Back in the 80’s, I befriended an audiophile and classical music aficionado named Dave, who has since passed, I’m sorry to say. We did several record-buying and orchestra-listening trips back East together, and under his influence, I managed to hear all of the Big Five orchestras in their own halls over a 2 -3 year period. We bought and often swapped various pieces of gear – and these were the “Tubes Are Back” days – and debated the strengths and weaknesses of CJ, ARC, Counterpoint, etc., along with the still-continuing argument about whether CD, new at that time, really was as good as LP.
Through all of this, one thing that Dave and I agreed upon was that we had never heard a stereo that could really convey the presence, impact, and emotional content of a real symphony in a real hall. My system tended to be on the “lean” side, somewhat better for ensemble jazz, and Dave’s system tended to be on the “big” side, good with bass and lower mid-range, but muddy in the detail department.
It is twenty-five years later and I have had surprisingly similar conversations with a close friend who is also an audiophile and conveniently lives about a block away. While my own system is extraordinary in many ways, in the past, I have been concerned with its reproduction of detail. While the system would catch hall ambience at the top-end, and into the mid-range, it usually did not have the impact in the lower mids and bottom that I would have liked to have heard, at least with symphonic music, although sometimes the best of the best LPs – and occasionally CDs – would reach some of that effect.
I don’t really understand why one power cord and one distribution box would make a difference of this magnitude, but with the Stage III Kraken cable and HB Systems Marble PowerSlave distribution box, something surprising has occurred. Last night, I listened to two CDs in particular that I considered slightly sub-par in their presentation, although the music was excellent: Kurt Rosenwinkel’s “The Remedy (Live at the Village Vanguard)”, and two different symphonies from the most recent re-issue of Colin Davis’s acclaimed Sibelius symphonies set from Boston on Phillips from the 1970’s (the Sixth and Seventh). What I heard in both was a level of ambient detail in the mid- and lower mid-range that I’ve never heard before. I remember years ago hearing HP and all those high end folks talking about “hearing the back of the hall” or “hearing the floor of the stage.” Sometimes on the best recordings, namely RCA Shady Dogs, Decca widebands and early Mercury’s, on the best gear I would get something like that, but generally I don’t recall it extending much below what I would call the top of the hall. Last night, I heard the back of the hall and I heard the floor — not always, but often enough to become thoroughly taken by the illusion. And the lower register was big and impactful, and, at least as interesting, were the dynamic contrasts, which were very clear, such that the broad musical line – or the “musical argument” as some liked to say, was always right there, carrying the ear along with what seemed to be unfailing accuracy, and tremendous emotional drive.
In short, I nearly forgot about the sound and got lost in the music. And I came as close as I think I can ever recall to feeling the same sense of getting lost in the music that I can get in a concert hall if the performance is great – or that’s how I would describe the experience with the Sibelius. In the case of the Rosenwinkel, I felt as much like I was in a club hearing the music as I think I’ve ever felt.
And this was all in spite of some rather obvious less-than-perfect musical cues. The violins in the Sibelius had a bit of that bland, whited-out effect that we find too often in digital re-masterings. The recording also suffered from more left-right “ping-pong” stereo than reflects the real world. But it didn’t matter. The music came across fully, with great tension and release, so that it was easy to understand why these 30+ year old performances have been so long admired.
As I was powering down the equipment for the evening, I thought of my friend Dave. He would like to have been there. This experience was what we both were looking for, and it made this crazy search for hi-fi “reality” seem worth it. I’m now really looking forward to trying out some LPs. I should note that my turntable was down for some maintenance that evening so all this magic was with digital.
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