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Positive Feedback ISSUE 18
march/april 2005


My Audio: Climbing Back Up the Mountain - Again!
by Gary Beard


The unfortunate few who actually read my articles might be interested to know that, thanks to the encouragement of fellow PFOer Jeff Parks, my audiobud Brian Bowdle of Venus Hi Fi, the Far Eastern mysticism of Joseph Cohen of PranaWire, and a few fine PFO readers, I have come to a fresh understanding of self, situation, and surroundings. It is a new beginning. Having made peace with the gods of music reproduction, I vow to continue my audio journey on a newly illuminated path. Now I must meditate: "Eeeeiiiiiiggggghhhhhttt Oooooohhhhmmmmmssss…."

There is nothing in this hobby that has been more discussed, fretted, corrupted, or fiddled with than high-fidelity audio on a shoestring. If, as some say, there is no new music and no new art, then there is certainly nothing unique about a guy writing articles about finding audio nirvana in the lowest common denominator. Therefore, my observations are only original because these discoveries are new to me, and I hope that the insight I have gleaned will be helpful to others who have ended up in a dingy after leaving the dock in a cabin cruiser.

The Gonzo School of Journalism

Once upon a time, an unassuming Midwestern lad, fresh from reading Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas during a high school literary arts class, decided to spread his wings. In 1972, at the ripe young age of 16, newly acquired driver's license in hand, eight-track of Hendrix at the ready, he set out to experience his own version of the gonzo lifestyle. Thirty-three years later, the godfather of gonzo journalism is dead at 67 and the young lad, now 49, will forever remember those heady days, and be glad he survived them in one piece. Rest in peace, Hunter. God knows you need it.

As you may have noticed, I wear my heart on my sleeve when writing. I don't do it by design, it just happens. Call it journalistic psychoanalysis if you must, but I really don't intend for the reader to think that I am trying to get away with a free therapy session. Nevertheless, I must admit that it makes me feel better. "I dunno, Doc, it kinda looks like a field of ribbon tweeters swaying in the breeze. No, wait a minute... maybe more like a gaggle of 300Bs frolicking in a meadow...."  I wish I had one-tenth of the writing talent that Hunter Thompson and Tom Wolfe have displayed during their careers. In fact, as I wrote about listening to the multitude of pole-mounted speakers at the Mandalay Bay pool in Issue 17, Tom Wolfe's bit about the Beatles concert in the California woods came to mind. If you've read the abovementioned book, you know what I'm referring to. If not, you should—it's very funny stuff, and will take you back to your psychedelic roots, if you still have any.

Only One Bozo on this Bus

Since my very first PFO discourse article, Learning Curve (Learning Curve), I have metaphorically likened my audio journey to that of climbing a mountain. As I ascended to (what seemed to be) the top, I found the view only exposed the next upward pitch to the summit. In my last essay ( My Audio—yet another shameless plug!), I took a bumpy humble tumble back to the very foot of that big-ass mountain. Bruised and beaten, I took solace in the lodge of mid-fidelity. But as I mended in front of the fire, my desire to climb the Audio Mountain returned once again. Where'd I leave that damn Icepower axe?

Don't Look Down - It's a Long Way to the Bottom

It took me a long time to learn that saying "Never!" about anything to do with children or audio is the equivalent of skating on two-day-old ice. It was eighteen years before I figured that out with my kids, and now I find that I have crossed into the zone of the "learned" about such things pertaining to music playback. In the last installment of My Audio, I whined about the state of my musical affairs and concluded that high-end audio must go in favor of mid-fi. I did sell nearly everything except my Music Hall MMF-9 turntable, George Wright phono stage, and a few cables and tubes. At that time, I had a clear vision of my new audio system, and quickly proceeded with Plan A. Since then, I have executed my plan to perfection, and have enjoyed the results.

Plan A: Multi-channel Makes an Appearance, and PC Music Comes of Age

Don't laugh–I succumbed to the hype. In my small office slash computer room, I put together a little system with such high value for the buck that I could easily live with it for a long time if necessary. The centerpiece is the Panasonic SA-XR50 A/V Control Receiver. If I believed everything I read, I'd have to conclude that this "pure digital" wonder could babysit the kids, take the dog for a walk, cook dinner, and take out the garbage. Oh yeah, and play music as well as multi-thousand dollar amps. In reality, the Panny plays music pretty well. It is eerily quiet, nicely extended, and as clear as the sky on a cloudless winter's day. Playback from the digital input is very good, and even the oft-maligned analog inputs sound decent. It offers a ton of flexibility for the price, and is a viable piece of kit for those who don't want to break the bank yet want sound that is way better than that of most of the home theater receivers in the same price range.

Way back in the early days of hi-rez audio, I became an early adopter of SACD by purchasing the vaunted Sony SCD-777ES player. Frustration over the lack of titles caused me to abandon SACD shortly thereafter. After that, I did not have an opportunity to hear high-resolution multi-channel until I took a leap of faith and bought the Pioneer 578-A Universal Disk Player for a measly $90 buckaroos at my local Iwannaneeda store. Yes, I know it converts DSD to PCM. No matter, this little gem of a player sounds good playing multi-chanel SACD and DVD-A through the Panny's 5.1 inputs. No, it is not the next best thing to sliced bread, but I like it.

Several cheap analog and digital interconnects later, it was time to make a decision about which speakers to use in my new multi-channel system. In keeping with my newly formed el cheapo mantra, I looked for the best-bang-for-the-buck home-theater-in-a-box system I could find. Although good choices abound, I settled on the Hsu Research VT-12 Ventriloquist speaker system with the Hsu SFT-2 subwoofer. This system has been well reviewed in the audio press, and I can only echo the praise it has received. Like every other price-conscious audio component, the Hsu system has its drawbacks. The diminutive single-driver satellites don't have the greatest treble extension, and of course they don't do bass. And while the unique Ventriloquist center-channel speaker performs double duty, giving the left/right channels a subwoofer-like lift when the Ventriloquist circuit is engaged, it can be a bit overpowering. These are significant problems, but the performance of the system is incredibly overachieving, and in my opinion, it is quite a bargain for HT/multi-channel in a small room.

I am quite happy with my new sub-$1K multiple-use audio system. I can play DVD-A, SACD, DVD, CD, and PC audio, all in a room smaller than the maid's closet in a Beverly Hills mansion. I am really enjoying the better multi-channel titles that I have purchased—The Who's Tommy, Roxy Music's Avalon, the Elton John SACD series, John Mayer's Heavier Things, and Dr. Chesky's Magnificent Fabulous Absurd Musical 5.1 Surround Show —to name but a few. It may be sacrilegious to say so, but a low-budget multi-channel rig, set up reasonably well, playing a good recording, can give Jane and Joe Hometheater a faint glimpse of the world that we audiophiles live in. The gimmickries of some multi-channel titles grab the listener's attention and give an enjoyable listening experience. Beyond that, the sometimes-expansive soundstage, smooth extension, and overall brilliance of high-resolution titles are largely the territory of the audiophile, and foreign in concept to "normal" people. It might be too late to garner mass acceptance for true high-resolution audio. Still, my experience has been nothing but positive, and I state unequivocally that I enjoy my new low-budget multi-channel music system. I can only hope that hi-rez multi-channel survives, if only as a niche market.

In 2005, Will Everyone Finally Become PC?

Perhaps not. I suppose you could become a Mac-daddy instead. (I've never tried a Mac myself. I'd like to, though—hint to Steve Jobs!) This past year, I discovered that music and computers do, in fact, mix. Okay, I admit that the quality is compromised a smidge when compared to my now-departed Cary CD player, but that said, being able to listen to any one of 7000 (and counting), distinct musical tracks at the click of a mouse has its undeniable attraction.

I am currently using a PC running iTunes, which in turn plays files stored on a 300-gig Maxtor external USB hard drive filled with musical joy. Ripping the damn CDs to the computer is a chore only slightly more agreeable than a colonoscopy, but once done (assuming your HDD doesn't crash, and you have a good backup), it's Easy Street, baby! (Sorry, it's college basketball and Dick Vitale time at my house.) And yes, I converted all my CDs to Apple Lossless files, too. "Okay, Mr. Beard, step away from the computer, and we promise to take you to a nice place with white walls and ponies to ride." The APL files sound very good to me—not perfect, you understand, but very nice nonetheless, and the pleasure quotient is only slightly less that the astounding convenience.

To convert those computer files into a signal an audiophile can be proud of, I am playing host to a fine outboard D-to-A converter, the Audio Note 1.1x Mk. II DAC (on loan courtesy of Venus Hi Fi - Using the computer, the little Pioneer 578A, a very slick wireless music server, and the Slim Devices Squeezebox as transports, the non-oversampling Audio Note DAC is driving a slew of newly acquired (for review) two-channel gear with great competence and musicality. It is a fine DAC that I believe would find favor in many an audio system. The Squeezebox, in particular, is a unique and special piece of gear, as it allows me to stream all those musical bits and bytes from the PC to any room in my house with the touch of a PDA!

Change, the Truth, and New Lessons Learned

"Changing horses in the middle of a stream gets you wet and sometimes cold."
Dan Fogelberg from the 1974 LP, Souvenirs

While occasionally sinking into over-orchestrated anthems of lameness, Dan has written some pretty good songs. I always liked "Changing Horses," and my writing gig at PFO has given me an opportunity to find my voice, no matter how wet and cold I might get. While taking my psychotic sidetrip through multi-channel mid-fi, I've updated my vision of the aforementioned Learning Curve's Great Truths of Audio:

It may have been a necessary evil, but by selling off my system, I once again managed to invoke one of the prime Great Truths by destroying synergy and struggling to recapture it, albeit in a more modest form. Three new Audio Truths have emerged during my latest misfire, one with a decidedly modern twist, one that pierces the heart of audio controversy, and yet another that is the model of missing the point. I, Gary Beard, of sometimes sound mind and round body, do find the following Audio Truths to be self-evident:

I really like multi-channel music—it's cool!

My little "semi-hi-rez" system is great. It can stay around for as long as it likes, and I'll pretend it's just a second home theater system. Yep, I like it, it is fun.

Two-channel audio is (again) my favorite way to listen to music

This is an update to my previously unwritten audiophile truth that home theater sucks for music and stereo is cool. Multi-channel is cool, too, but I gotta have my stereo!

If beauty is truth, and music is beautiful, then music IS truth

Once again, I have proved to myself that the pursuit of truth is a simple yet personal ideal. It is also one of the most important things we do as humans. For me, music must be the focus of audio or I lose myself in the process. Writing about it (as I have many times) is not enough. It must be lived. My apologies and props to the late John Keats for paraphrasing Ode On A Grecian Urn, 1819.

Onward and Upward, to the Summit I Shall Trek

My audio mountain is still a jagged peak. The old trail to the top was a boulder-strewn zigzag of switchbacks and grizzly bears. Now I find myself at the boundary of a fresh trailhead, one that will lead to a new two-channel stereo system. But not just any system—I am still an audiophile, after all—it must be a synergistic, relatively low cost, high fidelity audio system, assembled with care for only one purpose—to play musical truth as I hear it.  I have my eye on several interesting products to review as I continue my trek skyward. So with ropes lashed and carabineers in hand, I am ready to challenge the summit once again. I hope that big old Saint Bernard with the barrel around his neck is somewhere close by. Gary L. Beard