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the Trio Receiver - What Price Rapture?
as reviewed by Chip Stern
Many are the joys of high-end audio. But to this Pilgrim, there is nothing quite as satisfying as being able to share the experience with others.
When friends pop by your crib to dig, for perhaps the first time, an all-singing/all-dancing rig, ain't it satisfying when they so clearly and enthusiastically get it?
Face it, for true believers there is nothing which comes close to matching that unmistakable look of awe which translates into "Oh, my God: I feel like the musicians are right in the room with me" (or conversely, a palpable sense of being in the same acoustic space as the musicians). And why should we be so surprised that true music-lovers might readily apprehend the same aural qualities we so-called audiophiles so revere and cultivate?
However, I would suggest that there is an even greater sense of satisfaction in helping these self-same friends to enjoy a commensurate listening experience in their own home. Ultimately, many of us aspire to be Bodhisattvas of Authentic Audio Resolution.
Alas, "What price rapture?" The Ghost of Audio System Investments Passed Upon whispers glumly, and it is at this point that the daunting realities of space constraints, concerned spouses and real world budgets rear their ugly heads.
Well, maybe not so ugly.
During my tenure as a contributor to Stereophile, I was able to enjoy extended auditions with a wide variety of integrated amps and CD receivers in which the relative merits of the gear was evaluated not merely on the absolute plane, but in relationship to its bang for buck pedigree. Surely this was not gear operating at the very outer limits of resolution and performance parameters; clearly there were practical design considerations and tough choices to be made—so as to deliver significant aspects of high end audio verity at as reasonable a price point as possible. To the degree that these pieces transcended their compromises, maxxed out their potential, and came to represent real high end audio values, were we thus able to recommend them to seekers after truth unprepared to fathom the price of absolute truth.
One thing I learned time and time again, is that bigger isn't always better: that you can never underestimate the influence of the room on the loudspeakers; that more often than not a creative listener can actually make their space constraints work to their advantage with the right combination of speakers and electronics (even if placement of said speakers is less than ideal); and that in terms of making your compromises work for you, it is often stunning how much true high end performance you can squeeze out of a "budget" system—surely reduced in depth of scale, absolute levels of resolution, unlimited dynamic range and ultimate frequency extension, but bespeaking a purity and lack of coloration to the midrange, an honest foundation of bass, smoothly extended highs, believable (if limited) dynamic range, harmonic accuracy, and some semblance of the kind of spine-tingling soundstaging realism that defines the most tweaked out systems.
True, many hard-core fans continue to promulgate the elitist notion that only those with big bucks may enjoy music at such rarefied levels. Does that make me out to be some sort of faux populist who disdains more expensive gear? It most certainly does not. Am I grateful that as an audio professional I have access to such wonderful gear? You bet I do.
So no, I am not posturing against sophisticated, high-ticket audio, be it authentically cutting edge or of some borderline flavor-of-the-month vintage, but if my priority is to share the experience with others, to spread the good word about high end audio to outside our little congregation, than it is vitally important to recognize that $3000 for an entire system—let alone per component—is unimaginably out of reach to most carbon-based life-forms.
Which begs the question: can Johnny find happiness at roughly $300 a component and might those qualities we experience in the high priced spread be readily discernible in less amply endowed gear?
You'd be surprised.
What if I told you that I had just spent several months with a splendid piece of budget gear, offering a damn near historic level of bang for buck, capable of driving a wide range of real world speakers with grace and refinement, and costing out at $1199.95?
All The Damn Gear I Want Or Need
Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to present the Music Hall Trio, a CD/Receiver combo offering an unprecedented degree of high end performance at roughly $300 a component—that is to say, a compact, ergonomically elegant, lovingly engineered, audiophile quality combo comprised of a CD player, AM-FM tuner, preamp and power amp. And does it ever kick ass—we kid you not.
Okay, reviewers are traditionally given to flights of fancy, even hyperbole, and I am no exception. But then, we enjoy the privilege of extended conjugal visits with a wide variety of gear, and by God, when we can wax enthusiastic, we have a tendency to bring the heart and place it upon our sleeve—I am no exception.
But Chip, a component of damn near historic significance? Isn't that a touch over the top? Perhaps if you actually had a chance to audition the Music hall Trio?
Because having had the experience of auditioning such superb integrated amps as the Manley Stingray, the VTL IT-85, the Mesa Tigris and the E.A.R. V20 (let alone the Magnum Dynalab MD 208 receiver), let me tell you—the Music Hall Trio compares favorably to any of these fine pieces—more than favorably, truth be told.
Now before we go much further, let me clarify that point: the aforementioned units represent a more elevated plateau of price point/performance, and most cognitive humanoids, left to their own devices, if cost were no object, would tend to gravitate towards the more powerful Magnum MD 208 receiver ($2975 back in 2001), with its gloriously sophisticated tuner section, or the enticing vacuum tube signature of the aforementioned integrated amps, which range in price from $2250 for the original Manley Stingray ($2750 for the Stingray II), $2500 for the VTL IT-85 ($3250 for the latest iteration) and the Mesa Tigris, to $7895 for the E.A.R. V20.
But cost most certainly is an object or you wouldn't even be reading this review?
And while you might surely find things that these other pieces could do with more panache, I think it is fair to say that for others, the combined features and musical performance of the Music Hall Trio would prove thoroughly enticing irrespective of its price point—and hell, given the price differential, while weighing in such factors as room dimensions and one's ultimate ambitions regarding loudspeakers, the Music Hall Trio would prove plenty good enough thank you, and prospective consumers might readily choose to pocket the difference—THE BETTER TO SPEND ON ACTUAL MUSIC.
Again, don't read between the lines. Are we saying the Trio is objectively superior to the Magnum MD-208? Hell, no. Are we saying that in a bake-off, you wouldn't be able to discern palpable differences? Nope. Are we suggesting that the differences are not so dramatic as to justify spending another two grand based on limited space or budget constraints?
What we are saying is that the Music Hall Trio is targeted at those consumers who love music but not clutter, who are unable or unwilling to dedicate an entire room to their audio rig (given that for many city dwellers in Europe and the States, a single room is all one has) and that since this CD receiver sounds pretty bloody good by any objective determination, many potential buyers might just conclude that this is all the damn gear i want or need. And that having settled on an agreeable set of modestly apportioned speakers, one may proceed confidently with the knowledge that should you decide to move up in class, speaker-wise, the Trio's ample reserves of power will readily accommodate them—bringing the experience of music vividly alive without further complicating your already stressful existence.
Jeez ...Heavy Little Bastard!
Straight away the Music Hall Trio exudes authority, based on the most mundane of tire-kicking tests—it's sheer mass. When I initially lifted this sucker from its shipping box, the first thing that occurred to me was "Jeez, heavy little bastard, isn't she?"
Suggesting as it does dear reader a pertinent rejoinder: "So fucking what," to which, humbled before my Maker, I can only whimper, "Point taken," but bear with me if you will.
Two other pieces I reviewed back in the day for Stereophile are likely more germane reference points for comparison with the Music Hall Trio than the aforementioned gear: the since discontinued NAD L40 and the popular Linn Classik, both exceptionally enjoyable CD receivers, and both pieces of gear I evinced enormous enthusiasm for in the review process: the former a decidedly budget-driven package, the latter an exceptionally sophisticated piece of engineering about which I have often looked back with great musical affection.
The NAD L40 originally retailed for $599, and could be purchased in a one-box package with a pair of PSB Alpha Mini-Monitors and a set of Phoenix Gold Speaker Cable for $799—oh happy days! For many months it lay astride my computer table, as group upon group of high end audio supplicants fell by my crib like Three Wise Men from the East, bearing gifts for this geek, while celebrating the many attributes of their own gear in a splendid dog and pony show.
Often times, when we were changing up components, going back and forth for comparison's sake, I'd switch on the NAD L40 just to keep some music going, and inevitably after a short respite in the chin music, someone would be heard to exclaim, "Damn, that sounds really good!" They didn't equivocate along the lines of, "Hey, if I had only one life to live, I would live it as a blonde," nor "...if I lacked both the requisite taste and class to appreciate good audio and the funds to afford it, I might find myself inexorably drawn to this cheap and tawdry experience like some lonely sailor on shore leave in Hamburg."
No, pilgrims, they reacted emotionally to the experience of a piece of gear that translated the experience of music on a visceral emotional level and made you a part of the event—which is the whole point of quality audio.
A visceral emotional level, indeed, albeit on a far smaller scale—yet all the qualities we cherish in quality audio were easily discernible to industry professionals. The L-40 had such nice resolution, and such an ease of presentation with the PSB Alpha-Mini's (even more so when I added a PSB Subsonic 5 subwoofer to do the heavy lifting), that I was inspired to try driving my reference loudspeaker of that time, the Joseph RM7si, an excellent mini-monitor with significantly more bandwidth, frequency extension, depth of resolution and dynamic range than the Alpha Mini's (you get what you pay for folks ...apples and oranges ...$200 MSRP versus $1795 at that time).
Well, imagine my surprise when I experienced that lovely sound the L-40 elicited from the Josephs. Spiritually transported, and a little giddy from psychotropics, inevitably I discovered the truth about the little sheep beneath the wolf's clothing as I drove the speakers to higher and higher volume levels; at some point out beyond midnight without a net, I heard what sounded like the gargled cry of a colicky infant, which was in fact the L-40's diminutively proportioned power supply crying for its mama.
The moral of this story? That the L-40 unit, with its clearly resolved (if dimensionally unspectacular) digital front end, when driven within its nominal limits and paired with an appropriately friendly speaker load, was a capable performer—but that in the process of configuring this CD receiver, balancing performance parameters and features against a targeted price point, a modestly configured power supply emerged as the most practical place to derive cost-savings.
By contrast, it was quite evident to this listener on my first dip into the sonic pool that the Music Hall's beefy little power supply had a great deal to do with the dynamic authority the Trio so easily exudes.
Roy Hall accepts that compliment much as he does most such genuflections from dealers, consumers, reviewers and sundry invertebrates: with a wink and a nod and a grain of salt, like the sly, droll rascal that he is. It ain't rocket science—it's audio, and he neither sees nor acknowledges the necessity to make it any more complex (nor expensive) than it needs be.
"You guys have got this whole vocabulary and enthusiasm you employ, because it is very hard to describe sound," Roy allows, as I take repeated runs at his cerebral cortex in a largely futile effort to bait him into detailing the technical aspects and design considerations which led to the final iteration of the Music Hall Trio—but that ain't his style, Roy being more of a results-oriented fellow. "Sound is such a nebulous thing: we experience music so differently, and it is so very challenging to convey that in words because you are trying to describe a visceral experience, which is why I wouldn't want to be a reviewer—that's a pretty hard job, and I wouldn't want to take it on myself, save to review my own stuff, because all I would say is how bloody good it sounds and how you should buy it."
"It's depressing for many consumers to consider the zillion dollar prices and the sheer size of so much high end gear when their budgets are finite and they have to address such daunting space constraints," Hall elaborates. "I mean, those are the customers we targeted with the Trio."
And were you actively involved with the Chinese in its actual design, I wondered aloud?
"Only in that I commissioned it: ‘This is what I want, these are the components I want you to use, and this is the price we want to bring it in at.' I've worked successfully on a number of products with their engineers and based on our experience with the company I told them what we were looking for and what type of amplifier to use ...etcetera.
"Music Hall is my own imprint and everything else I market is a distribution deal. So again, I commission the different models, but I don't actually design them. And while the Trio is not a Mike Creek design—who is a brilliant designer—it's really not rocket science once you engage a competent designer. So we get samples along the way and decide in the end which is the best one, and once we've got it working right, we voice them: we listen to various versions, and tweak it, a few resistors and few capacitors here and there, and when we think it sounds good enough for us—which means good enough for me—that's it."
Good enough translating into an exceptionally resolved CD section, a solid AM-FM tuner, a warmly nuanced pre-amp and an exceptionally gutsy amp section, and while that averages out to $300 a component, there is way more value than that in this unit, which boasts a fine power supply and torroidal transformer (and a host of sexy features you can peruse on the Music Hall web site). Roy Hall, no blushing bride, is happy to concur.
"There were quality products that preceded the Trio on the market by the likes of Arcam and Linn. And basically, I thought there existed a genuine niche for this product, and so the challenge was how could I do it as good or better than everyone else's and bring it in at a much more affordable price," Hall concludes, adding proudly that "it's got a lot of balls. It puts out 50 watts, but that represents quite high ampage ...we wanted it to handle anything between 4 and 8 ohms and we were very pleased in our critical listening tests to hear that the sound has some weight to it."
Which I discovered straightaway when in one of my first experiences of the Trio I paired it in my main listening room with the Dynaudio Confidence C1 Mini-Monitors, a 4 ohm speaker, and a fairly demanding load (did I mention that with a premium finish and its premium integral stands its MSRP is $7000?). I was frankly shocked at how much drive the Trio conferred on these no-compromise speakers, and it energized the room to a more than respectable level, thank you very much, with excellent detail and resolution from the CD section. On the flip side, while there was nothing veiled or strained about the sound—good texture and drive, very good imaging in the lateral domain—just as obviously an experienced listener could clearly hear what the Trio did not deliver in midrange texture and dynamic headroom and sheer oomph compared to a $4500 per pair of 150-watt Rogue M-150 monoblocks or in dimensionality and depth of field when compared to a $4000 McCormack UDP-1 Deluxe universal player
"Well, off course not," Roy chimes in, "but what it proves is the old law of diminishing returns, which is that it is not all that hard to make something fairly decent at a reasonable price. But throwing money at it doesn't necessarily make it better with each successive increment, with a few notable exceptions, because some people are really just brilliant."
I went on to relate to Roy, and oft-told story of how I met a young man at the last Stereophile Hi-Fi/Home Theater Expo in New York, who was so earnestly enthusiastic about all of the high tech gear he was hearing, and I was very touched by our conversation. Would he have liked an extended conjugal visit with a VTL Siegfried, let alone one of those superb Creek integrated amp's Roy imports? You bet he would. But either would've been light years beyond his means, and what some of us oh so cool audiophiles might deign to acknowledge as an acceptable bedroom system, would to this young brother be akin to audio nirvana. I thus enthused to him about my experience of the Trio in the Music Hall demo room, figuring the list price would make him genuflect. Instead he breathed deeply, and sighed: ‘Gee, that's three weeks take home pay.'"
Roy chuckled, a very been there done that kind of laugh. "You could basically sympathize with that moment, huh?"
"Yet on the other hand," I added, "while many folks wouldn't break a sweat plunking down heavy coin on a plasma TV, you have to pile on one hell of a lot of value to get their attention for straight audio gear, and even then, while $1199 sounds reasonable to those of us in the congregation, talk to someone outside of the audiophile church and tell them $1199, and they'll shoot you a look as if you and Bullwinkle had just been airlifted in from Frostbite Falls, Minnesota. How do you get them to invest in something significantly better than department store gear? With demonstrably better gear, if you can get them to listen, they'll come to realize how they can grow a system, and eventually move up to better and better speakers with a real high end piece like the Trio."
"I get on quite well with the engineer I employ, and he knows what I like after eight years of working together," Roy explains, "so it's just an evolution really of our existing products from our CD25.2 and our A25.2M; it's a derivative of them, not a major redesign—more like a trickle down from technology we were already familiar with. It cost a bit to initially develop, because they basically had to completely redesign existing circuits and figure out how they were going to put it all in one box. And that's a lot of money and a lot of work. Things like the torroidal transformer and what not were not a problem—they use good transistors and have big enough extrusions for the heat sink...they are really quite savvy about all of that.
"I had an interesting experience some years ago in China, around the time I started designing my own stuff even as I was selling Creek, and I brought Mike Creek along because he was toying with the idea of having some of his stuff built there, and I told him that we were going to have this meeting, and we're going to be talking about some new product, and I don't mind if you sit in, but you are not going to be happy with what I'm doing. So I came with my wish list, and this is what I want, and these are the kind of components I would like to make. And at the end of it, they had made notes, and noted the prices I wanted to work towards, and we'll make some prototypes.
"Okay, so the meeting is over, and I'm all alone with Mike Creek, and he looked at me and said ‘You can't design electronic equipment like that!' So he goes into his briefcase and pulls out these beautiful CAD/CAM drawings of circuits and what not—the man is a real professional's professional—and this is how you do it. And I told him, ‘Mike, you know something, this is the way you design an amplifier, but the way I design an amp is to show up with a wish list. And I'll tell you something right now, Mike, you have a design for an amp, and I am sure it is fabulous, but I know how you work and it'll take you at least two years to get this product on the market. Whereas we'll be sampling this in four weeks and we'll be shipping it in three months.'
"And that's the difference. And he was very angry, and he was right: he's an engineer and he wants it done to the highest standards, and he spends ages designing these things and figuring out what works. I don't have that ability nor do I have that luxury—I'm a marketing man. But I do know when we have the real product—I'm not daft, after all. I love the experience of music, and I listen to it all very carefully, so it's not like I have the attitude that ‘okay, this is fine, it's got these specs—it works so it must be good.' I listen to it in a very critical manner, and if I don't like the way it sounds, we don't put it out."
Space Is Your Place
I initially gave the Trio the complete run of all available speakers in my main reference room, before transferring it to it my wife's study and music rooms for more real-world applications.
Final touch-down was in my office/computer room (just adjacent to my reference music room), which doubles as a performance/recording space for my band, Chip Stern's Tributaries. Due to a surfeit of drums, cymbals, keyboards and musical instrument amps, the only available place to set up the Trio and a set of stand-mounted speakers was atop a Peavey keyboard amp, flush against the wall, behind the Korg Triton Studio 88 keyboard (when working on my computer, my back is to the Trio and the loudspeakers, but if I slide my Aeron Chair over a couple of feet, and spin around, I am happily ensconced in a genuine sweet spot).
Not surprisingly it drove the $399-list Epos ELS-3 Mini-Monitors (Absolute Sound's 2003-2004 Budget Component of the Year), the popular and dynamic $599 Alon Li'l Rascal MKII and from the defunct Meadowlark, the $899 Swallows (a bookshelf version of their acclaimed floor-standing Swift) with ease and conviction. But it also drove the Joseph RM7si MKII and RM25siMKII without breaking a sweat, and I was surprised at how effortlessly it drove the Dynaudio Confidence C1 without any lack of dynamic conviction.
Now obviously, at higher price points, with their greater resolution, more dynamic, revealing loudspeakers would naturally reward a greater investment in separates, say integrated amps and CD players roughly in the $1000-$2000 price range. Hell, that's just common sense. But now you are in the market for a sound system going for roughly $3000-to-$5000, and that's stepping way up in weight class for most folks.
However, after a lengthy audition process, I can honestly conclude that when teamed with loudspeakers commensurate with the Epos, Alon, or Meadowlark mini-monitors, listeners would be sitting in tall cotton for roughly $1600-$2100, and that as they say is a horse of a different fire department.
Am I equivocating or back-tracking on my initial assertion that at its $1199 price point, the Trio represents a historic level of value? Nope. I maintain that the Trio delivers an authentic high end audio experience for people unable or unwilling to commit to more expensive or complex systems.
And was I satisfied that if a consumer decided at some point in the foreseeable future to upgrade to a floor-standing loudspeaker, say something along the lines of a multi-driver Polk or Paradigm or PSB or Epos for up to or around $2000, the Trio would hold up its end of the bargain?
Again, I can answer in the affirmative. (At least until you can parlay your first-born into a Creek 5350 Integrated Amp and a Njoe Tjoeb 4000 CD Player.)
And if per chance you were lucky enough to reach a nexus in your life, wherein a set of Dynaudio Confidence C1 loudspeakers like those which anchor my reference system suddenly manifested themselves, yes, the Trio would hold the fort, although the C1 is so revealing it would naturally show up the relative shortcomings of the Trio compared to more sophisticated separates, but hell, if you are in a position to contemplate a set of $7000 mini-monitors, mazel tov, and oh by the way, son ...you're going to need more amplifier and a more sophisticated digital front end.
Anyway, off to my wife's study, where as you can tell from the pictures, an audio system was best heard and not seen, and so the diminutive Epos ELS-3 were mustered into duty all by their lonesome atop a Salamander-extension (meant to extend a 5-shelf rack into a 7-shelf rack), adjacent to my wife's TV (on its own 3-shelf Salamander TV rack).
Space is the place, and herein space was surely at a premium.
And so how did it sound, in the near field adjacent to my wife's capacious easy chair? Glorious. What the ELS-3 clearly lack in sheer muscle mass (laws of physics you know, this is a tiny speaker and it only moves so much air), they more than make up for with an amazingly nuanced depiction of the critical upper bass-lower midrange transition, wonderfully textured and detailed, open and linear. Dynamic contrasts were surprisingly believable, all the more so when allowing reflective surfaces to aid and abet the sound, as we did, tantalizingly close to the rear walls. These little angels really get the midrange right, perhaps voiced with a bit of happy gas to juice up that upper bass-lower midrange transition, but nothing hot-rodded or phony, just a touch of emphasis and presence, which leaves the pristine midrange unsullied by untoward colorations. Of course, despite the Trio's considerable dynamic headroom, if you push the Epos too hard, they'll run out of gas.
As my wife is an accomplished pianist and teacher, solo piano recordings were often the order of the day, the Trio's impeccable resolution and reserves of power making the listening experience especially vivid and involving. I fondly recall an RCA Red Seal Living Stereo recording of Arthur Rubinstein doing Beethoven Piano Sonatas (from 1962-63). This entire series of hybrid SACDs is a sensational representation of early two and three-microphone stereo recordings at their finest, and the Epos ELS-3/Trio combo was more than up to the challenge (with some help from the modestly priced but abundantly endowed $199 JPS Labs GPA-2 AC Cord and $299/eight foot lengths of Ultraconductor 2 speaker cable). The Epos ELS-3/Trio combo produced a warmly ingratiating sound, as the Trio's CD player fleshed out many of those inner details that scream "room sound" and "acoustic space" while the amp and pre-amp seemingly conveyed the dynamic power and nuance of the master pianist's touch and his full range of articulations. Of course the sheer physical presence of the piano was reduced in scale, but such are the tradeoffs at this end of the price scale.
Moving on to my preferred demo disc of this millennia, the trio of Bill Frisell-Ron Carter-Paul Motian (Nonesuch), I found that the timing and timbre of the presentation were dead on, and what the speakers lacked in sheer low end energy, the Trio more than compensated for in transient snap, harmonic integrity and its retrieval of spatial information, and the Epos really portrayed the organic interplay of sounds with great integrity. So no, Ron Carter didn't come thundering out of the soundstage to give my wife a lap dance, but the bass was richly textured, accurately imaged and robustly full-bodied even if it didn't fuse her fourth and fifth lumbar. But in the near field we experienced it at believable volume levels and really lacked for naught but an irrefutable physical presence—still we were afforded a true window into the midrange with ample ambient resources and low level cues for $1600. And at $2100 with the JPS AC cord and Speaker Cables you are living large, be it the bedroom or the boardroom.
Back at last to my office-performance space where the esteemed Linn Classik used to hold forth and son-of-a bitch if I don't like the Trio better for half the price.
First off the sound is just more open, dynamic and expansive than the Linn; sweeter and more sparkling, with a fuller, punchier, more swinging bass. Having said that, those who fancy the Linn might find the Trio a tad on the bright side? The flip side of that, as per my recollections, is that others might experience the Classik as more refined...a smoother, drier, more laid back presentation. I usually found myself tweaking with the Linn's treble and bass controls (usually lowering the bass to -1 and raising the treble to +2), which reflects I suppose the kind of balance I was trying to dial in, which the Trio does for me straightaway...a more focused punch with greater sparkle.
Secondly, while sitting here listening to Frisell-Carter-Motian yet again on the Appalachian mountain tune "Pretty Polly," I'm impressed anew by the incredible detail, resolution and spacious three-dimensional presentation the digital front end is delivering, and the exceptional dynamic synergy the Trio's amp offers, lifting a pair of Meadowlark Swallows to heretofore unimagined heights—I am swimming in sound.
Having said that, I believe that many readers dealing with a similar room configuration would be more attracted to the low-end balance and authority of a speaker analogous to the less costly Alon Li'l Rascals in and in many ways it is the perfect speaker for this rig, with excellent clarity, detail and physical immediacy, surely more belly than the Swallows. Likewise, they are voiced more from the bottom up, the bass being forward and palpable, while the Swallows are voiced from the midrange on out...for a more laid back balance. It's a matter of taste.
For an extra three hundred bucks a higher resolution speaker like the Swallows offered me the best aspects of both the ELS-3 and the Li'l Rascals. For the money, in this case, you get a more sophisticated, robustly apportioned enclosure, with solid ash baffles in a first order, time and phase aligned, transmission line/front ported configuration. Designer Pat McGinty (whose original two-way Kestrel design, as initially retailed for a thousand bucks, would qualify as an honoree in any TOP 25 Greatest Audio Bargains of All Time you care to draw up) was a stickler for maintaining the veracity of the wave form, and the three-dimensionality and tonal balance I am achieving at this moment is really rather stunning. Reminds me why I was always such a big fan of Meadowlark Loudspeakers in their original and final iterations, and why I bought a set of Kestrels for my daughter when she first moved to San Diego.
But Chip, could you live with this as your main system?
Man, I AM LIVING WITH THIS SYSTEM, and I am IN THE MUSICAL MOMENT, fully engaged and involved, and lacking for naught but fading memories of that bad boy rig in my adjoining room.
Anyway, I suppose the superb synergy of the Swallows and the Trio adds to my reverie as I listen deeper into the morning, it occurs to me that Swallow's bass balance is considerably more laid back than my daughter's Kestrels, but with the right amp, source, and some judicious tweaks of your gastrointestinals and neurologicals, they are capable of stunning resolution, soundstaging, and bass articulation ...and their three-dimensional veracity in tandem with the Trio is certainly a revelation.
For my final burst to the finish line, I tossed a full range of rock, jazz, and classical piano selections at the Trio, and even given my positive experiences over many, many, many months, I was a tad shocked at how good the sound was.
Okay, first up was the Rolling Stones' Remastered, an ABKCO compilation which trumpeted the release of their catalog on Hybrid SACDs some years back, chronicling the band's evolution from their earliest hits and mixes to the time of "Jumping Jack Flash," "Wild Horses" and "Honky Tonk Woman." What was especially interesting about this audition was how radically experimental and musically complex the technically cruder yet very painterly early mixes were, and how revealing the Trio/Swallow combo was. And did we want for impact and a visceral connection? While surely not on the order of an Audio Research/Vandersteen 5A slam dance, the answer is no ...we did not. Bill Wyman's bass and Charlie Watts' drums were a particular source of fascination to me as the capture rate of these rhythm instrument evolved cut by cut, to the point where by the late ‘60s the band's sound had coalesced into a more stripped down, dynamically impactful whole, Bill and Charlie far more forward and palpable in the mix. I was exceptionally moved by how much detail the Swallow/Trio combo brought to the fore, and the low end articulation was more than acceptable. Need more slam...son, you want more speaker.
Which inspired me at one point to sit down behind my own drum set and play along, and at that point it occurred to me that I'd never quiet gotten the right volume, presence and tonal balance to play along at such an equal footing with the Linn driving the same speakers. The Trio is way more muscular and the digital sound more fleshed out by my lights.
Then I had a thought. I put on some CDs I had burnt of tracks recorded in this very room with my band (an ongoing keyboards-guitar-bass-drums workshop I've dubbed Chip Stern's Tributaries). What better test of an audio system's ability to deliver the live music experience, than with some live music, eh? Especially live music where I know what it sounded like from behind the drums, and what it sounded like from the front of the room where a stereo pair of Shure SM57s microphones were positioned.
Now here's the real deal: my bassist Perkin Barnes has been the proprietor and chief engineer of his own 6/8 Recording Studios at the corner of Broadway and Houston Streets in Manhattan for the past 25 years. I was originally employing Marantz PMD 430 and a Sony Walkman Pro (cassette recorders, the latest thing, don't you know) to document our rehearsals and improvisations. But when they both went belly up, Perkin brought by a copy of Digidesign's Pro Tools he had loaded into his Mac laptop, along with another amazing piece of Digidesign gear, the M-Box 2 Pro HD Recording System, which is basically a compact mixing board and microphone preamp. We upped the ante by plugging the Mac and the M-Box into an Equi=Tech 1.5 Q (connected to a dedicated 20 amp wall line with a JPS Labs Aluminata AC Cord). Finally we connected the stereo pair of Shure SM57s to the M-Box with a pair of special JPS Labs Superconductor Q balanced microphone cables, which conferred a remarkable degree of resolution throughout the signal chain (just ask Perkin... his eyes were bugging out).
Well, having spent a considerable amount of time listening to recordings the Tributaries made in this manner on my main system, I was expecting a pretty dramatic drop-off in resolution on the more humble Swallow/Trio rig, but I was brought back hard to one of the most basic tenets of high end audio: that your rig is only as good as its weakest link, and in this case there was no weak link. The Trio's CD player reproduced most of the sonic details and low level cues which distinguished the original event, and as I listened to a recording of my room in my room, I was transported into the heart of the creative moment. Realistically speaking, while the immense expansiveness and impact of the live event was surely reduced compared with a playback on my main rig, the basic principles which distinguish an authentic high end audio system—a true to life uncolored midrange; a believable dynamic range; image detail, specificity and illumination; ambient information retrieval; linearity, tonal accuracy and a natural sense of space, depth and transparency—were all there, surely reduced (as I've pointed out a thousand and one times) in scale but not in its organic coherence.
A Blessed Conclusion
Well, it occurs to me that I've flogged this horse to death. By now I reckon I've conveyed my enthusiasm for the Music Hall Trio in triplicate, pausing only now and again to reload. Listening at the very end of this process to a digital re-mastering of the great pianist Martha Argerich's analog recordings of Chopin's 26 Preludes on Deutsche Grammophon, I was struck by how naturally this simple system reproduced all the layers of nuance and complexity in this music; how a single note rang out with bell-like focus, as waves of chords sang away underneath, like a solo voice stepping out from the chorus, and I referenced a memory of how in my humble car system, these layers had less absolute distinction and articulation—much as they would tend to bleed together in a morass of colorations on a more mid-fidelity rig of department store pedigree.
Which is why I suppose I've reacted with such pique in this review to some of the damned with faint praise evaluations of the Music Hall Trio I've read elsewhere, by audio scribes whom I respect, who seemingly could not be bothered to take the time to treat this humble little CD Receiver seriously enough to afford it extended auditions under a variety of real world conditions.
Well, one man's bedroom system, is another's portal to the outer galaxies, and considering how many average folks recoil as if smacked in the puss with a Halibut when I enthuse to them about the Trio, it is worth noting that twelve hundred bucks is nothing to sneeze at. So why do audiophiles insist on conveying the impression that you simply cannot get on the high end playing field unless you are willing to spend a hell of a lot more money and dedicate an entire room to your rig, and that then, and only then, are you swimming in the deep end of the pool? And that if you can't pay the tariff, you will never truly appreciate the depth of detail and resolution as I can, darling.
So does the Music Hall Trio represent a compromise... of course it does. But that is not the pertinent question. What matters is does it deliver an authentic semblance of the true audiophile experience...that is to say, live music, with dynamic immediacy, sonic realism and a graceful touch? It does indeed, and then some.
Look, my FM reception sucks up here in Washington Heights, but I got solid FM reception in my wife's room, and the sound was more than adequate for some jazz and classical recitals we shared. As for the quality of the preamp, amp, and CD sections, there I have a lot more experience and can better trust my ears. And I have rarely found myself wanting for anything with the Trio.
Realistically speaking, as you step up to more resolved, full-range loudspeakers, you would naturally be able to discern greater subtlety and nuance in every aspect of the signal chain. I would suggest that in my experience, depending on how hard you intend to push your system and the size of your room, speakers on the mellow side of the spectrum are probably a more felicitous match for the Trio. At Vlad the Impaler volume levels, while I didn't drive the Acoustic Zen Adagios or the Joseph RM25 into clipping, on the brighter sounding Josephs there were certain recordings where I discerned a degree of glare which caused me to back off on the volume, while on the Adagios, those babies just ate up all that good Trio juice ...in a word, synergy. And while stepping up to more sophisticated solid-state integrated amps will net you a palpable bump in bass, depth of field, and high frequency subtlety, the bass on the Trio is quite respectable, the mids are true, the highs brilliant without being overtly fatiguing—but what really impressed me was the top to bottom balance. Not ideal, but subjectively neutral after a fashion, spacious in the lateral domain (less miraculous from front to back) and pretty damn musical.
Loudspeakers most appropriate for the Music Hall Trio represent a different price range and philosophy of sound...they too are compromised in many ways, from the drivers to the enclosures, and much as audio mavens strive to make their compromises work for them, so too do audio designers. In many cases the less expensive components are "voiced" to reflect a musical point of view, not necessarily to depict the last word in absolute resolution—which doesn't mean that this level of perfection does not inform their design criteria.
Let's put it this way...anyone can make an impressive audio component if they are conscious of the fundamentals and COST IS NO OBJECT.
But to bring that level of purity and authority down to the price point of the Music Hall Trio is no mean feat, and not simply because labor is cheaper in China, but because there is an art to making your compromises work for you, where the sum is greater than the parts, and the end results represent an ideal vision of music in a very un-ideal world. In that sense, what the Trio delivers for $1195 is damn near historic in terms of high-end audio verity, and in that sense, take it from someone who cut his teeth on a KLH/Dual combo system in college—and loved every minute of it—the level of true audiophile sound the Music Hall Trio CD Receiver delivers is simply irresistible at this price point. Chip Stern
Music Hall Trio Reciever
Music Hall Audio