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The Beatnik wants you to understand what you really want

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Do you really want a system that let’s you hear what’s on the record? We audiophiles often say that’s what our goal is. Other audiophiles say they want a system that brings them as close as possible to what the original performance sounded like. I don’t know how the second could work if, by it, you mean something that helps poor recordings to sound more lifelike. If your system does that, won’t it mess up recordings that do sound lifelike?

Truth is, there is one exception to that last statement. Somehow the Audio Note E and J speakers come remarkably close to pulling off this near impossible trick. They are transparent and alive enough to let you hear and feel what’s really on the recording. Still they have just a hint of warmth that lets poor, but not bad, recordings still sound pretty dang good. This would be remarkable enough from any speaker, especially when you consider they are doing this with speaker cabinets and designs developed by Peter Snell in the 1970s for his mid-level speakers. Still, the Audio Note Es and Js are so good that there are many who consider them the best speakers at any price, of course the top-of-the-line Es cost over six figures. The good news is that you don’t have to have the top-of-the-line to get their extraordinary sound. I live for nearly five years (2002 – 2007) with a pair that I picked up as demos (before I was a reviewer by the way) for around $6,000. As I said in last month’s column, these are speakers I could live with for the rest of my life and be perfectly happy. As good as the Audio Note Es and Js are there were two speakers that came my way in 2007 and 2008 that changed my mind about what speakers were capable of doing.

Early in 2007, I heard the Ikonoklast Model 3 for the first time and started the process of getting a pair to review. In my review of the Ikonoklast I said, “How do you describe a speaker that often sounds like it has no bass at all, and then along comes a bass instrument and you hear the best bass you’ve ever heard from recorded music? I think this is because the Ikonoklast do not store up any bass energy, nor do they add any warmth of its own. How do you describe a speaker that sometimes has the smallest soundstage you’ve ever heard and then on the next album it has the widest, deepest, and tallest soundstage ever?” These two questions are at the heart of this article. Then in the summer of 2008 I heard the Teresonic Ingenium Silvers and they took this statement about the bass and extended it throughout the midrange and top end. (Also see Jack’s Ikonoklast Model 3HO Review. –Ed.)

If you want to know more about these speakers check the archives, I’ve written plenty about them. The point of this article is not about these speakers, but to ask a question. Do you really want to hear the whole truth and nothing but the truth? It’s an important question to answer, because there are speakers, amps, preamps, and sources out there designed for all kinds of audiophiles; who have all sort of different priorities when it comes to how they want to hear the music they listen to. It also needs to be said that there’s nothing wrong with that. Truth is that my own priorities have changed several times over the years.

When I put together my first proto-audiophile system it was a Kenwood receiver, a pair of KLH 17 speakers, an AR turntable and some Shure cartridge. My priorities were volume and bass, and that was about it. Then a transformation came: I heard a single Quad 57 driven by a single vintage Marantz amp. Now I was on a journey; my priorities were changed. Later, I heard a pair of Cizek KA-1 mini-monitors, these were the first speakers I had ever heard that projected sound seemingly from the outsides of the speakers themselves. Now again I had a new priority. I wanted a wide and deep soundstage as well as the midrange of the Quads. I could go on and on, but it would serve no purpose.

It seems to me that very few people actually value hearing what’s on the recording, even if they won’t admit it to themselves. I know a lot of people who want a wide, deep, and tall stage; and if they are honest with themselves they enjoy their system more when it’s there even if it’s not on the recording. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. You see, the real purpose of a stereo or whatever kind of audio system you have is to play music in a way so that you get the most enjoyment out of it. So if you like soundstaging there’s plenty of great equipment you can buy out there to make you happy.

I just picked soundstaging as an example, I could have just as easily said, dynamics, detail, PRaT, transparency, warmth, tonal accuracy, or something else I have forgotten to mention. I think if we could admit to ourselves what we like, and then set out to put together a system that does what we like, we would at least be happy with it for longer than most. But as I mentioned, what I have wanted has changed over the years.

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