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PS Audio Stellar Gain Cell DAC Review

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Price
$1,699. Available direct from PS Audio (USA customers only), or via your local dealer.

Description
New DAC/Preamp from PS Audio. Notable for DSD128 via USB, all analog gain and volume control, input switching among multiple analog and digital inputs.

Background
I’m a big fan of DACs from PS Audio. I’ve had three in my system for extended listening: The Digital Link III ($995), it’s predecessor, the NuWave DAC ($995), and now this DAC/preamp combination, the Stellar Gain Cell DAC ($1,699). All three are well-built, flexible, capable units, and all three have balanced XLR outputs. I run long balanced cables from my front end to my powered speakers, so the balanced outputs are a must-have.

The Stellar DAC/Preamp is, of course, different from the DLIII and NuWave in that it has preamp functionality in addition to being a DAC. As PS Audio describes it:

There isn’t a DAC made that doesn’t benefit from a great analog preamplifier. The Stellar Gain Cell DAC combines the benefits of both—a full-featured DAC with an exceptional analog preamplifier controlling its output level.

For me, having a quality analog volume control on the DAC, as well as switching for multiple analog inputs, is a huge win. But the fun doesn’t stop there. Check out the list of goodies packed into this little wonder:

Features & Specs (from PS Audio website)

  • Class A balanced analog preamplifier
  • Full function DAC
  • Class A headphone output
  • Remote control
  • Fixed or variable DAC mode
  • 2 output 12 volt triggers

Analog preamplifier:

  • One balanced analog input
  • Three single ended analog inputs
  • Analog Gain Cell stage
  • Fully balanced input to output
  • Balanced XLR analog output
  • Single ended RCA analog output
  • Home theater bypass
  • Direct coupled without any capacitors in output signal path

Digital To Analog Converter:

  • Four digital inputs
  • I2S input
  • Digital Lens technology
  • Three user selectable digital filters
  • Compatible with PS Audio DMP for SACD playback in DSD
  • DSD direct through I2S
  • 192kHz asynchronous coax and TOSLINK inputs
  • 192kHz asynchronous USB
  • Single and double rate DSD
  • CPLD input (FPGA) lowers jitter, waveshapes, reduces propagation delay
  • Native mode standard
  • No added Sample Rate Conversion
  • High current class A hybrid output stage
  • Passive output filter lowers transient distortion
  • Direct coupled without any capacitors in output signal path
  • High bandwidth output stage -3dB 60kHz
  • Low jitter clocks
  • High Current oversized analog power supply
  • 7 voltage regulators
  • High speed power supply diodes
  • Massive 15,000 mFd low ESR capacitors
  • ESS Hyperstream

Gain-Cell-DAC-gallery-3

Operation
I tried out nearly all the functions of the Stellar Gain Cell DAC during the course of my three week evaluation, and I never ran into any real glitches. Front panel controls, back panel connections and remote were all straightforward and generally a pleasure to use. There are a couple things I would change, however, given the chance.

My main complaint has to do with the display. Or, more accurately, what is and isn’t shown on the display at any given time. Ideally, I’d like the display to show the following, anytime it is on during normal operation:

  • Volume level
  • Selected input

And for digital inputs, I’d like to see these two as well:

  • Filter, since it can be changed directly on the remote, and might be changed accidentally.
  • Phase (if reversed). It too can be changed on the remote.

PS Audio gets it almost right. They include all of the above on the display except the selected input (unless in DAC only mode, in which case volume isn’t a thing, and the display works perfectly). When the preamp is active, you have to push the little menu selector button on the front panel to see the currently selected input. There isn’t a way to see the selected input using the remote unless you press one of the input buttons, at which point that input becomes the selected input and is briefly shown on the display.

Also, the display turns off automatically, presumably to save energy or perhaps prevent burn-in (?). Exactly when it turns off is determined by the “Display Time” setting in the options menu. According to the manual:

This is the amount of time the Display is on. Rotating the volume knob selects times from 10 seconds to 1 hour. Auto will turn off the display if no signal is detected.

So, here’s where it gets weird. There is also a “Dim” button on the remote, and instead of dimming the display as one might expect, this button actually turns off the display. However, it will not turn off the display if the Display Time setting is set to “auto” and a signal is present. It tries, but the display stays on since a signal is immediately detected (otherwise the display would not have been on in the first place!).

Things get even nuttier if Display Time is set to “auto” and you play music that has very quiet sections using an analog input. Depending on the level of signal present, the display turns off during the quiet sections and comes back on during the loud ones! Between this quirk and the “dim” button behavior, it took me several evenings of investigation before I finally figured out that was happening…

ANYWAY, I would have preferred no “Display Time” setting at all, and for the “Dim” button on the remote to simply cycle through bright, dim, and off settings. This way, one could affect the display brightness via the remote (instead of via the options menu only), turn off the display when desired, and allow the display to stay on regardless of signal detection. This just seems more standard and straightforward to me.

I must say, the remote is a great size. Not too big and not too small. It also has excellent range and a startlingly good operating angle–the IR sensor is much better in the Stellar than in my PS Audio GCPH phono preamp.

Oh, yeah. And I have a wish. It would be really handy to be able to set a volume offset for each input so all the inputs are roughly the same level. During my audition, switching between certain analog and digital inputs caused a big swing in output level and had me scrambling for the volume control each time.

Gain-Cell-DAC-gallery-2

Sound
Let me just cut to the chase. The Stellar exceeded my expectations for sound quality in nearly every respect. The digital inputs produced gobs of detail, great dynamics, proper soundstage, and excellent extension. Ripped CDs and hi-res downloads sounded astoundingly good via USB input played by my player of choice, Channel D’s Pure Music, on my Macbook Pro. Plus, the analog inputs sounded clean, full, and lively. Exactly like I hoped they would!

PS Audio uses the word “lush,” among others, to describe the Stellar’s sound. I disagree. I’d describe it as “accurate,” and dead center in the hard/soft, fast/slow, and cold/warm spectra. There is lots of fine detail, but there is also palpability. Could I use a little more meat on the bones? Sure, but now I’m wishing the Stellar designers deviated from neutral just to benefit my system (horns and solid state). Bad reviewer!

Here are some of the ways I tried to get the Stellar to show me a sonic wart or two:

  • Vinyl through PS Audio GCPH phono stage via balanced analog inputs.
  • SACD through Denon DVD-2900 via single ended analog inputs.
  • CD through Denon DVD-2900 via single ended analog inputs.
  • CD through Denon DVD-2900 via RCA COAXIAL input.
  • CD through Denon DVD-2900 via TOSLINK Optical input.
  • 16 bit/44.1 kHz ALAC files through Pure Music on Macbook Pro via USB input.
  • 24 bit/196 kHz ALAC files through Pure Music on Macbook Pro via USB input.
  • DSD64 files through Pure Music on Macbook Pro via USB input.

I also tried using my trusty PS Audio Digital Link III DAC for most the above (no DSD) via balanced analog inputs.

Each time I thought the Stallar was adding a hint of glare or grit or leanness, I’d remove it from the chain and realize it was in the recording (or the room, or the speakers, or the cables… Isn’t this hobby FUN!). I  kept thinking I could catch the Stellar doing something wrong, sound-wise, but it simply didn’t happen. Bravo!

Gain-Cell-DAC-gallery-4

Conclusion
There’s no way around it, this is one hell of a lot of value packed into a single chassis. And the sound is as good or better than you are going to get for the price–especially when you consider the Stellar is both a DAC and a preamp. It provides outstanding, modern digital conversion as well as clean analog source selection and volume control. And it does so without adding noticeable noise or veiling, and without removing detail, depth, or tone color. Aside from a couple usability quirks, its operation was flawless, and the build quality is exceptional. Highly recommended!

Equipment Used

  • Signet TK7E MM cartridge
  • Technics EPA-100 tonearm with Applied Fidelity rewire (copper)
  • Technics SP-10MK2 turntable with obsidian base
  • PS Audio GCPH phono preamp
  • MacBook Pro with 2.9 GHz Intel Core i7 processor, 8 GB of memory, battery powered
  • Other World Computing USB 2.0 cable (1 meter)
  • Denon DVD-2900 SACD / CD player and transport
  • PS Audio Digital Link III DAC
  • AudioQuest VSD-1 75ohm coaxial digital cable (2 meter)
  • Mogami 3173 with Neutrik NC3-B series XLR interconnects (1 meter)
  • Avantgarde Acoustic SOLO active, coaxial 2-way horn speakers
  • Blue Jeans Cable Belden 1800F with Neutrik NC3-B series XLR connectors (25 ft)
  • No-name black power cords (1 meter)
  • PS Audio UPC-200 Power Center power conditioner

Software Used

  • Channel D Pure Music v3.0.6 music server software using Memory Play and volume set to 0.0 dB.
  • All music files in Apple Lossless or DSD format.
  • 16 bit/44.1 kHz files ripped from CD using Apple Lossless Encoder setting in iTunes with Error Correction.
  • All hi-rez files downloaded in Apple Lossless format, FLAC, or DSD.
  • FLAC files converted to Apple Lossless format using XLD decoder.

Music Used (vinyl)

  • Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade from Fritz Reiner, CSO (LP, 13S/11S I shaded dog, RCA, LSC-2446)
  • Miroslav Vitous: Infinite Search (LP, Pure Pleasure, 180g, 506014962242)
  • Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition from Fritz Reiner, CSO (LP, 23S/23S I shaded dog, RCA LSC-2201)
  • Miles Davis: Jack Johnson (LP, Mobile Fidelity, 180g, 821797144018)
  • Lots more…

Music Used (SACD)

  • Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade from Fritz Reiner, CSO (Hybrid SACD, BMG Classics, 828766637724)
  • Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition from Fritz Reiner, CSO (Hybrid SACD, BMG Classics, 828766139426)
  • Respighi: Pines of Rome from Fritz Reiner, CSO (Hybrid SACD, BMG Classics, 828767161426)
  • Lots more…

Music Used (16 bit/44.1 kHz)

  • The Mercury Program: Chez Viking (CD, Lovitt Records, 643859860021)
  • Jose Gonzalez: Stay in the Shade EP (CD, Hidden Agenda Records, 795306508120)
  • Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition from Fritz Reiner, CSO (Hybrid SACD, BMG Classics, 828766139426)
  • Fontanelle: Style Drift (CD, Kranky Records, 796441805624)
  • Lots more…

Music Used (24 bit/96 kHz)

  • Arcangelo Corelli Opus 6: Concerti Grossi from The Avison Ensemble (Linn Records, info)
  • Joachim Kwetzinsky: Shchedrin: Basso Ostinato from Polyphonic Dialogues (2L, info)

Music Used (24 bit/176.4 kHz)

  • Dick Hyman: “Thinking about Bix” from HRx Sampler 2011 (Reference Recordings, info)
  • Respighi: Belkis, Queen of Sheba Suite from Elji Oue, Minnesota Orchestra (Reference Recordings, info)
  • Walton: Crown Imperial (finale) from Jerry Junkin, Dallas Wind Symphony (Reference Recordings, info)

Music Used (24 bit/196 kHz)

  • Haydn: String Quartet In D, Op. 76, No. 5 – Finale – Presto from Engegårdkvartetten: String Quartets (2L, info)
  • Beethoven: Sonate Nr. 32 c-moll op. 111 – Maestoso from Tor Espen Aspaas: Mirror Canon (2L, info)
  • Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique from Scottish Chamber Orchestra (Linn Records, info)

Music Used (DSD 64)

  • Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade from Fritz Reiner, CSO (Analogue Productions, XAPC2446D64, info)

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Sound: (see below)
Pressing/packaging: 9.9
Value: (see below)

Original released by Prestige Records in 1956. Catalog Number: LP 7035. Recorded by: Rudy Van Gelder. Supervised by: Bob Weinstock.

The Electric Recording Co. reissue released in 2017. 180g, 33RPM, Mono. Catalog Number: ERC024. Numbered, Limited Edition. UPC: None. MSRP: £300.

What if a company decided to reissue golden era jazz and classical LPs in the most authentic way possible, without worry for cost or time? What would it take? They would have to use restored tape and cutting equipment from the ’50s and ’60s. They’d have to use letterpress printing methods to reproduce the cover art. And they’d have to construct the jackets using the same techniques used to make the originals.

Enter the Electric Recording Co. of London, England. They painstakingly produce only 300 copies of each release, and they charge £300 per record ($368 US as of this writing). Think of them as the opposite of the fly-by-night European reissue label that sources recordings from CDs and prints cover art on laser printers. They are meticulous. They love the art of record making, and they are very, very good at it.

So it is with this release, recorded at the famed Van Gelder Studio in Hackensack, and originally released as Prestige LP 7035 in 1956. No expense has been spared in recreating the music, the vinyl or the packaging. It looks and feels like the nicest, most lovingly created record you’ve ever held. It was even cut with a mono cutting head, just like they did in 1956.

Unfortunately for me, unlocking the magic on this record is not possible with my current setup. With my Ortofon 2M Black cartridge, the inner third of each side of this disc had such distortion as to make it unlistenable. Same goes for my Denon DL-103 and Signet TK7E. These are all stereo carts, with smaller styli than the 1 mm of real mono carts, so that could be the issue. At least, I hope that is the issue.

As an experiment–and not a very good one, given the hypothesis above–I took the record down the street to my favorite hi-fi shop, Definitive Audio, here in sunny Seattle, WA. They didn’t have a mono cartridge to try, but they did have a Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement cartridge on a Clearaudio Master Innovation turntable, connected to D’Agostino amplification and Wilson Audio Alexx loudspeakers.

IMG_2797

One of the most expensive turntables ever made playing one of the most expensive LPs ever made. Sonic bliss? Not so fast.

This is a top flight setup by any measure, and it costs more than most homes. Result? Same. Bad distortion on inner third of each side. Very transparent, articulate distortion, but distortion nonetheless. So, at least I know it’s not my setup.

In playing maybe 5,000 records in my lifetime, a really small percentage have been mono and cut with mono heads (mono heads were used in the ’50s and early ’60s, before stereo cutting heads became the norm). And some of the those old monos had terrible distortion. I always thought it was due to groove wear or bad pressings. Perhaps it was simply that I was using the wrong cartridge?

So, this isn’t so much a review as a lesson–for me, mostly. I actually wasn’t aware that one might need a mono cartridge to properly play mono records cut by a mono head. If it is true, then I just learned a valuable hi-fi lesson. If it is not true, then this copy of this record is a dud. Which is a big deal, given the price.

Never a big mono fan in the first place, I’m going to request a review copy of ERC’s latest release, Bruckner’s 9th performed by VPO and conducted by Carl Schuricht. A monster recording I’ve yet to hear on a proper pressing. It’s stereo, so should be a safer bet based on my stereo-only cartridge options. Regardless, I’ll let you know how it sounds.

{ 4 comments }

Sound: 9.6
Pressing/packaging: 9.7
Value: 9.8

Original released by Columbia Records in 1971. Catalog Number: S 30455. Producer: Teo Macero.

Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab reissue released in 2015. 180g, 33RPM. Catalog Number: MFSL1-440. Numbered, Limited Edition. UPC: 821797144018. MSRP: $35. Buy on Amazon.com

Introduction

This is another essential electric-era Miles Davis reissue by Mobile Fidelity. Along with In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, Jack Johnson represents another angle on the fusion sound as it was emerging, and as Miles was experimenting in and around it. This time it’s a more straightforward rock-based structure, at least as straightforward as Miles and producer Teo Macero could get at this time. It’s driving, backbeat drumming and repetitive bass lines give it a smoldering energy that is more direct than it’s two predecessors. It’s less produced than In a Silent Way, although it’s clearly assembled in a similar way (it even contains a sample of “Shhh/Peaceful” halfway though “Yesternow”). It’s also less textured and dimensional than Bitches Brew, although “Yesternow” has some insane texture courtesy of an Echoplex rumored to have been played by uncredited guitarist, Sonny Sharrock.

The most impressive and appealing aspect of these two songs (four, really) has to be the unhinged guitar playing of John McLaughlin. He is really on fire during “Right Off,” and his playing is superbly showcased. Herbie Hancock’s screaming, demented electronic organ also makes me smile.

But, Lord do I hate the soprano saxophone. Oh, it hurts. Even here, on the best jazz-rock record ever made, it makes my skin crawl. No matter what the context, it just sounds corny. I love, LOVE music, but I can honestly say, I wish the soprano sax had never been invented. Thankfully, it doesn’t feature too prominently here. ANYWAY…

Sound: 9.6

Pretty sure this is as good as this recording can sound. Everything sounds like it should in terms of tone, range, soundstage, etc. And it sounds fresh–unlike In a Silent Way, which sounds amazing, but has a slight veil.

MoFi didn’t give this one the 45RPM treatment presumably because they would have had to split both of the side-long tracks in order to do it. Same goes for their 33RPM reissue of In a Silent Way, while Bitches Brew was already a double album, so the possibility of 45RPM probably never came up. I, for one, appreciate this. ORG Music decided to split the 18-minute title song on their 45RPM reissue of Olé Coltrane, and the effect on the listening experience is pretty strange. It’s like unexpectedly hearing a radio edit of a familiar song–the music fades out and it takes your brain a second or two to figure out why.

(See reference system for context on sound evaluation.)

Pressing/packaging: 9.7

Nice, heavy gatefold cover housing a near-perfectly centered record that is flat and noiseless. MoFi is probably the most consistent of all the audiophile reissue labels these days, although I have yet to check out the Music Matters series, and I have only one title from The Electric Recording Co. (a review of which is forthcoming).

Value: 9.8

Do you like Miles Davis from this era? Do you have $35 in your pocket? I think you know what to do!

Mobile Fidelity reissue LP on Amazon.com:

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Sound: 9.0
Pressing/Packaging: 9.8
Value: 9.9

Speakers Corner reissue released in 2007. 180g vinyl. Catalog Number: Mercury SR90392. UPC: 4260019712714. MSRP: $35. Buy on Amazon.com

Original first US edition released by Mercury in 1964. RFR-4/RFR-2 stampers. Catalog Number: SR 90392. Recording: June 1964 at Watford Town Hall, London, by C.R. Fine and Robert Eberenz. Production: Harold Lawrence

Johannes Brahms: Sonatas for Cello and Piano No. 1 in E minor, op. 38 and No. 2 in F major, op. 99 – Janos Starker (cello) & György Sebök (piano)

Introduction

As per our review philosophy, we focus reviews here on sound quality only. However, it should be said that Janos Starker is considered by many to be one of the best cellists of the recorded era. Both players on this disc, actually, are in top form, and both seem to have been born to play these Brahms pieces.

Sound: 9.0

This is simply a beautiful recording of a master playing his instrument with utter confidence and overwhelming grace. Starker’s famous Bach suites, also reissued by Speakers Corner, get most of the attention–and deservedly so. They are sublime, and the sound quality of that reissue is astounding. However, listening to solo cello is not always enough to satisfy. The interplay of piano and cello adds a dimension that engages the mind more thoroughly. I find myself reaching for it more often.

The problem with a lot of cello and piano recordings is the sound of the piano. Pinched, diffuse, distant, boxed, lumpy–you name it. It’s always something! This is where the Speakers Corner murders the original. The piano sound on the reissue is not perfect (very few records have even very good piano sound), but it is much better than the original. It has more body and more harmonic richness.

How does the cello sound? Very, very good. Excellent, for the most part. It is a little thinner on the reissue, though, but I don’t mind given the superior piano. For some, this slightly lesser-bodied cello sound might be a deal-breaker. But it still has good grunt in the very lowest registers–more than the original, in fact. So it’s a trade-off. As a bonus, the reissue has better air and sense of space. Sadly, both have a touch of ambient noise in the form of very low level rumble, which is surely on the tape. Similar to one of the Bach suites, a track or two here include this minor distraction.

(See reference system for context on sound evaluation.)

Pressing/Packaging: 9.8

Stunning pressing quality! Perfectly flat and very nearly perfectly centered. Weight measured 199g. Surface is exceptionally clean and silent. Glossy cover on high quality card stock. My only gripe? The fonts used don’t 100% match the original. This is so subtle I hesitate to mention it, but that’s why they pay me the big bucks. Leave it to me to find at least something wrong with a masterpiece such as this!

Value: 9.9

Unless you are a collector more than a music lover, leave the originals on eBay, and buy this now before it goes out of print.

Speakers Corner reissue LP on Amazon.com:

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Sound: 8.8
Pressing/packaging: 9.4
Value: 9.5

Original released by Columbia Records in 1969. Catalog Number: CS 9750. Engineers: Arthur Kendy, Frank Laico. Producer: Teo Macero.

Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab reissue released in 2015. 180g, 45RPM, 2LP. Catalog Number: MFSL2-438. Numbered, Limited Edition. UPC: 821797243810. MSRP: $50. Buy on Amazon.com

Introduction

Here’s another impressive MoFi reissue of an essential early fusion Miles Davis record. Cut at 45RPM and meticulously pressed, this record sounds phenomenal and is an easy recommendation, but there is one fly in the ointment (unrelated to the music, which I won’t attempt to cover here). Thankfully, it only affects the first and last tracks–tracks recorded later and with a slightly different lineup. According to Wikipedia:

The June sessions featured Wayne Shorter on saxophone, Herbie Hancock on the electric Rhodes piano, Ron Carter on electric bass, and Tony Williams on drums. The September sessions replaced Hancock with Chick Corea, and Carter with Dave Holland, making Filles de Kilimanjaro the last Miles album to feature his Second Great Quintet, although all except Carter would play on his next album, In A Silent Way. During the September sessions, Holland played acoustic bass and Corea played an RMI Electra-piano in addition to acoustic piano.

Sound: 8.8

So what’s the problem? On the first and last tracks, there is a slight, mysterious, intermittent distortion which is in the recording, sadly, since it even appears on the earlier CD issue, so is no fault of the MoFi team. The distortion often corresponds to the low bass, as far as I can tell, but is also heard on the drumkit–especially the tom-toms. At around 6:45 on the last track, Mademoiselle Mabry, Williams hits a tom repeatedly and it distorts badly. A similar distortion (or vibration?) causes the bass on these two tracks to occasionally sound, for a lack of a better term, “Burpy.” I honestly don’t know how else to describe it!

Maybe it was a mic problem, or perhaps something vibrating in the studio. I actually think it may have something to do with the lower registers of Corea’s RMI Electra-Piano, as it is often doubling the bass, and it really sounds like a toy compared to Hancock’s Rhodes. Perhaps the tom and bass distortions are unrelated. Perhaps the tom distortion is from a loose drum head. Perhaps I have a loose drumhead… In any case, I find it irritating. Not enough to skip these tracks, but almost!

Luckily, the middle three tracks are exceptional in every way. “Tout de suite” (Right Away) is stellar, and is, significantly, as far as the Second Quintet would go into fusion while still 100% intact. “Petits machins” (Little Stuff) has beautiful, golden-toned horns, and the title track is equally brilliant.

(See reference system for context on sound evaluation.)

Pressing/packaging: 9.4

Just like the 45RPM Mobile Fidelity reissue of Miles in the Sky we previously reviewed, the quality of this vinyl and its packaging are as good as you are likely to find anywhere. Ruler flat discs with all four sides pressed within a couple millimeters of bulls eye centered. And the heavy gatefold jacket is a pleasure as well.

Value: 9.5

You may not hear the baked-in distortion I mention above (weirder things have happened when it comes to me hearing things others don’t!), so, by all means, if you have $50 to spend, go out and buy this record right now–especially if you like the music as much as I do and you want what is sure to be the best LP version of it out there. You can try your luck on an original pressing on eBay, but you’re going to pay just as much for it (or more), and I doubt the sonics will be as impressive.

Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab reissue LP on Amazon.com:

{ 4 comments }

Sound: 8.7
Pressing: 9.6
Value: 9.3

Original released by Embryo Records in 1970. Catalog number: SD 524. Recorded at A & R Recording Studios, New York, 1969. Recording Engineer: Dave Green. Produced by Herbie Mann.

Pure Pleasure reissue released in 2016. 180g vinyl. Catalog Number: Embryo PPAN SD524. UPC: 506014962242. MSRP: $35. Buy on Amazon.com

Introduction

I don’t know if this reissue is the very best pressing of this record in existence, but I’m willing to bet it’s close (I’ll let others talk in detail about the music, per our review philosophy). Without an original LP or any other pressings to compare it to, I can’t say for sure. But I can say this is a very good sounding record–better than the CD issue I’ve had for many years–and the music is phenomenal. John McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock, Joe Henderson, and Jack DeJohnette, tearing it up with a virtuoso young bassist in late 1969. Goodness! A fortuitous and timely meeting of jazz giants at the dawn of the fusion era. There was a synergy in the studio when this was recorded. The players sound as if they truly enjoy each other, which was likely the case since several of them played together on previous and subsequent records.

Sound: 8.7

Sonically speaking, the production is straightforward and lets the music through. No studio trickery, as was starting to come into vogue at this time. Clean and balanced is how I would describe the sound. Vitous’s basslines, if you can call them that, are easy to hear (if not “follow”), and all the other players sound as they should. My only complaints are typical: It’s slightly veiled (as many reissues are, perhaps due to old tapes), and it’s a little tubby (the leader is a bassist, after all!).

(See reference system for context on sound evaluation.)

Pressing/Packaging: 9.6

As for the pressing, I am glad to report this record is of a very high standard indeed. The vinyl is silent. When I put the needle down, I literally thought my preamp was muted! That just doesn’t happen very often. The pressing is flat and is only a hair off-center. Give me this pressing quality for all my records and I would be a happy man.

Value: 9.3

I’m guessing this record was originally released in a small quantity, which is probably why it is not something you see in the used racks very often. Embryo’s parent company, Atlantic, re-released the record in 1972 with a new title, “Mountain in the Clouds,” as well as an additional track. Checking eBay turns up a few examples of both vintage LP issues, but I suspect the Pure Pleasure reissue is the way to go. The back cover of the retitled version on Atlantic describes how the songs were “re-mixed to improve the presentation of the music,” which just sounds ominous to me.

Pure Pleasure reissue LP on Amazon.com:

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Sound: 8.8
Pressing/Packaging: 9.1
Value: 9.2

Speakers Corner reissue released in 2010. 180g vinyl. Catalog Number: Philips PHS 900-000. UPC: 4260019713728. MSRP: $35. Buy on Amazon.com

Original first US edition (pressed by RCA) and released by Philips in 1962. FR1/RFR-2 I (Indianapolis) stampers. Catalog Number: PHS 900-000. Late US edition (pressed by Columbia) and released by Philips with same catalog numbers.  Original late Dutch edition released by Philips. Catalog Number: 835 474 LY. Recorded: July 1961 at Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London, by C.R. Fine. Production: Harold Lawrence.

Introduction

If I could hear only one master tape (er, film), this would be it. There is just something special about this recording, the only one the Mercury team made for Philips using the 35mm equipment they purchased from Everest. Similar to the best 35MM Mercury titles (Ravel Paray SR-90313 comes to mind), it has astounding air and effortlessness. The music is, of course, well-known and well-analyzed by others more qualified than me, so I’m not going to cover it here (see my review philosophy).

Piano is notoriously difficult to get right on record. Muddy, thin, woolly, twinkle-y, warble-y, out of tune — take your pick, such problems show up in the majority of solo, chamber, and orchestral records. This one has no such problems. It sounds natural, full, and harmonically complex, like the real thing. And it is dynamic. Perhaps because of the advantages 35MM magnetic film affords, the piano is positively enormous when played loudly. Too big, actually, but undeniably engaging.

Unfortunately, as with all things in this life, nothing is perfect, and this record has one, gigantic, fatal flaw, which shows up in all the pressings except the later Dutch Philips. Due to the program length and wide groove spacing needed to capture everything in its full-bandwidth glory, the ending of Side 2 has serious inner groove distortion problems–at least with my Technics EPA-100 and Rega RB-250 pivoted tonearms (linear tracker owners could be in luck). If there was ever a recording that deserved to be reissued as a 2LP set, this is it! For now, we have only single LP versions.

Sound: 8.8

This record sold a ton of copies and was pressed in many editions. Since the recording is so good, all four pressings I own sound outstanding, with only the later Columbia-pressed copy sounding anything less than audiophile.

The original, first RCA pressing is out of this world, which makes sense, since this was essentially a Mercury production and RCA was accustomed to pressing their finest discs. It has air! Tone! Guts! Boundless life! My copy is very clean and obviously was not played much by its former owner. Top end extension is extraordinary, although it does have a hint of aggression in highs (Mercury sound). It has lots of “tubey magic,” and is harmonically rich.

The Speakers Corner reissue is like the RCA pressing, only less of it. By most measures, it is a blockbuster record. Dynamic, clean and balanced. However, compared directly to the RCA pressing, it is missing some tone, air, and guts. It is less transparent. Piano notes lack some body and are a little boxed in. Again, criticizing the sound on this reissue is like complaining the Hope Diamond isn’t big enough. We should all be so lucky to own a record that sounds as good as this one does!

As for other pressings, the late Dutch Philips I have on hand is also very nice. Maybe a little too nice, if you know what I mean. It is missing some dynamic range, transparency, tone, and guts. It is also slightly veiled compared to RCA. The later Columbia pressing is comparatively ragged. It has some tone in there but is missing air. It also has a higher noise floor than the others. It sounds like a good 2-eye Columbia pressing. Nothing special, but not as bad as I imagined.

Pressing/Packaging: 9.1

The reissue vinyl is impressive. Just less than perfectly flat and centered. Quiet surfaces. No ticks, pops, scratches, or other imperfections. The cover is nice quality as well. Laminated front and back, printed on heavy stock. My only complaint? Most of the typefaces used in the dramatic cover graphics are incorrect and don’t match the original. Even the Philips logo and Mercury’s iconic spine text are off. At first glance, it’s difficult to notice what’s “wrong,” but after looking at it for a second or two, it’s clear. Wish they had matched the typefaces! Kudos to Speakers Corner, however, for choosing the correct variation of the banner at the top of the front cover. The later Columbia-pressed edition includes only a single “35MM” logo, while the original RCA-pressed edition has two. Given the impact the 35MM process had on the sound, I think it deserves two, minimum!

Value: 9.2

At $30, this Speakers Corner reissue is an easy recommendation. Buy it new and immediately enjoy this very special recording. Over time, as you encounter the plentiful supply of originals in used record shops (check eBay), look for a clean RCA pressing (with “FR1/RFR2” in dead wax). You can probably get one for less than $20 given the supply. If you have a conventional pivot tonearm and want to avoid hearing any trace of inner groove distortion, get a NM Dutch Philips for less than $10. The upside of its narrow groove spacing is its immunity to this problem. The downside is less bass.

Speakers Corner reissue LP on Amazon.com

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Original released by CTI Records in 1971. Catalog Number: CTI 6007. Engineer: Rudy Van Gelder. Producer: Creed Taylor. Recorded at Van Gelder Studios, 1970. Edition reviewed: Yellow label repressing. Matrices: Side 1: RVG 87660-A-RE 4 12-29-70 VAN GELDER, Side 2: RVG 87660-B-RE 4 12-29-70 VAN GELDER.

ORG Music reissue released in 2016. 180g vinyl. Catalog Number: ORGM-2005. Matrices: Side 1: ORGM-2005-A BG/CB -35979- P.USA, Side 2: ORGM-2005-B BG/CB -35979- P.USA. Source: “Original analog tapes”. Mastered by: Bernie Grundman. Pressed by: Pallas in Germany. UPC: 887254671619. MSRP: $30. Buy on Amazon.com

Pure Pleasure Records Limited reissue released released in 2014. 180g vinyl. Catalog Number: PPAN CTI6007. Matrices: Side 1: PPAN CTI 6007-A -32929-, Side 2: PPAN CTI 6007-B -32929-. Source: ??? Mastered by: Ray Staff at Air Mastering, Lyndhurst Hall, London. Pressed by: ??? UPC: 5060149622056. MSRP: $35. Buy on Amazon.com

Freddie Hubbard (trumpet), Joe Henderson (tenor saxophone), Herbie Hancock (piano), George Benson (guitar), Ron Carter (bass), and Jack DeJohnette (drums).

Introduction

This is an odd, fun and mostly satisfying record, overshadowed by its more famous predecessor, Red Clay. The music is described well by All About Jazz, so I won’t bore you with another take on it (as per my review philosophy). Bottom Line: This is jam-oriented but serious music with tons of energy and a line-up of genuine superstars.

Sound

Original CTI: 7.2
ORG Music: 8.2
Pure Pleasure: 7.4

This is a good but not great sounding recording considering all that is going on instrumentally. The problem is the amount of high frequency energy coming off the drumset and percussion, especially the cymbals and the tambourine. Sometimes these instruments get distorted due to overload. They have an overly metallic quality that is unnerving. There is also a slight glare present on the original and both reissues.

The CTI original suffers the most from the high frequency issues, but it also has more “air” and sounds a bit more “alive.” However, the trumpet sounds thin, the sax has some nasal-ness, and the bass lacks both quality and quantity.

The ORG Music reissue tames some of the high frequency madness. Cymbals and tambourine are more pleasant and less in-your-face, although distortion on the tape is still heard at times. Trumpet and sax have more body and sound more real. Bass quantity is better, but leading edges of plucked strings are more diffuse. Guitar has a slightly cupped-hands quality.

The Pure Pleasure reissue sounds similar in a lot of ways to the ORG Music reissue. However, this reissue goes a little too far in trying to solve the problems on the original. The cymbals and percussion are somewhat rolled off, and high frequency info is missing. The midrange is nice, very similar to the ORG Music reissue in this regard. Unfortunately, the bass is a little too plentiful. Extra bass can be nice, but it overwhelms in spots.

(See reference system for context on sound evaluation.)

Pressing/Packaging

Original CTI: 8.8
ORG Music: 4.3
Pure Pleasure: 9.7

Original CTIs of this era are nice from a quality standpoint. They have laminated, gatefold covers, and decent pressings that are above average for the time.

The ORG Music reissue cover is a disappointment. It isn’t laminated, and instead of a gatefold cover, it includes an insert with the text and images from the original gatefold. More problematic, however, is the pressing. My copy is flat and well centered, but it has many light, inaudible scratches on the vinyl. This is likely due to the record moving around in the inner sleeve during shipping, although some marks look like they were from handling during assembly. ORG Music sent me a second copy, which was much better, but still showed signs of mishandling. Not what I’d expect from an audiophile reissue. Both were sealed when I received them. ORG Music is looking into the issue and assured me they’ve received no other reports of problems.

The Pure Pleasure reissue cover is fantastic. It is both laminated and gatefold. It also matches the details of the original’s graphic design better than the ORG Music reissue (although I think the ORG Music reproduces the correct green labels). Pressing-wise, the vinyl is nearly flawless. It is flat, well centered, and fairly quiet. No marks or sonic issues.

Conclusion

An original first pressing might be the way to go, but only if you can find one in perfect shape (check eBay). My original was a mid-to-late ’70s CTI repress, which may be why it has some issues. If you want to avoid rolling the dice on a used original, either reissue provides very commendable sonics. The ORG Music version is best for neutral systems, while the Pure Pleasure version is better for lean or bright systems. If you want the look-and-feel of CTI’s original deluxe packaging, Pure Pleasure will make you very happy, but you’ll pay a little extra for the privilege. It’s great to have options.

ORG Music reissue LP on Amazon.com:

Pure Pleasure reissue LP on Amazon.com:

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Sound: 8.5
Pressing/Packaging: 9.6*
Value: 8.3

Original released in UK by Decca and in US by London in 1963. Catalog Number: SXL 6044 and CS 6358, respectively. Recorded: February 1963 at Kingsway Hall, London, by Arthur Lilley. Production: Ray Minshull.

Speakers Corner reissue released in 2012. 180g vinyl. Catalog Number: Decca SXL 6044. UPC: 4260019714091. MSRP: $35. Buy on Amazon.com

Dvorák: Symphony No. 8, Op. 88; Scherzo Capriccioso, Op. 66. London Symphony Orchestra. Istvan Kertész, conductor.

Introduction

The music and performance on this release has been reviewed many times over, so I’m not going to cover that here (as per my review philosophy). Bottom line: Aside from the slightly schmaltzy strings in spots, it’s difficult to find fault with this performance. Confident and balanced. Kertész was a top interpreter of Dvorák, the LSO was in top form at this time, and the Decca recording powers were in full force for this recording.

Sound: 8.5

Recording is exceptional, although there is a bit of glare in the lower treble during loud passages. Otherwise, a natural and dynamic recording with no obvious shortcomings. I compared my mid ’70s narrow band UK London pressing (10G/7G stampers) to the Speakers Corner reissue.

The original has a lower noise floor but the soundstage is somewhat constricted. There is generally more bloom and harmonic structure. Violins are sweeter, more palpable. Upper midrange has more body, better definition. Bass is OK but sort of lumpy and round.

The Speakers Corner reissue is overall very nice. It is however slightly veiled, with more tape hiss (although cut at a lower level). It has a wider, deeper soundstage, and a much better sense of the hall. Violins can be somewhat thin, grainy, smeared, detached, and one-dimensional. Upper midrange is somewhat homogenized. Bass is significantly deeper, more articulate and textured.

Jonathan Valin recently added this Speakers Corner reissue to the new incarnation of the TAS Super LP List.

(See reference system for context on sound evaluation.)

Pressing/Packaging: 9.6*

(*) My copy is a test pressing, with generic white labels and black cover. However, pressing quality of the record is excellent. The vinyl is very flat, and is perfectly centered. Surface is quiet and free of marks of any kind.

Value: 8.3

Is the reissue worth $35 when originals are relatively plentiful and cheap on eBay? Depends on your sonic priorities (and whether you want to take a chance on condition, stamper variations, etc.). If you value soundstage and dynamic range over instrumental tone and palpability, the reissue will make you very happy. Even if you value all four of those qualities equally, the relative magnitude of the differences favors the reissue. Recommended.

Speakers Corner reissue LP on Amazon.com:

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Sound: 8.3
Pressing/Packaging: 9.4
Value: 9.3

Original released by Columbia Records in 1968. Catalog Number: CS 9628. Engineers: Arthur Kendy, Frank Laico. Producer: Teo Macero.

Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab reissue released in 2015. 180g, 45RPM, 2LP. Catalog Number: MFSL2-437. Numbered, Limited Edition. UPC: 821797243711. MSRP: $50. Buy on Amazon.com

Miles Davis (trumpet), Wayne Shorter (saxophone), Herbie Hancock (piano, electric piano), Ron Carter (bass, electric bass), Tony Williams (drums), George Benson (guitar).

Introduction

There are many insightful reviews of the music on this disc elsewhere, so I’m not going to cover that here (as per my review philosophy). Bottom line: There is some blistering and influential music in these grooves. Tony Williams’ drumming alone produces several jaw dropping moments.

Sound: 8.3

Sound-wise, this record is somewhat inconsistent but supremely interesting and important. Drums sound exceptional, especially on the first and last tracks. Super clear with terrific immediateness. Crisp and snappy. No distortion. Electric piano on first track is also extremely nice. Coherent, tonally balanced, and surrounded by a pillow of believable air. Trumpet and saxophone are good most of the time. Saxophone has extra rich tone on the second track. I think the 45RPM cutting gets every ounce of life from the (aging) tape.

However, there are problems. Trumpet has some distracting, phasey sizzle in loud parts. Muted trumpet at the beginning of the last track is thin and screechy (admittedly, I’m not a fan of the mute). Bass quantity is uneven, with some low and upper bass notes sounding anemic.

But the main issue has to do with the varying “sizes” of each instrument–especially acoustic piano. When not soloing, piano, bass, saxophone, and even drums sometimes sound “smaller” as opposed to “quieter.” This unnatural shrinking and expanding of the instruments can be unnerving (the hard panning of drums and piano doesn’t help).

Real instruments in a real environment never sound like this. Of course, sounding “real” wasn’t necessarily the intent when this was recorded. From this record onward, Miles made greater and greater use of electric instruments and studio experimentation.

(See reference system for context on sound evaluation.)

Pressing/Packaging: 9.4

Pressing quality is excellent. My copy is fantastically flat and centered. There is a touch of vinyl noise, but well above average in this regard. Packaging is nearly as good as it gets. A heavy gatefold cover with sharp images and crisp text houses this 2LP gem.

Value: 9.3

As for value, at $50 it ain’t cheap. However, run-of-the-mill reissues cost $30 on average. And those are single LPs–not double. I’m not sure what an original sounds like, or what it would cost to get a nice copy (check eBay). Considering the quality on offer here, value is very high indeed.

Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab reissue LP on Amazon.com:

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