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Massdrop Sennheiser HD 6XX Headphones

I was in the market for some audiophile headphones with a $500 budget. I got turned on to the Sennheiser HD 650 by the Needle Doctor when they lent me an original pair to test drive as a way of gaging my taste.  Based on what I thought of the cans would help them in their consulting. The HD 650s sounded extraordinary and were the most comfortable cans I had ever worn. They are no longer being manufactured. Used ones are available for $250 and the current version, the HD 660 S, are $500 new.  The HD 660 S were within my $500 budget, so I  did not feel the need to research any further – these would be the ones.

Then I noticed a Facebook ad for a Sennheiser HD 6XX headphones for $200. That did not seem right – were they counterfeits?  Turns out it is a legit deal from a legit company.  The company is Massdrop that works with manufacturers to reissue, at liquidation retail prices, in exchange for a massive wholesale order. They also do some crowd funding for new products.  Companies like Sennheiser are willing to cannibalize sales of their current products in order to move 72,000 units of a discontinued model (that is how successful the Sennheiser “drop” has been over the last few years). Hard to pass that up as a manufacture of boutique products I guess – that is gross retail sales of $14.5 million! That is a lot of headphones, but that is still a rounding error in Sennheiser’s annual sales – so it is still a baffling move by an audio giant. Perhaps they assume that these are sales (to budget minded audiophiles like me) that never would have happened.

I returned the borrowed cans to the Needle Doctor and told them about the Massdrop deal and they told me to snap them up – that is a confident retailer. Kudos to the Needle Doctor for putting their customer’s best interest first.  I ended up buying the Massdrop Sennheisers and I am thrilled with the product. I did come back a week later to the Needle Doctor and spent my headphone budget savings on a Dragonfly Black DAC and an Audioquest aux-cord – so it all worked out.

These Sennheiser HD 6xx sound magnificent. The best sounding headphones I have ever owned. A very natural sound – no additional color: not too bright and no pounding bass. They just sound right, close to listening to good speakers in a good room. The comfort on the ears is a bonus.

Per Massdrop:

If you know audio gear, you know the Sennheiser HD 650. The company’s flagship from 2003 to 2009, this open-back headphone has shown serious staying power. Praised for its richly detailed, effortlessly enjoyable sound, it remains one of the most talked-about products on Head-Fi today—and is still widely considered among the best headphones under $1,000.

The only complaint is that they let in a lot of ambient noise (and anyone in close proximity will be well aware of what you are listening to), but that is also why they sound so good. You just need a quiet place to listen with them. Sennheiser is the open-back headphone originator/innovator (they first introduced the concept in 1968). Open-back headphones sound less like music trapped in your head and more like music in a room. In other words, more realistic and natural.

I highly recommend these headphones for audiophiles who have a quiet place to listen. They are a great value at $200 – according to reviews comparable cans can cost five times their price. They are comfortable enough to wear for several hours. They don’t need a lot of power (some high end headphones do) so you can play them through your smartphone. Most importantly they sound great.

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Bob Mould – Sunshine Rock

For most Minneapolis rock fans of my age, Bob Mould means Hüsker Dü. But I came to Bob Mould post Hüsker Dü – specifically his brilliant solo debut Workbook from 1989. I followed him into Sugar and then backtracked to Hüsker Dü. What I learned, is that despite all the guitar noise, Mould is bubble gum: sweet, melodic and hooky as hell.

As far as I am concerned, Bob Mould has never made a bad album, but some of them resonate with me more than others. Sunshine Rock is a resonator.

It is a classic Bob Mould power trio, occasionally augmented (perfectly) with strings and keys. It is a difficult time for rock, having fallen out of fashion. But Mould has pulled off a miracle 40 years into his career: a perfect pop punk album – authentic and enthusiastic.

One of my favorite Bob Mould album is File Under: Easy Listening with his band Sugar. Sunshine Rock has a similar beauty. The buzz saw guitar is as melodic as ever. The speed is mostly breakneck (although there is one gorgeous reflective slow song – “Final Years.”). The most endearing quality of the LP is how joyful this noise is. There is not a dud on the LP.

There is a reason that Bob Mould is a legend and important influence: he is a punk founding father who has never faltered in 40 years. Bob Mould has managed to make the most accessible album of his career with out a drop of sellout. This album is a capstone on an already great career.

Thanks Bob! Looking forward to celebrating 40 years of your cacophony at the Electric Fetus in Minneapolis and the Palace in St. Paul Minnesota later this month!

Gary Clark Jr. – This Land

Gary Clark Jr. has got it all: Texas guitar gunslinger, great voice, songwriter, musician, performer, the look, married to a super model and a nice little career on the edge of the star making machine beholden to no one. Thus, he guiltlessly spills out genres: blues, rock, soul, reggae and hip hop. He refuses to be pigeonholed as a guitar god or submit to the blues police. Each of his studio LPs tends to be a wonderful hot mess – driving the blues purists crazy and keeping it interesting for the rest of us.

This Land continues Clark’s tradition of the brilliant hodgepodge. Like Hendrix, at his core, Clark is a bluesman. Again like Jimi, he refuses to be a slave to the blues. The blues are merely a point of reference for their genre bending explorations.

This may be my favorite Gary Clark Jr. album. This LP is all over the map: classic rock, the blues, R&B, punk, reggae, Prince and hip hop infused neo-soul. Despite the stylistic chaos there is cohesion. That cohesion is the total persona of Gary Clark Jr. He has become a rock star. No simple accomplishment in these times.

The coolest thing Clark does is that he’s an old school rock star with a complete and total understanding of hip hop. A man of his times, this is a serious artistic statement. A dude on top of his game.  This Land has the similar ambition as D’Angelo’s Voodoo.

Clark gets political at times, but what do you expect from an African-American rock star?  Silence would be inappropriate.

Oh and the guitar playing, it is superb as expected. The innovation is that the guitar playing is in total support of the song. The guitar never overpowers – save that shit for the live show. The production is pretty solid too. Clark’s secret ingredient is his singing voice. He is an extremely gifted vocalist with a wide range of textures. It is easy to forget the voice, given the guitar, but it is just as big of a deal.

This is going to be a top-ten 2019 album for me.  Can’t wait to see this new stuff live when he visits my town (Surly Brewing Festival Field Minneapolis/St.Paul) on a hot August Friday night.

Secret Machines – Now Here Is Nowhere

This is one of my favorite albums of the 00s. I got to see Secret Machines live twice. Once when they warmed up and seriously upstaged the Kings Of Leon at First Avenue. The second time was at the same venue where they headlined and performed “in the round.” Both were amazing shows.

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Now Here Is Nowhere was issued in 2004 on CD and reissued as a limited release LP (vinyl) in 2017 on Run Out Groove (a vinyl-only reissue subsidiary of Warner Music Group).  I recently found a new copy at the Electric Fetus.

Secret Machines sounds like the bastard love child of Pink Floyd and The Clash. It has Floyd’s spacey sound, but with a garage rock/punk vibe. It is a full sounding trio (in the way that Rush is a full sounding trio). The band self describes their sound/style as space rock.

Although, the band did not do well commercially, this album and its follow-up were critically acclaimed and they counted David Bowie as a fan.

I like the big guitars, whooshing keyboards, artful use of stereo channels (why don’t more recording artist take advantage of stereo more?) and gorgeous clear vocals. As the Run Out Groove website states:

Anyone interested in Pink Floyd, NEU, Ride, Spacemen 3, Mercury Rev, the Flaming Lips, U2, Super Furry Animals, Sparklehorse & Broken Social Scene should have this album in their collection.

The vinyl edition was mastered for vinyl from the original master recordings with edits removed. The vinyl edition is not significantly different from the CD version, other than the typical organic feel of wax. The soundstage on the vinyl is a bit more open and airy. Overall, the vinyl is easier on the ears. But at forty bucks for the wax, you better be a pretty serious fan (the album is on streaming services and a used CD can be found for cheap – under two bucks per Discogs). The visual presentation of the packaging is pretty spectacular.

The Nude Party – The Nude Party

I missed this release when it came out 2018. I recently heard “Chevrolet Van” on The Current and it grabbed me, I was an instant fan. The song pokes fun at being a young rocker:

Got some free advice the other day

From an older relative of mine

He said, I dig what you do

But I think you’re wasting your time

Cause driving around, getting drunk with your friends in a van every night

Sounds like a lotta fun, but you need a plan B, cause it ain’t gonna last long past twenty-one

I dialed up the album on Spotify and was blown away – the whole album is great. It is pure joyous garage rock. It is the perfect hybrid of The Velvet Underground, Television, The Rolling Stones, Gram Parsons and a dash of Quentin Tarantino.

The LP is a quality pressing in orange vinyl with a bonus 45.

If I had discovered this LP in 2018, it would have placed on the upper end of my best of 2018.

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Croft Acoustics Phono Integrated (integrated amplifier)

Every few years I do some kind of upgrade to my stereo. I have never really thought of myself as an audiophile, since I prefer to spend most of my disposable income on software (music) vs. hardware (gear). However, I am at the point where I have spent enough on stereo gear that it is pretty hard to avoid the label of audiophile. All the same, I am on the budget side of the audiophile spectrum. I like high quality gear, but I am looking for value. I don’t think you have to pay the price of a car for a component.

This year’s upgrade was a new amplifier. It replaces a Jolida FX10 (a 10 watt tube amp which has served me well, but had some limitations). How ended up with the Croft is a long story that I will save for another post. This post will focus on reviewing the Croft.

I was unfamiliar with the Croft brand and did no research – instead I completely relied on the fine crew at the Needle Doctor for their recommendation (a special shout out to @cellphono for his patience and insights). They did not lead me astray. It turns out this is a highly recommended component from Stereophile magazine and other experts. Croft is in that class of gear that is moderately priced (but still not cheap) and considered at the top of its class. This amp is $1,895.00 USD which makes it the most expensive stereo component I have ever owned. I got a small discount by purchasing a demo model (no risk and broken in by guys who know what they are doing). Finding the Croft was serendipitous, but again that story will have to wait for another post.

What I learned is that Glenn Croft, designs and builds hand crafted audio in the UK. This is like buying art from an artist, it is brilliantly designed and crafted. Croft has been at his craft for 30 plus years. I am very curious as to who this guy is. I have met these kinds of dudes before. For example, in my own town, there is Frank Van Alstine. He is serious about sound and oblivious to gimmicks and fads. I am still trying to learn more about the Croft brand and Glenn Croft the man. Don’t expect to learn anything on the Croft website. This is one low profile company.

This is an austere unit: an input selector, right and left volume knobs, a mute switch and an on/off switch all in an unassuming black case without a remote. It does not have a headphone jack (which has turned out to be a weird kind of benefit – the opportunity to head down the headphone amp rabbit hole).

The backside is a set of gold-plated jacks for a phono, three other inputs and a line out. In addition, there are speaker connectors, a phono ground and power.

The Croft is a tube hybrid amplifier. It has a top-notch MM phono preamp – that is its most prominent feature. LPs sound outstanding through the Croft.

No piece of gear can be considered on its own, you need to understand the context of the listener. My inputs to the Croft are a Pro-Ject RPM 1 Genie 3 (turntable) with an Audio-Technica VM540ML cartridge (another new arrival due to tragedy – another teaser to an upcoming post) and an Oppo 105D (disc player and DAC). I predominately listen to vinyl  through this rig.

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The outputs are Klipsch KG2s (speakers) and a Schiit Vali 2 (headphone amplifier – this is a new addition to my rig along with the Croft – remember no headphone jack) with some AKG K240 Studio (ancient) and Grado SR80e headphones – depending on my mood (the Grados are my preference for sound, but the AKG are physically more comfortable on my head and provide some isolation).

The Klipsch are my oldest component. I picked them up in 1985 when I got my first bonus from my first “real” job. They were the best speaker I could afford at the time. I have listened to them consistently since I got them. Other stereo components have come and gone, but the KG2s still prevail. I have listened to a lot of other speakers over the years, but in the end I am loyal to the Klipsch. They pair well with the Croft (this is not a given – I tried a Rouge Audio Pharaoh and it conflicted with the Klipsch). It was a requirement that the new amp complement the Klipsch. The Klipsch get along nicely with the Croft.

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All the hardware is connected with AudioQuest Evergreen cables and the speakers are connected with Monster Cable XP HP 14 Gauge High Performance speaker wire.

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I am not qualified to explain the electronics of the Croft, so I will defer to Stereophile:

Phono-stage gain is provided by a stereo pair of ECC83 (12AX7) dual-triode tubes, made by JJ Audio of Slovakia, while RIAA equalization is applied by passive parts. A third ECC83, using a pair of P9NK50 MOSFETs as a constant-current source, is the voltage amplifier for the output section, which is built around a complementary pair of J162 and K1058 MOSFETs. In the right-rear corner of the Croft amp—as far as one can get from those small-signal tubes—is a simple and very cleanly executed analog power supply, with separate rectifiers for tubes and transistors. Apart from a small circuit board containing the bipolar timer and relays for the amp’s warm-up circuitry, the Phono Integrated is hand-wired, point to point, with neatly made solder joins and Bakelite terminal strips.

I will provide a subjective review. The overall sound is clear, lifelike and “tube warm.” As mentioned earlier, the phono stage is outstanding, but it handles digital inputs just fine. My Oppo sounds great through the Croft (CDs, SACDs, DVD-Audio and Tidal Hi Fi). I listen to pretty much every genre, with exception of Classical and EDM. The Croft sounds great with everything I listen to. It has a nice stereo sound stage. Everything is even keeled – not too much bass and not too bright – it is just right. I seek a non-biased reproduction from a stereo and not an opinion. The Croft tells the story straight up (the audio equivalent of neat if you are a whiskey drinker).

Besides the overall sound, my favorite feature is the dual left/right volume knobs. My listening space is a loft, where my right side is a large open space. It is great to have independent channel volume controls to compensate for the room – much better than a balance knob.

I love the no-nonsense look of the face and case of the unit.

I am very satisfied with the Croft. It is a good match with my other equipment. It plays into my listening habits, as it is a vinyl focused unit. With so many options on the market I feel lucky to have found the right amp for my needs and taste. It is a reminder of the importance of a quality retailer and informed salesperson (thanks again Needle Doctor and @cellphono). I am not suggesting the Croft for everyone, but it is the one for me.

Herbie Hancock – Flood (Record Store Day Black Friday 2018)

This album was originally released in the Japanese market in 1975 as a live double LP. It features Hancock’s Headhunters Band performing selections from the Headhunters, Thrust and Man-Child albumsFlood was recorded in Tokyo Japan at Shibuya Kohkaido and Nakano Sun Plaza (concert halls) in the summer of 1975.

The Headhunters band on this album is: Hancock on various keys, Bennie Maupin on various woodwinds, Phil Jackson on Fender bass, Mike Clark on drums, Bill Summers on congas and percussion and Blackbird McKnight on guitar.

Side one opens with “Maiden Voyage” (a Hancock standard) performed by Hancock on solo acoustic piano. As the song comes to a close the full band joins in without a trace of the funk the Headhunters were known for. The band then segues into “Actual Proof” (from Thrust). Although, this is not the post bop sound of the mid-60s, this is not funk fusion either, it is somewhere in between. For example, Phil Jackson is playing his Fender in a style that is closer to a traditional stand up bass than funk.

Side two is what I was expecting when I dropped the needle on side one: full on jazz funk fusion. “Spank-A-Lee” (from Thrust) opens side two and is a great showcase for the band to show off their chops. “Watermelon Man” (a Hancock jazz standard that was reimagined as funk on the Headhunters album) is faithful to the Headhunters’ studio version – just a touch freer.

Side 3 starts with “Butterfly” (from Thrust).  It is a mellow tune that makes you feel like you are floating (I guess like a butterfly). It is a pretty gorgeous ballad. “Chameleon” (from Headhunters) is a full-out jam. Hancock has a great synth solo that makes you feel like you dropped in on a futuristic sci-fi gun fight.

Side 4 ends the album with the side length track “Hang Up Your Hang Ups” (from Man-Child).  It is not a tune I was familiar with.  It is a twenty-minute funk-jazz jam with plenty of room for the soloists to work their stuff, yet each of the musicians does their part to set a funky rhythmic foundation for their peers to strut on.

Overall, the album has a live, but clean sound. The performances are looser than the studio albums that they come from, but they are not sloppy – they are just more free. These are highly skilled jazz musicians who had been playing together for a while – the definition of tight.

Beyond Hancock’s Headhunters album, I am not that familiar with his mid 70s output. This album has perked my interest and I will be digging into this era of the Hancock catalog.

An eye opener on the album is Bennie Maupin’s playing. I had no idea what a great sax player he is. I have obviously heard him before on various Hancock and Miles releases, but he really stands out on this album.

This has turned out to be my favorite release from Record Store Day Black Friday 2018 and a reminder of what a truly great artist Herbie Hancock is.

https://open.spotify.com/album/7JDyMVSNq5If3rOGSvqFsI?si=EhH9S2t9R0CRwS4AJ3TpOA