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The High End Gets the Bird?
The Natives Get Restless

Francis Vale


There is a Brazilian folk tale that begins with a bunch of young natives wantonly rummaging though the woods, looking for a fabulous singing bird, called "Uirapuru." In their frantic search, they happen to stumble upon a decrepit Indian playing a nose flute. They think this old man is so ugly, he's messing up their beautiful forest. So, they thoughtfully redecorate the foliage by beating the hell out of the poor Indian. While these wannabe decorators are busily rearranging the unfortunate man's face, the musical Uirapuru is skillfully shot through the heart by a bird-mugging maiden. Shazam! Now brought down, the feathered songster suddenly transforms itself into the man of her dreams. At tale's end, our knocked-about duffer has recovered, and finally catches up with his tasteless tormentors. But rather than getting his appropriate Bronson revenge, he ends up instead killing the fabulous fowl-now-become-human-love-hunk. As the spell-bound Brazilian Adonis falls dying to the forest floor, he once again becomes his melodic bird self, and flies back into the dense forest making the appropriate high notes. Our heavily armed geriatric, his poor taste assailants, and the homicidal Fem are then left to start their crazed chase for the Absolute Sound all over again. This daft crowd probably represents the first known case of audiophile dementia.

In 1917, HEITOR VILLA LOBOS rendered the mystical mayhem of Uirapuru into a symphonic work. Fortunately for us, his composition can be heard in full flight on a terrific LP reissue, in Leopold Stokowski's stirring 1958 performance [DCC/Compact Classics, LPZ 1003, New York Stadium Orchestra]. Our magical Uirapuru also seems to have foreshadowed the LP's Phoenix-like qualities. Think about it: how many times have the bad taste techno-natives tried to put a silver CD arrow through the virgin vinyl's heart, only to watch this ancien species resurrect itself, more beautifully musical than ever? And a maddened commercial crowd is then left behind, perennially trying to capture the pure analog muse onto their cold, sterile discs?

As this enchanted music of Villa Lobos soared up from the Wilson Benesch record player, Gordana and Francis couldn't help thinking how many of us have gone crazily native.

We originally rediscovered the magic of vinyl thanks to this extraordinary turntable. (Distributed in the U.S. by Pro Audio, 847-526-1646.) Initially, the system came with the WB Hybrid cartridge, but we recently installed the top of the line Wilson Benesch cartridge, the Carbon One. The $2,800 Carbon One cartridge, like the Hybrid, is a moving coil, solid-woven carbon fiber wonder, and has a solid boron cantilever topped off with a nude elliptic polished diamond stylus. The primary difference between the two cartridges is that the Carbon uses the exquisite ruby motor assembly from Benz-Micro. One purely mechanical effect of using the Benz assembly is that the output voltage drops from the Hybrid's 0.58mV (low)--1.98mV (high), to a flat rated 0.30mV.

Originally, we had been feeding the Hybrid's output into the Swiss-made, Ensemble Phonomaster. With the Carbon installation, however, we also began using the Wilson Benesch Stage One Phono preamp. The $1,500 head amp is cleverly designed to fit right inside the turntable, and draws its power off the record player's external power supply. This space saving, efficient design makes for a very clean arrangement. More importantly, no lengthy, signal degrading interconnects get between the cartridge and the phono stage.

The head amp itself is a pure Class A single ended design, with no loop feedback. Inside this unit is also the requisite RIAA equalizer. Using "the most costly and precise monolithic op amps ever made," it will work even with a difficult 10k ohm input, and can deliver over 9 volts output with negligible distortion. You have the option of switching the unit's gain of 20dB (x10) through a user selectable input resistance of 1k, 100 ohms, and 10 ohms, and 0.10, 0.047, and 0.1uF capacitance. The RIAA section manages a 10dB gain reduction with no loss of consistency in sound quality via the equalizer's feedback loop. As a consequence of these various features, the WB phono amp can be used with higher output cartridges from other vendors, like those from van den Hul, and Koetsu-types. After the phono stage is installed, the rear of the turntable sports two sets of phono amp outputs. The inner pair is the main out, while the outside pair is for a direct to tape output; the latter also buffered by a 3K ohm resistor.

Retrofitting the WB turntable with the Stage One phono preamp is something that ordinarily would be done by your dealer. However, Francis accomplished it with minimal fuss, if without much elegance. He propped the turntable up and suspended it between a couple of 3 foot high speaker boxes. He then slid underneath, and proceeded to drop down the turntable's floor pan. The back-on-the-floor swap-out procedure reminded him of working on his long gone, Jaguar XK-140/LM drophead roadster. But there was one big difference: Unlike the other English product, the WB unit kept on running flawlessly after all the electrical work was done.

However, getting the maximum record playing performance out of this newly hotrodded WB system was another story; the primary factor being that the Carbon One cartridge is just so revealing. When improperly processed, the new amount of musical detail suddenly welling up from the grooves can render an almost negative musical effect. It's rather like our demented jungle decorators, and their nasty encounter with that old codger and his nose flute. The jarring effect was too much for them to take, and they punched out the face of the music maker. Ditto for some preamps, when faced with the wealth of information produced by the Carbon One.

At the time, we had three Preamps lying about the house, so we were able to do some quick system comparisons. We had been successfully using the solid state Classe DR 60 and its optional internal phono stage with the WB Hybrid. But, when we used the Classe line inputs in conjunction with the Carbon and Stage One, the newly emerged detail, instead of musically blending and flowing together, now verged on the mechanical. Next in was our all tube, Cary SLP-90L. Like the Classe, this preamp had also been used with great success with the Ensemble/Hybrid combination. The collective sound of the Cary/Carbon/Stage One was much more musically meshed. But the nicely detailed highs, which had been forcefully present on the Classe, were, for some reason, being lopped off. We were beginning to feel like our feathered Uirapuru in search of the perfect nest. Finally, we put in the Italian-made Graaf 13.5b, another all tube preamp. Success! The detail at all frequency extremes was now present, but it melded together in perfect unison with the midrange.

So, there Gordana and Francis contentedly sat, their own Carbon-based Uirapuru now transformed into a harmoniously beautiful system. Their musical quest was finally over--or so they thought. For what should then arrive in their musical woods but the Preeminence Two Line Interface. A passive control unit., this $2,095 device from Reference Line Audio (800-599-7673) draws no electrical power, and is vivid testimony to Ralph Cotino's dogged pursuit of placing minimal sonic interference between you and the source of your music. His design employs a proprietary, low impedance, Variable Output Shunt Attenuation circuit in a switch selectable dual mono/stereo configuration. According to the company's documentation, the Preeminence Two "has been optimized around four design goals: Frequency response linearity, phase accuracy, low impedance operation, and resonant frequency control."

The Preeminence did a true conjurer's trick with the Carbon and Stage One, as pure vinyl magic was obviously now at work There was even more detail, but it was better integrated, of a whole musical cloth. The locked-up dynamics inherent in many good recordings were now unequivocally unleashed. The bass was also more tight, well defined, and went even deeper. So, for our review's denouement, the unexpected character had swept onto our soundstage, slain what we thought was the ideal analog reproduction system, and caused yet another musical metamorphosis.

With the spell-binding Preeminence in place, we had successfully marshaled great analog music which flowed, ebbed, sang, and extended farther out to the rear and sides of the Analysis Omega full range ribbons than ever before. You never heard of this incredibly well made Greek speaker? Well, don't feel too bad. Not many in America have. We seem to possess the only pair in the U.S. How we got hold them of them is another, very long, and involved story. But in brief, we have to agree with the UK audio press which has extensively reviewed-- and praised--them. These handsome, six foot tall, all ribbon planars amazingly combine the delicacy of an electrostatic with the bass punch of pistons and domes.

Also quite remarkably, as the sound increases in volume while you pile on the watts, it doesn't change its overall tonal character. Indeed, it seems no matter how loud you drive them, they just won't break up. The Analysis Omega's are also quite easy to drive, with their high (for a full range ribbon) 87dB efficiency. A number of people with golden ears have come by our home and heard them, and like us, proclaimed these speakers among the world's very best reproducers. This top of the Analysis speaker line would probably retail for about $10,000 if imported into the U.S. (Contact Stefan Venetos in the UK for more information, if you are interested: 011-44-1752-822-560.) As a compleat analog system, the Wilson Benesch Turntable, Carbon and Stage One, Preeminence, and Analysis Omegas (with Nordost Red Dawn cables throughout) were capable of putting on breathtaking, wonderfully musical performances.

This take your breath away system ensemble was incredibly well suited for showcasing another great DCC/Compact Classics LP reissue. This recording is also a Stokowski tour de force; his 1958 rendering of the SHOSTAKOVICH Symphony No. 5 in D Major, Op. 47 [LPZ 2016, Stadium Symphony Orchestra]. This work, which had its premier in 1937 by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, marked a significant turning point in the Russian composer's career. For just prior to its performance, Shostakovich had made several musical and political missteps. Lost for a while in the bloody, political jungle of Stalin's terror, he was almost within sight of the dreaded Gulags. Creatively cowed under, he then produced an aborted work, his Symphony No. 4.

But his next symphony, the No.5, marked his artistic emergence from inner cowardice. He had once again found his mystical muse, as his artistic voice came back in resounding self-vindication. This symphony's triumphal "victory-through-struggle" theme is also found in Beethoven's Fifth, and Franck's D minor symphonies. The work's final movement, with its introductory snare drums, and ending in a gigantic fanfare, is a masterful effort, "calling upon the utmost in orchestral power and brilliance." With the Wilson Benesch turntable, Carbon One, and Stage One working through the utterly transparent Preeminence, the finale comes Tsunami-through, and sweeps you away. The instruments are precisely detailed and localized in the panoramic soundstage, yet they work as a tight ensemble. The brass section, as it trumpets the composer's final victory over his inner fears, is round, full bodied, and glistening. Absolutely nothing is held back by this intrepid system combination.

As for brass, what the Wilson Benesch Carbon One, Stage One, and TT combination does for all manner of horns is worth the price of admission alone. A "fat" sax, loaded with air, expression, and emotion is what you will hear when Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane let loose on the reissue of the 1956 "Tenor Madness" LP [DCC/Compact Classics, Sonny Rollins Quintet, LPZ-2022.] Their emotionally charged breath now rushed out from their instrument throats, flooding our listening room to jazz overflowing capacity.

The oft mentioned rush of detail produced by the Carbon also yielded wonderful, unexpected effects on a number of recordings; for example, with one of our favorite LPs, Herbie Hancock jamming with the gifted West African musician, Foday Musa Suso, in "Village Life," [Columbia, 7464-39870-1] This seminal get together of two gifted musicians gets all of the listener's body parts involuntary moving. With the Carbon hooked into the Wilson Benesch system, we rather surprisingly heard Mr. Herbie happily humming away in the background. Heretofore unnoticed, his joyous mutterings added yet another musical dimension to the recording, which now did its infectious Afro-jazz beat as a completely satisfying whole..

These musically uninhibited, yet tightly marshaled sonic qualities are characteristic of this WB rig when everything is working right. Correct instrumental timbre, proper tonal coloration, accurate rhythm, exhilarating dynamics, and most surprisingly, almost utter surface silence, are the hallmarks of a well setup WB system that uses the Carbon One. And that correct setup also means using Black Diamond Racing's "The Shelf," which we further augmented with three of D.J. Casser's "Those Things." The latter are his special pyramid cones, with a small block of the same carbon fiber material as The Shelf uses affixed to them. With the blocks' surface flush against the bottom of the turntable, and the cone tips facing down onto The Shelf, stray resonances and image blurring vibrations never got a chance to wreak their havoc on the system's performance.

Speaking of causing trouble, where would our story be without a murderous maiden? Well, fortunately for us, DCC has also reissued the bloodthirsty Salome, and her "Dance of the Seven Veils," composed by RICHARD STRAUSS. This DCC LP is yet another amazing Stokowski performance, and once again, took place in 1958 (a very busy year for him!) [LPZ 1002, Stadium Symphony Orchestra]. Composed in 1905, this symphonic piece was part of a score for a four scene, one act opera. The turn of the century audiences were shocked at the horror, and licentiousness of this operatic drama. Today, we would just yawn. But when played over the Wilson Benesch with Carbon and Stage Ones, this score still had the means to shock, but not for the same fin de siecle reasons. The opening drum cracks, the crisp tambourine, bellowing horns, and searing strings provide a startlingly mad, cohesively detailed, seductive backdrop to the sinewy woodwinds. Salome did her deadly dance across our soundstage, which now extended well into the next room. Her persuasive, reptilian coiling around Herod's lascivious brain was wonderfully, rhythmically delineated by the Wilson Benesch. Of course, Salome, unlike the maiden in our other story, never got to do it all over again. Herod, when he finally came to his senses, was shocked at what he had done to John the Baptist, and ordered Salome crushed to death under his soldiers' shields.

But Gordana and Francis guarantee that you won't feel dismayed or oppressed at what you hear via the Carbon One, Stage One, and matching turntable--Just the opposite, in fact, as this Wilson Benesch ensemble soars on musical wings. And when properly system matched, the Carbon cartridge sings with an amazingly clear, enchanting voice. This remarkable, three piece analog system probably defines one of the high water marks in record playing equipment. For we audiophiles, at least, the search for our sonorous Uirapuru seems to have finally ended.

But then again, maybe not. For if the Brazilian myth holds true, will it just fly away again, and the high-end quest must start anew?

Copyright 1997, Francis Vale All Rights Reserved

21st, The VXM Network, http://www.vxm.com

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