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Feature Articles & Reviews
Christmas has rolled around again, and it’s time to start putting together a wish list to leave in a conspicuous place to make sure your family and friends know what you really want. Over the past year I’ve been able to get my hands on an immoderate amount of great gear, beautiful music, and mesmerizing films. Now it’s time to put out a list of my picks for the top Christmas gifts. The list is also, by definition, a list of my favorite items of 2012. My wife used to force me to watch one episode per year of Oprah, and that was her "Favorite Things." The trick was, the audience got everything on her list. Would that I could do that for you, dear reader. Unfortunately, all I can do is direct you to a few items that may warrant your attention.
By placing a product in this list, I might as well be anointing it one of my Best of the Year products. Nothing goes on the Christmas list unless it’s the best of what I tested. However, given the economy, I decided on a price ceiling of $400. That puts a couple of receivers, the NAD T 787 and the Onkyo TX-NR5010, out of the race, but it gives me the space to include a set of headphones I’ve fallen in love with. And other than the very first item, this list is not in order of preference.
DISH Hopper-Joey system. I’ve used cable, DirecTV, and DISH. Years ago, I even had the poor luck to try something called ON-TV. Nothing comes remotely close to the technology of DISH’s new system. The new hard drive is huge. I now have about 200 programs sitting on it and it’s still half empty. Add a 2TB external drive, and you could probably keep on hand archival copies of the complete works of John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Alfred Hitchcock! The software is bulletproof, and the picture is just lovely. As of mid-November, you can get their top package for $40 USD per month with free installation. Now there’s a Christmas present that will pay off all year long.
PSB M4U 2 headphones. One of the nicest benefits of working for the SoundStage! Network is that I get to meet some great fellow writers. I love discussing films with our publisher, Doug Schneider. We’re both into dark films (Requiem for a Dream, anyone?), and we both have strong opinions. Ditto our copy editor supremo, Richard Lehnert. He is much more than an editor; he’s also a very good writer with excellent critical insights about music. Our far-ranging discussions about music are always surprising and enlightening.
So when I decided I wanted to move to the next step in the world of headphones, I contacted fellow writer S. Andrea Sundaram. He was able to give me a few recommendations. Once I got the chance to listen to each, my decision was easy. The PSB M4U 2 headphones come with a three-way switch offering passive, active, and noise-canceling modes. They sound fine with the power turned off, but when you switch in their built-in amplifier, the bass suddenly drops a couple of octaves, and almost gives the impression of air moving in the room. Their flat frequency response and ability to handle lightning-fast transients means that you’ll be able to pick out small details you’d miss through speakers. For instance, one of the things I listen most often to is Linn’s Studio Master recording of John Butt and the Dunedin Consort performing J.S. Bach’s Mass in B Minor. In the closing Dona Nobis Pacem, I could hear astonishing details of the singers’ voices. Their intonation is so perfect, sometimes it’s difficult to tell the sound of a voice singing an open vowel from a flute. Not with the PSBs.
The M4U 2s run $400, or $300 without the amplifier and noise canceler. Either price is a bargain for what you get. The $400 version comes in black or white, the $300 version in several colors. The active circuitry is well worth the extra $100, especially if you intend to use them with a portable player -- the noise canceling is the best I’ve tried. PSB has figured out how to avoid that feeling that your head is being sucked dry; the M4U 2s just . . . cancel noise. Next time you see me in an airport, I’ll be proudly wearing a pair of PSB cans.
NAD PP 3 digital phono preamp. You can spend a lot more on phono preamps than the paltry $200 NAD asks for these, and I have no doubt you could find something that will sound better. But it will likely cost several times the PP 3’s price, and you might be surprised how close this little gem comes to the major magic of many $1000+ phono preamps. More important, it comes with a USB output and a little program called Vinyl Studio Light, a combination that lets you rip your LPs into a digital file to either cart around on your portable player or burn to CD. So you’re really getting a great-sounding phono preamp and an accurate analog-to-digital converter, both in one little box. This device is the only thing on this year’s list that’s not new, but then, no one’s come up with anything of equal quality and utility for anywhere near the price. As it has for several years, the PP 3 makes a very nice stocking stuffer.
NAD HTR8 remote control. Two gift recommendations from one manufacturer? Well, NAD has had a particularly good year. This is the finest remote control I’ve ever used. It comes standard with NAD’s T 787 receiver, but you can buy an HTR8 separately for $130. It has just enough weight to feel elegant. The buttons are of different sizes, so they’re easy to find. The whole thing lights up the second you move it. We loved the fact that not only is it fully programmable, you can set up macros as long as 64 steps. The darn thing even has toggle functions for controlling recalcitrant game machines. Way to go, NAD!
Roku. This little guy returns to my list because it’s so damned perfect, it’s hard to imagine life without it. Yes, you can get many of the same best channels on your new Oppo Blu-ray player. But the folks at Roku just flat out have their technology sussed. They have four models: the LT ($50), HD ($60), XD ($80), and XS ($100). All offer 500+ channels and wireless capability. The LT and HD max out at 720p, while the XD and XS offer 1080p pictures. I chose the XD, but any film and TV lover would love to have any of the Rokus. Once you’ve installed it, you’ll find the usual suspects -- Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, Vudu, HBO GO, Crackle -- along with about 400 channels of the weirdest stuff you’ll ever see. This is a no-brainer.
The only reason we buy all this wonderful gear is to enjoy our favorite music and films. Here are a few gems to gladden any aficionado’s heart.
Bond 50: The Complete 22 Film Collection. Twenty-two Blu-rays for $150! It’s all the Bond films except: Never Say Never Again, which is a Thunderball retread; the 1967 Woody Allen/David Niven version of Casino Royale, which is a spoof; and the recently released Skyfall (though a slot is reserved for it in this box). Watching the personality changes the Bond character goes through over the years constitutes a sociology class in itself. A few of the films are unintentionally hilarious, but the overall achievement is great fun.
Firefly/Serenity. Firefly was a spectacular TV show that was canceled by the idiots at Fox before the first season was over. I bet they wish they could have a series today with the type of cult following Firefly still enjoys. It was so good that, two years later, the series’ creators made Serenity as a commercial film to help bring some closure to the story. Firefly takes place 500 years in the future, and is basically about the nine-member crew of the titular cargo starship, always looking for odd jobs with big payoffs. Be sure to pay close attention to River Tam’s growth as a character. I wish more science-fiction were this good. Firefly is in the same category as Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek: The Next Generation. The cost for both series and film, which are inseparable, is under $40.
Homeland: The Complete First Season. If you haven’t yet seen Homeland, then don’t let anyone tell you anything about it, and be sure you start at the beginning. Any show that can make me like Mandy Patinkin must have mystical powers, but watching the trio of Claire Danes, Damian Lewis, and Morena Baccarin is absolute film magic. Do not miss this show; and now, having the first season on Blu-ray ensures that you can enjoy all the hidden twists and foreshadowings by taking advantage of multiple viewings. And yes -- it’s so good, you will watch it more than once.
Grateful Dead: All the Years Combine: The DVD Collection. For anyone who gets the Dead, the idea of 38 hours of live material on 14 DVDs is like tripping into a slipstream of joyous harmonies and mind-expanding improvisation. For others, it might be sheer hell. I’m a member of the former group. The folks at Rhino are doing a wonderful job of curating the Dead’s oeuvre. My only problem is that Rhino puts out product faster than I can save up money to buy it. The original Europe ’72 boxed set now goes for over $1000. The Spring 1990 set is gone forever, and prices are already pushing $600. Go get this $97 set while you still can. Sadly, this is on DVD, not BD, but given the homemade provenance, DVD is just fine.
Stravinsky: The Firebird. Andrew Litton, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra (BIS SACD-1874). This overexposed work generally suffers from interpretations by modern conductors who are afraid of showing some emotion. The result is an attempt to cast Stravinsky as a follower of Schoenberg and Webern and their Second Viennese School of dry, dour, atonal music. But Litton sees the young Stravinsky as still fascinated by theater in general and the Parisian lifestyle in particular. His Firebird is a vastly romantic, occasionally terrifying work that breathes almost as if it had a life of its own. His tempos are carefully judged, but they still have incredible rhythmic freedom. As we’ve seen before, in both his Rachmaninoff and Mahler cycles, Litton’s dynamic range from ppp to fff adds to both the grace and the potency of the work. By the time we reach the Second Tableau, we feel like rejoicing with the dancers. BIS’s recording is of demonstration quality, as usual for the label. By the way, if you love this as much as I do, check out Litton’s DVD of Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier with Opera Australia. The singers aren’t big names, but Litton’s interpretation is divine, especially the final 15 minutes, in which you’ll hear a heavenly interpretation of opera’s most sublime music.
Smetana: The Bartered Bride. Jiří Bělohlávek, BBC Symphony Orchestra (Harmonia Mundi 902119.20). Conductor Jiří Bělohlávek has Czech music in his blood -- he was born in Prague -- and we’re lucky he was able to find Czech and Slovak singers to ensure that the diction is natural. So often, when you use native-speaking singers, there’s a good chance you will be let down. Not so here. All do a wonderful job, especially Dana Burešová’s Mařenka. As usual with Harmonia Mundi, the sound is open, clear, and utterly real. For about $27, this is the version to get for anyone interested in beautiful tunes and truly grand grand opera.
A gift certificate from Linn Records (www.linnrecords.com/giftcertificate.aspx). The folks at Linn consistently offer superb-sounding music, and you can trust that they’re doing it the right way. How many times have you downloaded a 24-bit/192kHz version of a recording you loved, only to hear zero difference between it and the CD you’ve owned for years? It’s happened to me more times than I care to count. If this hasn’t happened to you yet, get set, it’s coming. That’s because the strategy used by some download services is simply to convert the format from 16/44.1 WAV to 24/192 and then sell it as a "hi-rez" download. Not Linn.
If you live outside the US, Linn offers a cherry-picked selection of Universal’s catalog. That means you can get classic jazz from folks like John Coltrane, rock from the Rolling Stones, and classical works from Deutsche Grammophon, Philips, and Decca.
Two other British download companies are worth looking into, though they don’t seem to offer gift certificates. Naim (www.naimlabel.com) has a program called True Stereo, which includes utterly transparent sound and top jazz artists like Charlie Haden, Laurence Hobgood, and John Taylor. Bowers & Wilkins may be better known for their speakers, but they also operate something called The Society of Sound, which includes lossless downloads of 24-bit/48kHz FLAC files from artists like Peter Gabriel, Robert Fripp, Mike Oldfield, and a new band you may have heard of: the London Symphony Orchestra.
A few more CD stocking stuffers. Here’s a list of a few of my favorite obscure releases this year. Each offers beguiling music, top-rated sound, and the chance to play your friends some music they may have missed.
Kat Edmonson, Way Down Low (Spinnerette SR 1202): Sweet-voiced jazz/pop singer. Check out her song "Lucky."
Lambchop, Mr. M (City Slang SLANG 50013): Self-proclaimed as Nashville’s most fucked-up country band, Lambchop is actually closer to Sinatra on a very sad day.
The Stepkids, The Stepkids (Stones Throw STH2270): I’ll give away the secret: One of today’s hottest retro-psychedelic-soul bands is a bunch of white guys. Check out the song "La La."
Neil Cowley Trio, The Face of Mount Molehill (Hide Inside naimcd171): The only modern-jazz piano trio extant with the chops and imagination to take the reins from E.S.T.
Mayer Hawthorne, How Do You Do? (Universal Republic B0016109-02): Where The Stepkids do psych-soul, Hawthorne kicks some serious mid-’60s soul-dance booty. If there were any justice in this world, his song "The Walk" would be No.1 on several charts.
So there you have it. I hope my list includes a little something that intrigues you. In the meantime, Merry Christmas, or whatever holiday you’re celebrating this December. Remember to keep listening to the best music you can find and watching the most stimulating films. Life is too short for pabulum. And thanks for being faithful readers -- we appreciate you all!
. . . Wes Marshall