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Audio System Revelations: Electrostatic Ecstacy

Issue 107

I can trace my audiophile roots back to a certain Admiral hi-fi console in my parents’ basement, back in the mid-1960s, when I first started stacking records on the changer at the tender age of three. My entire journey from then to now has been a series of steps large and small, with a few revelatory steps along the way that woke me up to what good audio was all about.

Back in the early 1980s, I had already owned a couple of Grado cartridges I was fond of. They sounded OK, but I had just read a review of a new cartridge in Stereo Review that sparked my interest. I mail-ordered it from the now-defunct Lyle Cartridges, installed it with the built-in alignment jig, and was glued to the turntable for weeks in a state of disbelief.

This cartridge tracked everything. No more bright percussion splattering between the speakers. No more sibilance. No more percussion sounding like it was being shredded. My hot-cut 12-inch singles played so cleanly! The distorted mistracking of the inner grooves of LPs and especially 45s was gone completely.

This was the Shure V15 Type V, when it was first introduced with the HE (Hyper-Elliptical) stylus. I also learned within weeks how insanely brittle the cantilever was. Yet to this day, even after having spent too much on replacements, I have yet to find anything that can track my “hot” records anywhere near as well as that V15. My Audio-Technica AT-ART7 comes close, but I need a serious turntable upgrade. (I can’t say I’m all that impressed with the build quality of Pro-Ject’s nearly top of the line model.)

The classic Shure V15 Type V phono cartridge.

My next revelatory moment was speakers. I’d gone through a few pairs in my day. The Grafyx SP-10 pair from the late 70s was something I’d saved up my lawn mowing money as a teenager to purchase from a local audiophile store named Absolute Sound. I still own that pair, and a second pair in a nicer finish I purchased a few years later on closeout. They served me well for decades.

Then came the day in 1987 that the manager at Absolute Sound quickly caught our attention and dragged me and my buddy into the listening room to hear something new that we “just had to hear.” I’d never seen him so animated about a product before—this had to be good! After a few tunes, I totally got it. This pair changed my perception of what speakers could do. The bass wasn’t quite so deep, but I’d never heard such clarity, transparency, speed, attack and decay…and that imaging! I was smitten. They were properly set up and singing. The price, of course, out of reach. But that started my decades-long quest to find a pair of electrostatic speakers. These were the MartinLogan CLS II.

MartinLogan CLS II electrostatic loudspeakers. Tricky to set up, but worth the effort.

Only in the past couple of weeks did I finally locate a pair of MartinLogan Spire loudspeakers. The timing was right, the price even better, and despite a 616-mile drive and eight-and-a-half hour drive each way, they are residing happily in my system. The moment I queued up a recent favorite (Michael Franks’ “As Long as We’re Both Together” from The Music in My Head), it was goosebumps all over again.

MartinLogan Spire loudspeakers. A hybrid design featuring an electrostatic panel mated with a dynamic woofer.

My digital revelation came in two steps, by way of an upgrade from a handful of mass-market players (including a pile of dead Sonys) and a nasty sounding Pioneer Elite DV-45A “universal” player to an Oppo BDP-105. I had only heard minor changes in digital sources up to that point. I couldn’t believe how much better the Oppo sounded! That soundstage bloomed magnificently, and that smoothness…so much nicer than what I was used to with the Pioneer.

The Oppo BDP-105 Universal/Blu-ray player. A modern classic, but sadly, the company is out of business.

Yet, digital through the Oppo needed a little further refinement, and I was still getting some harshness I didn’t particularly like. The icing on the cake was upgrading from the Oppo to a PS Audio DirectStream Junior, which has made me like digital playback again! Moving to the DS Jr. was more of an evolution than a revolution for me, while at the same time showing me what digital was truly capable of.

I’ve had no major revelatory experiences with amplification. When I jumped from the Realistic SA-1000A integrated amp of my early teenage years to the Hafler DH-101 preamp (which I assembled from the kit), the clarity was quite improved and that proved to be a near-revelatory moment. Over the years, however, I would change power amps to little effect beyond adding more power. Some were better than others. Of the solid state amps, the Nakamichi PA-7 (a Nelson Pass “Stasis” design) was by far the best, and was the last solid state amp in my system.

Nakamichi PA-7 power amplfier. Photo courtesy of TONEAudio magazine.

When I caught the upgrade-itis bug again and wanted to get into tubes, I found myself buying a Conrad-Johnson preamp, and then got a killer local deal on a spotless Premier Eleven power amp.  The EV1 phono stage came last year. They were the final pieces in my audio puzzle to fall into place and now I have a full C-J “stack” thanks to my careful shopping.

The Conrad-Johnson Premier Eleven amplifier.

The sound with the C-J amplification and the MartinLogan Spires, I believe, finally has me at an end goal with most of my system. I can listen to any source with effortless sound for hours. That final revelatory moment is when everything falls together and you realize your system sounds like you dreamed it should, synergy kicked into overdrive, and tunes flowing effortlessly for hours on end. These are good times!

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