“The phonograph record is an art form itself,” Lester Koenig wrote in March 1959, “and one of its advantages is the performance that exists uniquely of, by and for the record.” Remarkably, when Koenig included this pronouncement in his liner notes to Sonny Rollins and the Contemporary Leaders, the 12″ long-play record had been the dominant carrier of recorded music for less than a decade, and stereo discs had been mass-produced for just over a year.
For Koenig, this issue wasn’t merely academic. Before making his name as head of Contemporary Records in Los Angeles, he had attended Yale Law School, worked as a screenwriter and producer at Paramount, and gotten blacklisted by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. At Contemporary, he set out to become a leading practitioner of the art of phonography. The label’s smart record jackets often used William Claxton’s now-classic photographs, Robert Guidi’s playful drawings and layouts, and matterful liner notes by Nat Hentoff and Leonard Feather. And in his search for an ideal sound, Koenig procured exotic, state-of-the-recording-art gearNeumann and EKG condenser mikes and Ampex tape recordersand in 1956 hired a young engineer named Roy DuNann away from Capitol Records, where he (DuNann) had worked as an assistant to the brilliant John Palladino. (Years later, Koenig brought on another promising young engineer, Bernie Grundman.)
For many listeners, me included, the records Koenig and DuNann made at Contemporary’s converted-shipping-room studio on LA’s Melrose Place stand as the finest-sounding jazz records ever made.
In their clarity, spaciousness, naturalness, and lack of needless effects, they seem almost Japanese. It’s possible that DuNann’s fame might have eclipsed that of his East Coast colleague, Rudy Van Gelder, if not for the fact that Los Angeles simply couldn’t compete with New York as a home for top jazz talent. As terrific as the sides by Contemporary regulars like Shelly Manne, Hampton Hawes, and Art Pepper often were, they lacked the era-defining significance of the records Van Gelder was cutting with Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Thelonious Monk.
Fundamental to Koenig’s insight about the art of record making was the recognition that LPs weren’t simulacra of reality but an esthetic world unto themselves that differed from live music in important and delicious ways. Working in a studio allowed engineers and producers to create soundscapes that couldn’t exist anywhere elsethe hyper-real experience of hearing Nat King Cole singing from several inches away into an RCA 77 ribbon microphone was available only on a hi-fi. The 44-minute span of the LP’s two sides allowed for extended suites and thematic explorations. Stereo enabled another set of sonic constructschief among them the soundstage and panning. Multitracking added further possibilities. What emerged was a narrative medium that vastly outstripped the creative potential of live performance; it was constructed entirely in the studio and constrained only by the artist’s imagination.
Koenig recognized that recordingoften conceived of as primarily a technical processwas mostly a matter of sensibility and taste. I think the same applies to the other side of the audio equation: Listening to music at home touches on just as many issues of sensibility. Beyond the simple scale of good, better, and best sound, a hi-fi component is a result of thousands of esthetic decisions reflecting its maker’s vision of what the ideal listening experience should be.
Nowhere is this truer than in the neurosis-sowing world of record players and their supporting accouterments. For the past several months, I’ve been listening to two phono stages that reveal the contrasting visions of beauty and fidelity of the individuals who conceived them. Spoiler alert: Both devices are pretty great at making music, though in distinctly different ways, both of which I found difficult to describe relying on the conventional glossary of audio writing.
Tron Electric Convergence Signature Phono Stage
The Tron Electric Convergence Signature is a rather unassuming object assembled in Uxbridge, a suburb of London, by self-described “master craftsman” Graham Tricker (footnote 1). Perusing the copy on his company’s website confirms that Tricker is not a man broken by a lack of confidencethe words “perfection” and “perfect,” referring to his designs, appear with numbing regularity. As my grandmother liked to say, nobody’s going to blow your horn unless you blow it first.
The Signature is a souped-up version of the stock Convergence, Tron’s entry-level phono stage; Tricker told me its name refers to “converging high performance and realistic pricing.” The website further tells us that the Signature, which costs $4000, “has selected components fitted, plus a few other improvements incorporated that Graham found to improve the audio fidelity even further.” What these components and improvements are I wasn’t able to ascertain.
Glimpsed from the outside, the Tron is a rather plain-looking thing about the size and shape of a small shoebox. There’s a power switch on the front and on the back the expected two sets of RCA jacks and a ground lug. On the bottom of the chassis is a switch allowing the ground to be lifted. There are no options for setting loading or anything else. The moving coil version, which I auditioned, has 68dB of gain; versions designed for moving magnet and mono cartridges are available.
Curious about what lay inside this enigmatic box, I unscrewed an army of Torx screws and removed the lid, which revealed a pristinely populated circuit board. On it, two adorable, potted step-up transformers of unspecified origin precede three tubesa pair of 12AX7s and a 12AU7sourced from Russia. Nearby is a pair of unidentified and fancy-looking film capacitors and a well-shielded choke. The layout and workmanship are orderly and surgically neat.
I listened to the Tron using three low-output moving coil cartridgesa Dynavector Te Kaitora Rua, a rebuilt Ortofon SPU Classic G, and a Hana Umami Redand despite the lack of loading options, its personality remained unnervingly constant.
How can I best describe for you the experience of listening to the Tron? Imagine cooking a simple beef chiliground chuck, beans, tomato sauce, onion, chilesand then serving it right away. You’d probably have something tasty but a bit unremarkable. But what if you added to it cocoa powder, cloves, cumin, and red wine? Or maybe you went crazy and replaced the chuck with short rib, and then added ground coffee or porcini powder or even a good Thai fish sauce, and then kept it in the fridge for two days before serving it? Quite possibly, now you’d have a dish with a memorably deep, caramelized, and lingering flavor. If you replace “flavor” with “tone,” you’ll begin getting a sense of the Tron’s sound.
On the title track from On the Beach (Reprise R 2180), the Tron lent Neil Young’s sorrowful electric guitar a thick, chocolaty tone; along with his haunted singing, it came through the speakers with spooky, astonishing presence. The Tron also excelled at chunk, deep color, drive, and drama, and conveyed this album’s desolate-yet-inspired songwriting with all of its emotional charge intact. If you’ve read this column before, you must know that this excited and pleased me, playing directly to my preferences or, speaking less charitably, my prejudices.
Fortunately for the Tron, this burnished, rich sound doesn’t include bloated bass, slow transients, or the other sonically gooey artifacts associated with some vintage-style tube circuits. This British phono stage sounds clear, fast, and articulate, never losing track of the music’s heartbeat. During my time with it, it was admirably quiet and operated with zero disturbances or hiccups.
What I enjoyed even more about the Tron is that it reproduced music with what I can only describe as palpable beauty, lending textures a certain euphony and golden-hour glow. On “I’ve Told Ev’ry Little Star,” an obscure Jerome KernOscar Hammerstein number from a mid-1970s repress of the aforementioned Sonny Rollins and the Contemporary Leaders (Contemporary S 7564), Rollins’s tenor, played at a sprint, somehow managed to sound both agile and maximally dense. “Wow, it sounds like it’s right there,” said Ken Micallef, who was over for a visit. But Barney Kessel’s guitar, panned hard left, may have sounded even more wondrous: it was as colorful as a Matisse canvas and achingly lovely, a testament to Roy DuNann’s artistry and craft.
If you enjoy harmonic richness, saturated tone color, and presence as much as I do, you will likely love the Tron. It has a sound I associate with phono stages that first route the signal through a transformer. SUTs tend to offer this type of tonally rich presentation, which sometimes comes at the expense of fine detail, and the Tron is not totally exempt from this tradeoff.
Footnote 1: Tron Electric. Web: tron-electric.co.uk. US distributor: High Water Sound/Jeffrey Catalano, 274 Water St., New York, NY 10038. Tel: (212) 608-8841. Email: jeffrey@ highwatersound.com. Web: highwatersound.com.
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