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The Beatnik Shares Lessons From His Past

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The recent delivery, setup, and subsequent listening sessions of the new Teresonic Ingenium MK2 speakers has lead me down memory lane again. I started to daydream about a few major surprises and some major let downs from my audio past. Then, a question popped into my mind, “what lessons, if any, have I learned from my audio past?” So I hope you will enjoy a few ramblings and maybe learn something too.

I guess I should start with my freshman year at Baylor University. I was 17 and loved music just as much. It was while I was at Baylor that I discovered there was something more than a stereo from Radio Shack. I heard my first system that played close to real music and it was pretty fine. It was owned by one of the rather geeky professors and consisted of a pair of Altec Voice of the Theater speakers, McIntosh tube equipment, and a Garrard 301 table with an Ortofon moving coil cartridge. I was hooked but broke. Somehow, by the start of my sophomore year I had scraped up enough for a small system of a Kenwood receiver, KLH 17s, an AR turntable, and a Pickering cartridge. I had this set up in my dorm room with a speaker in each window and a bean bag for a listening chair.

I was happily buying records and listening to music with no idea what an audiophile was when, cruelly, Ken Askew showed up at Baylor with one Quad 57. I had a Mac tube receiver out for evaluation. We hooked it up and played his one Quad. I was shocked, I mean truly shocked. This was to shape my way of thinking about reproduced music until this very day. In my mind, I will always remember the transparency, nimbleness, and air that the Quads had in the midrange. I know I remember them a little too fondly, but I heard a pair last summer and to my surprise they were just as good as I remembered. I still today look for those very traits in a speaker, along with a few other things.

Lesson #1: The original Quads taught me an important lesson. The heart and soul of music is in the midrange and that the midrange can be transparent and not bright at the same time.

The first big flop I remember was Quadraphonic Sound. It was a total flop and I think it should have been, but there sure was a lot of excitement over it at the time. I think part of what caused this excitement was that with the new cassette players with shock control, we had for the first time something better than an AM/FM radio in our cars. A lot of guys I knew loved having the sound all around them in the car and wanted this in their home systems.

The only Quadraphonic or Surround Sound system I have ever heard that I truly thought was musically realistic was from this time period. Gene of Hillcrest High Fidelity in Dallas had stacked Quad 57s in the front and a pair of EPI 50s hanging in the top back corners of a very large room. He used a little Dynaco passive kit to drive the EPI 50s. You didn’t even know they were playing unless he cut them off. When he turned them off, you noticed a loss of ambience and air. With Gene’s setup you never heard instruments or people from the rear. While I liked this, in the end I still thought it reduced the overall transparency of the stacked Quads.

Lesson #2: Great two-channel sound is more satisfying to me. Now that I have spent some time with mono cartridges, I sometimes wonder if one channel wasn’t enough.

The next big let down came in the late 70s in the form of two speakers that had created a lot of hype in the audio press back then. They were supposed to be a brand new way of making sound and were going to revolutionize speaker design. ESS had made quite a splash with their version of stacked Quad 57s and their early speakers. So, when they began to talk about a new speaker that would reproduce sound in a way never been done before, we were quite excited, but we shouldn’t have been. The original ESS Heil AMT Ones were bright, boomy and hurt my ears. The tweeters desperately needed tubes and the woofer needed a huge fast solid-state amp, but there was no provision for you to do this without going into the speaker cabinet.

The other speaker we were looking at with great anticipation in 1976 was from another company that had a great track record: Infinity. I think it was the Infinity 2000AXTs, and it had a Walsh midrange/tweeter with a 12″ woofer. Whatever its model number, everyone just called it the “ice cream cone” speaker. When you consider their track record before and for years afterwards, you would have never expected such a dog from Infinity. It was just a big box with a big woofer that they stuck an early version of the Walsh driver on top for the midrange and top-end. It just didn’t work. It didn’t hurt your ears, but it just sounded wrong. It would shake you house though. I wonder to this day how anyone who had produced such great speakers as the Infinity ServoStatiks, the IRS speakers, and the Kappa line of speakers could have let these slip through.

Lesson #3: Even the best companies and designers sometimes believe their own press. So you must always listen for yourself.

The last and biggest disappointment I want to mention was CDs and SACDs. Digital sound has come a long way, but “Perfect Sound Forever” it surely never was and probably never will be. I held out a long time, but when CAL Audio brought out their big two-box tube CD player, I gave it a try. Still it wasn’t until SACD came along that I heard music played digitally that I thought might compete with really good vinyl. The good news and bad news is that SACD just didn’t get the support it needed, but it pushed redbook designs to new levels.

Lesson #4: My grandmother use to say, “be wary of anything that claims to be new and improved because it’s not.” Too often she was correct.

Enough with disappointments, in the last eight years I have had some major breakthroughs in my music system. The first came with the discovery of good SETs and Audio Note Speakers. I had played around with inexpensive SETs and not-so-inexpensive class A push-pull tube amps, but it was the Audio Note setup and then the Wavac MD300B and the Audio Note AN/E SE speakers that began to get me to levels I did not know were possible. With the Wavac, the Audio Note Speakers had the old magic of the quads and the dynamics of the Klipsch. They also had all the bass I wanted. In my room, they played down to the low 30s. This combination was what I had been looking for 30 years.

Lesson #5: Came by the way of the Audio Note Speakers. I now know you can have the midrange of the Quads in a full range speakers that play deep and loud.

When I was in college, and then for a few years after, no one made preamps like Audio Research. Then I got into using passive preamps or attenuators. I was committed to the belief that no preamp was the best preamp. Then along came the Shindo preamps. I have written much on these marvelous music makers, but simply put, I know of nothing else at any price that can do as much to bring music alive in your home. I am often asked which one to get. The answer is simple. Buy the best one you can afford, but the little Aurieges to me is better than anything else other than a better Shindo preamp.

The other lesson about amplification is that I feel the same about Wavac’s 300B amps that I do about the Shindo preamps. I was sure upon hearing the Shindo preamps that I would want to switch to their amps. I don’t want to take anything away from their wonderful amps, but in the end I love the two Wavac 300B amps. Again, buy the one you can afford. I tried more powerful SETs and flea-powered SETs, but in the end I am a 300B diehard. I respect and understand those who love the flea power amps, but there is magic for me in those blue bottles.

Lesson #6: There are still some designers who can bring you magic even in this day of computers.

This brings me to the latest lesson. The Teresonic Ingeniums with the Lowther DX4 drivers take what the Audio Note Es started for me to a whole new level. There will be some who prefer the Audio Notes, but for me the Teresonics are faster, more transparent, and more lifelike sounding then any electrostat or conventional speaker I have ever heard. They remind me of the best qualities of the Quad 57s, the Altecs, and most of all, live music. They inspired this ramble so forgive them and keep on Boppin’.

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