But, it was listening to Pat Metheney’s A Map Of The World (WB 47366-2) that I first noticed a very unusual character to his instrument: it sounded too twangy, lacking in its full sustain and almost a little banjo-like. The sweeping strings and the whole ambient presence of the orchestral backdrops were majestic and as pictorial as they should be, but that guitar sound had me stumped, sounding like a different instrument to the one I had heard so many times before. I began to run through some other discs that I thought might highlight the same thing and decided to use both the CD player and the amplifier in separate systems. The results confirmed my earlier impression that the amplifier is a little bleached at times and though it copes with the initial impact of individual energies and voices extremely well, it comes up slightly short when dealing with the tonal colours and hues of plucked strings and vibrating instrumental bodies. This is hardly noticeable on the vast majority of material but there are discs that will highlight it.
Often the simplest of musical structures are the most revealing. Take Shelby Lynne’s Just A Little Lovin’ CD (Lost Highway B00097789-02), a masterful production by Phil Ramone who has gone for a sparse, dry and simple recording without the slightest hint of flash musicianship to be found. Instead he has avoided the reverb control, left her vocals as natural as possible and as a result her interpretations of the well-known Dusty Springfield songs are as minimal as the backing tracks. But there is a sense of intimacy here as she sings well within herself against the accomplished and understated support. Otherwise the simplicity of her expression and her own phrasing are stylised only by the occasional slight break in her voice. Her careful approach to pitch with a mere whiff of Country twang thrown in lend the whole disc a wonderful air of balance and delicacy which I am sure is what Ramone was looking for. But these feelings are difficult for any hi-fi system to convey, as within that superficially simple structure lives an extraordinarily complex series of relationships: vocals, instrumentation, the spaces around them and the time frame they exist in. This is where the Electros surprised me with their ability to layer musical performance and technique with nuance and fit it all together, preserving that elusive sense of quiet and stillness that both characterises this album and attracts me to it. The better the system, the easier it is to appreciate these subtleties and the exploration of such contrasts is one of those areas where re-visiting a recording will always be more interesting that the live event. Okay, so this combination can be a little rough around the edges too. The cymbals do not ring with quite the alluring metallic shimmer that I have heard on other (more expensive) systems and her vocal is slightly pinched and a bit too nasal. But I can forgive its lack of tonal richness and diversity because, as well as the feeling of movement, there is a sense of powerful stability, even on such restrained music, that constantly underpins the performance. No matter how great the demands on the amplifier get, it always feels as if it has something in reserve.
Of the two, it is the CD player that has a greater sense of order and calm. Listening to it with a different amplifier, I was constantly struck by the neatness and general organisation it bought to the music. It is relaxed and almost tranquil with a natural tonal balance, moving through the music with a feeling of unforced resolution. The ECC-1 has an engaging way of laying the music before you, with a notable ability to focus fine musical detail into a broad, coherent soundstage. The amplifier then seizes hold of this and drives it into the room so that, with a decent pair of speakers like the JMlabs Micro Utopia Be, the sound can be quite forward. The soundstages they create together are firm and broad rather than lush and deep, and you definitely get a front row seat with these components.
I might have my own reservations about their cosmetics, but I’ll say again that this is a very easy combination to like. They have a bold and very occasionally brash character but it would be wrong to characterise them solely in this way. It’s combined with a sense of clear musical organization and stability that’s unusual at any price, and rare indeed at the cost of these units. I’d listened for quite a while before I discovered their prices; when I did they came as a very pleasant surprise indeed. For such an accomplished performer I think that £1590 for the CD player is an absolute bargain: especially for a machine that would work well in so many systems. Electrocompaniet amplifiers might have a reputation for being warm and smooth but that’s not how I found the ECI-5. Instead, it is powerful and very dynamic, with the ability to drive a loudspeaker really hard. It certainly had no trouble at all coming to grips with the Micros, which is remarkable given its £2350 price-tag.