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There and back again

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At some point during my freshman year in high school, I discovered music, originally show tunes and movie soundtracks, moving gradually into a wide range of classical music and jazz.  I had very limited funds, essentially only money that I had earned from a paper route.  This was well before the advent of compact discs so a turntable was almost a necessity.  Even at this early stage, I realized that music would be a lifelong adventure/obsession and wanted something that would play my records without damaging them.  As it turned out, my first stereo was a KLH compact unit which incorporated an inexpensive Garrard turntable and Pickering cartridge with an amplifier and headphone jack in one tabletop box with two satellite speakers – all for the princely sum of $246 in 1966.  A pair of Davey Clarke headphones and an inexpensive Kenwood tuner soon followed.  This setup was purchased at the local federated department store (Foley’s) and remained unchanged through my college years.

My first real contact with high-end was a store called Home Entertainment in Houston which also sold vinyl records.  While I went there initially to buy records, many of which I still own and play, I quickly began to realize that there was a whole world of equipment beyond that sold in the local department store.  Unfortunately, given my somewhat meager resources, about all that I could do at the time was look.

I spent the next four years living on the campus at Rice University with a roommate who exposed me to rock and folk music, as well as frozen daiquiris. The daiquiris were terrible but the music was great.  For the first time, I found myself around others who cared about music and owned stereos, often Dynaco tube electronics and Acoustic Research speakers and turntables.

Once I graduated and became gainfully employed as a school teacher, I replaced the KLH with Bose 901 speakers, a Phase Linear 400 amplifier, a Sony Preamp Tuner and a Thorens TD-126 turntable and Shure cartridge.  It really did not take long for me to figure out that something was wrong, so I soon replaced the Bose speakers and Phase Linear amplifier with a Harmon Kardon Citation 12 amp and TDL transmission line speakers.  It was at about the same time that The Absolute Sound began publication.  For me, this was a watershed moment, the beginning of what was to be a forty-year odyssey.  TAS played a rather significant role in helping me develop as an audiophile.

The Harmon Kardon setup lasted almost three years and might have lasted much longer had I not moved to Austin to attend the University of Texas law school.  There, I found country music, an audio store called Audio Concepts, and a new friend — John Gordon — who worked there while attending school for an MBA.  John quickly convinced me to replace my gear with a pair of modified Dahlquist DQ-10 speakers, a GAS Ampzilla, a Thaedra preamp and a Linn LP-12 turntable.  John and his roommate Rodney were using GAS electronics to drive stacked Advents at the time.  I can remember any number of high speed trips in John’s Porsche 911 to eat Chinese food in San Antonio, where he had been raised.

After law school, I returned to Houston where I had spent most of my life. I married a year later, and at the same approximate timeframe the Dahlquists wer/e replaced by Beveridge SW-3 Electrostats or, as my wife referred to them, the “tree trunks..  Given that we lived at the time in a second floor condominium accessed by a set of stairs with a ninety degree turn, the Beveridges did not prove very practical; however, they were sweet and did things which the Dahlquists had not.  While the Beveridges lasted a number of years, the Thaedra was eventually replaced by an Audio Research SP-6 which introduced me to the glories of tube rolling, and later by an early Audio research SP-10 which spent more time on the repair bench than in my system.  The Ampzilla was eventually replaced by an Audio Research D90 and that by an early Mark Levinson ML-3, and that by a Conrad Johnson Premier One.  For the next five years the electronics were stable, but the speakers changed on an increasingly frequent basis as I tried to find something which satisfied my perceived needs.  Some of the speakers that temporarily occupied floor space included Infinity IRS Beta speakers (not the behemoths), various Acoustats,  as well as the original 78-inch tall Apogee full range ribbons driven by a pair of Levinson ML3’s and the ML6 mono preamps.  At some point my ever suffering wife told me that the madness needed to end.

My job as an attorney for a large oil company involved a fair amount of travel, initially within the U.S. but later globally. I made a point on many of these trips to visit high-end stores in hopes of hearing some of the more exotic equipment which I was reading about at the time, and on one such trip I was able to hear the Infinity IRS speakers driven with Audio Research electronics as well as other exotic set ups.  About the same time, I began attending both the Las Vegas and Chicago Consumer Electronics Shows.  At one of these shows I met Rick Fryer, Demian Martin and Richard Lees, all of whom were associated with Spectral.  Spectral was demonstrating its electronics on a pair of Quad ESL63 speakers (modified by Richard) augmented by Entec subwoofers which were designed by Demian.  Hearing music on this system was an epiphany and the beginning of a long friendship with Richard and Demian which eventually led to the speakers that were to last me for the next ten years, a pair of Richard’s modified Quad ESL-63 speakers coupled to two pairs of servo controlled Entec subwoofers driven by Richard Lees’ highly modified Spectral DMC10 preamp and DMA100 amps, using Bruce Brisson’s MIT wires.  For me, this was a match made in heaven.  Richard was also close friends with Jonathan Carr of Lyra.

During that same ten-year period, I did go through a variety of digital gear starting with an early Meredian CD player, eventually moving to an Esoteric X01-D2 SACD player.  Likewise, I owned several turntables most notably a Goldmund Studio with a T3B arm, followed by a Goldmund Reference with a T3F arm.  The Goldmund Studio was purchased from a local dealer, the Goldmund Reference from the same dealer when it closed shop and filed for bankruptcy.

Following a rave review by Harry Pearson of the Rockport Sirius turntable, I decided to sell the Goldmund Reference and purchase a Rockport Sirius from Andy Payor, the designer/manufacturer of the turntable.  I like to joke that I have spent more on modifications to the Rockport than its original purchase price.  My table was a very early one, manufactured prior to the air isolation base, 50-pound platter, dedicated power supply, upgraded motor and better arm wand/wiring harness.  In the three years after my purchase Andy visited my home at six-month intervals, each time with an enhancement to the table, each of which I purchased and each of which elevated the performance.  In the process, Andy became a friend.  This is the turntable that I have owned ever since.  During this same period, I went through a number of moving coil cartridges including various Van Den Hul Grasshoppers, and various models from Lyra and Clearaudio.  At some point during this period, the Quads began experiencing reliability problems on a recurring basis which occasioned repeated trips for repair and repeated damage by FedEx in shipping.  Eventually, I began looking for a replacement.

About ten years ago at the Consumer Electronics Show, I was blown away by a German speaker which combined horns with a plasma tweeter and conventional acoustic suspension woofers, the Acapella Campanile.  Immediately after CES, I contacted the North American importer TriStar and ordered a pair of the speakers which were hand built in Germany and then three or four months later shipped to the U.S.   Thereafter, I spent roughly the next two years trying to find the right amp to drive them.  Amps that sounded lovely on the midrange horn and plasma tweeter seemed unable to control the acoustic suspensions.  During this period, I owned a pair of Wolcott EL34 monoblocks, and later, a pair of Parasound JC-1’s, neither of which was a really good answer for the speakers.  At some point during this period, I began corresponding with Mike and Neli at Audio Federation, as they too owned Acapella speakers.  After several visits to their home in Boulder I sold my Acapella Campaniles and purchased their demo pair of the larger Acapella Triolon Excalibur.  That purchase allowed me for the first time to use a low powered direct heated triode (DHT) amp, the Audio Note Balanced Kegons which turned out to be a match made in heaven for the Triolons.  I had become more and more convinced that that single ended, low powered, direct heated triodes were a better answer than the solid state electronics which I had been using so the Balanced Kegons seemed like a good choice.  Again, Mike and Neli were instrumental in the purchase.  At some point after this, the Esoteric X01-D2 was replaced by an EMM Labs XDS1, and three years later, an Esoteric P02/D02.  At some point I purchased an Einstein preamp (which I still own) and separate Einstein phono stage from Brian Ackerman of Aaudio Imports.  The phono stage was later replaced with a Ypsilon phono stage (also recommended by Brian).  This pretty much represents the current state of the system.

I know it must sound as if I am constantly changing out equipment and during the early years of the hobby, this was certainly the case.  At present, I find myself very reluctant to make changes.  The Rockport Sirius turntable has now been in the system for almost 20 years, although it has gone through numerous updates during that time, the Acapella Triolon Excalibur about ten years, the Einstein preamp and Audio Note Balanced Kegons almost ten years and the Ypsilon phono stage almost five years.  In retrospect, I will admit, rather sheepishly, that at some point I lost my focus on the music and let the pursuit of seemingly ever better equipment become my primary driver.  Today, I would like to think that the pursuit of the music and not the equipment is what is foremost. Nowadays I am chasing vinyl from the early days of stereo, whether RCA Shady Dogs, Mercuries, London Blue Backs, Decca SXL 2000’s and 5000’s or Columbia SAX, and occasionally buying new digital media rather than buying new equipment.  At least, that is what I would like to think.

To complete the cast of characters in my story, I would like to mention a few other friends:  first, my primary listening buddy Earl “the Evil Weed” with whom I normally have dinner on Wednesdays and then listen to collectible vinyl; next, Paul “the Coffee Cup Man” who through a series of transactions ended up with my original pair of Campaniles and has become a close friend; Jim, a retired school teacher with a passion for classical music and small dogs; and finally Sheri, the head of the local audio club and a Harley owner.

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One Response to There and back again

  1. Jack Roberts says:

    Thanks for sharing Fred; a great read. It brought up so many memories. I had stacked Quad 57s in a mobile home my last two years of college. Most of us have tried to get huge speakers in tight places.


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