A new Golden age?

While looking into the history of the Kingsway Hall as a recording venue recently I came across David Pickett’s intriguing blog. David was a contributor, like myself, to Hi-Fi News & Record Review though our paths never crossed.

My Kingsway searches had lead me to David’s list of recordings from the ‘Golden age of stereo’ where he gently suggests that recordings from an era of roughly mid 50s to the 1970s, simply recorded with well rehearsed orchestras in good acoustics, will match anything produced today. His list bears repeating though I urge any reader to look at David’s blog for full descriptions of the recordings and venues.

Screen Shot 2018-01-22 at 16.09.29.jpg

Strauss: Ein Heldenleben
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Reiner 1954 : Orchestra Hall, Chicago

Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 1-9
Philharmonia Orchestra/Klemperer 1957 : Kingsway Hall, London

Ravel: Daphnis and Chloe Ballet
London Symphony Orchestra/Monteux 1959 : Kingsway Hall, London

Stravinsky: The Firebird
London Symphony Orchestra/Dorati 1959 : Watford Town Hall

Brahms: Symphony No.3
Columbia Symphony Orchestra/Walter 1960 : American Legion Hall, Los Angeles

Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis
Sinfonia of London/Barbirolli 1962 : TheTemple Church, London

Verdi: Four Sacred Pieces
Philharmonia Orchestra & Chorus/Giulini 1962 : Kingsway Hall, London

Wagner: Götterdämmerung
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Solti 1964 : Sofiensaal Vienna

Verdi: Don Carlos
Royal Opera House Covent Garden Orchestra/Giulini 1970 : Walthamstow Assembly Hall

Vaughan Williams: A Pilgrim’s Progress
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Boult 1970/1 : Kingsway Hall, London

Of David’s top ten I am already familiar with five and fully concur with the choice. To listen to his complete list I went back in my own library and begged or borrowed the best remastering and media I could find. (I have not been able to source or hear A Pilgrim’s Progress.)

These recordings are exceptional and come up gleaming with sympathetic remastering there has to be limitations in terms of magnetic tape limitations (hiss, saturation and absolute dynamic range) that remastering cannot overcome. There are good but of their time and it really is a nonsense to say they match the best of today’s recordings.

I thought it quite a challenge to find a top ten list of modern digital recordings that share these Golden age stereo qualities. In part because of the fundamental way large-scale classical music is now recorded, often in conjunction or during performance and often in concert-halls not spacious recording venues. (Just think of London Symphony Orchestra’s own recordings on its LSO Live label rather than all their recordings that would have appeared on Decca Records in the past.) ITo make it even harder I’ve tried to stick with the same or closely similar works.

Screen Shot 2018-01-22 at 16.15.47.jpg

Strauss : Ein Alpensinfonie
Saito Kinen Orchestra/Harding 2012 : Kissei Bunka Hall, Matsumoto Japan

Screen Shot 2018-01-22 at 16.27.14.jpg

Kissei Bunka Hall

Recorded in the 2,000 seat theatre of a prefecture conference facility, photographs from the recording session suggest a typical Decca tree with touch up miking. A massive sound, retaining detail through the loudest passages.

Ravel : Daphnis & Chloé
Rotterdam Philharmonic/Nézet-Séguin 2014 : De Doelen Hall, Rotterdam

The BIS recording team delivers true unconstrained dynamics and extraordinary clarity while keeping a sizeable acoustic signature – the hall will seat about 1850 persons and was built in the 1960s.

Beethoven : Symphonies Nos. 1-9
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Chailly completed 2011 : Leipzig Gewandhaus

Klemperer’s stereo cycle was recorded in dedicated recording venues Kingsway or Abbey Road. Though the Chailly cycle was recorded in a concert venue this is far from a patched live recording and was not made before an audience but using the concerthall as a recording venue.

Stravinsky : Rite of Spring/Firebird
Budapest Festival Orchestra/Fischer 2010 : National Concert Hall, Palace of Arts, Budapest


Palace of Arts, Budapest

A modern 1700-seater, Béla Bartók Hall is a traditional ‘shoebox’ and has a reputation for allowing instrumental clarity and was the work of the late acoustician Russell Johnson (Artec). (Native DSD recordings from this venue are of exceptional fidelity.)

Brahms : Symphonies Nos.3 & 4
Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Mackerras 1997 : Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Early Telarc recordings with spaced mikes (much like early Mercury stereo) were not to my taste – true, the dynamic range was usually exceptional but it was the lack of a cohesive stereo image that disturbed. For this Scottish concert hall venue Jack Renner (Telarc) worked with Tony Faulkner to produce a dynamic, balanced sound from these smaller forces that works with the acoustic to produce a stable, tangible orchestral presence.

Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis
Hallé/Elder 2012 : BBC Studios, MediaCity, Salford

Not the church venue enjoyed by Barbirolli but a purpose built modern TV studio – though you might think this would result in a featureless acoustic the reverberant yet highly detailed sound is to my ear exceptional.

Verdi: Four Sacred Pieces
Monteverdi Choir, Orchestre Révolutionnare et Romantique/Gardiner 1995 : All Hallows, Gospel Oak, London


All Hallows

One of the oldest digital recordings I’ve chosen and not just because it features period instruments! All Hallows is a very resonant church acoustic that makes a major contribution to this performance. I’m not entriely convinced so lively an acoustic would have produced so good a sound from tape and vinyl replay. (The La Scala/Barenboim Reqiuem/Four Sacred pieces is of equal stature musically and of significantly better sound quality to the Guilini is you shun period instrument recordings.)

Wagner: Götterdämmerung
As there are no studio recordings of large-scale Wagnerian pieces it is almost impossible to find anything to compare with Solti’s Götterdämmerung. Nowadays there simply is no way to recoup the costs of a studio recording of this magnitude. My own preference here would be for a recording in Wagner’s own concert house – say, the Barenboim Bayreuth cycle recorded in 1991/2. It is however the antithesis of the Culshaw/Solti Ring recording.

Verdi: Simon Boccanegra
Kristine Opolais, Thomas Hampson, Luca Pisaroni, Wiener Symphoniker/Zanetti 2013 : Wiener Konzerthaus

Not Don Carlo but a similarly scaled Verdi drama with warmth and clarity from the 1913 acoustics of Vienna’s Konzerthaus.

Bernstein: Candide Suite, etc
Minnesota Orchestra/Oue 1999 : Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis

I included this ‘wild card’ as I couldn’t find VW’s Pilgrim and wanted to end with what could be considered state-of-the-art orchestral recording today. Even though this recording is now nearly 20 years old it sets a standard for true dynamics, excellent clarity across the frequency range and real ‘feel’ for the acoustic qualities of the recording venue. It is also telling that this comes from the relatively small scale Reference Recordings – a company having more in common with the audiophile community than a big record label. It’s then sobering to realise that big-league classical recording labels are really a thing of the past.


Audirvana 3.2

Screen Shot 2018-01-07 at 10.59.20.jpg



The latest version of Audirvana was brought out over the holiday period with all the attendant excitement of a maintenance release. But on the contrary it has proved to be something of a major step forward, for this user at least, both in sound quality and usability. And much more so than the Ver2 to Ver3 ‘now we’ve got MQA’ release.

First is the addition of a new sample rate convertor in the form of SoX. Upsampling CD rips to drive my TEAC AI-301DA at 32/88.2 has made a massive improvement in sound quality. (Of course your mileage may differ.) The difference is to the note integrity, simple clarity and sheer listenability to my whole catalogue of CD rips – changes are not so great with true HD hi-res files but SoX has shifted the Redbook goalposts a major distance for me.

Some higher rate material has failed to play when upsampled to the theoretical 32/352.8 limit of the TEAC – the rate is shown as permissible in the SoX Preferences but no sound comes from the ampDAC unless I limit oversampling to a maximum of 192kHz. This is done in the Audio System Preferences section: ‘For bridge devices connected to a DAC’.

Screen Shot 2017-12-21 at 10.31.19.jpg

A second major feature is the ability to benefit from Audirvana conversions on an unconnected Mac. Audirvana Plus 3.2 can now play to UPnP/DLNA network players. So I can finally use Audirvana Remote on my iPad to drive Audirvana Plus running on my iMac to feed my Auralic Aries Mini switched to UPnP mode (i.e. out of Lighting DS mode). Looking forward to hear some if not all of the advantages of the SoX oversampling I was in for a bit of a surprise – life is not all that stable for this combination but I’ll put that down to no longer having the Aries running on wired Ethernet but working wirelessly. There were some advantages in terms of detail resolution – the multi-tracked vocals on Christy Moore’s Ride On for folder.jpginstance – but there was a surprisingly bass light quality to the whole sound. I’m not used to hearing frequency balance changes when tinkering digitally and this has given me such a start that I’ve gone straight back to using Lighting DS on the Aries as a familiar stopgap before I start this all over again when the Devialet arrives…

In my office system all is well with CD rips and the limits on upsampling – I’ve never heard the little Tannoys singing quite so well. Though their days too are numbered as some real bookshelf speakers are being lined up for 2018.


Significant sound quality increases can be had driving the TEAC from Audirvana by upsampling everything through SoX to DSD128. I’ve used a -6dB volume reduction as I need to volume control with the very efficient Tannoys and the default A 7th order filter. 16/44.1 CDs never sounded better.


van Damme-1.jpg

Always follow the directions

Speaker cable – one of the things I avoided reviewing professionally. I was regularly loaned pieces of Monster Cable ‘this’ or Audioquest ‘that’ when these companies were start-ups but I never settled on using an audiophile cable. I experimented with solid core, used some heavyweight QED, but ended up using what was to become Cable Talk 3.1.

With the need to rewire my main system I read around, looking for a ‘non-foo’ solution. This came in the form of two 10m lengths of Van Damme 6mm Hi-Fi Speaker Cable terminated with gold spades by Mark Grant (whose work, presentation and packaging is superb) priced at £158.

To put a TV screen into my sound system I’ve had to re-orientate the furniture in my listening room. This meant I could now cut the cable runs down from 10m to 4m or under. I ordered a new set of Van Damme from Mark Grant which were terminated and supplied within the week for £88. I very quickly swapped out the 10m lengths in the system for the 4m lengths sat back with the same track, same volume setting – and was disappointed – no, quite unsettled – by the change in sound quality. Not what I’d expected. Vocals weren’t in the right place, the whole thing sounded lop-sided, the stereo decided ‘odd’. So much so I thought I’d wired the system out-of-phase or in inverted phase. I checked and the polarity was correct and as before.

Now I know about cable directionality and have always followed instructions when using directional interconnects but never given it much credence. Then the thought struck me…Van Damme is directional. Sure enough I’d got the left channel cable wired ‘backwards’. Quick change round and everything was back to how it should be. I genuinely would not have believed a) it would make that kind and degree of difference and b) it would be a big enough difference to make me think right off there was something wrong with the system. You live and learn…

(Oh! the two 10m length are now doing stirling work in my office system. It was if I’d planned that all along.)

Late Seventies nostalgia

Just found another system picture from the late seventies. This was taken in our basement flat in Green Lanes, London N16 – we had a reasonably understanding landlord who lived above. Same turntable bracket and record cabinet but everything else has changed. I’d heard the Gales at Harman Radio in Manchester and had sold the IMFs before our move to London. The stands looked beautiful but were utterly useless on carpet. The Gales lasted a couple of years before being replaced by passive Linn Isobariks which I used with Meridian and then Lentek amps just to be annoying.


Pre- and power-amp were a Radford SC-22 and STA-25 that I’d bought through Hampstead hi-fi where it had been PX-ed. There was a Radford FM2 tuner with an indoor aerial that didn’t do it any justice. Speaker cable was Litz as was the fashion – I didn’t use it for long. There’s a Stax headphone energiser as I’d just bought a pair of Sigmas (would I ever learn?).

I was already writing for Haymarket Publishing’s hi-fi titles when this was covered as a reader’s system – such was the way in those days! The system featured in Hi-Fi Sound with my wife sporting a bubble perm and the said Stax ‘phones and who has threatened a certain part of my anatomy if that picture ever sees the light of day again.

The turntable was a black plinth Linn LP12 supplied by Howard Popeck at Subjective Audio a few miles up the road from where we lived. It was fitted with an SME III damped with a Decca London Gold imported from Valois in France by my long-suffering, French speaking wife. (This is the unit that was stolen and replaced by my Aformosia plinth LP12.) I was in awe of the SME’s design and engineering but not the sound with anything other than high-compliance moving magnets from Shure or ADC. After the burglary I finally ended up with a classic Ittok/Asak (via a Syrinx) which was replaced by my FR64fx itself partnered with an MC-201, MC-702 and Koetsu Black K in the next four or five years. I used that deck until earlier this month.

Just to put the record straight (no pun intended) the picture on the wall is a hand-painted copy of a German circus poster from between the wars – it is nothing to do with black magic!

1980s supplement

Digging in old back issues of Hi-Fi Answers I found a picture from 1980 very shortly before we moved from our London N16 basement to a flat in the Barbican. This system shows my replacement Linn with Ittok and Asak feeding a Meridian 101 (Asak module) and a pair of 103s driving DMS Linn Isobariks on very short speaker leads. There is a Meridian 104 tuner and a pair of Aurex casette decks lost in the murk too. Clearly paying journalists too much – judging by the growth in the record collection now housed in a custom CubeStore cabinet.

1980 system.jpg


It’s been an interesting few months. I had been intending to write a review of  the Spendor D9s in the time-honoured way giving examples of how they sounded with various pieces of music and how they sounded better than this and different from that. But I have to say that they have fundamentally changed the way I listen – which is saying something after my years as a professional reviewer! And something for another time.

Meanwhile back in the office I decided to turn my focus away from streamers to Mac/DAC solutions. I still spend a good deal of my day at the computer. It is inconvenient using my iPad or the front controls on the Cambridge Audio StreamMagic 6 or its remote to select tracks. So I started using Audirvana to access my NAS drive and just listened through the iMac speakers – which I have to say are surprisingly good.

It wasn’t going to last and so I decided on the tidiest Mac/DAC solution was to get an ampDAC and feed a pair of passive speakers. I initially toyed with going active and looked at KEF LS50 and Adam Artist 5 as potential solutions but I wanted a DAC with greater capability than those included in these packages.

I’d looked at TEAC DACs when I first started down the digital road but dismissed them thinking streamers were the best solution for me. What grabbed my attention this time round was the book-sized TEAC Integrated Amplifier AI-301DA. This would give me everything for my office system: quality headphone output, capable power amplifier for near-field monitors, remote control, USB connectivity, DSD, 2 digital inputs, 2 line inputs and Bluetooth. With the AI-301DA currently on offer at £319 I couldn’t resist. So the lovely Lentek and StreamMagic have gone to auction.


Changes on the corner of my desk – the TEAC AI-301DA

Just to be unkind, I first sampled the TEAC with headphones only but I was truly taken by the compelling sound with my Focal Spirit Pros. The DSD128 version of the Eric Bibb track Meeting at the Building was all I needed to hear – all the power, instrument placement and dynamics you could wish for without any harshness, shout or brittleness. Now headphones will be a lot, lot more than just convenience listening. This track is available as a free dowload from DSDfile.com. It’s an Opus 3 analogue single-mic master tape with the singers moving into the mic as they take solos and the intrumentalists positioned behind, the bass being reinforced with a ribbon mic – brilliantly atmospheric and dynamic.


I next tried the TEAC in my main system where it made a surpsingly good fist of driving the D9s to silly levels (it’s techincally a Class D 30watt/8ohm amp) with the track Like a Dog Chasing Cars from The Dark Knight score by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard.


Installed back on my office deck, the TEAC is currently driving my venerable Tannoy CPA-5s but I will probably upgrade to passive near-field monitors in good time. For the moment everything is sounding big, spacious and confident with the TEAC being fed by Audirvana Plus 3.1.7 on the iMac. There’s an intriguing difference in sound quality on some tracks however between Audirvana and the supplied TEAC HR Audio Player app but more about that another time.


Upsampling 16/44.1 CD rips to 32/88.2 with the latest iteration of Audirvana opens up the sound of the TEAC. The sound quality improvement is substantial and proving to be a delight revisiting older Redbook recordings.

Seventies nostalgia

Last week I finally sold my 1979 Linn LP12 to a lovely fella from Manchester. It set me thinking about my early days there and my first independent hi-fi system. I went back to my second year at Uni with the intention of sharing a hi-fi and house with a post-grad friend. I supplied the Thorens TD160 with a Shure 95, he supplied the Goodmans 110 tuneramp and the floorstanding Goodwood speakers.

Summer vac work meant I could afford my own amp and speakers by my final year. And by this time I’d moved into my own attic flat in one of Manchester’s large multiple occupancy houses. The first picture from 1974 shows my TD160 now uprated with an SME3009II and Shure V15III on a wall bracket feeding my newly acquire Cambridge P60 and one of a pair of IMF ALS40s. The laughable stands were considered ideal at the time! My home made music rack is half filled with well-read copies of Hi-Fi News & Record Review and half filled with records.Old system-1.jpg

The second picture must be from summer 1975 after our marriage. (The records have changed to include a number of boxed sets bought as wedding presents!) Headphones are a pair of NAD Electrostatics – the poor man’s Stax – they got far too little use. Not shown, but soon to be added, was a Cambridge T55 tuner. By the time we left for London in 1976 the Cambridge had been traded for a Yamaha CA1000MkII and my first articles had been published…

Old system-2.jpg

DSD128 download

A free download of Eric Bibb’s Opus 3 Meeting at the Building track is available at the DSDShop site. This is an opportunity to hear high bitrate 5.6 MHz DSD with a known-quality analogue recording (crossed-pair valve mic plus one ribbon mic). Dynamic range and the independence of each musical line is exceptional. The whole recording has a sharply focused imagery and realism. There are some ineteresting listening notes too.

(Exceptional through the sound is, just to court controversy, I still wouldn’t rate this as a true HD recording as it’s not from a digital source.)