Twisted Systems

The High-End in the Time of Coronavirus

There is nothing like a virus that may take down western civilization as we know it to make one’s quest for a great sound audio system seem a bit…well…insignificant…

And yet here we are, or should I say, I am, and I’m about to weigh in on just that kind of confluence of topics.

As I sit at my desk in Manhattan, looking out at a street that I have looked out upon for well-nigh 60 years, and knowing that I just can’t call my friend Ira and tell him to come over to listen to a new power cord and then go out for a slice is well…this has to be a dream…

Manhattan, looking down Amsterdam Avenue, April 17, 2020. Photo by Jay Jay French.

Well, as I write about all things music/audio I’m going to do just that with the acknowledgment that all things audio, watches, sports, wine and music seem just plain irrelevant when compared to whether my 77 year old brother could have the Coronavirus (he does not, at least as of now) but that is the worry that so many of us have on our front burners.

Let’s pretend then, for the duration of this article, that we all click our collective heels together and say “There’s no place like home” three times and go back just three short months ago…

The genesis of this latest article began last December when I was visiting my very pregnant and soon-to-deliver daughter who resides in Bath, England.

Visiting her with my wife and actually arriving in Bath the day before the birth was very exciting. We welcomed the arrival of a very healthy baby girl, Lucy Evaline Elizabeth Blackwell.

Not wanting to add any more chaos to the situation, we left after a couple of days to spend time with other friends in England.

When we stay in England, we stay at a friend’s place which is located on 250 feet of land overlooking the White Cliffs of Dover. This friend also happens to be very good friends with (noted audio writer) Ken Kessler. My friend also owns several high-end rigs scattered among several different residences (and countries). His main system consists of Wilson Audio Sasha DAW loudspeakers, Soulution electronics, an Audio Research Reference 75 SE amplifier and Reference 6SE preamp and dCS digital components. Yes, it is one of those systems and the room is very large so all this stuff can be correctly accommodated. He also has vintage Technics SP-10 turntables and, because of Ken, has lately turned his attention to Ken’s latest obsession, reel to reel tape decks.

dCS Vivaldi digital electronics.

Ken lives nearby and no trip to visit my friend goes without spending an afternoon with him.

My friend introduced me to Ken Kessler and since then, I have accompanied Ken to a CES show in Las Vegas as well as the mother of all audio shows, The Munich HIGH END show, last year.

Ken’s years as lead reviewer at Hi-Fi News & Record Review has made him a celebrity in those circles and he has introduced to me many of the creators of some of the most interesting (if not the most insanely expensive) gear that you all have probably read about.

The point to all this is that, when visiting Ken at his home and experiencing his working listening room, one can get a sense of how he listens and what he looks for. If you read his reviews, then it even makes more sense.

This past December, Ken played a wide variety of music, most of which I also own and am familiar with, through gear that I will never have the opportunity to own.

Ken is a gracious host and he shares his opinions (on many things) freely. His passion for audio, however, is incredible and I really enjoy the time that we spend together, especially when he tries his best to indoctrinate me into the world of reel to reel!

If you read HHN&RR regularly, you would know that Ken is currently enamored with his TechDAS Air Force III Premium turntable (with vacuum hold-down) fitted with a Graham Engineering Phantom Elite tonearm. Ken has many cartridges lying around, among them DS Audio, E.A.T. & TechDas models.

Graham Engineering Phantom Elite tonearm.

He recently reviewed the new, insanely gorgeous Luxman CL-1000 preamp, an Audio Research Reference phono stage and their new 160-watt monoblocks and (stereo) single box amplifiers. All of this feeding Wilson Sasha DAW loudspeakers. And of course he had several super tweaked reel to reel decks on hand.

TechDAS Air Force III Premium turntable.

Ken and I share a crazy love for the Buffalo Springfield and he played tracks, both vinyl and tape, that had detail that I never knew existed. Guitar parts were unearthed that just plain didn’t exist (or so I thought).

We listened to classic Motown and I heard riffs played by the Motown backing band that I thought I knew so well, but no, not like this.

Audio nirvana across the pond!

Luxman CL-1000 preamp.

Switching gears: I met Michael Fremer at a VPI listening session a couple of years ago down at Harry and Mat Weisfeld’s new VPI Listening House in New Jersey.

Michael (Mr. Analog Planet) extended an invitation to come to his house at some point and listen to his gear.

I really wanted to talk to him about all of his turntable theories. Unlike Ken, reel to reel doesn’t take up any space in his listening room.

That finally happened three weeks before I wrote this, before the Corona sky began to fall.

Michael of course has famously championed the Continuum Audio Labs Caliburn turntable with Cobra tone arm. At the time I visited him he had the new Döhmann Helix One Mk2 turntable with the latest Swedish Audio Technologies CF1-09 arm, and also many cartridges. I listened to the Lyra Atlas Lambda SL cartridge on the SAT CF1-09 tone arm, into a CH Precision P1 phono preamp with X1 outboard power supply, which fed into a dartZeel NHB-18NS Mk2 preamplifier.

Döhmann Helix One Mk2 turntable.

The system also had VAC Statement 452 iQ Musicbloc mono power amps and Von Schweikert ULTRA 55 speakers. (Michael’s reference amps are the dartZeel NHB-468 monoblocks and his reference speakers are the Wilson Audio Alexx.)

After listening to some of Michael’s music choices he asked me if there was anything in particular I wanted to hear. He has thousands of albums and somehow the conversation came around to a very rare pressing of Led Zeppelin II. Mike had an original Bob Ludwig master of the album that was recalled because it was cut “too hot” and the tonearms of the day (1969) couldn’t keep track-pun intended!

Michael assured me that his current go-to arm (the new Swedish Audio Technologies $52,000 pickup arm mentioned above, and no, that’s not a typo) on a Döhmann Audio turntable could easily handle this recording.

It did. Boy did it.

I heard cymbal hits and a spread of the cymbal placements that was beyond anything I had ever heard before, and trust me, I have heard the opening cut “Whole Lotta Love” hundreds of times. Never, and I mean never, did I know that this was buried and what it must have actually sounded like at the mixing desk.

Both Ken and Michael have incredible gear and that is what made me think about writing my thoughts down after I came back from Michael’s house.

Wilson Audio Alexx loudspeaker.

I came home and I put on my Mobile Fidelity copy of Zep II.

I currently own a Pass Labs X250.8 amp, PS Audio Signature BHK Preamp, Moon 810LP phono stage, Marantz SA-10 SACD player, VPI HW-40 direct drive turntable w a 12-inch Fatboy arm, Magico A3 speakers, Wireworld Platinum Eclipse 8 interconnects and WW Gold Eclipse 8 speaker cables, PS Audio DirectStream P20 power regenerator and assorted power cords by Echole, PS Audio, Triode Wire Labs and Nordost.

Compared to what I had heard at Michael’s house, however, my Mobile Fidelity Led Zep II sounded like I was listening to a cassette tape. My system, as resolving as it is, just couldn’t retrieve this information.

No, it wasn’t just that pressing. While my system is damn good, it still wasn’t well…that.

Close to what I heard at Ken and Michael’s? That is a relative term.

Close enough for me to understand what limitations I have. But here’s what it comes down to:

I sit and look at my current system, a system with a list price of nearly 100K.

It’s a system that, by all rational measure, anyone could listen to and say, “Wow, I have never heard anything sound so good!’

Magico A3 loudspeakers.

But…

It ain’t like what these guys have the unique ability to play with and listen to.

Whether it was Ken’s set up or Michael’s, artists and songs that I have heard hundreds of times have, perhaps because of the care of tonearm cartridge alignment, vibration control, quality of mega-dollar amplification and sophistication of the speaker systems and room damping, exposed much more in those grooves or on those reel-to-reels then I have ever heard.

It’s like listening to different mixes. Vocals that you never knew were there suddenly appear, as well as a horn part or a drum fill or a cymbal crash.

It’s crazy. But it’s true.

Moon 810LP phono stage.

Once you get past the McIntoshs and Mark Levinsons (the equivalent of a Rolex or a Lexus to us mere mortals) and venture into the world of the Pateks, A. Langes, Richard Milles, George Daniels and Roger Smiths, or to use the car analogy, the Rolls, Lamborghinis, Ferraris and Bugattis, you get to a place that is truly mind boggling.

(The watch analogy isn’t too disconnected from being fixated on high-end audio, as I learned when attending the Munich show last year with Ken. It seemed that every manufacturer we spoke to started off the conversation by asking Ken what watch he was wearing, and then explaining their choice of watch.)

Now, don’t get me wrong. My system sounds really really good, and I have to add that if you did have the scratch to climb the gear Mount Everest, you really need a proper room (which I don’t have) to listen correctly to all this insane gear.

I do believe that what I have truly works for me and my room, so I didn’t leave either guy’s place wishing I had that other stuff…well, maybe a better tonearm on my VPI HW-40 direct drive ‘table.

I also believe in proportionality.

Does a 52K arm belong on a 15K table? Well sure, it could and would probably bring that table’s performance up several notches. It could also be that maybe I could use an expert cartridge alignment; after all, I am fortunate enough to have an Ortofon A95 cartridge. In fact, Michael has offered to come over and do that once we are allowed to reconnect in close proximity with our fellow man!

The point, however, is this: if you have the money and you not only can hear the difference but are willing to deal with the maintenance of this stuff, then, by all means, it truly is something to hear and behold.

There is a wealth of recorded information on our favorite recordings that can only be retrieved at these exalted levels.

But, as I always have to remind myself…”John, you fell in love with rock and roll music coming out of a two-dollar transistor radio with a 1-inch speaker.”

I have never felt what it’s like to drive at 200 miles per hour and I’m fine with that.

I keep the Mercedes-AMG GT.

Someone else can own the Bugatti Chiron Super Sport 300+.