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Into Audio Values and Priorities

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In my last column article, I admitted how hard it is to review a piece of equipment that doesn’t exactly light my fire. That doesn’t mean that it’s not a very fine or even an exceptional piece of equipment. What I’m discovering is that reviewing is becoming a greater educational experience for me than I expected. It has especially been an opportunity for me to discover what it is about a system that makes me want to listen to it for hours on end.

The first review I wrote for Dagogo was of the wonderful, little Shindo Aurieges preamp. I started that review by saying “I feared I would not have the right audio vocabulary to convey the sound . . .” Well things haven’t changed much as I continue to review. In the last year, I have reviewed five preamps and I am waiting for one more to come in very soon. They vary in price from the $1650 Kora-eda LLA-1 Stereo Control Amplifier to the $19,000 Vacuum State RTP-3D Preamplifier [The Vacuum State preamplifier review is scheduled for publishing in January 2007’s Top-of-the-month Issue –Editor]. They also vary a lot in sound. I don’t want to take this space to compare them. Instead, I want to share with you what I have learned about myself, and what it is that makes me want to listen to music for untold hours.

Wine, Art, And Music

A little over six years ago I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. I’m not a wine drinker, but you can’t live in the Bay Area, and not learn a lot about wine. In some ways wine connoisseurs are a whole lot like audiophiles. They have their own language and there’s no agreement on which wine is best. They don’t even agree on what makes a wine the best. I hear them talk about wines being full bodied, grassy, having a hint of oak, having a good nose, being buttery, and sometime I even hear that some wine has legs. It’s obvious that some wine connoisseurs are looking for different hues and tones than others.

Likewise, in the art world there’s also a wide difference of opinion on what is true art and what is not. Some love realism, some impressionism, some love pop art, and others love modern art. Inside each of those categories there are some who like warm, earthy colors, others who like bright primary colors, and even some who like a dark and gruesome tone in their art. Well I’ve gone on long enough, for you get the idea.

I’ve gone a long way to make the point that it shouldn’t be all that important to you which preamp or other piece of equipment as a reviewer I choose to use. What is important is that I let you know how it sounds, because in the audio world, just like in the wine and art world, there are dozens of ways to pursue the Holy Grail. Let’s not even get into the fact that we don’t even agree on what that is. Neither can the other arts I’ve mentioned.

Prior to being a reviewer I thought the most impressive words a reviewer could say were, “I purchased the review sample”. While that does say a lot, I now understand it’s not the most important thing a reviewer can say, and it tells you very little about how the product sounds. Let me see if I can explain

Audio Values And Priorities

I think I can safely say that the Vacuum State RTP 3D preamp comes closer to perfection than any other audio product I’ve ever heard. It is the best in every audiophile descriptive term used to talk about how equipment sounds. Well, in everyone that is except one, PRaT, and heck many audiophiles and reviewers say that a piece of equipment can’t have pace, rhythm, or timing. I know that those are qualities of the performance that the equipment can only allow the listener to hear. Admitting that truth, it seems obvious to me that some equipment allows PRaT to flow into my room with much more ease than others.

That’s why it doesn’t matter if I think the Vacuum State or any other preamp is the best I’ve ever heard. It only matters that I try to let you discover how it sounds. So it is important that I tell you how tonally accurate it is, how coherent, how transparent… well, you get where I’m going. It is also important I tell you that while it’s the best at all the above, it’s not the last word in PRaT.

So while it’s my job, in the review of the Vacuum State Preamp, to try to tell you how this almost perfect preamp sounds. For me personally, it was more of a learning experience. In that review I had two revelations. The first revelation was that it’s not so much my job as a reviewer to make a value judgment on a given piece of equipment as it is to let you know how I it sounds. This is more difficult by the way than just telling you weather I like it or not

The second revelation was an even more personal one. Before, listening to the Vacuum State preamp, I would have told you I valued tonality most, followed close behind by transparency, and coherency. Now I have discovered that I am willing to take second or third best in all of the above if I can have the best in, do I dare say it, PRaT, drive, or my favorite FUN. I think what we need to admit as audiophiles is the same thing that has to be admitted in the wine world, the art world, and other pursuits of joy, beauty, and perfection. That having different expressions of beautiful music reproduction allow more people into the audiophile fold.

We are lucky. In the last twenty years we have seen the tube and transistor each grow closer and closer to the mythical Holy Grail of sounding like live music. As they have each improved it has become easier for all of us to find wonderful sound to enjoy in our homes.

Indulge me a minute and let me divide the audiophile world into three theoretical camps of values, sort of like different kinds of art or wines. I know there are more than three, but three’s enough to make the point.

Camp One are the Burmesters, Krells, Rowlands, Brystons, Halcros, and others who have brought the sound of sand amps to an unbelievable state of the art that could not have been imagined twenty years ago. They have done this by the advancement of the technology of the transistor; often their equipment also is built to the quality of a fine Swiss watch.

Camp Two consist of companies like Audio Research, Conrad Johnson, VTL, Manley, VAC, BAT, and others who have done the same for tube technology. They have brought about a degree of refinement and speed in tubes that was once thought impossible. Some of group three would even argue they no longer sound like tubes at all. For both groups one and two perfection is achieved through better science and technology.

There is a Third Camp: they are the artist of the audio world. They are mostly Japanese companies with notable exceptions, like Yamamoto, Wavac, Shindo, Kondo, deHavilland, Audio Note and others. Their equipment come so close to the perfection that the above two groups so highly values, but in the end is more about experiencing the emotion of music. I don’t know how they do this, but I can hear it and feel it.

I hope you can see how much I am learning about myself in this journey of audio reviewing. I have learned that in each of these camps there are many legitimate and very musical pieces of equipment. I have learned that my limited exposure to equipment made it easier for me to be dogmatic about what was best. Instead I am beginning to see that there are many ways for each of us to find the sound that make us want to listen. So find it and have fun. Music is supposed to soothe the savage beast, not frustrate him.

Next month come with me as I journey into Vinyl-Land!

Keep bop’n

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