Sprout is the brainchild of the young passionate audiophile Scott McGowan, the son of PS Audio CEO Paul McGowan. It is a new stereo integrated amplifier that he designed, partly motivated as a way of bringing into the high-end fold a younger generation of music lovers who for the most part are typically viewed as only listening to music in MP3 format on an iPod, iPhone and with headphones.

Another motivation was to make quality modern audio equipment accessible and simple for the average person (of any age)—and without having to take out a mortgage to do so. In one small box—only 6” W x 8” L x 1.75” H and weighing in at only 2.9 lbs—Sprout contains a remarkable array of well thought out high-quality audiophile goodies.

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Mussorgsky — Pictures At An Exhibition; Schumann — Fantasie Op. 17 [64:43]
Paul Lewis, piano
Harmonia Mundi HMC902096 (2015)

Paul Lewis is the British classical pianist who has been taken to heart by international piano fans. A rare feat for a British pianist. Not since Solomon and Sir Clifford has a Brit been hailed as a ‘giant’. Sure, lots of great ivory bashers, but any geniuses? No.

I’m not suggesting that the thoughtful, über musical Lewis is a genius, but his interpretations of the great Classical repertoire have been resonating with musicians, concert goers and critics. I reviewed his Toronto recital debut some years ago. Schubert Sonatas. Incredible. Not only does he have a very fine technique, but there is so much thought, care and scholarship that make up his interpretations. He creates exquisite sounds, too.

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Recently, my friend and Audiophilia colleague, Karl Sigman reviewed the Mojo Audio Mac Mini server as well as the Joule V power supply. I joined him in the Mojo Audio room during our trip to the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. It was my first meeting with the Mojo’s very enthusiastic owner, Benjamin Zwickel.

We spent a considerable amount of time in the Mojo room discussing Zwickel’s design goals, design philosophy and listening to his very interesting music system. He has some very interesting and quite strong views and opinions concerning digital music reproduction.

Zwickel had been modifying and upgrading power supplies for computer systems for many years before starting Mojo Audio. The current line of Mojo’s power supplies is a direct result of this experience. In addition, Zwickel’s many years spent modifying the power supplies of vintage audio components contributes greatly to the current line of the company’s products.

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The American guitarist Bill Frisell has been a favorite guitarist (and musician and composer) of mine for many years, but something very recent in his repertoire from his newest album ‘Guitar in the Space Age’ (2014) tweaked my imagination and led me to realize something special about him that I had never given any thought to before: His talent for taking a classic American hit (pop/folk/etc.) from the late 1940s, 1950s or 1960s and replacing its vocals/lyrics with his extraordinary jazz improvisational guitar playing. Guitar as vocals. The track in question ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’, with its rich history going back to the legendary folk singer Pete Seeger who, in 1955, used lines from Ecclesiastes as lyrics.

This is not a new idea in general for jazz musicians. Frisell, however, is unique in his way of doing such things for several reasons. He is not trying to be controversial, he does his versions using classic ‘Americana’ as his specialty (mainly taken from acoustic folk/country music), and his guitar-playing style is deceptively simple in the way he strips things to their bare essentials while conveying the emotional content and complexity of the music. Also, he adds a kind, gentle aroma as a unique embellishment. He is also one of the first to use jazz guitar as a solo instrument; analogous to the way that (say) the saxophone evolved. Frisell uses chromatic improvisation and does it uniquely. As such, his playing is easily recognizable.

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We received a SONOS system for review just before Christmas. The review of the three-piece set (Playbar, Sub, and Play 5) continues. Happily, there is a lot of free repertoire and my own library that is helping to evaluate the system, but I’ve been using two paid services, Google Play Music and Tidal, to best complete the review. Both services, and many others, are accessible directly from the SONOS app.

There are many services like Pandora, Spotify, etc, that can be accessed for free, but if you are an audiophile and like classical and jazz repertoire, you will probably prefer a paid service. Rdio and Deezer are two other services I’ve tried, but both Google and Tidal seem to have the strongest lists of the music I enjoy.

The highend is embracing streaming. How can it not? I heard several streamers from quality audiophile companies at last year’s Denver show. I’m expecting to hear a great many more at the upcoming Los Angeles and Vancouver shows. As for the downloading v streaming debate? There’s a reason iTunes is down 13% this year. Let there be no doubt, streaming is the future. The kids have spoken! Remember the CD v LP debate? Cute.

Tidal is the second company to offer lossless playback (Deezer was first).

We have reviews of Tidal and Google Play Music upcoming, with the SONOS review shortly thereafter.

For the streaming uninitiated, there’s a clear description on the BBC website.

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I felt compelled to write a brief addition to this mini review that we posted in 2013. My 23 year old nephew has been bitten hard by the audiophile bug. His budget was set and Christmas money was saved, and he asked for a suggestion to jump into the high end. He loves vinyl. It was an easy choice. With his budget, the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon Turntable immediately came to mind.

Through the kind graces of one of our sponsors, Ian received a good deal on a piano black copy and the very fine Pro-Ject Record Puck.

He’s driving it with a tiny, no name phone stage and through entry level Focal lifestyle speakers. What we heard out of the box was nothing short of remarkable. I cannot emphasize enough that all young people rebuilding the vinyl numbers and shouting its praises should invest in one of these turntables. Very highly recommended. And, I’m adding it to our Star Components list.

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Schumann – The Symphonies [2 SACDs – 133 mins]
Scottish Chamber Orchestra / Ticciati
Linn CKD450 (2014)

As previewed in this column last month, Linn’s recording of the four Schumann symphonies by wunderkind British conductor Robin Ticciati has shared the rapturous reception given his previous work for the label. Just like Beethoven before him, Schumann did not tackle symphonic composition until he had turned thirty. The first attempt flowed quickly; the powerfully emotive, joyful “Spring” Symphony of 1840 was enthusiastically received and a second work quickly followed. This did not go down so well, and eventually saw the light of day over ten years later, heavily revised, as the magnificent 4th Symphony.

Last month, I mentioned how these works have received a fresh lease of life in recent years through their performance by smaller orchestras, which correctly balances the orchestration. Comparing the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln’s recording, another to utilise smaller forces, of the 2nd and 3rd Symphonies under Heinz Holliger (Audite 97.678) with the same works here (using the CD layer of Linn’s SACDs, to maintain parity), left the verdict in little doubt.

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To add to Sony’s ‘Life Space UX’ (its ‘everything connected to your smartphone’ attempt and unveiled at CES), Sony has designed lights (hanging or table) with a built in speaker. Hardly audiophile, but how many times have you sat in a kitchen design store with your significant other nodding in passive agreement over the latest pendant choice? Now, you can suggest one with purity of heart. ‘That one, dear. I love that one’.

Sony uses wireless technology and the glass tube as passive amplification. They are being hush hush about the technology and the price.

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