More conventional perhaps is Herbie Hancock’s The New Standard, now a ten year old disc that is one of those recordings that walks that fine line between sounding excellent on good systems and abysmal on bad ones. Piano has always been one of the most difficult instruments to record and reproduce (particularly digitally) and great examples are rare. But the Mikado always treats music with a delicate and deft touch. It has speed and strength in good measure but couple that with these attributes and it brings a real feeling of progression and rhythmic momentum. I have seldom heard The New Standard sound better or more joyous. Where my Naim CD 555 offers a serious and darkly shaded, intense view, the Mikado’s offers a somewhat lighter approach by the musicians. Where most systems fall down on this disc is that they cannot resolve the density of the instrumentation, lacking the tonality and fine shadings of colour and character necessary. This is exactly why the Gryphon excels as its superb separation, tonality and speed, coupled with its beautifully light touch really bring the playing to a peak and let you concentrate on all those things that set fantastic musicians apart. The phrasing of Hancock and his unique left hand chord technique which is so often a mere suggestion of where the harmonic direction might lie, is brought to life and so easy to follow. You begin to understand that nothing on this album is quite as straightforward as you thought as he leaves the occasional brick out of the rhythmic wall altogether. Add to the mix the truly astonishing drumming of Jack DeJohnette and the way he uses his cymbals to illuminate the melody and the path ahead, and on the right system this becomes an involving and eye-opening experience. It is not one of the great recordings that are so often used to demonstrate hi-fi systems but it’s great music nevertheless, music that might have been made for the Mikado’s strengths.
There are very few downsides. There is, even after several months of intense use, a slight sheen that lays like a gloss varnish over the music. It does not really bother me, but I am aware that it is there. In the same way, I know that the tonal balance is slightly bright and that the presentation is always going to be a little on the forward and brash side. In comparison with my Naim CD 555, which is more than double the price, it can also sound a little rushed, when dealing with highly complex musical passages. The Naim is more relaxed and has a blacker and more tranquil background to operate from. But theses are minor caveats and the sort of remarks that can be made of all but the very best players around – and they cost a lot more than the Mikado.
But let’s not forget that music through a fine system should often have an element of fun to it. The Mikado does not disappoint here either. It possesses a really fruity bass that is tight and full of impact. It never fades away as the frequency drops but remains impressively taut and in focus. Add to this its undoubted speed and you begin to understand what sort of system the Mikado requires. Coupling it with the Gryphon Diablo, a powerhouse integrated amplifier, makes a system with dramatic transient abilities that is full of impact and plain oldfashioned grip.
Trio Of Doom is a very interesting disc from the late, but very great bass-player, Jaco Pastorius, drummer Tony Williams, who died in 1997 and John McLaughlin. This is a commemoration and a snapshot of a trio that existed once upon a time and just for the duration of this disc. It was recorded in 1979 at the Havana Jazz Festival and only recently released. There is plenty of tape hiss and the recording itself endures completely unpolished and this is a good thing. The opening salvos are fired by Williams on a track named Drum Improvisation. Normally a title like that would have me moving swiftly on to track two but with the Mikado in place and the volume control advanced beyond what would normally be considered a sensible level, it has a quality that you very seldom hear from recorded drums these days. The sheer visceral nature of the stick striking the skin, the tautness and resistance of the skin itself and the incredible presence and transient impact place enormous strain on any system. Add to this the tuning of the tom-toms and the murderous high frequency impact from the cymbals and I guarantee you that dealing with this sort of energy would have most systems running for the hills. They couldn’t live with it and you couldn’t listen to it. With the Mikado running through the Lyra Connoisseur 4.2L SE and a pair of the exquisite Ayre MXR mono amplifiers the sound is intimidating and exciting, but never unpleasant. I suppose you could call the whole album a system- killer as it is so raw and uncompressed but, given the Mikado’s innate talent for dealing with the transient and the MXR’s unflappable ability to supply clean power without fuss or strain, it soon became a benchmark for the system’s abilities. Because that is what we are dealing with here and in every other review of any piece of audio equipment. It is how you assemble a system around the component in question that really determines the results and the Mikado ticks most the boxes.