Sound: 7.2
Pressing/packaging: 9.2
Value: 8.4

ORG Music reissue released in 2014. 180g vinyl, 45RPM, 2LP, limited edition, numbered. Catalog Number: ORGM-1091. Mastered by Bernie Grundman. Pressed by Pallas in Germany. UPC: 711574708413. MSRP: $49. Buy on Amazon.com

Introduction

This LP was originally released by Atlantic Records in 1964. It consists of tracks recorded in 1960 during the My Favorite Things sessions. It includes six songs, four of which are Coltrane originals. This review focuses on sound quality and value. The music deserves all the commentary it has generated, I’m just not going to add more here.

ORG Music has given this reissue the royal treatment, as they have with several other titles from Coltrane’s Atlantic period. They describe this release as a “180g double LP 45RPM reissue, mastered from original tapes by Bernie Grundman and pressed at Pallas in Germany. Each copy of this limited release is numbered with a gold foil-stamp.”

Sound: 7.2

Overall sound quality on this title is similar to other Coltrane recordings on Atlantic. That is to say, it’s not terrible, but compared to other recordings in the same timeframe, it suffers some.

Saxophone isn’t bad, thank goodness, but other instruments can be murky and distant. Drums are at times papery and boxy, while bass is somewhat undersized and amorphous. Piano is the worst, however, never sounding remotely real and at times sounding like it is coming out of an antique table radio.

There were some superb jazz recordings made in 1959-1960. Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come (also on Atlantic, also reissued by ORG, and also reviewed here) is insanely good; in a different universe as far as fidelity goes (and musically, one could argue). Mega-hits on Columbia by Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck sound better. A typical Rudy van Gelder session for Blue Note or Prestige sounds better, if by a smaller margin.

Here are my raw notes on each track:

1. The Night Has a Thousand Eyes
Nice and clear sax sound
Sax — Left/center
Piano, drums — Right
Bass — Center

2. Central Park West
Murky sound
Sax is more distant
Piano not great — congested, some distortion
Sax — Center
Piano — Hard right
Bass — Center
Drums — Hard left

3. Liberia
Lively, with intense polyrhythmic drumming from Jones
[same as T2, but slightly clearer sax (switched back to alto)]

4. Body and Soul
[same as T2]

5. Equinox
Nice, mid-tempo blues tune with a quintessential Coltrane melody
Good weight
Decent sax sound
Piano little small
Ride cymbal kind of opaque
Hard stereo separation
Sax — Hard right
Piano, Drums — Hard left
Bass — Center

6. Satellite
Bass should be crystal clear since no piano, but is diffuse
Drums similar to previous track — pretty flat and sort of distant
Sax — Left/center
Piano — none
Drums, bass — Right

(See reference system for context on sound evaluation.)

Pressing/packaging: 9.2

Nicely centered and very, very flat discs. Quiet vinyl surfaces with no ticks, zips, or crackles. Nice gatefold cover with straightforward, high quality rice paper-ish inner sleeves. The jacket quality is excellent but a tick or two below the level of Music Matters, with their glossy finish and gorgeous reproduction of photography and artwork.

Value: 8.4

I don’t think you’ll find a better sounding copy of this record. Maybe a NM original or random Atlantic reissue would be competitive, but I doubt it. Finding one could be expensive and take months of eBay searches. I’d also choose this over the 180g 33RPM Rhino version. I compared the 180g 33RPM Rhino version of My Favorite Things to the ORG Music 45RPM version–both mastered by Bernie Grundman–and the 45RPM killed the 33RPM. No contest.

My advice would be to shell out the $50 and get this before it goes out of print. This record may be less than essential because it is a collection of extras, but given the care ORG Music has put into reissuing it, I doubt any Coltrane fan would want to be without it.

ORG Music reissue LP on Amazon.com:

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Sound: 7.6
Pressing: 7.4
Value: 5.0

Deutsche Grammophon reissue released in 2016. 180g vinyl. Catalog Number: 479 6653. UPC: 028947966531. MSRP: $23. Buy on Amazon.com

Introduction

I’ve been on a Chopin rampage lately (if such a thing could ever exist). As far as solo piano works go, I spin Chopin more than any other composer. I also have a ridiculous number of Chopin LPs on the shelf — over 100. Why do I have every Chopin title Brailowsky ever recorded? I don’t know. For some reason, I can’t bring myself to get rid of a Chopin record.

The interpreters I reach for most often are Argerich, Arrau and Moravec. There is also a Connoisseur Society disc of the four scherzi by Antonio Barbosa that I find especially transfixing. Like Rubinstein, Pollini was second tier for me, but I’ve been listening to him a good deal more in recent months and have to say I like his no nonsense approach. Very solid and straightforward, which is sometimes exactly what is needed.

Deutsche Grammophon has been quietly reissuing a good number of classical titles on LP in the last few years. While I applaud the effort, I wish they would be clearer about sources, mastering engineers, and pressing facilities.

The source for this release and others like it is unclear to me. The sticker on the front cover says simply “mastered from original sources,” while the description on the Acoustic Sounds website says “remastered from the original Deutsche Grammophon analogue tapes.” One Acoustic Sounds commenter on another disc in this series says “they are sourced from 24 bit, 96 kHz masters (in turn created from the original analogue tapes),” so maybe that’s it? I asked my contact at Universal, Deutsche Grammophon’s parent company, but have yet to hear back. If the source for this reissue is a digital file, that may explain some of the sonic issues I encountered.

UPDATE: Sam Sklar at Verve Label Group emailed me back about my source question. She wrote: “All magnetic tapes (the original sources as quoted on sticker) have been digitally preserved exactly as they are onto a 24-bit system; this is effectively as close as we can get to the analogue original and ensures the analogue original no longer suffers deterioration from use.”

I compared the 180g reissue to a mint original 110g first pressing from 1976. I used a Signet TK7E moving-magnet cartridge with 0.2 x 0.7-mil nude square-shank miniaturized elliptical tip, mounted to a Technics EPA-100 arm. I adjusted VTA each time I swapped discs to account for the difference in record thickness.

Sound: 7.6

This is not a superlative piano recording in the first place. Both discs exhibited some glare, congestion, and hardness. However, the recording has admirable tone and dynamics, and is less ringy/buzzy than many solo piano titles from this era. I did find Pollini’s vocalizations in parts to be really distracting, though thankfully not as bad as Glenn Gould or Elvin Jones when they get going.

Here are my raw listening notes. Keep in mind, the differences were subtle in absolute terms but easily heard when switching from one disc to the other.

Original:

  • More harmonic content
  • More juice, more color
  • Some glare
  • More bloom, notes project out into space

Reissue:

  • Slightly veiled
  • Dimmer than original
  • More glare, hardness
  • Flat, notes stay pinned to a single plane

(See reference system for context on sound evaluation.)

Pressing/packaging: 7.4

Fairly flat and centered, heavy and nice looking vinyl. Appears to have been pressed at Optimal. Sadly, my copy has a few spots of non-fill on side two. High quality jacket on heavy stock. Includes insert with additional sleeve notes as did the original. Includes voucher to download MP3.

Value: 5.0

At $23, I guess you’d call this a mid-to-low-priced 180g reissue. Significantly cheaper than typical $35 audiophile titles, but more than, say, Blue Note’s 75th anniversary reissue series at $18 each (unfortunately, cut from digital files). Given the abundance of 1970s pressings on eBay for $5-10, I’d skip this one and go with an original pressing. If you get a NM original, you’ll save money and get a better sounding disc.

Deutsche Grammophon reissue LP on Amazon.com:

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Sound: 8.8
Pressing: 8.4
Value: 9.0

Speakers Corner reissue released in 2017. 180g vinyl. Catalog Number: Columbia MS 6157. UPC: 4260019715333. MSRP: $35. Buy on Amazon.com

Introduction

Speakers Corner is mining the Columbia vaults for early stereo gems, of which this title is one. There are some legendary titles and performances from that era, but per our review philosophy, this review will focus on the sound quality on the disc instead of the music. I happen to love the music here (Sibelius is one of my favorite composers), but that doesn’t make me an expert on it. Surely enough has been said about this popular concerto and this well-known performance over the years.

I compared the 2017 Speakers Corner 180g reissue with an original stereo 1961-ish Columbia 6-eye and a late ’60s 2-eye with white “360 Stereo” lettering. Oddly, the label variant Speakers Corner used for their reissue is the mid ’60s 2-eye with black “360 Stereo” lettering, which would have been the second issue of this release, the first being the 6-eye label.

Sound: 8.8

A few things struck me about this recording. First, the violin is really, really big. Too big compared to the orchestra. It’s fun for a minute, but ultimately gives me the awkward sense of being on stage with the performers instead of in the audience. I’m not sure, but it may also contribute to the rather shallow soundstage depth. Second, like most Columbia recordings, the quality is solid but lacks refinement. Everything sounds just a little aggressive; like there is always a touch of overload on the tape.

What about the differences between these pressings? Well, the 2-eye lost out to the 6-eye, as you may have expected. The 2-eye isn’t bad, actually, but it has some glare and the massed strings are boxy. Double bass sounded surprisingly good, however, and the sweetness of the woodwinds was nicely replicated. I would not pass up a NM 2-eye if you find one for cheap.

The winner between the 6-eye and Speakers Corner is tougher to call. There are some distinct differences, the most obvious of which is the superior transparency of the reissue. Distinguishing individual instruments is easier with the Speakers Corner, due in part to the lower noise floor, but also resulting from what sounds to me like more modern/accurate mastering and cutting equipment.

Similar to the way the cutting heads used early on by RCA and Decca added a little magic to the sound on those original pressings, the 6-eye has tone and substance the reissue doesn’t quite match. The age of the tapes is probably a contributing factor to this as well. If you can get past the grit on the 6-eye (especially in the higher frequency massed strings and brass), and your system is on the lean side of neutral already, an early original could be preferred.

However, on my system, I’d reach for the Speakers Corner reissue more often, simply because I typically like to “hear into” the performance more than I like to hear a sweetened version of it. Both the original and reissue have their charms. Maybe one of each is best?

(See reference system for context on sound evaluation.)

Pressing/packaging: 8.4

Perfectly flat and centered, with no visible defects. This is the norm with Speakers Corner and I have to admit I’ve become spoiled to it. As my recent streak of defective discs from Music Matters proves, just because a reissue is expensive doesn’t mean it’s good. Pressing records is hard to do well, but if the quality control dude is sleeping on the job, it’s almost impossible. Luckily, I can’t recall ever seeing a flaw in a Speakers Corner release. Again, spoiled! This record has a few more pops than other slabs from this label, however, which is why the score isn’t higher. Also, the label design isn’t from the first pressing, so I dinged the score a little for that transgression as well! The jacket is flawless.

Value: 9.0

Being able to conveniently purchase lovingly created reissues like this at reasonable prices is a luxury we should all be thankful for. Early stereo 6-eye originals are getting tough to find (check eBay), and clean copies go for more than $35. If you crave the tubey magic of the originals, seek one out. If you prefer accuracy and nice vinyl with only minimal noise, go with this reissue.

By the way, be sure to check out the new website Speakers Corner launched called Pure-Analogue.com. It’s a great resource for information about how vinyl records are mastered.

Speakers Corner reissue LP on Amazon.com:

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Sound: 9.8
Pressing: 3.5
Value: 8.5

ORG Music reissue released in 2013. 180g vinyl, 45RPM, 2LP. Catalog Number: ORGM-1081. Mastered by Bernie Grundman. Pressed by Pallas in Germany. UPC: 711574707218. MSRP: $49. Buy on Amazon.com

Introduction

Much has been said about this, Ornette Coleman’s shot across the bow of jazz as it was known in 1959 — a year that also saw Miles Davis release his modal masterwork Kind of Blue, and (six months later) John Coltrane blaze his own trail with Giant Steps. The six tracks presented on this release, recorded by the quartet — Ornette Coleman (alto sax), Donald Cherry (cornet), Charlie Haden (bass), and Billy Higgins (drums) — are essential in every way, and only get better with age.

But our reviews are about sound quality and value, so stop reading now if you want to learn about the music on this disc. In fact, don’t buy this disc until you sample the music on your streaming service of choice. To the unprepared, it may shock and confuse — in the best of ways, of course.

Sound: 9.8

In a word, unreal. This is unreal fidelity coming off what amounts to two slabs of black plastic. Jaw-dropping and effortless dynamics, exploding from the horns and drumset at every turn. Bass is clear, consistent and tuneful. Big, fat, squeeky, squawky, piercing, lovely tone abounds. The physicality of the sound captured and the sense of presence and space is intoxicating.

This is simply one of the best small scale jazz records I’ve heard in my life. The original recording was obviously done with the highest of standards, and the tapes must be in superb shape. Plus, Bernie Grundman is an exceptional mastering engineer and the 45RPM double-LP is a superior format.

But I think I know the real reason this record stands out so dramatically compared to other quartet records from the period: There’s no piano. So many times, the piano is the instrument that sounds wrong (to put it politely), and here it is absent. And I don’t miss it. I suppose the same advantage can be had with small scale jazz records featuring a vibraphone instead of piano. Vibes are way easier to believably reproduce. But I’m just now getting familiar with some of those records (Jackie McLean’s Destination… Out! comes to mind). So much to explore.

(See reference system for context on sound evaluation.)

Pressing/Packaging: 3.5

The score above isn’t a typo. This record came to me in a confounding and abysmal state. It was scuffed, it was warped, it had multiple areas of non-fill. ORG Music was stunned and immediately sent me a replacement copy. The replacement was indeed better, but it too had some scuffing. Pallas is a premier pressing facility with a great reputation. My copies of ORG Music’s Pallas-pressed John Coltrane My Favorite Things and Freddie Hubbard Red Clay are as pristine and perfect as any records can be. Odd, to say the least. The gatefold jackets on my copies are very nice though (despite what Michael Fremer experienced with his).

Value: 8.5

Assuming you can get a good copy, and there is no reason to think you can’t given any decent return policy, the value is significant. For about $50, which isn’t cheap by any means, you get the best sounding version of this record likely ever made (I assume it sounds better than an original but can’t be sure). For reference, when I compared the $25-ish Grundman-mastered 180g 33RPM Rhino version of My Favorite Things to the $50-ish 45RPM ORG Music version it was not even close — the 45RPM trounced the 33RPM in every regard. Life is short. Get the 45RPM.

ORG Music reissue LP on Amazon.com:

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Sound: 9.2
Pressing/Packaging: 9.4
Value: 9.7

Speakers Corner reissue released in 2008. 180g vinyl. Catalog Number: Mercury SR90226. UPC: 4260019714978. MSRP: $35. Buy on Amazon.com

Igor Stravinsky: The Firebird (Complete). London Symphony Orchestra. Antal Dorati, conductor.

Introduction

As per our review philosophy, we focus reviews here exclusively on sound quality. Lots of analysis out there already of the musical aspects of this fine Stravinsky ballet score.

I compared the Speakers Corner to a still sealed ’70s Golden Imports reissue and a recent Decca 180g pressing. I don’t have an original Mercury, nor do I have a Classic Records on hand. Both are expensive.

Sound: 9.2

At only $20 US new, the Decca is tempting. Unfortunately, my copy sounded like popcorn, making it essentially unlistenable. The other two Dorati LSO Decca titles I got were quiet (Starker Dvorak and Szeryng Brahms), although each had other issues. Those were German pressings, while my Firebird was Dutch.

The Golden Imports is exciting at first, and a bargain at roughly $15 US used. It is transparent and has tremendous mid bass. Timpani whacks at end are HUGE. But overall, the sound is cold, brash and homogenized. The frequency extremes are missing, as are many levels of dynamic and harmonic shadings present on the Speakers Corner.

For $35 US, the Speakers Corner is the one to get. Compared to the Golden Imports, it’s warmer, more resolved and more nuanced. It has more levels of timbral and dynamic gradations, and all the colors of the orchestra are reproduced. It lacks some bass punch, however, and the noise floor might be just a hair more noticeable.

(See reference system for context on sound evaluation.)

Pressing/Packaging: 9.4

Pressing quality on the Speakers Corner is wonderful. Flat, centered, and free from flaws and anomalies. Cover construction, weight and printing are excellent as well. One request, however. I wish reissue companies would remove the text typically included on back covers that often describes the original pressing techniques and replace it with a description of their own. Ideally this would identify the source (always original analog master tapes, right?), equipment, mastering/cutting engineers and pressing plant. Hey, I can dream!

Value: 9.7

If you don’t have a clean original or a Classic Records pressing, skip the eBay madness, and pick up a sure thing with this gem.

Speakers Corner reissue LP on Amazon.com:

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Sound: 6.2
Pressing: 5.1
Value: 7.3

Original released by Columbia Records in 1975. Catalog number: KC 32706. Recorded in 1972. Recording engineer: Dixon Van Winkle. Remix Engineers: John Guerriere & Russ Payne.

Pure Pleasure reissue released in 2008. 180g vinyl. Catalog Number: Columbia PPAN 32706. UPC: 5060149620540. MSRP: $35. Buy on Amazon.com

Introduction

Nice lineup. Stan Getz, tenor saxophone. Chick Corea, electric piano. Stanley Clarke, bass. Airto Moreira, percussion. Tony Williams, drums. Chick Corea composed all the songs except Lush Life. Corea, Clarke and Airto played together in the famous jazz fusion group, Return to Forever.

Sound: 6.2

This record probably sounds about as good it can, given the unnatural and distracting production choices made on the original. Overall, the sound is uneven and overproduced. Getz’s sax sounds at times shouty, forward, wandering, and overly reverberant–like it was recorded in a subway station. Percussion sounds equally out-of-context and layered on. Drums sound small and compressed. I actually think this record would sound better with less revealing gear. It needs to be homogenized in order to be coherent.

(See reference system for context on sound evaluation.)

Pressing/Packaging: 5.1

What is more disappointing than the sound is the pressing quality of my copy. It has a moderate edge warp, and a tiny scratch in the middle of side two that makes a dozen loud ticks. There is also a strange issue going on with the lead-in grooves. Both sides have several loud whooshing rotations right before the track starts. Not good.

Value: 7.3

If you like the theoretical advantages of buying reissues instead of the uncertainties around purchasing on eBay, I recommend you purchase the Pure Pleasure version. At roughly $35 US, it’s in line with other quality reissues. Although my copy had some pressing problems, my luck with Pure Pleasure releases has been quite good. Nobody bats a thousand in this game.

Pure Pleasure reissue LP on Amazon.com:

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Post image for PS Audio Stellar Gain Cell DAC Review

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)

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.

One of the most expensive records played on one of the most expensive turntables. 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 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.

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:

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: