Just recently, one of my wife’s family friends stopped by to drop off a book. It was a hot day and JB had been roaming the city by public transit, so Marcia and I invited him in for a coffee and a glass of water. JB was carrying a cloth bag containing some LP-shaped objects. I’m a dog person, so I metaphorically sniffed his butt and asked him what was in the bag.
Cloth bag with LPs = record shopping. A reasonable assumption, but this turned out not to be the case. JB, who was visiting Toronto from Chicago, is also known as Emcee Sick, and the bag contained several LPs by Pseudo Slang, the group he fronts. Color me surprised. I recalled hearing mention of JB’s alter ego, but I didn’t know him well enough for that information to have lodged in my sieve-like memory.
Naturally, I invited JB down to my listening room so we could throw one of his LPs onto the VPI and have a listen while we drank our coffees. I started playing Wanderverse (Baby Steps Hip Hop / WeTakeMoney BSHH-012 / WTM-011), not knowing exactly what to expect. For the most part, the whole hip-hop world is an unexplored sinkhole for me, and my daughter’s taste in music has done nothing to lure me further in. I was a touch apprehensive, and part of me was not relishing having to sit through more of what has been emanating from little Toni’s room over the past year.
A couple of months ago, I was flipping through the LPs at Pop Music, my local record store, and I heard Cheat Codes (BMG 538791651) by Danger Mouse and Black Thought playing on the store’s system. The music, a mashup of ’70s soul, clever samples, and relaxed rapping, resonated with me. I bought a copy on a whim, and have played it a number of times at home. It turns out that Cheat Codes has been quite well received, but that isn’t a good barometer for me. Ice Spice’s dreadful music—which my daughter has inflicted upon me—has also garnered a fair bit of critical acclaim, so what the hell do I know?
Anyway, I’ve been quite pleased with my one successful foray into the world of hip-hop, and I was both surprised and relieved when I had the same reaction to Wanderverse. A languid backbeat runs throughout this double album, overlaid with calm jazz samples and clever, alliterative lyrics.
Marcia joined us for the listening session, and the three of us chatted through the entire album. At one point I mentioned that it felt as if a small ensemble was playing there in our basement, just for our benefit. JB seemed quite pleased with this reaction, and he added that this intimate feeling was the vibe that Pseudo Slang was shooting for. He was quite happy to let the music wash over us and contribute to rather than dominate the environment.
In the course of our conversation, I found out that Wanderverse is a collaboration between Pseudo Slang and Pawcut, a prolific beatcrafter, producer, and engineer from Germany. The German thing is relevant here, because Pseudo Slang has been touring internationally for nearly 20 years, and is back at it again, starting this fall, in support of the band’s upcoming double LP, “What the Neighbors -----?”
I asked JB where he gets his records pressed, and my head tilted a bit to one side when he told me that Pseudo Slang uses Sterling Sound, one of the world’s premier pressing plants. Sure enough, the two LPs in my sample were perfectly flat and had zero surface noise. A quick look revealed “STERLING” inscribed in the deadwax of the lead-out groove. Wanderverse isn’t an audiophile album, but that’s not an insult. The album is organic—the backing music is sampled, but it works as an environmental structure built around a lyrical ideal of warmth and community. At least that’s how it feels to me, as a hip-hop newcomer.
I usually unfurl in the morning to music that’s so laid back it’s almost in reverse—Brian Eno’s ambient albums, J.S. Bach’s cello sonatas—but I can slide Wanderverse in there without much disturbance in the Force. Pseudo Slang also works in the afternoon. I just turn up the volume a bit and it fits in great with my second coffee.
You can check out Pseudo Slang on Tidal to see if it’s your cup of tea, but come on—if you like it, you really need to go to Pseudo Slang’s store and pick up a copy for yourself.
Many optical happenings
Given that I’ve been cornering people at parties and poking them in the chest while insisting they buy one, I guess it’s no secret that I’ve been seduced by the sound of DS Audio’s optical cartridges. Just over a year ago, I reviewed the company’s DS 003 cartridge and phono preamplifier system for SoundStage! Hi-Fi, and raved about this combination. I followed up that review with an evaluation of EMM Labs’ DS-EQ1 optical phono preamplifier. It seems Ed Meitner of EMM Labs has preceded me down the optical-cartridge rabbit hole. One of the leading proponents of digital audio—specifically, DSD audio—decided to jump into a time machine and rediscover his LP collection by way of what he considers to be a huge leap forward in vinyl playback.
The DS-EQ1 juiced up the performance of the DS 003 cartridge in ways I did not anticipate. In short order, we published my review of the brand-new Meitner Audio DS-EQ2, a more affordable follow-up to the DS-EQ1 from EMM Labs’ sister company—further proof that both companies are committed to the optical-cartridge ecosystem.
In a Zoom call about the genesis and design of the DS-EQ1 and DS-EQ2, Meitner and his son, Amadeus, made it clear to me that these phono preamplifiers are intended to be core products in the lineups of both companies, and as such they would be subject to continuous development. For those who don’t know, Ed is a bit of a perfectionist and can’t leave well enough alone. He’s continually listening, measuring, and evaluating his products, and is always looking to improve them.
Flash forward to late summer, when Amadeus emailed me that Ed had uncovered areas of improvement for both preamps. These improvements require a board-swap upgrade for the DS-EQ1 and a parts update for the DS-EQ2, and will be available to all current owners of the units. The DS-EQ2 update will be free of charge, save for the cost of shipping the unit to and from the Canadian factory. The DS-EQ1 upgrade price hasn’t been determined yet, but the Meitners indicated that it’ll be very reasonable.
So I boxed up my Meitner Audio DS-EQ2 first and shipped it to Calgary, Alberta. Turnaround time was snappy, and on its return I swapped the updated unit into my system and sent off the EMM Labs DS-EQ1 for its upgrade.
Previously, I had preferred the sound of the balanced DS-EQ1 in my system, but I could clearly hear improvements from the update to the less expensive, single-ended Meitner Audio unit. What walloped me in the head was an increase in space—depth, more specifically—around instruments.
Listening to Dingo (Rhino Records RCV1 26438), by Miles Davis and Michel Legrand, I was smitten—smitten, I tell you—by the way the revised DS-EQ2 added definition to the multiple layers of instrumentation in this set of selections from the movie soundtrack of the same name. What really stood out for me here was Chuck Findley’s repeating theme in “Kimberley Trumpet,” which has so much reverb that it sounds like it was recorded in a tiled bathroom. The DS-EQ2 placed that trumpet perfectly in space, giving it a more solid presence while allowing the reverb to bloom outward, in a sort of psychedelic, fractal froth.
The DS-EQ2’s bottom end also gained solidity and heft. I’ve been circling around the Cowboy Junkies a lot lately, and I can’t seem to shake them. “Hard to Explain,” from Pale Sun, Crescent Moon (RCA 190758647913) used to be my test track of choice for a car subwoofer, back in the day, and I continue to find a use for it when evaluating components in my home system. It’s also a terrific song that continues to enchant me. The combination of Alan Anton’s bass and Peter Timmins’s kick drum can blend and mush together—it takes an exemplary system to differentiate the instruments. Even top-notch gear can work this track in different ways, and the DS-EQ2 stood out—perhaps even better than the pre-upgrade DS-EQ1 did—adding just a tiny bit of extra grunt to the bass, while keeping the sharp initial thump totally distinct.
The upgraded EMM Labs DS-EQ1 has just arrived, but too late for me to get my bearings and include the listening results in this month’s column. I’ll report back later, but given that the circuit board is common to both components, I expect the results will be of similar magnitude.
The availability of version two of the DS-EQ1 and DS-EQ2 preamps will coincide with the release of branded optical cartridges from EMM Labs and Meitner Audio, both of which will be manufactured in cooperation with DS Audio. This could well be the biggest news in this report! I don’t currently have any more information on this right now, but you can be sure I’ll start yelling about it when I do.
Big brother comes to town
Stop the presses! Just in from Japan—the DS Audio DS W3 system, which consists of the DS W3 optical cartridge and matching DS W3 phono preamplifier! This is exciting news—even though I’ve become somewhat jaded to the arrival of new equipment after more than two decades as a SoundStage! reviewer. Oh sure, I still enjoy opening new boxes, no matter what’s inside, but it takes something really special to give me horny pains these days.
Like I said, the DS 003 really did a number on me, and the DS W3 cartridge employs the same dual-LED, dual-photoreceptor architecture. Whereas the DS 003 is fitted with an aluminum cantilever and line-contact stylus, the DS W3 ups the ante with a boron cantilever. Now, the simple swap to a boron cantilever may not seem to be a huge deal, but the extremely low moving mass in the optical “motor” system results in lightning-fast dynamics and retrieval of detail, so I’m expecting that any change to the physical interface with the LP will be notable.
The DS W3 phono preamp is a far more substantial unit than the DS 003. Weighing in at just under 30 pounds, the DS W3 preamp feels dense and extremely well-constructed. According to DS Audio, the DS W3 preamp features a higher-quality circuit board and greatly increased internal capacitance.
The DS W3 system is substantially more expensive than the DS 003 system, so it had better be good, right? While the DS 003 cartridge retails for $2500 (all prices in USD), the DS W3 will set you back $5000. The DS 003 phono preamp retails for $3500, and the price of the DS W3 jumps up to $10,000.
We’ll be publishing a full review of the DS W3 cartridge and phono preamp shortly.
. . . Jason Thorpe