As it stands, my system has been in its current configuration for about 18 months.
I said ‘…about 18 months…’ but that’s not the whole truth. I bought Jim Smith’s ‘Get Better Sound’ book ages ago, read it from cover to cover, and promptly did nothing. Until a few weeks ago, that is, when I broke out the tape and diligently followed his instructions. I’m delighted to say, I did indeed ‘Get Better Sound’. (NB Read his Tech Tips, buy the book and invest the time and effort – it’s the best value upgrade you’ll ever make).
So, how did a middle aged man arrive at the point where he would splash a couple of thousand dollars, again, just to get a black one – and spend hours jumping from seat to knees like a man possessed to incrementally adjust his speaker position?
Cue the Wayne’s World flashback sequence…..
England in the early 70′s…..The first two 45′s I bought (Gary Glitter’s ‘Leader of the Gang’ and The Sweet’s ‘Blockbuster’) were, I assumed, called 45′s because they cost 45 new pence. Each!
Horrified by the annihilation of my pocket money, my sister and I used to record Top Of The Pops each week, quietly squatting in front of the TV with a radio cassette player. Invariably, the sound of us ‘shushing’ each other was the highest fidelity we’d achieve. However, this music thing was great and I wanted more – wouldn’t it be just Ace to have my own juke box? We used to say Ace a lot back then.
A few years later I had my very own auto-changer on which I practically cut my own slinky – by having the Boomtown Rat’s ‘Rat Trap’ on endless repeat. My poor mother, I must have driven her crazy. My father was interested in electronics so there was always a Tandy (Radio Shack) catalogue lying around – I used to be in awe of the idea of speakers that were 3 feet tall.
Then one day my mate lent me his copy of Kiss ‘Destroyer’ – the start of Detroit Rock City was a revelation; the sound of the breakfast radio, the guy starting the truck and it driving off… Just amazing! In an epiphany akin to when singles increased to 47 new pence, I suddenly understood that ‘Stereo’ didn’t just mean two speakers. I stuck my neck out and asked for my own Music Centre for Christmas. Incredibly, my parents agreed. I guess their logic was The Stranglers and AC/DC would be vastly improved when constrained by my bedroom. Perhaps they even liked me.
Now I had a beast to feed and I spent many hours at Selectadisc, the local record shop (which I was sad to see had closed last time I was in England). I could, and did, borrow and tape friends LPs – but tapes just weren’t as good, both sonically and as an event. The sleeve, choosing the side, lowering the needle – you’re reading this, you know what I mean. During 6th form, I started working part time at a P.A. company, building professional speaker rigs and flight cases. Kev, hoping for a sale, lent me a Thorens TD 160/SME and explained that the source was everything – wow, was he right or what?
By that stage I had a Technics amp and some Celestion speakers. I’d regularly press my nose against the window of the local HiFi dealer – those SL600s were beyond cool but, at 900 quid a pair, beyond reach too. Still, they had their halo-product effect and I duly bought their lesser siblings.
Eventually Kev realised that while I loved the TD160, I didn’t have the money for it – so he wanted it back. Dismal day. What could I do? Er, Mu-um….
Next birthday, I could barely contain my excitement, I gave my AR Turntable and Linn Basic LVX pride of place. I’d learned the importance of speaker placement, so now the Celestions were teetering on a pile of house bricks and blu-tack.
I took a summer holiday job at Tandy. They did indeed have speakers 3 feet tall, but jeez, they were rubbish – and (over)priced individually? What was that about? They also had a very expensive, alien product that span little silver discs – a Philips CD player. An avid fan of the HiFi press, I too dismissed it as a gimmick and dreamt of LP12s, Apogee Scintillas and hundred-weight Krell mono-blocks instead. Carbon fibre brushes and dusting the corners of a Mana Acoustics oil rig were my future. I proudly declared “Analogue HiFi” under the personal interests section of my post-college CV. Oddly enough, it actually got me a job offer – the guy got me in for an interview as he’d just bought his first CD player. We spent an hour discussing systems and music and he made me an offer right there and then.
Maybe about then, single core mains cable for the speakers was the best thing ever. Tweaking was great fun and largely cheap – the controversy surrounding Peter Belt’s ideas made for great discussions. Paula my girlfriend though I was completely bonkers for putting pieces of paper and reef knots everywhere. Dave and I were convinced it made a difference though.
A few years and many component changes later (Including a PS Model Two amp, with an intriguing ‘bridge’ capability that I ached to be able to use, but I couldn’t find or afford another one), I finally succumbed to the gimmick; the CD. Kessler said the Ishiwata tweaked CD63 was good so I went and had a listen. It was indeed good so the deal was done. My neglected AR span less and less. My CD collection soon overtook my LPs in number.
I’d gone digital, but I hadn’t forgotten the event. I loved my Micromega Stage 3, so with bonus in hand I bought a Duo CD3.1 and DAC. With its heavy Perspex lid, suspension and magnetic puck, the 3.1 was just like a mini record player. I loved using it, it looked fantastic and it sounded pretty good too.
About that time, I was walking past a dealer in Canterbury and glanced in the window. I resisted the urge to press my nose against it but sitting on a pair of original Foundation stands were some SL600s. Needless to say, they were at home within the hour. Loved them, loved the idea of them, loved that I’d wanted them so much all those years ago and now they were mine. But no bass.
With some regret, I sold my AR Turntable. It hadn’t been used for ages. The guy who bought it was delighted, mind. All my LPs were taped into some apple boxes, the favourites gradually replaced with silver rivals – never to see the light of day for another 15 years or more. I finally got to opening one box last year, it was quite an emotional experience, but wow, I bought some rubbish!
Back then, before the internet, those of high ambition but meagre funds had to scour the classifieds in the back of the HiFi press. Imagine my joy at finding a pair of SL6000 subs for sale – only 2 hours drive away. Since I only had a motorbike, my best mate Dave kindly offered to drive me up there – if I paid him the petrol money. The now called ‘System 6000′ was fantastic, all the qualities of the SL600s but with power and extension. It was a bit of a pig to get right, not only the location of the speakers but the angles of the dipole bass and the 600′s, plus there were crossover and extension levels on the controller box. Much tweaking ensued, I also needed more power to drive them. The Magnum and Croft amps I then had were not really up to the 6000′s challenge. With a bit of searching, I found the OEM for REL’s subwoofer amplifiers. Literally an open circuit board, Maria my girlfriend was concerned for the cats’ safety so I had to squeeze them into some stock Maplin cases – not pretty, but they did the job and sat out of view anyway. Shortly after, Maria and I bought a house with, joy of joys, a big room that I could use purely for my system.
Right, this was starting to sound pretty good, but hmmm, that Duo DAC…weakest link…. where’s that magazine? A pre-loved Trichord Pulsar One with external PSU pushed all the right buttons. It sounded great, it looked great, it felt solid and had enormous geek factor (a 3 box CD player!). Surely that was that?
Well it was, for a few years. I ended up in New Zealand, then Australia. All my gear went into storage and I didn’t see it for almost 3 years. In the meantime, I needed a fidelity fix, but I didn’t want to waste money on more stereo gear, I already had all that. That’s when I discovered DVDs and home theatre, but that is another story.
When I turned 40 I’d been in Hong Kong for over a year. What does a man do for his 40th? This one had a huge party and an indulgence – that fabled and long lusted after Mana Acoustics Reference setup. The most striking thing about the Mana is the bass. I dont know how or why, but there’s just more of it, a lot more. Oh, and the dust, there seems to be a lot more of that too.
Hong Kong is HiFi heaven. There are tower blocks full of dealers and they sell everything you can possibly imagine. Speakers 3 feet deep for flips sake (hey, Tandy….). Odd, for a place where most people, including me, live in apartments. There is also an amazing used market for high end gear, so in fairly quick succession the Micromega and Trichord were replaced with Mark Levinson 31.5 (lid, suspension, puck = event) and 360S respectively. I bought a pair of excellent Korsun V8i amps – supposedly the OEM for another brand. Huge, hugely powerful and fantastically well made.
Living in an apartment means dirty mains, pretty much 24/7. Since the walls are thick, solid concrete, WiFi doesn’t work very well so homeplugs (network over the mains) are more reliable – but they add digital noise on top of all the other noise. Hence a PS P600 was duly installed to great sonic effect, but other than size and weight, it’s main downside was heat. Summer in Hong Kong is 32c and 95% humidity – a heat index of 46c – having an electric heater in the room is not required!
Making the SL6000s work in a smaller room was quite tough, they never really sang. Yes, the Levinson gear, the Mana, the P600, everything was better – but it wasn’t right – not compared to how I remembered it back in my music room in England. That nagging memory eventually led me to TacT and room correction. A 2.2x was ideal for me; it allowed me to experiment with separate speaker and sub locations. It did crossover and time alignment duties, was a better sounding DAC than the 360S, was a pre-amp so I could use the V8is purely for power – as well providing room correction. At one stage it even enabled me to use separate ribbon tweeters in pace of the Copper tweeters in the SL600s (I’d had the crossover split done by Celestion years back). Good product, I liked it, I liked digital music.
Wow, this is getting a bit long, are you still with me?
TacT split into TacT and Lyngdorf. Incredibly, a brand new TDA2200 appeared on eBay at about 1/2 price – I snapped it up. I found myself working in England, right near the ex-Lyngdorf dealer who had a spare and cheap SDA2175. I brought that home as hand luggage. Lyngdorf released Room Perfect so my TDA was upgraded with that. I now had an essentially digital system – the TDA is described as a power DAC. I expect I’m on dodgy technical ground here but my layman’s understanding is that the music arrives from the transport as a digital signal and gets processed and amplified therein – in effect it’s like plugging the speakers into the back of a 200 wpc DAC. Whether that’s technically correct or not, the effect is good. If ever digital was edgier than analogue, it wasn’t any more.
A friend had been going on about using his PC as his main source for ages. I’d dismissed it as nonsense; it couldn’t possibly match my Mark Levinson Reference transport, could it? I wasn’t being a total luddite; I loved my iPod, so all my CDs got ripped. I put an Alpine head unit in my car so I could connect my iPhone. My shiny HTPC was the juke box I’d fantasised about in the 70′s, utterly brilliant for background listening and parties. I’d bough into PC music, just not for the main system. But now I needed to reconsider; having arrived at an essentially digital main system (that was sounding pretty good) perhaps there was some mileage in this PC as a HiFi component after all?
Of course there was. And a PC, bulging with FLAC, now sits happily alongside the ML 31.5. Does it sound better? Not really, just slightly different, but so slight that I struggle to articulate the difference. I must say, I do like the convenience and that I can flick to the web to read about the Artist or get the lyrics. I still buy CDs though. I’m eagerly awaiting the time when the music I actually want is available for Hi Res download – and at a reasonable price, neither of which is currently true.
The P600 was replaced by a Mana and summer-friendly PPP (silver then black!). All the stuff I dreamt of in the 70s and 80s was in place and/or bettered; juke box, Mana, SL6000s, powerful amps, music room, great sound. Check, Check, Check. But there is one thing missing from the story, the ultimate fantasy – the Apogee Scintilla. The mythical 80′s monsters that ate power amps as snacks, cost arms and legs and were bigger than barn doors. I’d never even seen any.
I spent a few years pondering and auditioning the ultimate, affordable loudspeaker, all the while sticking with the 6000s. Revel, Wilson (2nd hand, I might add) I listened to them all. Then Quad launched the 2905s. Mr Kessler confirmed it in his review – they had bass, detail and were in many ways the ultimate. And the clincher – they’d released him from his decades of Scintilla haunting. For me, this was the perfect endorsement. I auditioned them in a HiFi tower block – the demo was done at deafening levels and they were just as fantastic as I’d hoped. Of course I had no choice but to place my order and wait a few weeks for them to arrive. Although not especially heavy, they are rather awkward to unpack and manhandle – but since I got home too late to call for help, I did it myself and they were soon in place. As it turned out, the wrong place, but thanks to Jim’s book that’s fixed now.
…. Wayne’s World comeback sequence…..
So, there you have it, my lifelong Hi Fi journey explained. I was sitting in my Music room a while ago, not tweaking but listening and I realised that I’d done it; I’d made the system of my youthful dreams. I really wish I could go back in time and tell myself, it would be Ace!