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Feature Articles & Reviews
With Christmas fast approaching, I was worried that you might be concerned about what to get for me. I mean, I really loved that John Varvatos shearling coat you gave me last year. But I know how difficult it is to run over to Nordstrom and do all that shopping, and when I found this article, I thought it was a nice coincidence.
The items below are recommended by Wes Marshall, my all-time favorite writer, so I know I’d love any of them. That suite of Oppo items is particularly interesting, but I’d be happy with any of these recommendations -- or all of them! Thanks, and I hope this helps save you some time.
___________ (your name here)
Feel free to substitute anything that would make the letter more authentic. I’m hoping that, for the sake of your family’s net worth, many of you actually did receive that Varvatos shearling coat ($5000 USD).
For Christmas 2015, I’ve eschewed items that exceed the price ranges of most of us. So, as much as I’d like to help you get a pair of Jeff Fritz-approved Magico Q7 Mk II speakers ($229,000) or a Soulution 711 stereo power amplifier ($65,000), my focus will be on things I can recommend without qualification, and that most of our readers will find affordable. In fact, your family and friends can buy all of the items in these lists for less than the cost of one Varvatos coat!
The single device I would not live without is my Roku, even if my love for it has put me in danger of sounding like a Luddite. After all, you can already get Netflix, HBO Go, and many other streaming services straight through your smart TV, cable or satellite box, or PlayStation 4 or Xbox. But there must be a reason that Amazon, Apple, Google, and Roku are all pursuing the same market. Here’s the reason, and see if it doesn’t make just a little sense to you.
Imagine a future in which you need only an Internet connection. Think of what you could get rid of, beginning with your land line. Oh, I forgot -- we’ve all already done that. Well, how about getting rid of cable? Again, some of us have already done that, but that number is minuscule compared to the number of those who eventually will. I live in a city with a pretty good technical infrastructure, and we’re set to have Google’s gigabit fiber connections, along with the same from Frontier and CenturyLink, and a whopping 2GB connection from Comcast. Plug one of those into a Roku and Clark Kent becomes Superman.
If you don’t have one of the popular streaming boxes, you may not be aware that, instead of cable’s hundreds of channels, the streamers offer thousands. Roku claims to offer the most apps, and it’s true. Sadly, most of the channels are filled with such drivel that you could be forgiven for checking to see if Christopher Guest was involved in their production. Here are a few of Roku’s stunningly strange channel lineups.
To freak out your anti-gun friends, try the We Like Shooting channel. But Like doesn’t accurately reflect the almost sexual attraction these folks have to gunpowder: the bigger the load, the better the charge. “Hey, Zak, I just got an antitank gun. Wanna go blow shit up?” If you want to see people who actually do like to blow shit up, check out Detroit Reality TV, but you might first want to clear the room of children. The folks at DRTV strongly believe in the term Reality, and evidently their lives are much more exciting than mine. And speaking of belief, Roku seems to have hundreds of channels devoted to backwoods preachers whose congregations want to share their shepherds’ powers by giving them their very own channels. Or, for those interested in comparative religions, how about: Al Mouridiyyah TV presents Touba-Mouride religious events in Senegal, and elsewhere within the Hizbut-Tarqiyyah community? Yeah, me neither.
Some Roku channels are revelations. Charlie Rose’s channel offers TV’s most penetrating interviewer working his magic on some of the most fascinating people on the planet. The KQED channel offers access to Check Please, hosted by the ultra-intelligent and very sexy Leslie Sbrocco, whom you may have seen doing the wine segments on Today. The show covers Bay Area restaurants, so some of the details might seem a tad obscure, but Sbrocco’s insights about food and wine are always interesting. Ditto for The New Yorker channel, loaded with such absolutely fascinating stuff as “Apollo Robbins, The Master Pickpocket,” and “High-Rise Window Washers of Manhattan.”
The big choice facing you is which streaming device to give. The new Apple TV ($149-$199) offers Siri and 4K resolution. My choice is the Roku 3 ($100), which offers what I think are the most important features. First, to maximize the Roku’s output quality, you need an Ethernet connection and an HDMI slot. Its remote control accepts voice commands, and the handy remote has a headphone amp built in. Just think! You’ll be able to binge watch the whole Fast & Furious collection at any volume you prefer without disturbing others. Finally, the remote is Wi-Fi -- you don’t have to expend the energy required to actually aim the remote at the Roku box. The Roku 4 ($130) offers everything on the Roku 3, plus 4K.
Recently, I decided to jump into the world of high-end headphones and headphone amplifiers. I found a pair of headphones I really liked, but had to return them three times; finally, they broke in half at the headband. When I called the manufacturer about getting still another replacement, the customer-service manager basically chided me for continually raising problems. I felt like Yosemite Sam when outsmarted by Bugs. Smoke shot out of my ears. Still, I managed to keep my response subtly rather than coarsely caustic by saying that I wouldn’t be surprised if, after all the help they’d provided, they just stopped trying. To my surprise, she agreed, and I was stuck with some very expensive broken headphones. Some Goodwill shopper was probably surprised to find a pair of $400 headphones for sale. I was surprised to find that Goodwill even carries headphones.
There are very few things that audio and video fans see ear-to-eye on, but mention Oppo Digital and you’ll find widespread agreement that the company offers thoughtfully designed products at fair prices with excellent customer service. So I decided to buy Oppo’s PM-1 open-back headphones ($1099). They really need a dedicated headphone amp, and while a number of excellent choices are available, I decided to go with Oppo’s own HA-1 ($1199). It not only drives the headphones, it can serve as a DAC-preamp for my powered speakers. The PM-1/HA-1 combination provides outstanding sound.
Unfortunately, adopting the Oppo system created three distinct problems, all having to do with air travel. First, the HA-1 isn’t portable, and the PM-1s need more oomph than an iPhone or iPad can provide. Second, the PM-1s’ open-back design means that whoever is sitting next to me gets to hear my music. (Mötley Crüe, anyone?) Finally, I’m hesitant to subject something that expensive to the rigors of modern air travel. And because I was curious to hear what Oppo could do in a closed-back design, I bought their PM-3 headphones ($399).
Both the PM-1s and PM-3s are planar-magnetic designs, hence their model designations. The primary benefit of a PM design is you get near-electrostatic clarity, which especially shows up in tones that have subtle grain. In chamber music, imagine the sound of a bow on a violin string, or the delicate burr of a double reed such as an oboe or bassoon. Jazz fans will swoon over the beauty of Miles Davis’s Harmon-muted trumpet, or the breathy coda of a ballad played by tenorman Ben Webster. The big surprise is that the PM-3s are a bonanza for anyone into EDM. Check out Deadmau5’s “Some Chords (Andrei Stephen Remix),” with all its sawtooth waves coming out at the drop. The deep bass in Laura Mvula’s “Green Garden (Djemba Djemba Remix)” is round and fat. And -- hallelujah for the road-warrior set -- the PM-3s sound sumptuous driven by an iPhone or iPad.
Music: Great items you may have missed
Seckou Keita: 22 Strings (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Naxos)
Keita is a master of the kora, a plucked, harp-like African instrument whose premier exponents play with amazing virtuosity. The delicate wizardry of “Future Strings in E” is astonishing.
Ravel: Piano Concertos
Schmitt: J’entends dans le lointain
Vincent Larderet, piano; Daniel Kawka, OSE Symphonic Orchestra (16/44.1 FLAC. Naxos)
The Ravel concertos are gorgeously recorded; the piano’s bass notes are especially realistic, and project the kind of power that must have appealed to Ravel. When Ravel composed these works, he was suffering multiple health problems. He couldn’t sleep, was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, his gut was completely screwed up, and he was depressed for reasons both psychological and physical. Stravinsky reported that Ravel’s “final years were cruel, for he was gradually losing his memory and some of his coordinating powers, and he was, of course, quite aware of it.” Ravel’s reaction was to create his most muscular work, the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. Here, it seems to leap from the speakers.
Mercury Rev: The Light in You (16/44.1 FLAC, Pias America)
This is Mercury Rev’s most beautiful album since Deserter’s Songs. Begin with the first track, “The Queen of Swans,” and let the beautiful sound roll over you for the next 44 minutes. Sounds especially good through headphones.
Dave Rawlings Machine: Nashville Obsolete (16/44.1 FLAC, Acony)
This band operates under the name Gillian Welch when she’s the leader. If he’s the leader, it’s called the Dave Rawlings Machine. Under either name, their albums grow slowly, but when they finally grab you they become a cherished part of your collection. Check out “The Trip” for an idea of what the best of today’s traditional Americana sounds like.
CTI: The Master Collection Volume 2 -- The Soul Jazz Legacy (16/44.1, Sony/BMG)
When I first came across the albums sampled in this compilation, I was young and snobbish about jazz and thought they were commercial dreck. But after seeing club dates by Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine, and Astrud Gilberto, I slowly worked my way into it and found out I was wrong. Some very serious jazz was going on here -- these musicians just wanted a wider audience. Creed Taylor, the CT of CTI, was a stickler for clear, clean sound. Listen to the realistic sound of the light percussion in Turrentine’s “Storm” and Gilberto’s “Brazilian Tapestry.” But this set’s highlight is Hubbard’s “Red Clay.”
Movies: A baker’s dozen of visually seductive films . . .
Blade Runner (1982) -- Dystopian science fiction with gorgeous visuals and featuring one of the finest soliloquies in film history, spoken by Rutger Hauer.
The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) -- Imagine one of the eminent expressionist artists of the early 20th century unleashed to design lights and sets, but restricting them to black and white.
Carrie (1976) -- If director Brian De Palma’s only claim to fame was the opening scene of Carrie, he would still figure in this list.
City Lights (1931) -- In my opinion, Hollywood’s most peerless (nearly) silent film, written, directed, and starred in by Charles Chaplin. At the end, I defy you not to cry.
The Fountain (2006) -- Director Darren Aronofsky is a walking conundrum. It’s amazing that the same man could direct the strikingly dark Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain, a stunningly beautiful fantasy romance. What the two films have in common is that each is dark and beautiful.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962) -- Peter O’Toole’s brilliant blue eyes are an oasis in the vast bleakness of the Arabian desert in David Lean’s classic.
Manhattan (1979) -- Woody Allen applies everything he knows about how to make a beautiful movie to the story of a hypochondriac who doesn’t understand the dangers of violating the half-plus-7 rule.
Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) -- The most beautiful Western not directed by John Ford.
The Searchers (1956) -- John Ford’s prettiest. Warning: Ford is an acquired taste, but the effort is ultimately rewarded. His followers (count me in) will tell you that he is the best director in all of film.
Streets of Fire
Streets of Fire (1984) -- Walter Hill trumps the field by predicting music videos, single-person-shooter video games, and how ravishing Diane Lane would become.
To Catch a Thief (1955) -- Most critics would pick Vertigo to represent Alfred Hitchcock on this list, but how can you lose with Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, Monte Carlo, and the high Corniche around Cap Ferrat?
Walkabout (1971) -- Cultures clash in the Australian outback. Director Nicolas Jack Roeg, CBE, BSC, ruminates on inanimate objects that remind him of sex.
The Wizard of Oz (1939) -- Everyone knows what a great film this is. But have you ever done the Dark Side of the Moon/Oz mash-up?
. . . and a few dependable directors from China
Kar Wai Wong creates the most beautiful films being made today. The rain scene in The Grandmaster is one of film’s most terrific fight scenes, and it then evolves into one of the most beautifully choreographed ballets in all of film -- ballet not as in prima ballerina, but as in rhythmic human motion tied to music. Wong’s portfolio is filled with masterpieces in several genres, but the best include Chungking Express, Ashes of Time, Happy Together, In the Mood for Love, and 2046.
John Woo’s specialty is modern crime, and he’s responsible for two of the 20th century’s best crime movies: The Killer and Hard Boiled. Both include set pieces that would go on to influence film and TV all around the world. As beautiful as those films are, to me, their greatest asset is their story lines, which continually demonstrate grace under pressure and the redemptive power of loyalty. Other top films by Woo include A Better Tomorrow, Bullet in the Head, Once a Thief, and Red Cliff. Pay special attention to Woo’s films starring Yun-Fat Chow, who is to Woo as John Wayne was to John Ford.
Yimou Zhang’s most beautiful films are Wuxia, a genre in which a chivalrous and virtuous hero fights evil, usually with martial arts; in many ways, they’re similar to John Ford’s Westerns. Zhang’s masterpieces in the form are House of Flying Daggers and Hero, each of which combines vibrant color palettes and fine acting with a well-written script. Zhang’s other masterworks include Raise the Red Lantern (which did for Gong Li what Hitchcock did for Grace Kelly), Curse of the Golden Flower, and the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympic Games.
I know I’ve listed a lot of gift ideas for Christmas, but I promise you that I would really enjoy every one of them. Thanks in advance for your continued generosity. I love you so much.
___________ (your name here)
. . . Wes Marshall