Kiss – Alive!

There’s something amazing about this record. In the mid 70s, rock concerts were getting pretty boring. 15 minute guitar solos, 15 minute drum solos, 15 minute fucking bass solos. A bunch of long haired dudes standing around noodling to infinity in a weed filled haze of mediocrity. In some parts of the world Alice Cooper had started to make the scene, along with Frank Zappa, but the former was campy in a Rocky Horror Picture Show kind of way and Zappa was technically proficient, but still seemed like he was leading a bunch of hippies that knew the cool joke and you didn’t.

When Kiss hit the stage, touring in support of this, their first live record (after a series of lackluster studio albums that almost sunk the band) crowds around the country, around the world took notice. These guys came out in gigantic leather heeled boots, looking like creatures from another planet, spitting fire and blood in the air, with a light show that demanded your attention. Were they incredible musicians? No. Were the lyrics deep and meaningful? Hell no.

But there was so much raw energy and sexuality at a KISS show in their early years, that you walked out of the concert hall drained and entertained. Rock would never be the same again. And this record captures the essence of that time better than anything. It’s still a favorite to this day, and a road trip essential. Firehouse, woo!

You can stream it (and see what you’re missing) on TIDAL here.

You can buy it on vinyl from our pals at Music Direct here.

 

 

This column is sponsored in part by Audio Research.
We use their REF Phono 3 phono stage as a reference
component to spin the record of the day. Every day.

The Rolling Stones – Blue and Lonesome

With all those records on the shelf, why buy more? But I do. So why not start the column with one of the most recent records purchased? I must admit that I’m neither a big blues fan nor even a big Stones fan, though I find myself warming up to their true genius the older I get.

However, I’m always willing to give a band one more chance and while the last couple of Rolling Stones records have been arguably weak, these guys are on fire with this record. Anyone who’s read even a few articles or seen more than one interview with the Stones, knows these guys love the blues – it really was the impetus for them forming the band over 50 years ago. So when I heard that they were doing an entire album of some of their favorite tunes, I had a hunch it would be exciting.

So give this one a spin, whether you like the Stones or not. The energy put forward on this record is infectious. Richards, Jagger and company play their asses off on this record, and in a Rolling Stone interview, rhythm guitarist Ronnie Wood said “his fingers were bleeding, seriously” from playing on this record. The respect paid to the genre is outstanding.

From a sound quality standpoint, the actual 2 record LP set isn’t fantastic, so if you don’t have to have this one on vinyl, you won’t regret streaming it. The sound is strictly average, so I suggest only those that have to touch and feel the record shell out for the physical media.

You can stream the album on TIDAL here.

And should you want the album, you can purchase it from our pals at Music Direct here.

An Introduction: Why this column?

Hi there. I’m Jeff Dorgay, founder of this site, and TONEAudio Magazine. Though I’ve been writing about hifi for about 15 years now, I’ve been an audio enthusiast and record collector since I was about 14. The first record I bought back in 1974 was Edgar Winter’s They Only Come Out At Night. 

Honestly, I can’t remember the second record I bought, but from that moment I was hooked and have been buying records ever since. The question that wives, girlfriends and friends have always asked is “Are you ever going to listen to all of those records?” The answer is yes, kind of. I cut my collection down from about 7,500 LP’s to about 2,500 last year, because there were a number of albums that I wasn’t listening to in any regular order and decided that after cataloging them, most were available on Tidal.

So, doing the Zen thing, I wanted to pass that vinyl on to a generation that would make more use of said records than I was. And after all, 7,500 records take up a lot of space! But I know in the grand scheme of things, even 7,500 albums is a pittance compared to some of the collections I’ve seen. Nonetheless, I keep buying more, but with the advent of Tidal, it’s not like back in the 70s and 80s where you came home from the record store with ten albums and five of them sucked. Though I buy less vinyl than I used to, they are almost all keepers these days. With the current price of records, this is truly a good thing.

But back to my quest. After hearing people ask me the same damn question for decades, I AM going to listen to them all. Fortunately with my job, being what it is, I’m listening to records all the time anyway, so I am now going to make it a point to listen to an album in my collection from start to finish at least a few times per week, and eventually get to one a day. We’ll start with a written column, but I hope this will go to video sooner rather than later.

This will not be a record review column. We do that over at TONEAudio, and you can click on this link to get you there. It is merely a journal of a man on a mission, so that years from now when someone asks me if I’ve listened to “all of those records” I can say “yes I have.” So, won’t you join me? There might be a few you don’t know about or would like to comment on. I’ll do my best to give you a TIDAL link to stream in the event that this is a new discovery.

Thank you for tuning in,

 

 

Get Those Records Clean!

While the mainstream press loves to wax poetic about the “vintage” sound of vinyl, “fresh with clicks and pops,” it doesn’t have to be that way.

Properly taken care of, your records can be CD quiet, really. Whether you are buying fresh vinyl, scrounging the used bins, or just hitting the garage sales, chances are there’s a fair amount of grunge in those grooves that are preventing you from hearing all the music you’re paying for. Keeping records might seem like a foreign concept to those of you just getting into the vinyl game, but once you get hooked on the sound (or should I say, lack of sound) of clean records there’s no turning back.

Think of your record cleaning system as a tool. You can spend $100 on something like the Spin Clean, and that will get you started. You can read the full TONEAudio Magazine review here. This is a basic tool, that trades convenience for price and requires that you clean records in a batch. It will get the dirtiest records much cleaner than they used to be and should you move up the food chain later, is an excellent way to do a “first pass” cleaning operation when you bring home a stack of really dirty records before using a more advanced RCM.

 

As your record collection grows, you may want to move up to a vacuum based machine, like one from VPI Okki Nokki, both machines that we’ve used extensively to good result. This process requires applying a record cleaning fluid, brushing it around on your record grooves and then vacuuming the fluid out of the grooves until the record is dry. The idea of getting your record wet might be daunting at first (or at least counterintuitive) but once you get used to it, it will become second nature.

 

We love the Original Master Sleeves from Mobile Fidelity. They offer a soft, clean, anti-static surface for your freshly cleaned LP and will assure that your records stay clean longer once finished with the process. After going through all that hard work of getting them clean, you don’t want to place them back in that gross paper sleeve. You can purchase these from Music Direct here. Twenty bucks will get you a pack of fifty and this is one of the best investments you can make in your record collection. Might want to get some archival plastic outer sleeves while you’re over at the MD site. These will keep your record jackets looking crisp, and easier to get in and out of wherever you store them.

A quick look at your LP before and after cleaning will give you an immediate read on how dirty they were, and when you place a freshly cleaned record on your turntable, you’ll be amazed at how much better it sounds. Chances are most if not all of those annoying clicks and pops will now be gone, or at least greatly minimized. And as we mentioned, even brand new vinyl can benefit from a good cleaning. Records are pressed together under heat in something like a waffle iron and the chemicals used to make sure the vinyl doesn’t stick something like Pam, so a pass through your RCM will remove this residual gunk, resulting in a more quiet background and more lifelike musical presentation.

Of course, like anything else, the record cleaning ritual will take you as far down the rabbit hole as you care to go, with a plethora of cleaning machines and the fluids that go along with. It’s also a great way to start a major argument on your favorite audiophile forum, so don some Kevlar before you inquire. We’ll be uploading a few videos shortly, to help you walk through this process.

Stay tuned, and keep those records clean! You’ll enjoy them a lot more.

The Audio Research VSi75 Integrated Amp

 

Mini Mighty Marvel

You want great sound, right? But you don’t necessarily want or have the space for a rack full of gear. Answer – an integrated amplifier. Regardless of your living space, high-quality integrated amplifiers have been back with a vengeance for the last few years now. A decade ago, “integrated amplifier” often meant compromise, but not today, with so many of the majors putting their efforts towards the integrated amplifier as a viable platform for delivering superb sound with a minimal footprint.

A while back at TONEAudio, I put Audio Research’s GSi75 through its paces and came away highly impressed. The GSi75 is a bit more inclusive, featuring an on-board phonostage an excellent, on-board high-resolution DAC, and a headphone amplifier. It has a price to match, $16,000. (It also has a relatively large footprint)

Should you already have a DAC and phonostage that you love, or only need one of these components, but still want the high definition sound that has made this Minneapolis, Minnesota company famous, the $8,500 VSi75 could be your little slice of audio heaven. It’s neat, uncluttered front panel with a central display and six push buttons is a breeze to work through. A silver, metal remote control replicates all of the control functions from the comfort of your seat.

All Audio Research components are built by hand, at their facility in Minnesota. Skilled technicians hand pick, sort and measure all of the individual components and match the vacuum tubes that populate every one of their products. No less than four major checks are done during the build process, and every single ARC component is listened to twice before it heads your way.

The VSi75 produces 75 watts per channel of power, with a pair of KT150 output tubes per channel. If you aren’t familiar with tubes, or perhaps this is your first vacuum tube powered adventure, the VSi75 needs to have the bias current on said tubes adjusted occasionally; an easy and painless process, thanks to the indicator built right into the front panel display. Merely mute the amplifier, push the “bias” button, and use the attached screwdriver to adjust the bias, until the display says “60ma.” This keeps the tubes operating at top efficiency, and as they wear out (Audio Research claims 5000 hours of playing time for a set of tubes, but your mileage may vary – they tend to be conservative in their ratings.) you will have to touch this up.

Fear not, this is an easy operation. In less time than it takes you to download an app from the app store, you can re-bias the tubes in the VSi75. Typically, a new set of vacuum tubes needs to be set at installation, paying attention to them (and touching up a bit) for the first month of operation, then checking them on occasion until they expire. If you listen to your system a few hours a day, a set of tubes should last at least 3-5 years.

Scrumptious sonics

If you’ve never ventured into the world of vacuum tubes, the VSi75 will grab you instantly with its three-dimensional rendition of your favorite music. You might even find yourself singing along more often than you have before, who knows? The magic that Audio Research has managed after over 40 years of building tube amplifiers is the way they’ve married the dynamic immediacy, and control over low frequencies that many audiophiles have come to assume can only be accomplished with a solid state or class D amplifier, with the three-dimensional, “reach out and touch it” feel that vacuum tubes do so well.

After a 30-minute warm up, the Beatle’s “Eleanor Rigby,” is exquisitely presented via the Soltanus Virtuoso ESL speakers, with the violins having their own space, separately of Lennon and McCartney’s vocals, and the rest of the instruments floating between the speakers. In case you aren’t familiar with electrostatic loudspeakers, they are the toughest speakers for an amplifier to drive for numerous reasons. Starting here, knowing the VSi75 drives these relatively inefficient speakers with ease, I know everything else I throw at this great little amplifier will be gravy. And it is.

Before switching to the Graham LS5/9 speakers, the urge to resist cranking up Black Sabbath’s Paranoid is unavoidable. Again, a massive sonic picture is painted between these two giant panel speakers, with an auditory trip that feels more like sitting inside a large pair of headphones, with small musical details bouncing all over my 11 x 17-foot living room. While able to play loud, the amount of sheer control that the VSi75 exhibits is extraordinary. Bass is powerful, profound and controlled, even when the amplifier is pushed to its limits. Black Sabbath has a way of doing just that. Vocal laden tracks from Laurie Anderson, Crowded House, and Adele captivate in a similar way – this amplifier puts the performer right in your room, the way many audiophiles say only vacuum tubes can do.

The LS5/9 speakers deliver an equally impressive performance, disappearing in the listening room, thanks to the power and control at their disposal. Whether spinning vinyl (via the ARC PH9 phonostage, here for review at TONEAudio) or the DAC9 (ditto) the VSi75 is a joy to listen to for hours on end. It’s worth noting that more than a few listening sessions went on into the wee hours of the morning, a couple all the way to sunrise.


Wait for it

As more time goes by, the character, or in this case, lack of character of the VSi75 is a blessing. The wider range of albums played merely confirms what was heard at initial power up. Should you purchase a VSi75 of your very own, there is only one caveat – it improves with age. A yellow sheet of paper in the box cautions you that the sound of the amplifier gets better over the first 600 hours of operation.

While the VSi75 sounds excellent right out of the box, you will notice it “opening up” over the first week fairly dramatically, with the sound field it creates increasing in size as the days pass. You’ll also notice the high-frequency response smoothing out a bit, and bass notes getting not only more full bodied but more detailed as well.

To make sure your ears aren’t fooling you, I suggest starting your day’s listening with a track you know well, and play that track every time you fire up the VSi75. About a month into the process, you will be even happier about your purchase. This amplifier blooms like a precious flower as the hours pile up.

One more lap

Leaving the techie bits for last, the VSi75 weighs just under 40 pounds and only takes up a 14.5” wide by 16.25” deep footprint, being just over 9” tall. Our review sample is silver, and you can also order the VSi75 with a black front panel. (the chassis remains silver)  Around back there are five inputs; all single ended with RCA input connectors. Though there are binding posts for 4 and 8-ohm speakers, experience suggests trying both with your speakers, regardless of what they are rated at. Magic shows up in funny places.

Of course, the people making and selling Audio Research gear would probably love you to use your VSi75 with one of their source components, and should you do the synergy is perfection, not to mention all the remotes look the same. During its time here, we paired the VSi75 with a number of different DACs and phonostages from Conrad-Johnson, Pass Labs, Simaudio, Nagra, and Gryphon with excellent result, so again, if you already have a favorite source component, fear not. Just be sure it has RCA outputs.

In the end, the Audio Research VSi75 is a fantastic performer and an excellent value. Having owned a number of ARC’s products over the last 35 years, I can speak from personal experience that they stand the test of time. As part of the McIntosh group, there is a vast dealer network, no matter where you live in the world, so auditioning one should be fairly easy, and you can count on support after the sale as well.

The Audio Research VSi75 Integrated Amplifier

$8,500

www.audioresearch.com

Please click here for full specifications…