Last night I went to Yoshi’s in Oakland with a friend to hear Cassandra Wilson. After some really good sushi and tempura we made our way over to the jazz hall and were treated to a night of unforgettable music. It was the kind of performance that when you leave you want to tell everyone you see how great it was. This is what a musical event should be like, and it should also be what our home stereo should at least give us a taste of.
Back to Cassandra Wilson: She is from Jackson Mississippi, her father was a guitarist, bassist and music teacher and she is most often described as a jazz vocalist. To me, describing her as a jazz vocalist is a little like describing Emmylou Harris as a bluegrass singer. Both statements are true, but they aren’t the whole truth. Bob Dylan, T Bone Burnett, and Time magazine have all called Cassandra Wilson the world’s greatest singer.
I wouldn’t go that far, to me going to hear Cassandra Wilson is all about going to hear a great band with a great singer. Truth is she only sang about one third of the time last night. What we got was world class music from musicians like Gregoire Maret, who plays the most powerful harmonica I have ever heard. Then there were the two guitar players; Brandon Ross, who plays as beautifully on the acoustic guitar as anyone could want; and Kevin Breit, was the big surprise of the night for me, as he was so versatile on so many different guitars. He could rock like Hendrix and then play acoustic with the touch of Chet Akins or a very good classical guitarist. The rest of the band was equally good.
By noon today I had told everyone I could get to listen about what a great evening of music it had been. Then the audiophile in me begin to think about how that kind of incredible night of music also points out the weaknesses of our home stereos. I know, I know home audio systems are never as good as live music. We should ask ourselves where do our stereos fall short, and what strengths come closest to giving each of us what we love about live music. What I want to talk about isn’t how to evaluate a stereo, but how to build one you will love.
As we begin to think along those lines let me say that no stereo I have heard could play bass with the power I heard last night – – and that includes speakers with huge columns of sub-woofers. Very few system I have heard can capture even a small amount of the midrange magic, or capture the aliveness of her voice, and those incredible guitars. Some of the numbers they played were as powerful and nearly as loud as rock concert. When thinking about those number my mind immediately goes to how the DeVore Orangutans or the Shindo Latours would be the speakers to hear these tunes on. Both would be great but the added sensitivity of the Latours probably would come closest to reproducing the sound, but either would be fine with me.
Then there were numbers that were as delicate and pretty as chamber music. As I thought about these my mind immediately went to the wonderful Quad 57s electrostatic speakers. This is what we tend to do as audiophiles; we think what would give us that kind of bass, or what would give us that kind of detail. Yet, if you read the things that made the concert so great it wasn’t the bass, the detail, or the transparency.
No, what made the event so great was the way the music made us feel, both emotionally and physically; the desire we had to clap for the great performances; the way the music moved us; and basically the overall energy level which was simply incredible.
So, what strengths would your system need to move you like that? Let me stop and say it’s okay if that’s not what you’re wanting from your system. It’s okay to love fast bass, or deep bass, or a wide and deep soundstage or whatever you are looking for from your system. I also should point out that I’m not suggesting that there is a perfect, live sound we are trying to get an exact reproduction of. I’m asking a totally different question: What qualities does your system need to have to move you like live music moves you.
I also want to suggest that these qualities or strengths will probably be different for you than they are for me. There will probably be some correlation between the qualities you desire and the kind of music you listen to most often. Just today, there was a post on Audio Asylum asking people to list their five desert island recordings. From the answers to this question it is obvious that a lot of people list to music I seldom if ever listen to. Still, I can only write about what I know so I’m going to share with you what those qualities are for me, and hope that this thought process will help you think about what they are for you.
The process I’m going to use is to think about Cassandra Wilson’s performance last night. Let’s start by talking about Gregoire Maret’s playing of the harmonica. First, in no way do I desire that my system make his harmonica sound like it would if it had not been amplified. Unplugged it would be a totally different instrument. The way he used the microphone was part of the magic. It allowed the harmonica to sound big and powerful, as powerful as a sax or a trumpet. He varied his distance from the microphone, such that it was possible to hear the air around and coming through the instrument – it was incredible. He also was able to use this same technique to make the sound change from very soft and small to very loud and big. It could make this change almost immediately.
Then there was the sound of Brandon Ross’ acoustic guitar. It was consistently beautiful with great tonal color throughout the performance. He often opened a number playing solo and it was simply magical to hear the tones of the strings and the air around the instrument. This is in contrast to the guitar playing of Kevin Breit. He played several different guitars and as I mentioned above sometimes he sounded like Hendrix and other times like a classical guitar player. The power of the electric Fender was raunchy, powerful, and energized the whole room.
I’m sorry but I did not get the names of the drummer and bass player. The drummer had his kit set up so that each of the drums was tuned to a different note. He used two different brands of cymbals and a big Yamaha bass that was miked to sound really big, full, and powerful. The bass player used an electric upright bass and it was my least favorite part of the performance, so it’s not going to enter into the discussion.
Last, let’s talk about Cassandra Wilson. Sometimes her voice seemed more like one more instrument in the band. Then she would clap her hands over her head or out in front of her. With that big clap this incredible voice would take center stage and I mean really front and center. It was powerful and seemed to transcend the rest of the band. It was at moments like this that I could understand some of the superlative remarks above.
Now how do we take the above information and help us decide what we want the strengths of our audio system to be. For example if you really want the deep, full, almost overpowering bass that we heard last night, you aren’t going to go with a single driver speaker. The best speakers I have heard for this would be the Shindo Latours or the DeVore Orangutans. There are a lot of speakers that can pump out low tight bass, but very few that can let deep bass flow effortlessly out into the room and over you.
By the same token if you wanted to hear exactly where on the stage each of the six performers were located and you want to hear when Gregoire Maret’s would walk over with his harmonica and play next to one of the other performers were located then the Raidho Ayra C1.1s will do this better than anything else I have heard. It will also give you amazing audiophile bass, but nothing like what we heard last night. Now neither of these are what gives me the emotional experience I’m looking for, but I would understand if they did for you.
If hearing the harmonica go from very quiet and small to very loud and big is of real importance to you as it is to me, then a really good SET amp is essential. This is even more true if you want to hear a singer’s voice change from being part of the performance and then swell into this huge front and center sound. There are only two non-SET amps I have heard that come close to doing this in a lifelike way; the ASR Emitter and the First Watt SIT mono-blocks. Both of these amps are transistor amps by the way.
This ability to let a solo instrument or voice swell to life size in an effortless and unbelievably alive sounding way is one of the most important things to me about feeling the energy and emotion of a musical performance. This is the very reason I have built my system around the Wavac EC300B.
Now that decision rules out for me anything but very efficient speakers, preferably something 99dB or higher, though a speaker like the DeVore Orangutan can pull this off at 96dB because of its high impedance, simple crossover, and live cabinet. Now the good news for me is a couple of the most important things from last night’s performance can also be handle by the Latours, the Orangutans, or my Teresonic Ingenium XR Silvers. Those things would be the space and air that allows you to hear the singer in such an immediate, powerful, front and center way. I know of no speaker that can do this as well at the Ingeniums, but the Latours and Orangutans are close.
By the way there is something that is really important to me about hearing the drums. I want to hear how the drums were tuned and I want to hear the differences in the cymbals. Truth is a really well designed single driver speaker like the Teresonic Ingenium XR Silvers do this better than any speaker I know. They even give you the power and energy, but they will not go as deep and they won’t add any of their own warmth to the bass.
Another thing that is really important to me is to hear how beautiful Brandon Ross’ acoustic guitar sounded. To be able to hear the magical way the tones of the strings and the air around them sounded. Now the Quad 57s would be simply wonderful at this, but can’t do any of the other things we have talked about. They also can’t be played by the Wavac EC300B. So, are there speakers that can do what the Quad 57s do and do the other things I loved about this performance. Well, the answer is the three speakers I mentioned above can come so close it’s good enough and deliver the other things. I could go on and on, well I guess I kind of already have gone on and on, but I hope you get the point and even more so I hope it makes you think about how you put together your system.
By the way maybe it would be fun if some of you shared the strengths you want most in your system in the comment section.
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