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The Beatnik’s Journey: Two Dilemmas from the Rocky Mountains 

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Different Sounds for Different Folks

I’ll cover the RMAF in a more conventional fashion with show reports, but your ‘Ole Beatnik’ wants to take this space to talk about two philosophical dilemmas that were brought to mind at this year’s RMAF.

Dilemma #1

The idea for the first of these two dilemmas came to me a couple of hours before the show started on Friday. I was sitting in the deHavilland room visiting with Kara Chaffee about audio in general and her Model 50A Signature mono amps in particular. At the same time I was listening to the system that consisted of those amps, her Mercury III Linestage, and a pair of Wilson Benesch’s Curves. The sound was very natural, beautiful, and easy to listen to, but sounded nothing like my Wavac EC 300Bs and single driver Teresonic Ingenium Silvers with silver wound Lowther DX 4 drivers. Truth is the system sounded nothing like it would with Kara’s own wonderful SET amps.

This led me to ask Kara how she would compare the Model 50A Signatures with her SETs. She said there is just no comparison and there is no way to get the scary lifelike midrange from a push-pull amp. Instead she thought she had achieved with the 50A Sigs an amp that has a wonderful full sound, wonderful texture, yet still with great definition, especially in the bass. As Kara talked about the sound and as I listened, it hit me how different people prefer very different sounds and they all feel that their preference sounds more like live music.

Saturday evening I had dinner with my fellow Dagogoans. One of them mentioned that he finally had his dream, one with a great pair of large multi-driver speakers, and the other Dagogoan with his pair of large panel speakers. There it was another obvious epiphany: there are individuals with very different sounding systems. It’s not that these were new ideas to me. I had just never thought about writing about it that much.

To explain what I’m talking about let me use myself for an example. As I have told you before I spent my early years (ages 19 – 28) as an audiophile wanting and then owning what we now call Quad 57s. Then because of space, children, and money I had to step down to mini-monitors. Then space got bigger, children older, and I had a little more money. I spent years trying to find speakers that sounded as much like real music as the Quads but more dynamic and could play louder. Looking back, I could have saved myself a lot of pain and money to have just gotten another pair of Quad 57s.

Along the audio highway of life I discovered single-ended triode amps, and fell in love with that scary, lifelike, midrange. Then I discovered Wavac’s 300B amps and Shindo’s preamps. Now, not only did I have the midrange I wanted, but the bloom, layering, and emotion of live music I didn’t even know was possible. The last piece of the puzzle was discovering the Ikonoklast Model 3 and the Teresonic Silvers with Lowther DX4 Silver drivers. These speakers are both crossover-less and very efficient, with the Teresonics coming in at 103 dB.

Now my reason for sharing all this personal stuff is that when I go to a show; you can guess what rooms really float my boat? You’re right, rooms that are very transparent and convey the emotions of the musical performance. It’s not that I can’t sit, enjoy, and appreciate the pure musical beauty of a room like the deHavilland room. In fact, I found this room to be one of my top five favorite at the show. I liked it that much because it was a room I could sit, listen to music, and just relax. There weren’t many rooms like that at the show. Still, there were only three rooms that made me ask if I would like their system more than my own. They were all extremely transparent, and emotionally involving, but yet even these speakers were probably compromised by show conditions. By the way, those three rooms were the High Water Sound rooms, the King Electrostatic room, and the Lotus Group room with the new Granada speakers featuring those wonderful Feastex drivers.

I realize those of us who listen to vinyl with SET amps driving high efficiency speakers, are a smaller section of the high-end audio community, but from what I saw at the show there seem to be more and more of every year. (Small in terms of number of purveyors and hobbyists, but it means the whole world to each of them. –Ed.)

Explanation and Conclusion of Dilemma #1

Well what’s the dilemma, you ask?It’s simply that there are other audiophiles and reviewers who are friends of mine, whose work and writings I have the upmost respect for and prefer a totally different sound. As I think about the dilemma, it seems to me there are three types of sound that theses fellow audiophiles like. Of course, I’ve already described the sound I prefer, so let’s think a little about the other two.

There seems to be a lot of reviewers and audiophiles who like really big speakers. By big speakers I don’t mean five feet tall boxes with three or four drivers. I’m not even referring to very tall panel speakers that are only an inch or two thick..I’m talking about speakers that are seven to eight feet tall and often there are four of these boxes.

I think this kind of speakers really got its start when Arnie Nudell of Infinity moved from the Infinity servo static panel speakers to the Infinity IRS speakers. They consisted of 76 EMIT tweeters, 36 EMIM midrange drivers, and 12 twelve-inch polypropylene woofers all housed in 2 seven-foot tall winged towers of tweeters and midrange drivers and 2 more seven-foot towers to house the 12 twelve-inch woofers. Now that I think of it, Jim Winey of Magnepan also produced the Tympani series of speakers, a very large speaker of a totally different design. Since these two, there have been more and more speakers this size: speakers from, Acapella, Genesis, Focal, Legacy, Nola, Wilson, and many more including some that aren’t around anymore.

The best of these speakers in the right room and with the right amps are capable of producing prodigious bass, life-size to larger-than-life-size sound stage, incredible dynamics, and are in general very spectacular sounding. It is easy to understand why people like these speakers. I have to admit that I really enjoy hearing them also and find much of what they do simply amazing.

There are three reasons I don’t own any of these. First, I can’t afford a house with a room big enough for them and all the associated equipment they need. Second, I can’t afford any of these speakers. Third, they don’t quite come to life, have the transparency, or the micro-dynamics of a few of the very best high-efficiency speakers like field-coil Shindo Latours, the Teresonic Ingenium Silvers, or some of the speakers I have heard with the wonderful field-coil Feastrex drivers. Another thing, I have found I have to be leery of gear that sounds spectacular, because with time they don’t sound like music to me, but that’s just me and I understand that.

This brings us to the third group of speakers and systems. There are by far and away more members in this group than the other two combined. This is because they are more affordable, fit better in most homes, and a good many of them sound very good, and a few come close to sounding as good or better in certain areas as any in the two groups mentioned already. This group of systems are made up of small to medium/large floor standing speakers and stand mounted speakers. Unlike the two groups above, these speakers can range from several hundred to several thousand dollars, and in general are not as picky about amplification, although not always.

There are some amazing speakers there are at the heart of these systems. First to come to my mind are speakers from Audio Note, Harbeths, Merlin, Nola, Reference 3A, Spendors, and many others. All of these speakers I just mentioned have good PRaT, are relatively transparent, and they all impart some warmth upon recorded music which most find quite pleasing.

I’ve taken your time and mine to share all this with you because there may or may not be an “absolute sound” to try to obtain; but I can tell you for sure if there is one we won’t all agree on what it sounds like. As I sit here writing this, there is an old episode of Seinfeld on TV. It’s the one where someone takes Jerry’s mom and dad to the museum and his dad comes back talking about how that guy Monet must have been nearsighted when he painted all those “Impressionist” paintings. So all I’m telling you is that I can appreciate many different kinds of art, music, and sound reproduction. As a reader of show reports and reviews, you need to know what the reviewer really likes even though he or she tries their best to just tell you what the equipment sound like. How can you do this? Simple, read what we write, it comes through all the time, even when we don’t mean for it to.

Dilemma #2

There were several overall impressions I came away from the RMAF with, some positive and some negative. The biggest concern I had was the number of rooms that, if you were to purchase the system you were listening to, would cost you over $200,000. These prices were so taken for granted that I actually heard one dealer talking to one of the visitors, a potential customer, that his room had equipment with real world prices. When he finished adding it up for the customer, it totaled out over $45,000.

At first I thought this was outrageous and then I begin to wonder if it really was, which led me to thinking about what I have always considered the fair price for a high-end audio system should cost. This brings us to the second dilemma and I promise the last in this column, “What should you have to pay for a high-end system?” Back when I was a freshman in college I heard my first pair of Quad 57s and when I moved out of the dorm room into a place where I could have something better than Advents, I was on the hunt for ways to afford a pair. It was then at the age of 19 that I begin on the upgrade path. I couldn’t afford Quads 57s and all the new electronics I would need, so I went the way of stacked Advents. So instead, I got another pair of Advents and stacked them. As good as HP said they were, I still wanted the Quad 57s, so I did a lot of research and thinking about what was a reasonable price to pay for a stereo.

I was doing all this thinking just a few months before my 20th birthday and as it happened I had paid off my car and it hit me: Instead of a new car I could get the Quad speakers, the Quad amps, an Audio Research SP-3 preamp, and Sony’s top-of-the-line direct drive turntable with an SME tonearm. My reasoning was, if I could make my car last another couple of years I could pay off the stereo. This price correlation has pretty much held true down through the years. I still think if you spend on your stereo what you spend on your car, you can get pretty darn good sound. If you buy used cars that’s no problem, there’s lots of great used gear out there.

Back to Dilemma #2, has the price of high-end equipment skyrocketed to the point that normal people cannot afford it? I think the answer is yes and no, and it’s all tied up with the strange psychosis most of us audiophiles have. That is our obsession to have the very best, and if we can’t have the expensive gear, we just put it down.

There is no doubt in my mind that there is more good sounding cheap stuff out there than ever before. Just take a listen to a pair of Audioengine model 5s at $350. They’re powered and all you need is an iPod with uncompressed files or some other source, and you have a pretty dang good sound. The question isn’t that you can’t find good sound for a reasonable price; you certainly can. In fact, you can still put together a great high-end system for the price of a nice new or used car. There’s not that much difference in the price of my Mini Cooper S Convertible and my system, and of course there are cars out there that cost a lot more than my Mini. (Big Jack in a Mini is a sight to behold. –Ed.)

This is where that Audiophile psychosis comes into play. I’m just thrilled with my Mini, I’ve driven Beamers, Jaguars, and even Porsches. I’m no dummy, I know these cars are faster, more powerful, have more torque, and some of them even out handle my Mini. Still, I feel no need to put these cars down, but knowing they exist doesn’t make me any less happy with my car. So there’s the real dilemma, not the price of high-end equipment, but why most audiophiles find it so hard to be satisfied with the very good sound they often already have.

Enjoy what you like, and keep on Boppin’.

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