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An Expensive New Year’s Shopping Guide

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    Posted: 11 Jan 2018 at 3:07pm

Audiophilia Forever: An Expensive New Year’s Shopping Guide



 

The goal of audiophilia can never be reached. The quest itself is the point.

Illustration by Janne Iivonen Here are some of the most beautiful recorded musical sounds that I have heard in the past few weeks: the matched horns and clarinet, very soft, in Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo,” recorded in 1950; Buddy Holly, in his just-hatched-this-morning voice, singing “Everyday,” recorded in 1957; the London Symphony Orchestra in full cry under André Previn, playing Shostakovich’s tragic wartime Symphony No. 8, recorded in 1973; and Willie Watson’s rich-sounding guitar, accompanying him singing “Samson and Delilah,” recorded last year. The source of all these sounds was a vinyl long-playing record.

I tried to quit. I tried to give up audiophilia. You might even say I stopped my ears. That is, I listened to my O.K. high-end audio rig when I could find a few hours, ignoring its inadequacies. But, most of the time, I listened to CDs ripped into iTunes and then played on an iPod with a decent set of headphones. Hundreds of hours of music were inscribed there: Wagner’s “Parsifal” and John Coltrane’s “Blue Train” and the Beatles’ “Rubber Soul”—soul music, indeed! The glories of Western music, if you want to be grand about it, were at my fingertips, and I was mostly content. For years, I relinquished the enthralling, debilitating, purse-emptying habit of high-end audio, that feverish discontent, that adolescent ecstatic longing for more—a better record player, speakers with more bottom weight, a CD player that completely filtered out such digital artifacts as ringing tones, brittleness, and hardness.

Most people listen to music in the way that’s convenient for them; they ignore the high-end stuff, if they’ve even heard of it, as an expensive fetish. But audiophiles are restless; they always have some sort of dream system in their heads. They are ready, if they can afford it, to swap, trade, buy. It’s not enough, for some listeners, to have a good turntable, CD player, streaming box, pre-amplifier, amplifier, phono stage, speakers, and top-shelf wires connecting them all together. No, they also need a power conditioner—to purify the A.C. current. Does it matter, each separate thing? The cables, too? Is it all nonsense? The debates rage on, for those who are interested. At the moment, the hottest thing in audio is “high-resolution streaming”—the hope, half-realized, of getting extraordinary sound through the Internet.

We audiophiles want timbal accuracy. We want the complex strands of an orchestral piece disentangled, voice recordings that reveal chest tones and a clear top, pianos that sound neither tinkly nor dull, with the decay of each note sustained (not cut off, as it is in most digital recordings). We want all that, yet the sound of live music is ineffable. The goal can never be reached. The quest itself is the point.

Recently, I have been slowly but steadily drawn back in. In my heart, I have lusted after metal and glass boxes; I have gone to audio shows in New York and Las Vegas—those strange affairs, both depressing and elating, in which manufacturers and local retailers take over emptied-out hotel rooms (carpets are necessary; much better for the sound) and set up their equipment in front of curtained windows. You walk in, you sit, you listen, you chat. The music is almost always jazz, classical, or folk. Technical information flies around the room, some of it incomprehensible.

At the New York Audio Show, I heard a great setup, featuring Luxman electronics (one of the major Japanese high-end manufacturers) and Triangle speakers, from France. Man, that was good. The fellows who set up the room—Jeff Sigmund, of Luxman, and Jason Tavares, of Adirondack Audio and Video—promised to re-create the same system a few weeks later at Adirondack’s salon on East Fifty-seventh Street for a more sustained listening session. In anticipation, I wandered around town, listening to good, expensive systems at high-end retail showrooms. I offer the following as a seasonal (and mostly high-priced) shopping guide.

There’s recorded music all over the place. How, and where, does high-end audio fit in? YouTube, for instance, is filled with great music, some of which sounds decent enough with the right headphones (Sennheiser makes good ones, like the HD 1, starting at two hundred and fifty dollars). There’s every variety of pop and jazz on YouTube, much of it drawn from live performances. In classical, there are such things as the late Claudio Abbado’s videotaped final concertswith his handpicked Lucerne Festival Orchestra, including most of the Mahler symphonies; restored Toscanini Beethoven from 1939 (audio only), unresonant but crackling with energy; and Furtwangler’s deep-toned, spiritually enthralling Beethoven and Brahms with the Berlin Philharmonic, from the late forties and early fifties. You could compare performing styles on YouTube—matching, say, Karl Richter’s version of the Bach Mass in B-Minor, from 1961, with the Munich Bach Orchestra and Choir (grave, eloquent, moderately paced) and John Eliot Gardiner’s period-instrument performance, which employs a smaller orchestra and drilled chorus (clear textures, dance-like rhythms, gleaming bright sound), from 2015.

And then there are thousands of tracks available for streaming from Apple Music, Spotify, and Pandora; or, if it’s classical you want, from Classical Archives, with its innumerable recordings of, say, Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” including versions conducted by Boulez, Doráti, Haitink, and many other conductors. Yet there’s a serious problem with most of the streaming services: the sound is no more than adequate (exceptions to follow). And therein lies a tale—a tale, from the high-end audiophile’s point of view, of commercial opportunism,betrayal, and, well, audiophile-led redemption. A little potted audio history is now in order.

The first betrayal: in the sixties, Japanese solid-state equipment (Sony, Panasonic, Yamaha, etc.) emerged as a low-cost mass-market phenomenon, driving American quality audio, which had made analog, vacuum-tube equipment, deep underground. The big American names (like Marantz and McIntosh) stayed quietly in business while a variety of engineers and entrepreneurs who loved music started small companies in garages and toolsheds. It was (and is) a story of romantic capitalism—entrepreneurship at its most creative. Skip forward twenty years, to the second betrayal: in 1982, digital sound and the compact disk were proclaimed by publicists and a gullible press as “perfect sound forever.” But any music lover could have told you that early digital was often dreadful—hard, congealed, harsh, even razory, the strings sounding like plastic, the trumpets like sharp instruments going under your scalp. The early transfer of “Rubber Soul,” just to take one example, was unlistenable.

The small but flourishing high-end industry responded to digital in three different ways: it produced blistering critiques of digital sound in the musically and technically literate audiophile magazines The Absolute Sound and Stereophile; it developed CD players that worked to filter out some of the digital artifacts; and it produced dozens of turntables, in every price range, which kept good sound and the long-playing record alive. Years ago, many refused to believe in the LP, but, really, anyone with a decent setup could have proved this to you: a well-recorded LP was warmer, more natural, more musical than a compact disk.

The recording industry woke up, as well: Sony and Phillips, which had developed the compact disc together, released, in 1999, a technology called D.S.D. (Direct Stream Digital) and embedded the results in Super Audio CDs—S.A.C.D. disks. Remember them? Some six thousand titles were produced, and the sound was definitely better than that of a standard CD. But the Super Audio CD was swamped by another marketing phenomenon—the creation of the iPod and similar devices, in 2001, which made vast libraries of music portable. So much for S.A.C.D.s—your music library was now in your hand! For me, the iPod was, for long periods, the default way of listening to music. God knows I have sinned. I knew that I wasn’t hearing anything like the best.

Which brings us to betrayal No. 3: music was streamed to iPods and laptops by squeezing data so that it would fit through the Internet pipes—the sound, in the jargon, was “lossy.” And that’s the sound—MP3 sound—that a generation of young people grew up with. The essentials of any kind of music came through, but nuance, the subtleties of shading and color, got slighted or lost. High-end types, both manufacturers and retailers, still lament this development with rage and tears. Availability was everything for the iPod generation. Well, yes, of course, says the high end, availability is a great boon. But most of the kids didn’t know that they were missing anything in the music.

Except for the few who did. A growing corpus of young music lovers have, in recent years, become attached to vinyl—demanding vinyl from their favorite groups as they issue new albums, flocking to new vinyl stores. For some, it may be about the sound. Or maybe it’s about backing away from corporate culture and salesmanship. Vinyl offers the joys of possessorship: if you go to a store, talk to other music lovers, and buy a record, you are committing to your taste, to your favorite group, to your friends. In New York, the independent-music scene, and the kinds of loyalties it creates, are central to vinyl. In any case, the young people buying vinyl have joined up with two sets of people who never really gave up on it: the scratchmaster d.j.s deploying vinyl on twin turntables, making music with their hands, and the audiophiles hoarding their LPs from decades ago. The audiophile reissue market has come blazingly to life: at such enlightened warehouses as Acoustic Sounds, MusicDirect, and Elusive Disc, you can buy thick LP reissues of albums, at twenty-five to thirty-five dollars apiece, of jazz (Sonny Rollins), classical (Fritz Reiner conducting “Scheherazade”), folk (Muddy Waters), and pop (“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” remastered). And you can buy new LPs, as well as reissues, on Amazon.

A decent “high performance” turntable by VPI or Rega starts at about eight hundred and fifty dollars. For twenty-two hundred dollars, you can get the excellent VPI Prime Scout. For four thousand dollars, the superb VPI Prime (cartridge extra), with its full-bodied sound. You can also get something called the TechDAS Air Force One, made in Japan, which weighs a hundred and seventy-four pounds and uses a vacuum pump to clamp the record to the platter. It costs a hundred and five thousand dollars. I have not heard it. Those who have, including Michael Fremer, Stereophile’s expert in all things analog, say that it is … very good.

There’s still another way of getting decent sound: listening to music through headphones, which makes sense in small city apartments or with warring partners, each preferring his or her own music. Headphones are selling like crazy at the moment; they’ve become the center of consumer cults—Web sites and conversation threads bristle with partisans of one model or another. Some of the really expensive ones, like the HIFIMAN X V2 ($1,299) or the Audeze LCD-3 ($1,945—you read me right), sound amazing but are so elaborately constructed for the reproduction of sound that they put a strain on your neck muscles.

Instead of buying a turntable or a CD player, you can get a headphone amp with a built-in digital-to-analog converter (D.A.C.). The simplest version of this choice is AudioQuest’s Dragonfly Red ($198), which is no bigger than a thumb drive. You plug it into your computer or smartphone, follow the setup instructions, attach your headphones to the back end, and then play whatever you want. The Dragonfly’s sophisticated little D.A.C. replaces the inadequate D.A.C. in your computer, and the sound of your files becomes better. For more power and greater use, try the extraordinarily versatile Mytek Brooklyn ($1,995), which combines, in a single small box, a pre-amp, a phono stage, a headphone amp, and a D.A.C. that receives updates, via the Internet, of the latest developments in high-resolution streaming. This little box could be the center of a headphone system—or the center of a full-blown high-end system with a CD player or a record player and speakers.

I have mixed feelings about listening on headphones. The goal of high-end audio is to reproduce the sound of music in the recording space—a space that you try to re-create in your living room, or study, or wherever; in any case, in a room with four walls and floor and furnishings. The system reveals that the winds are there, the brass there, the bass there, and your room, providing shelter and resonance, makes music, too. But headphone listening is an interior drama, in which mental space replaces physical space, and energy makes a direct impression on your eardrums—the sound is sometimes overwhelming, but not as spatially convincing. For me it’s a resource, not a solution.

In my wanderings, I encountered some products by the French company Devialet, which has caused a mini-sensation recently, with its extraordinarily chic-looking amplifiers—flat, square boxes, no more than an inch high, with a top of gleaming brushed steel. You control the equipment with a square remote that has a large volume knob and four little buttons. I have not heard the amplifiers, but the equipment has been praised by reliable people for the purity of its sound. What I did hear, in a small, glass-enclosed showroom in the middle of the Time-Warner Center, were Devialet’s Gold Phantom powered speakers ($2,990), which look like a futuristic white football helmet extended at the rear. The Phantoms could be called upscale versions of the popular Sonos powered speakers. You plug them in, and run them wirelessly from your cell phone or iPad, drawing on streaming services. Frank Sinatra’s voice in “Come Fly with Me” sounded O.K., but the plucked bass notes in the accompaniment spread all over the room, leading me to believe that the Phantoms could not be a high-end speaker. The Devialet amplifiers are serious, but the Phantoms are a “life style” product, which, in the snobbish lexicon of high end, cannot be construed as a compliment.

Where was greatness? I visited the venerable Lyric HiFi, at Eighty-second and Lexington, and heard a much better presentation of voice—the soulful jazz singer Johnny Hartman singing “For All We Know” from his 1981 album, “Once in Every Life.” Hartman’s voice has an enormous range—from a growl to an easy, free-floating top, all produced at moderate volume (he’s the opposite of a belter)—and the system set up at Lyric matched Hartman’s voice in suavity. The electronics were by the ace Canadian solid-state company Simaudio—the product line’s full title is Moon by Simaudio. (One of the charms of the high end is the poetic oddity of the names—for example, the excellent DeVore Fidelity Orangutan O/96 speakers.) We listened to the Moon 340i integrated amplifier, with its built-in phono stage and D.A.C. ($5,800). The turntable was the Rega RP8 ($2,995), with the Denon DL-103 cartridge); the CD player was also by Moon (260 CD, $3,000), and the speakers were the marvellous Wilson Sabrina ($14,999 a pair)—a much-loved floor-standing design, about two years old, not too big (thirty-eight inches high), and velvety smooth.

The setup’s total cost is about thirty thousand dollars, and one of its virtues, as Lyric says, is that it was “a New York system”—meaning that the Moon integrated amp, replacing separate boxes, is compact, and well suited for apartments. What I heard was a flow of coherent and beautiful sound, from top to bottom. The “March to the Scaffold” movement from Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique,” at its tremendous climax, had weight and depth, but it wasn’t assaultive or hi-fi-ish in the derogatory sense; it was music—a big orchestra (the Cincinnati Symphony) in a big room.

In general, I am suspicious of big systems, with their multiple amps, their cobra-size cables. They can be cranky and unstable, and they require too much work to maintain—not to mention a house in the country, where you can play them at sufficient volume to show off what they can do. Yet the big system I heard at Innovative Audio, in its elegant underground labyrinth at 150 East Fifty-eighth Street, seemed rock steady, and it sounded great.

The records were played on a Linn Sondek LP12, the original version of which was created some forty years ago, in Scotland. An engineer named Ivor Tiefenbrun licked the technology’s basic problems (speed stability, freedom from cross signals) and ended the delusion that all turntables sounded alike. It was one of the foundational moments of high end. In Tiefenbrun’s wake, dozens of manufacturers brought out their own designs. The Linn, many times updated and supported with add-ons, costs about ten thousand dollars, including a cartridge, in the version I heard; it was joined as a source by the Linn Uphoric phono stage ($2,990), and then by top-of-the-line Spectral electronics—the Spectral SDR4000 SV CD Player ($20,000) and the DMC-30 pre-amp ($14,000) and DMA-400 monoblocks (one amplifier for each channel, at $30,000 a pair), all of this fed through Spectral/MIT audio cables ($12,000) into the Avalon Acoustic’s Compás ($37,000) loudspeakers, a bulky floor-standing model that slopes back at the top in an abruptly beautiful architectural motif reminiscent of Aztec pyramids. The price of all this landed somewhere north of a hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars.

Spectral is a forty-year-old solid-state company based in Northern California, and its basic designs were created by the recording engineer Keith O. Johnson, whose over-all goal was to produce an abundance of musical information without exhausting the listener with etched detail. In the Innovative setup, the orchestral music appeared as a field of sound, the disentangled strands of violins, winds, and brass precisely arrayed in space; Keith Jarrett’s piano (in his “Still Live” LP) appears in lovely dialogue with Jack DeJohnette’s drums and Gary Peacock’s bass, the sprung notes defined and singing, not spread out and spongy. In good orchestral recordings, the strings had a touch of feather, the woodwinds were chunky and easily distinguishable one from another, the brass soul-stirring. I had landed in a good place.

What’s better, a good LP or high-resolution streaming? Sometimes I can tell the difference, sometimes not, which says a lot for high-res, since analog remains the standard. Those good-sounding D.S.D. recordings formerly embedded in S.A.C.D.s can now be sent through the Internet (by Acoustic Sounds, Tidal, and other services) to a music server equipped to receive them—with the Mytek Brooklyn, for instance, or with the deluxe Aurender A10 ($5,500). You can’t, at the moment, listen to high-res on your iPhone, but help may be on the way, for there’s still another, recently developed high-resolution digital format that has possibly revolutionary consequences. It’s called MQA, which stands for Master Quality Authenticated. The engineers go back to the master tapes of a given recording and recode the information digitally in a new way: the information is compressed (as with MP3s) to get it through the Internet, but then magically reopened, like a field of flowers after rain, by a server at the receiving end. In addition, the information is stripped of certain common digital artifacts—it’s de-blurred. Jay-Z’s streaming service, Tidal, offers MQA recordings—some classical, much R. & B. and soul, Latin, and everything else, including (surprise) Beyoncé. In MQA streaming, on a good system, the woman is there, right in front of you.

At Sound by Singer, at 242 East Twenty-seventh Street, I heard a relatively modest system ($22,000) delivering the goods by MQA and other streaming formats, controlled by an iPad and running through the Aurender A10 and the (Italian) Norma Revo 140 IPA Integrated amp ($8,000), and ending with a hearty and fatigue-free pair of speakers, the Endeavor E-3 MkII ($8,000), which are the best-sounding speakers I’ve heard in that price range. But all of this is possibly just the beginning of the MQA bounty. The major record labels have agreed to allow their master tapes to be re-coded. And the founders of MQA—don’t ask me to explain this—claim that the new codec could be applied to old recordings, which could then be streamed or downloaded to portable devices outfitted to receive MQA. In other words, not just great availability but extraordinary sound could be lodged in your hand.

A bourgeois Odysseus lured by electronic Sirens, I had made the journey, and I was now returning home. At Adirondack, over on East Fifty-seventh Street, the system I had heard two weeks earlier at the New York Audio Show was up and running. Present at the occasion was my older son, Max, thirty-four, who said that he had never heard so much detail in recorded music, and Michael Fremer, one of Stereophile’s distinguished equipment reviewers and the man who, as much as anyone, has kept analog sound alive in the past couple of decades. Fremer is assertive, funny, and extremely knowledgeable about music, as well as equipment, and his opinions are eagerly sought after. I was sitting centrally, in the sweet spot—about fifteen feet from the speakers, at the apex of an imaginary triangle—and Fremer positioned himself low, right behind me. It was not a comfortable way to listen, of course, but, in the quasi-experimental conditions, it was essential.

We were listening to separate components made by Luxman, which has been making quality audio components since 1925—in this case, the PD 171A turntable ($6,995), with an Ortofon Cadenza Bronze MC cartridge ($2,400); and then the solid state D-08u CD player ($14,995), the much-lauded tubed EQ 500 phono stage ($6,495), the solid state C-900u pre-amplifier ($8,995), and the M-900u solid-state amplifier ($14,995). All of this was feeding the Triangle Magellan Quatuor speakers ($19,000), made in France, a tall, floor-standing model with no fewer than three woofers (covering the lower octaves). The sound this produced could not be described as lush, but it was full, to my ears very accurate, with tuneful, tight bass and open highs, and the spatial clarity was extraordinary. In the original-cast album, from 1958, of Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story” (recently reissued on LP by Columbia), I could hear the violins on the left, the bongos on the right, the xylophones in between, with a lot of air around each instrumental group. Staring at the blank space between the speakers, I thought I could see dancers in groups charging from one side to the other. The illusion of musical instruments and voices has been completed by the illusion of motion.

The backgrounds were utterly quiet in Johnny Hartman’s “For Once in Every Life” album, the trumpet noodling behind Hartman, the sax stealing in over his left shoulder. What comes through in so many small jazz-ensemble recordings (Wes Montgomery’s reissued “Full House” LP is one of the great ones) is how intimately the musicians know one another. In the Luxman/Triangle system, large-scale music came out well, too—in André Previn’s performance of Shostakovich’s ferocious Eighth Symphony, the London Symphony’s strings had bite without coarseness, and the brass-and-timpani explosions in the frightening third movement were enough to stop one’s heart.

“Sweet system,” Fremer muttered behind me. But then he grew dissatisfied with the cables running to the speakers—very expensive cables, made by Nordost—and he asked for a change. Jason Tavares, who runs Adirondack, plugged in a much less expensive pair, the Kimber Kable 12TC ($360), and damned if the sound wasn’t better—the bass lines clearer, the air around the solo instruments cleaner. “Case closed!” Fremer announced from behind my ear. “That ends thatargument.”

Everything matters. The sound was better with different cables. And, a few minutes later, Jeff and Jason unplugged the C-900u solid-state amplifier and substituted Luxman’s flagship MQ-300 tube amplifier ($20,995). Immediately, Max sat up and said, “It sounds sweeter,” which was what I heard, too. There was greater bloom and warmth. In “Mood Indigo,” from the superlative Duke Ellington album “Ellington’s Masterpiece,” recorded (in mono) in 1950, the blending of the horns at very soft volume produced one of the most beautiful musical sounds I have ever heard.

The entire system now cost north of eighty thousand dollars. I couldn’t buy it, but I was happy. I had heard something; a lot of things, actually. All this fussing makes a difference. You may not be able to afford it, but, if you can hear it, and it matters to you musically, then it matters emotionally, too. High-end audio is a luxury-class pursuit, but it’s not a fake, and it has many pleasures, if your ears are open to receiving them.


from www.newyorker.com



Edited by snobb - 11 Jan 2018 at 3:12pm
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