Once in a Lifetime?

Once in a Lifetime?

Written by Rich Isaacs

How often do you get the chance to listen to stratospherically priced audio equipment in your own home for an extended period without shelling out a penny or inconveniencing a dealer? I recently had that experience when a friend who was temporarily downsizing offered to let me have his speakers for a few months rather than put them in storage. Call me crazy, but I actually had to think about it – I’d spent the past year scrupulously avoiding exposure to better systems than mine in the hope that I could be satisfied with what I had, and it was working. Another consideration was the fact that I already had four sets of speakers, and I really need to sell a couple of them. That won’t be happening anytime soon due to the COVID-19 lockdowns – I don’t want to risk exposure to strangers in my house. It took another friend of mine to convince me that I would be nuts to turn down this opportunity.

The speakers in question are the top-of-the-line Silverline Audio Technology Ode to Love floorstanders. They are 56 inches tall, 13-1/2 inches wide, and 24 inches deep (in other words, big). They weigh around 200 pounds each (the website says 450, but the two of us couldn’t have moved them into place if that were the case). The five drivers in each one are arranged in a vertically symmetrical array, and include a 1-1/2-inch dome tweeter, two 7-inch midranges and two 12-inch woofers. They are housed in a beautiful ported cabinet with a red tigerwood veneer and piano gloss finish. The speakers come with a grill cloth that attaches magnetically, along with an outrigger base. The list price is $90,000/pair.

Silverline Audio Technology Ode to Love loudspeaker. Image courtesy of Rich Isaacs.

Silverline Audio Technology is a company out of Walnut Creek, California, that has seemingly flown under the radar for decades. Reviews of their speakers are few and far between in the high-end press, although their smallest and least-expensive model received a glowing review in The Absolute Sound in 2011. They offer an extensive line of both monitor (stand-mount) and floorstanding models. Designer Alan Yun founded Silverline in 1996 with the goal of making top-notch, affordable (well, maybe not this model), and aesthetically pleasing speakers. Their least-expensive model is the SR7 at $600/pair.

This is not a review. I am not a reviewer. About a year ago, the editor of another online audio magazine asked if I was interested in doing equipment reviews. He touted the obvious lure of getting to play with very expensive toys at no cost. I thought about it for a while and decided it wasn’t for me. Two reasons: 1) I simply do not enjoy swapping out pieces of gear on a regular basis, not to mention unpacking and re-packing for return shipping, and 2) I can’t write the way the established reviewers for high-end audio magazines do. I have the utmost respect for those writers, and enjoy reading their work. I know when components or systems sound good or not (to me), but describing that sound using the accepted vocabulary of subjective audio reviews is not within my capability. The best way I can characterize my current system* is to say that it gives me a pretty painting, when what I think I really want is a sharp photograph. Does that make sense?

I have a few compilation discs that I’ve assembled with selections that I particularly enjoy and think are well recorded. When I want to assess a system, I use these discs. A lot of the tracks are from my LP collection – I’ve been using Audacity to archive my favorite albums so I can burn a CD for the car or put the AIFF files (no MP3s for me) on my phone or iPod. Some of my friends ask why I don’t just buy the CDs of the original LPs. My answer is that: 1) I already spent the money on the vinyl, and 2) yes, it is a bit of work, but I enjoy the process of recording – it takes little more than an hour to record, remove any significant pops or clicks, enter the track data, download the album art, and transfer it to the player.

It is relatively easy for me to recognize when a system sounds worse than mine. Sometimes it seems muddier or edgier, or there might be a portion of the frequency spectrum that is out of proportion. I find that it is not always so easy to assess sonic superiority. Systems that impress me have a certain quality that makes the presentation seem unaffected by the acoustics of the room. I was anticipating that characteristic as we set up the speakers in my living room. (Editor Frank Doris wrote about a similar sense of expectation in his Issue 127 piece about systems that are “too good.”)

The system with the Silverline Ode to Love speakers in place. Image courtesy of Rich Isaacs.

The moment of truth arrived as I cued up a track on one of the aforementioned compilations. I have to say I was a bit underwhelmed. “Is this really that much better than my MartinLogans?” I thought. The bass was clearly improved, but where was that “holographic imaging” of which reviewers speak? As I went from track to track, it all sounded good, but unspectacular to my ears. However, over the course of the next few days, I became more accustomed to, and appreciative of, the speakers’ sonic characteristics.

I realized that I was hearing much more of what was in the original recording. Instruments were more distinct and independent of each other, presented with a sense of detail that did not conflict with the feeling that, at the same time, there was a more relaxed overall sound. This viewpoint was reinforced with nearly everything I played over the next two weeks. I say nearly, because there were still some recordings that were obviously poorly engineered. No system can compensate for that.

Although I just finished saying that there was a change in my perception of the sound of the speakers, I must admit to being a bit skeptical of the high-end notion that every component needs a period of break-in. I can buy it for electromechanical transducers such as phono cartridges and speakers (which do loosen up over time), as well as things like vacuum tubes (which need to warm up), but I am less of a believer when it comes to solid-state electronics and especially cables. I think the break-in is more a function of the listener’s brain in those latter cases.

I remember reading a letter in one of the leading high-end magazines wherein the writer told of his experience reacting to an orange filter that he had put on his camera lens. At first, he wrote, everything looked orange through the viewfinder, but as time went by, his brain compensated for that anomaly and he noticed it less and less – things started to look chromatically normal to the point where he didn’t see the orange at all. Any guy who has lived with a moustache for a length of time and then shaved it off has had an analogous experience. At first, you feel every nasal exhalation as a cool breeze on your now-hairless upper lip, but it doesn’t take long before you no longer notice it at all. The only thing that has changed is your perception.

I would love to see the following experiment performed by a panel of reviewers: take two brand-new examples of the same piece of equipment (electronics or cables) and listen to each for an hour or so, making the determination that they sound identical. Put one back in the box and listen to the other for a week or two, then switch to the one that had been set aside. I’m guessing there would be little or no difference – certainly not of the magnitude that is routinely professed in many reviews. I could be wrong.

But I digress. Since they arrived a few weeks ago, I’ve spent several hours each night parked in front of these behemoths, reveling in the sound as I pull out albums and discs that have never sounded so good. One of the greatest areas of improvement is in the bass, which is both tighter and more tonal. I can follow the bass player with greater ease and I’m not even using my subwoofer. One album that I particularly enjoy is March, by Michael Penn (actor Sean’s brother). It is certainly not an audiophile classic, but it has great songs and some interesting engineering/production elements. The song “No Myth” got a fair amount of airplay when it was released in 1989. Through these speakers, the guitars, organ, piano, and percussion were notably more distinct and present than ever before.

I have yet to go down the rabbit hole of swapping out amps, but I’m beginning to realize that I need to consider a speaker upgrade. I certainly couldn’t afford these Silverlines, but something in the low five figures would be doable. I’m going to need a new car one of these days (my 2005 Scion tC that I bought brand-new has 286,000 miles on it, but is still running great), and I’d love to have something like a Lexus IS, but I could live with a Mazda 3 and have big bucks left over for speakers. I like to use that concept when people express shock at the idea of $25,000 speakers – no one thinks the Lexus is out of line, but the Mazda and speakers represent the same amount of money.

Some of the contenders that I’d like to audition in my home are the Linkwitz MagicLX521, an active open-baffle, dedicated-amplification system; the new Eikon Image1 (also a dedicated-amplification system); or one of the Silverline models in that price range (leaving some money for an amp upgrade).

It’s been fun, and I have to thank my friend for this experience, but, dammit, now I’m spoiled!

*My current system:

  • Linn LP12/Lingo/Ittok/Lyra Delos (LP)
  • Rega Apollo (CD)
  • Audio Research SP14 (preamp)
  • Hafler DH-200 (amplifier – built from a kit in 1980)
  • MartinLogan Aeon-i (electrostatic loudspeakers)
  • MartinLogan Dynamo 400 (subwoofer)

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