We get some buzz from Neil Young…

We are all excited that Neil Young chose to run Bob Gendron’s article about his new box set in the news section of his website. You can check it out here:


Gorgeous beauty from Switzerland, the Dartzeel cth-8550

Feast your eyes on this baby!

We just got Dartzeel’s latest integrated amplifier in for review and it is truly a thing of beauty.  230 watts per channel and inputs for just about everything.  It even comes with a super cool USB key to activate it.

Watch for a review soon.  This is a truly amazing amplifer.  Also available in black for those of you that aren’t crazy about gold.


Everything Bob Dylan…

If you are a big Bob Dylan fan and would like a great news feed, check out www.expectingrain.com

This shoud keep you busy for a little while!

Waiting for qualifying in Monaco…

For those of you that enjoy the sound of high performance (engines, that is), Club Mix columnist Scott Tetzlaff is waiting for qualifying to start soon for the Monaco Grand Prix.

Stop by www.formula1.com to keep track of who’s going to be where on the grid Sunday morning.

Hey, we can’t just geek out with stereos all the time!

LFD’s latest amplifier


I had my first experience with LFD  in 1998 when I purchased their Mistral amplifier on the suggestion of my dealer, Gene Rubin, of Gene Rubin audio.  It was such a good amplifier, that even after upgrading my analog front end to five-figure territory, I was still very pleased with the Mistral.

Last year, Gene sent me the LFD Zero LE III, which was basically a Mistral with higher quality parts throughout.  At $2,495 it was an incredible bargain and even at the current price of $3,195 this is still one of my favorite integrated amplifiers.  I am still haunted by the high level of performance by that modest, minimalist amplifier and regret not buying the review sample.

The current offering from LFD, the NCSE (New Chassis, Special Edition) has taken their design even further using Vishay bulk-foil resistors, Shinkoh tantalum resistors, silver internal wiring and a very robust case that adds eight more pounds over the LE III. The faceplate is unusually thick for a British integrated and is similar to what you might see on a big American monoblock.
The four rubber feet from previous versions have now been upgraded to three isolation devices that consist of a viscoelastic foot that fits into a milled aluminum cup. Power output has taken a jump to 70 watts per channel, up from 60wpc in the LE II and 50wpc in the original Mistral.  Even with the power increase, the LFD runs cool to the touch, so it will easily fit in tight spaces without a problem.

Act now!

At $7,500, the NCSE is not inexpensive, but there is an introductory price of $6,000.  LFD had a similar pricing policy with their past models, so if you are intrigued, I suggest getting in at the beginning of the production cycle before the price goes up or something else wacky happens in the currency markets.

LFD is a low profile company that takes pride in hand assembling their amplifiers, but part of what makes the NCSE so special, is that designer Richard Bews assembles each unit personally.  Every aspect of the amplifier exudes craftsmanship with understated elegance. The compact size and dark grey casework will blend into your decor quite nicely.  If you need the approval of your audiophile buddies that own gargantuan amplifiers and huge heatsinks, the NCSE may not pass muster, but the minute you turn it on, I guarantee they will be impressed.


Items for the wish list

I only have two complaints with the NCSE; the lack of a remote control and the crowded rear panel.  I can certainly understand the purist approach taken by LFD, eliminating every bit of unnecessary circuitry from the main board, but an amplifier at this price point should provide a remote, even if a very basic one with volume and mute options.

The RCA jacks and speaker binding posts are very close on the rear panel, too close to use some premium cable with the amplifier, and this amplifier’s performance is worthy of the best cable you can afford.  The speaker binding posts are so close together that many of the larger cables will be difficult if not impossible to use with spade lugs.  If you do not have a lot of room behind the LFD, sticking to banana plugs will be best.

The NCSE features five line level RCA inputs along with a tape monitor input and output.  As you can see from the front panel, there are no markings for the various inputs, so you will have to commit your sources to memory.  A phono stage is not available as an option, so an outboard phono stage will be necessary for LP lovers.  I found excellent synergy between my Lehmann Black Cube SE and the NCSE, using Audience Maestro interconnects.

On to the good stuff…

Anyone who has owned or used LFD gear knows that these criticisms are minor and those willing to forgo some functionality in search of performance won’t find any of this an issue.  As with past LFD amplifiers, the NCSE required about three days of continuous play to settle into its character and sound its best.  Initially, I found the presentation slightly laid back, but with a very wide-open soundstage that spread out behind the boundaries of my room.  Once adjusted to this new perspective, I was reveling in the detail, noticing the sizes and shapes of the presentation in my favorite records.

The NCSE was a fantastic match with the Harbeth Monitor 40.1’s (which you can also get from Gene Rubin), doing what only the best gear does – offering ever bit of nuance your recordings have to give without sounding analytical or harsh. Many have called the LFD amplifiers “tube-like” and I think the NCSE comes even closer to that description than its predecessors.

After hearing “Prophecies” used in the film Watchmen, I had a hankering to go home and listen to my Nonesuch pressing of Koyaanisqatsi. Even though it had been a while since I last listened to this LP, I was immediately struck by the fact that I could make out individual voices in the choir and follow each person all the way through certain passages. While listening to folk-singer Sarazin Blake’s newly repackaged 2007 CD, The Air Your Lungs Forced Out, I was treated to a wealth of information that was downright surprising, relishing the way Blake’s guitar amp would make the snare drum rattle and buzz on certain notes or the way the four musicians would move and shift their positions slightly throughout each tune.

When auditioning the LE III, I was always impressed with the quality of low bass information present, but the NCSE offered more extension and slightly more warmth. On the new MFSL LP pressing of Linda Ronstadt’s Prisoner in Disguise, Kenny Edwards’ bass sounded unusually rich and full without being boomy or over-extended. Low frequency information continued to be tactile and textured throughout a variety of recordings, with just a little more pluck, a little more flesh-against-string and a little more interaction with room boundaries clearly evident.


Into the sunset…

Boxing the NCSE back up at the end of the review, I’m reminded of the ongoing conversation I’ve had with fellow audiophiles about the “Golden Years” system, the one that you retire with after you are finished keeping up with the Joneses and playing the upgrade game. This is an amplifier that I could live with forever.  If sound quality is your priority and you can forgo the remote control, I highly suggest the LFD NCSE.

The LFD NCSE integrated amplifier

MSRP:  $7,500 (introductory price, $6,000)

Where to purchase in the US:

Fidelis AV (the US importer)  www.fidelisav.com

Gene Rubin Audio   www.generubinaudio.com

Bob Mould

Bob Mould arrived at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music on the last Sunday in March with the intention of playing an intimate solo acoustic show in support of his new Life and Times (Anti) album. Yet as he’s done throughout his career, the iconic singer/songwriter/guitarist deviated from the script.

Joined by bassist Jason Narducy, a veteran member of Mould’s touring band, the former Husker Du frontman treated the sold-out crowd to an invigorating career-spanning set that culminated with the 48-year-old musician plugging in an electric guitar that spit distortion in a venue renown for quiet and restraint. With his voice in pristine shape and emotions running high, Mould’s gray whiskers and bald head were the only obvious indicators of his status as indie-rock’s elder statesman. Whether excited to test out material from the new record-his second in 13 months-or simply charged by the thrill of delving into his rich catalog, Mould remained engaged from start to finish.

Dressed in a navy blue shirt and blue jeans, the workman-like vocalist didn’t come to chat. “You know me and talking. It’s just better to go…,” he announced before launching into a caustic rendition of “Poison Years,” one of five tracks drawn from 1989’s celebrated Workbook. Similarly, “Brasilia Crossed With Trenton” found him rocking back and forth at the microphone while choking the lifeblood from his guitar, his facial expressions a mess of agitation and disillusion. After he finished the epic tune, mental exasperation forced him to move to another place. “We had another one from Workbook but I’m feeling trapped by my past,” he admitted in the midst of the 90-minute concert.

Mould’s past proved nothing if not cathartic. His cracked falsetto and nasal accents produced the illusion of vocal echoes on “Wishing Well,” a track propelled forward by wavy chords and Narducy’s nimble accompaniment. “See a Little Light” shook and swayed, its bright tuning indicative of the cautiously hopeful lyrics. “Favorite Thing,” a gem from Mould’s days in the 90s pop-rock trio Sugar, jangled with anticipation. “If I Can’t Change Your Mind” persuaded with ringing melodies and magnetic hooks. Throughout, Mould tailored the strumming to each song’s needs. As his right arm loosely dangled over the instrument’s body, his right hand alternately stabbed, snapped, scraped, and swiped at the strings.

Few artists know how to get more from less. Primarily avoiding solos, Mould built songs up to a breaking point and brought bruised narratives into the forefront. Raw and vulnerable, a number of his newest songs seamlessly blended in with time-tested classics. Seething frustration poured through the deceptively mellow “The Breach,” an introspective number that, like many others on this night, tried to make sense of the disconnect, fallout, regret, anger, and ache that stem from troubled relationships.

In this regard, few songs were better than the bittersweet kiss-off “I’m Sorry, Baby, But You Can’t Stand In My Light Any More.” Questioning himself as much as the behavior of his discarded partner, Mould sang “I always find the broken ones/What does that say about me?,” hitting on a subject that has forever been a staple of great pop music.

Wrap that rascal!!

If you ever doubted the value of buying a $35 case for your iPhone or iPod touch, here’s the proof.  All it takes is a nudge from an unsuspecting terrier’s nose and your iPhone is crashing to the tile floor.  This 30″ drop yielded a $200 repair.

Don’t think you’ll be headed to the Apple Store for a replacement either.  You only get ONE $199 iPhone 3G if you are an existing iPhone customer.  Perhaps the advertising is a bit misleading?  I wish the freindly guy at the Apple Store would have told me something like “guard this baby with your life, because the next one will set you back $600…”  And like other cell phones at the AT&T store, you can’t buy an insurance plan for your iPhone.

The good news: you can have it repaired from Apple for (you guessed it) $200, or if you are very technically inclined can get a kit to repair it yourself for $65.  Usually up for a challenge, I backed down on this one, as my iPhone 3G is only a few months old.

Lesson learned, be careful with your iPhone 3G.

Aragon making a comeback!

For those of you that were fans of the Aragon and Acurus brands, they are making a comback!  Ex-Klipsch employees Rick Santiago and Ted Moore have purchased the brand and will be starting on new products ASAP.  We will be finding out shortly what, if any plans they have for repairing legacy product.

TONEAudio staff writer Todd Sageser will be taking a trip to their lab very soon and we will have a report on what the new owners are up to.  There are some rumors that they will be bringing on another big name or two in the engineering department, so we’ll let you know as soon as a decision is made.

We wish them the best of luck.


You need this car!

Just got back from Los Angeles and a few days behind the wheel of the Aston Martin DBS with Club Mix editor Scott Tetzlaff.  The goal was to evaluate the Bang & Olufsen stereo system for the next issue of TONEAudio, but the hidden agenda was to evaluate the thrust of the 510 horsepower, 6-litre V-12 under the hood.

Best of all, on the way home, our pilot on Southwest Flight 500 informed us that we were traveling on a brand new airplane.  New car smell and new plane smell all in one weekend!

If you would like some more information about this beauty, just click the link:


TJ Music Full Music Vacuum Tubes


If you love tubes as much as I do, you know the lure of finding great NOS tubes.  There aren’t that many lurking in garage sales anymore, so the chance of finding a cache of Mullards or Telefunkens for five bucks is slim to non-existent.  Even the old ham radio operators know about eBay now and price their booty accordingly.

The designer and end user face the same dilemma; where to get the good tubes without breaking the bank.  Many love the sound of the old Telefunkens, Mullards and Phillips 12AX7s, but the best examples can fetch 200 – 300 dollars on the right day.  Just like buying parts to restore a vintage Porsche 356, there are only so many NOS parts to go around and those remaining get more expensive by the day.  Fortunately all but the very best 12AU7’s are still below 100 dollars each, but again as supply goes down and demand goes up, the end result is inevitable.

New New Stock

Having had excellent luck in the past with the TJ Music 300B’s, I was anxious to try their small signal tubes and was pleased with the results.   The folks at Grant Fidelity are now the North American importers for these tubes and you can see their full selection at www.grantfidelity.com  These are brand new tubes, manufactured in Tianjin City, China.

Both the 12AX7 and 12AU7’s are 55 dollars each and for an extra 10 dollars per tube you can get the standard 30-day warranty extended to 12 months.  If you listen to your system fairly frequently, I suggest spending the extra 10 dollars, as tubes will usually fail around 1000 hours if they do not exhibit immediate defects.

First test: Phono

The low noise requirements of a moving coil phono preamplifier seemed like the best place to start with the TJ’s, if they could pass this test, I figured they would probably ace serving as driver tubes.  Unfortunately, my Nagra VPS phono stage uses a 12AX7 and a 12AT7, so I’m going to keep my fingers crossed that TJ comes out with a 12AT7 (and a 6922) soon.

The Nagra VPS is a rare component that does not respond well to tube rolling.  I’ve yet to use a vintage NOS tube that has done a better job than the standard, handpicked EH tubes that Nagra chose for duty in this preamplifier.  Swapping the EH 12AX7 for a very expensive Telefunken just muddied up the midrange and switching to a Mullard slowed down the presentation and increased background noise.

The TJ was a much different story, this tube showed an improvement across the board.  Dynamics were increased, with extension at both ends of the frequency scale, without any harshness.  I dragged out a few favorite warhorses that I’ve heard quite a few times to make the judgment as easy as possible. Right from the first record, Dire Straits Communique, I was impressed.  My copy of this is just an average pressing that you can purchase in any used record store for about $5 and is somewhat compressed.  Just swapping in the TJ 12AX7 gave this record much more impact and I was hearing some low level detail throughout the record that I had to strain to hear before.  Moving on to the second Chicago album (the current Rhino remaster) had the same result.  When using the stock 12AX7, the horns in “25 or 6 to 4” seemed to be on the same plane as my MartinLogan CLX’s, but with the TJ 12AX7, the horns jumped out of the speaker plane and were right in front of me, with the image having much more front to back dimensionality.

tj_2Second test:  Driver

The next step was to pop a pair of TJ 12AX7’s and 12AU7’s in one of my Prima Luna Dialogue 7 monoblocks while leaving the other one as it came from the factory.  This time switching to the Harbeth Monitor 40.1’s, I played a handful of Classic Records recent mono jazz releases and switched back and forth between the left and right channels, both receiving the same mono signal, leaving no doubt to the change.

In case you are not familiar with the Prima Luna amplifiers, they are somewhat on the warm, lush side of the tonality scale, which is more often than not a good thing.  You can get a slightly more modern tube amplifier sound by swapping the KT88’s for some NOS Tung Sol’s or similar, but those tubes are fetching upwards of 250 dollars each these days.  That shakes out to almost half the original purchase price!

Fortunately, you can get very close to the same effect with the TJ’s.  If you like the more vintage sound of the Prima Lunas, stick with the stock tubes, but if you would like more punch, this is a great investment that won’t break the bank.

TJ’s for me!

The only thing that can’t be verified at this time is how long these tubes will last.  My experience with current stock Russian and Chinese tubes has shown a lifespan of about 3000-4000 hours with a failure rate of about 25%, so this will remain a question mark for now.  I’ve been running the 12AX7 in my Nagra VPS, which sees about 12 hours a day duty and my trusty Radio Shack stop watch is up to about 1400 hours with no problems so far.  I’ll be sure to report back in about a year, when I’ve run the clock beyond the 5000-hour range.

For now, the TJ’s are highly recommended if the tonal changes I’ve mentioned sound like a plus to you.  I’ve always had great luck with the folks at Grant Fidelity, so you can shop with confidence.


Rick Carr Benefit

You probably don’t know Rick Carr…  But he could use a little help.

An employee at the MartinLogan speaker company, Rick has been recently diagnosed with small intestinal cancer.  Unfortunately, he’s in stage IV and his prognosis is that this is “treatable but not cureable” and the doctors are giving him about two years to live.

MartinLogan has donated some speakers that you can buy a $20 ticket to win.  If you are interested, please go to http://www.rickcarrbenefit.com and buy a ticket and a chance to win a pair of MartinLogan Purity speakers or a Depth i subwoofer. (2 pairs of Purities and 2 Depth i’s will be given away)

Even if you don’t need speakers, and can spare the cost of a CD this week, we at TONE join with Rick’s family to ask for your help.  Anything you can do will be greatly appreciated.

Thank you.

We visit YG Acoustics – Impressive!

Last weekend I had the opportunity to visit the YG acoustics factory in Denver, Colorado.  For those of you not familiar with YG, they have been running a series of ads in Stereophile and a few other hifi magazines with the headline “The Worlds Greatest Speakers.”  It’s a bold claim, but after two days of listening and watching them build speakers, I’d easily say that they are worthy of a spot in the top five.

Just to clarify, I’ll go as far as to say their Anat Reference 2 Professional is at the top of my top five list, but we all have our personal favorite and I have not been able to spend time with the Grand Utopia from JM/Focal yet.  So I’m happy to add YG to the list of world class contenders.

Watch for an upcoming review and interview soon.  And if you are shopping for the ultimate destination in speakers, I suggest adding YG Acoustics to your audition list.

Mastodon: Live

Despite its relatively short history, Mastodon has rightfully emerged as one of the 21st century’s most mesmerizing bands. The Atlanta metal quartet has progressively raised the stakes on each of its four studio efforts, the most recent of which, Crack the Skye, finally garnered the group overdue mainstream attention-and an impressive debut on the Billboard charts. The elaborate record is only the latest mind-boggling statement from a band that isn’t afraid to challenge itself or its audience.

Such ambition was on display April 30th at Chicago’s sold-out Metro, where Mastodon began the dizzying 100-minute show by playing Crack the Skye from beginning to end. With film images related to the concept album’s narratives flashing on a screen behind them, the members focused intently at the task at hand-namely, mastering the array of tempo shifts, revolving vocal passages, and complex fills demanded by the material. Speaking not a word to the crowd, Mastodon created an aura-rich atmosphere rife with roaring volumes, corrugated rhythms, and trance-inducing intricacies. Dynamic and stormy, it was the equivalent of being dragged feet-first into a turbulent spirit world.

Holding his bass at a perpendicular angle to the floor and bending backward, singer Troy Sanders struck his best Phil Lynott poses while continually trading vocal duties with guitarist Brent Hinds. His head branded with a jagged tattoo, Hinds shouted lyrics like an under-siege ship captain barking orders to his crew. Along with guitarist Bill Kelliher-a fellow misfit whose rat-tail hair, mutton chops, and scruffy mustache perfectly sum up the band’s refreshingly carefree attitude towards trends and conformity-Hinds juggled a cornucopia of choppy riffs, spacey hooks, and pointillistic leads. While the duo did their share of shredding and thundering, spaciousness and restraint were also in order.
“Quintessence” benefited from ample breathing room before embracing spongy drones that kicked the song into another stratosphere. Hinds’ nimble finger picking on “Divinations” sent the tune into a series of rollercoaster spins, turns, and dives. And a deliberate intro to the four-part epic “The Czar” came on as an ambient wash, with Hinds and Kelliher’s complementary notes taking on the shapes and textures of falling snowflakes. In terms of merging technical precision, soulful dexterity, and reckless abandon, a better hard-rock guitar tandem doesn’t currently exist.

Perched behind a modest drum set and seated on the floor (sans riser), virtuosic drummer Brann Dailor held it all together. Wrists and arms in constant motion, he kept time and added accents with a technique that combined equal parts power and finesse. On occasion, Dailor pulled double duty, contributing harmonies to “Crack the Skye” and auxiliary psychedelic touches on “The Last Baron.”

If the first half of the concert was music of séances, spells, flashbacks, dreams, and myths, the blustery second half functioned as a crushing blitz of Mastodon’s heavier side and thematic probe of earthly creatures and natural elements. Exploring its evolution in reverse order, Mastodon tore through songs from its first three records by starting with the free-for-all “Bladecatcher” before breaking the a-chronological sequencing by climaxing with “Hearts Alive.” In between, the band threw Southern punches (“Colony of Birchmen”), triggered sonic avalanches (“The Wolf Is Loose,” anchored by Dailor’s kit-mashing), and invoked man-versus-monster tussles (“Seabeast”). On this night, Mastodon left no doubt as to what party proved victorious.