Structure Needs a Firm Foundation

Written by Dan Schwartz

I’ve had a BHK Signature preamp for about a week-and-a-half, so it’s on the way towards  breaking in. The first big change came just short of a day. This isn’t a review of the preamp, but this much I can say: it’s uncovered  where my troubles have been residing.

Everything is the same except for that, and the system has completely “opened up”, as the saying goes. What I mean isn’t, in fact, openness — there has always been a great degree of spaciousness in many records — but that openness now sits in a place: this is what was missing (to an extent).

A lot has been said about the BHK’s rendition of bass. That was the huge change I mentioned earlier. It started blooming at about twenty hours. Listening to Joni Mitchell’s Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, the music had a presence that I’d forgotten. I recall thinking, this is what’s meant by “rich” sound. Since then, I’m re-experiencing what bottom end truly means. This is most significant in how one hears the room of the source. Whether listening to John Williams’ rendition of Bach lute pieces, or Saradamani by Vishwa Mohan Bhatt (the recording of which I was privileged to witness), the room of the event takes on a life that’s, well, live.

This is especially great to hear in something like the very reverberant RCA Earl Wild/Boston Pops Rhapsody in Blue, which I discovered anew in HP’s big system in 1987: a system driven by the Goldmund Reference turntable and brought to life by the IRS-5s.  There’s that big, beautiful room, brought to life in (sort of) miniature in my living room — almost 60 years after the event.

It was just after this encounter with HP’s system that he thought to put me in touch with Paul McGowan, thinking that Paul and company made equipment that I could afford. And they did, in fact: I started with a PS IV; then there was the 4.5, followed by the 5.5; and the 200C amp, which became the 200CX (I will always remember changing the power cable on it and getting it wrong — and seeing the devices going up in a sequence of paired blue flames, back to front, shooting out the top of the amp!).

Five years later, I was ready to move on up, and I got the EAR G88 preamp and a pair of VTL 500s (they’re still around, but many years ago I moved on to the BEL 1001s). I recall having a conversation with someone, and now I’m thinking that it was probably Paul, who suggested that EAR’s Tim de Paravicini must have known something about how to design for driving cables. The G88 sounded better than “nothing”, than going direct. And what brings that conversation to mind is hearing Paul’s Ohms Law that just showed up that attempts to explain the benefits of a passive preamp. There’s good to be had with a passive system, but you do give up something.

The G88, like the BHK, is an active device. The PS IV that I was using in the interim has a mode that came to be called straight-wire, a passive volume-control-and-RCA-jacks arrangement. And folks, I think this is at the heart of what led to my disappointment with the sound of my system. It wasn’t exactly lacking, but comparatively, it sounded a bit threadbare; lacking in that final thing that suggests musical presence. I can imagine it becoming better than it is now, but only just barely.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’d like to sell my BELs, given that Richard Brown has died, and get a pair of BHK mono amps, but if I do or don’t, it’s no big deal. And I’d also like a lovely pair of Magnepan 3.7i’s. But that’s a sideways move. I’d keep my present speakers, too.

There’s something to be said for being friends with the people who make what you listen to. I know it’s a silly prejudice, but there it is.

[I ordinarily avoid mentions of PS Audio products in Copper, but it was hard to convey Dan’s point without naming the gear–-Ed.]

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