor is stinky cheese!
Steve Edwards's picture

I remember the first time my dad gave me a taste of his bourbon; just couldn't believe he was actually drinking that fire! Now.............that is not the case.

Play on

gak27's picture

The audio wasteland that is NE Ohio says no.

JBryan's picture

...was my 1st leap into hi end audio (though looking back, the Thorens it replaced was under appreciated). I played a lot of records on that and spent hours gazing at its beautiful design. I also spent hours setting up those springs so it would bounce just right and it was a major chore every time I replaced the arm or cart. Tweaking the suspension every few months became too much and I eventually moved on and after several TT, I settled on a VPI TNT as well (coincidence?). Now, I'll just vicariously experience gear upgrades through you until I can afford a Simon Yorke or some such.

Michael Fremer's picture
Yes the springs can be a chore. Even worse for me at the time was that I mounted on it an E.T. tonearm! I really didn't know what I was doing back then. Having a large moving mass (the arm and the rail) is the last thing you want on a spring suspended design. In fact the large "4 poster" that is the TNT was designed specifically with the Eminent Technology II arm in mind.
MrRom92's picture

Of that new Ellington reissue... Would you consider doing a dedicated review on that title? I'd be especially interested in all the juicy technical details since it is older by a few years than most recordings typically chosen for audiophile reissue. And tape technology went through a great deal of change between say 1950 and 1955. That LP is definitely a purchase I'd be interested in making.

Michael Fremer's picture
Coming up!
Gamecock0516's picture

My first time attending the event. Thank you for participating, some great vinyl selections. I will have to look into picking up the Ellington LP and the Gospel version of the Dylan works. They were great! However, for the time being, will have to listen to them on my old Dual 1264. :-(