There used to be a saying that the hi-end audio industry was designed to cater to the Hong Kong audiophile. Is it really true? In the early eighties to the mid nineties it was true and still is to some extent. Perhaps there is nowhere else in the world like Hong Kong that so many dedicated audiophiles are into this expensive hobby.
A few factors may help to understand why they have such passion and urge to seek the very best. Geographically, Hong Kong Island itself is tiny, only thirty four square miles. Along with the Kowloon Peninsula, Hong Kong has a huge 7 million people living in thousands of tightly packed skyscraper apartments (described by local residents as “the concrete jungle”).
General living space for a family is “birdcage size”, from three hundred fifty square feet to twelve hundred square feet. The later is considered as luxury apartment for rich. The “size” is normally including public hallways, fire exits, elevator and its waiting space. It is basically like (if lucky) living in a space the size of our double car garage here. Yes it could be even smaller. Other than the concrete jungle, there is little natural resource left to do outdoor activities. One good part for living in Hong Kong is that everywhere is downtown, and entertainment is to your finger tips.
Hong Kong is a mixed culture modern city, crossing with traditional Chinese and western values. Its free import tax system makes it a show window of the world’s best products.
With all the best here, people generally have a pretty expensive “taste”. They tend to be focused on owning premium quality “material” then finding comforts from nature. “Materials” such as jewelry, expensive watch collections, hi-end photography, antiques, cars (even not much roads to gear up for speed), wines and audios are major items on the check list.
Hong Kong is a very energetic city. Things are moving in fast pace and stress level is high. The labor market competition is quite tough and people do not care for “public help”. With endless hardships of the daily workload, people find themselves deserving something good, or beyond the boundary of good to satisfy their inner need. Eating out is very popular here. There are thousands of top restaurants ready to serve state of art food from all over the world. In terms of audio, the more formidable price ticket products, the more power it has to attract attention.
Is hi-End audio merely a hobby of hardware, or is it a tool be used to reach music wonderland? Many Hong Kong “audiophile” who get into this field may not necessarily be into it for the sake of music at the beginning. After a while though, many do start to fall in love with music, particularly classical.
The following is what I observed from the Hong Kong audio world, starting from early seventies.
As a young teen in the early seventy, I was attracted by “sounds” heard from a newly open neighborhood theater. Before the movie starts the theater used to play some music to entertain the audience. I can never forget that spacious, wide, big, full body, effortless and inviting music quality. I want that sound at home. Recently, from the related website I found that the theater was using legendary Westerns Electronics’ big tube amplifiers and horn speakers. Combined with the theater’s listening environment, it has a hard to duplicate unique sound quality.
This experience in the theater was what got me on my way to the endless hi-end audio adventure. My primary goal was after the sound, not equipment. Then I learned equipment is in fact crucial to make things happen. To these days and getting old, I realized unless owning a listening room as big as a small theater’s, I have to compromise my goal.
Like so many, my audio journey was starting by visiting audio stores. I made some friends over there. I get invited to visit their home to experience great sound. They opened my eyes with their Star War audio set ups. Each listening, I can only be overwhelmed, succumb and admired. Hong Kong audiophile believed classical music is the most essential material to evaluate audio equipments. At first I was not quite into classical, but ended up becoming a fan through the “process” of seeking great sound.
How crazy (serious) are the HK audiophile to this particular hobby, and why? Audio equipment (hi-fi) is something that consist a few key elements C fancy industrial design, mechanical and electronic engineering, high tech and acoustic knowledge. It has enough elements to make people fall into this hobby. Like hi-end camera that captures attractive pictures, hi-end audio can reproduce amazing music quality. We know there are certain “challenges” to achieve great sound quality at home. Without knowing, this is actually a big fun part because it gives an opportunity to tackles individual’s wisdom. You may say money and ability of “problem solving” for good sound are what Hong Kong audiophile is. Let me introduce a few “cases” that I have come across with.
In the early seventies, I heard an incredible LP based sound system (of course all LP at that time, CD was not born for another ten some years) from a lawyer’s system. Mr. K.K Cheung C created his own a unique Five Way electronic crossover system. Truly was unheard of even today. Mr. Cheung’s listening room was small (14′W x 8′D x 10′H), but the sound stage was unbelievably huge. It has the utmost presence of all instruments and vocals with full body. The sound to me was absolutely amazing and unforgettable, ever!
It sucked me into the music like I am on board a luxury cruise curing in an ocean with no boundaries.
Such sonic achievement is more than stunning and so intoxicating. It makes me want to learn “how and why”. At the time I was unable to figure it out, but just gluing on my seat all night long enjoying.
He lived at the top floor of an old three story concrete apartment. Brave enough to pay big bucks ordering a second power line from street to feed his five way system. The installer had to punch through three thick layers of concert floor structure to bring the new AC juice to him. His system was starting from Technics SP10 Mk I direct drive turntable, two SME 3012 arms that has ADC 25 and 26 moving magnet cartridges. He custom built a five way pre-amp and EQs system. There were five SONY 3200 (120 watts) stereo amp taking care of each crossover channel. Later I got a chance to audition a SONY 3200. Found that it was not a very open sounding amplifier at all. Anyway, in the hand of KK it was another story. Loudspeaker was a DIY four box set that included four electrostatic tweeters, five 5″ Philips paper mid driver being arranged on a curvature baffle for 120 degree dispersion. Unknown 15″ paper woofer horn loaded for bass, and a pair of large Yamaha synthesizer ear shape speaker for lower mid reproduction.
Each LP he played was marked with specific EQ settings of that recording. He manipulated the EQ, phase and amplitude level to his taste. He did this even by tracks. Basically he was “re-mastering” every track of music in the album, then divided the whole matter to five sections and sent to the five way matched speaker crossover network. It was so painstaking to execute, but rewarded by superior sound quality no one else could have. After the visit, I ran to local record stores to collect a few of the LPs that I heard from KK’s system. Sadly, the sound didn’t even come come close C more than miles away. Forty years passed, with the help of equipment more than ten times better, state of art power treatment and superior cabling, I am still unable to get that kind of sound. Of course not, how could I? Not unless I re-master the recording first. K.K. Cheung was named as the “God father of electronic crossover” in Hong Kong.
Another surprise was from listening to a big panel speaker system The Magneplanar Timpani 1. It was a non-conventional large panel speaker that looks exactly like a room-divider.
When Maggie debuted their world’s first big flat panel magnetic induction speaker in the early seventies, it was an immediate visual shock to everybody. There was nothing like it before.
With only one inch thick the thing can play big scale sound. Anyway, the first generation Timpani was quite a low efficient speaker. Mainly was the weight of speaker diaphragm and voice coils. It was very challenging to amplifiers at that time. Ivan Lee was the first one to buy the speaker, and he knew of the challenge ahead of him. Ivan was able to afford a huge apartment (very lucky man) with a pretty impressive listening room (18′ W x 24′D). After a few weeks of listening he found some phasing suck out at the lower mid bass of the speaker. He then detached the bass panel to try some placement experiment. It ended up relocating the bass panel 2 ft away, 1.5 ft behind the mid and high panels. The separation of the bass panel fixed the phasing and timing issues, even the manufacture hadn’t figured that out at the time.
Ivan said the bass kick drum now really has its kick butt punch as deserved. I have to admit that the kind of kick and its magnitude so far still is a very best kick I have ever heard. In past years I have heard Infinity IRS, big Apogee, ATC 15 and even today’s Magneplaner MG 20. These speakers can play big bass well. For some reason, they all unable to get the kind of kick (impact of drum skin) Ivan had forty years ago. This is all about the nature of speaker design, matching equipments and skillful tweaking, not about issues of how good or bad. The Infinity IRS certainly has much more bass dynamic scale driven by today’s big amp. It was way more transparent and delicate too. To my opinion it was not quite into the drum skin impact I am talking about. Ivan also put in additional steel braces behind the panel speaker to improve image accuracy.
Progressively, Ivan replaced those thick original speaker grill materials with more acoustically transparent cloth that has nice graphics and appropriate color to match his home decor. He told me that singular stereo amplifier no matter how good or having big power was not ideal to make Timpani 1 sound its best. Emphasizing Bi-amp is a must. Most would believe that proper way to apply bi-amplification is by using two identical amplifiers. As for Ivan, he realized bass panel diaphragm was too lazy, slow and inefficient. To overcome that, he used two different brands and different power rating amplifiers to bi-amp his speaker. Phase Linear 400 (the most powerful amplifier at time) was for the bass panel, and an Audio Research tube amp for mid-highs. The system released all information more than any speakers I have heard except K.K. Cheung’s. With these large panel speakers and the big room, Ivan had a roomful of sound with huge image.
Most flat panel speakers often associated with point source problem, including the legendary Quad ESL 63. Forty years ago Ivan was fighting to obtain needle point image from his Timpani 1. It was an uphill battle even to a man clever and creative as Ivan.
His relentless battle for “true point source image” got him a nick name “Point Source Lee”.
One valuable lesson I learned from Ivan was not about how to set up a turntable, but was that great sound quality is not something take it for granted without a lot of hard work. What’s that mean? This is about able to afford a premium class hi-end system does not guarantee for sure will have perfect sound right out of box. It is about the user’s knowledge of sound quality, judgment, ability of system tweaking and matching. In short it was about the process of optimizing the whole system, including the room. That takes time and hard work. I found just “breaking in” equipment is already kind of painful.
Ivan’s system was annoyingly sensitive. Without any reason, some days it may sound its utmost great. When it happens, Ivan will be so excited and busy calling everybody to enjoy with him. Some day it may be mysteriously sounding so boring. Even replacing electronics such as pre-amp, power amp, cartridge, or re-locating the speaker, will do little to bring back the magic. In past few decades I found my audio system has similar issues. Though not quite happening as often as Ivan’s, it was enough to trouble me. Really there is no solution.
Another audiophile was GP Tong – A rich guy and a very nice host. Visiting him was always a joyful trip. Not only am I enjoying his hi-end toys, also his delicious home-made food. He believed that all LPs are not of equal, even if they come from the same company, shipment or batch. Sounds unbelievable? GP keep his eyes open hunting for those first arrival; newly released LPs.
He normally would purchase two to three copies of each album for each title. Then audition and compare them carefully. He often found that only one would be the very best of all. He put those “non-qualified” albums on sale to friends by cutting the price by 25% off.
I purchased a couple from him like that. Oh yes I can hear differences between “left over” and the one he picked. I bought those left over LP’s because by the time I knew of the recording, the “first shipment copies” will be long gone, even the seconds. I may be purchasing the “not so good” sounding LP from him. It will still be better than buying it from the street. At least they are from the “first shipment”.
GP’s audio system frequently changes. Equipment is replaced by new ones every two weeks to a few months, keeping him very busy all the time. We do feel sorry for him because often time after he put in new audio components, the sound may not gain but lost magic.
I learned a lot from these great, clever and creative Hong Kong pioneer audiophiles. They influenced my path to hi-end audio in a big way. To these days I still regard them highly.
In recent years I have come across a few other great audiophiles in Hong Kong. Without making this already long article much longer, I’d like to mention them in brief.
The first one is FM Fong. FM was not his real first name per see, but a nick name that was complemented by his hi-end friends. FM Fong is the one audiophile whose principle of shopping hi-end toys is “price is no object”, regardless. He loves FM Acoustic electronics so much and got the nick name. Indeed they are very good sounding stuff; however, the big amps often have some operational issues. For that reason, FM Fong purchased two of them and put one aside as a spare in case a problem occurs. He brought a pair of Wilson Audio’s Alexandria X1 only for a few months; found that the color was not quite matching to his room. He ordered another pair (not by exchange) to fix the issue. He sold the not so good color Alexandria X1 cheap to a friend. Nice and easy.
Another one is Calvin. For power treatment this guy used PS Audio’s flagship 80 lb power regenerator PerfectWave 10, pair it with PerfectWave 5, making a total of TEN regenerators for one audio system! I do agree with him about using power filter to exclusively support one, or no more than two pieces of equipment. Calvin is doing it more drastically using the P10 to feed the P5 to achieve double power cleansing. I have never tried that and believe that may not be necessary.
Today, there are hundreds of hi-end audio stores in Hong Kong. Real state here is extremely pricy. Rental of a two hundred sq.ft.store (depending on location) in a business area can be as high as US $40,000 a month. More and more audio stores are moving “upstairs” to cope with high rental cost. Still, rental of upper floor office are not that cheap. So far no body is dying due to high rental cost. Hundreds of audio stores in Hong Kong seem able to keep up and are making some profits.
To these days high end audio is alive and well enough in HK C just a little crazy and over the top.