Having navigated both Blanton and the LEDR tests, it was already obvious that the new bottom end transparency and definition was making set up easier and more precise, as well as delivering a significant boost in terms of musical presence and communication. The new sense of shape, volume and articulation the X-base brought to Ray Brown’s upright informed every other type of music too. The Kertesz New World (Decca SXL 2289) inhabited a more developed and clearly defined acoustic, with broader spread and better locational definition of instruments and the space between them. The increased weight and dynamics available brought added impact to drums and orchestral tuttis, a more natural tonal balance added separation and identity to individual instruments – so important to this piece in particular. But what really impressed was the increased temporal sophistication, a quality that revealed the musical relationship between instruments and phrases as clearly as the speaker defined the space between them. The long notes and intervening rests that mark the opening bars are pregnant with tension, the slower, quieter passages throughout have a languid grace and fluidity that controls the mood and emotional range. The unforced, unconstrained sense of length the U2-X (as it will henceforth be known) brings to individual notes extends to phrases and passages. It makes themes and inversions more apparent and identifiable, it makes the sort of subtle musical nods and references that litter so many classical works more obvious and more meaningful. In other words (and to quote a phrase) “you get all the jokes!”
That might seem like an odd observation, but it cuts right to the heart of what the X-base brings to the U2 party. What’s the point of added definition, information, transparency and clarity if they don’t lead to greater understanding and insight. It’s not enough to hear more: it needs to mean more – and that means it needs to make more sense. It is not unusual for ‘improvements’ to digital products to generate more detail but make less music: it is not unusual for modifications such as driver ‘upgrades’ in speakers, to generate more information at the expense of overall coherence.
The X-base sidesteps this potential pitfall. Play Neil Young’s Sleeps With Angels (Reprise Records 9362-45749-1) with its bottom heavy mix, measured rhythms and densely packed layers and the added tonal and spatial separation, the temporal clarity that the X-base brings reveals shape and purpose in the music. Young’s voice is lifted clear of the mix, moved forward to create a more intimate, present and natural delivery. The drums are set back and apart from the bass and guitar lines. On a track like ‘Safeway Cart’ the added shape and separation to the bass notes gives a gentle, propulsive push and direction to the song, while those moments when the guitar tips over into grating distortion gain texture and continuity, part of the music rather than an obstruction in its path. The added space within the mix, the dimensionality and shape to phrases brings a sense of energy and purpose to the album, records that can easily muddle and overload many a system.