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My Audio -
The "Gestalt of James Brown" Part One: A New
Way of Thinking
The Beginning …Again
Admittedly, I've never had the sweeping curiosity to truly understand the engineering and math that gives rise to the great audio components of our time. Too bad I suppose, but just as there are artists, there are those who understand how to appreciate the art. That is a distinctly different yet no less important skill. Color me an appreciator. I will confidently say one thing I have learned about audio; system synergy is the most important and elusive goal in audio and it can be a terribly difficult state to achieve.
Have you ever wondered exactly what it is that you find captivating about one audio system over another? Myriad audio systems press the correct neuro-transmitter buttons to give great listening pleasure, but even the most elaborate, highly-rated, insanely expensive; tweaked-to-the-hilt system may not be the one that evokes a blissful emotional state for long term listening satisfaction. Most audiophiles recognize the odds of affection for an audio system can be swayed by choosing components that blend sonic strengths and minimize weaknesses. But beyond great sound there lies a little piece of the synergistic puzzle that gives meaning to the whole process of listening to music. It is that inexpressible "something" that tugs our heart strings, brings smiles to our faces, and excites our senses to charge as if we were Lord Tennyson's Light Brigade. The triggering mechanism of this emotional response may well be different for each and every one of us. I became keenly aware of this fact while in the throes of building my latest system…
To regress for a bit of background information: Somewhere on the road to audio nirvana I hit a pothole. For a time, it blew out my desire to continue with what seemed to be a never-ending voyage of rapture followed by a roiling sea of anguish. After an appropriate post-system sale mourning period, I began the quest anew. I now feel as though I am very close to the endpoint of my passage. Do I now tout the secret handshake of good sound? No, for audio is a constantly changing tapestry of "what if's". However, I did recently have a moment of illumination, when one shining idea became rational thought. It is not some earthshaking new paradigm that all will ascribe to, in fact, it is a simple idea that perhaps I should have already known. I now realize the significance of attaining individual musical integrity. It is a condition of simple personal correctness—ones own synergistic ideal of musicality.
The New Goal Emergent
Of late, my focus has been on music becoming a lovely hobby for me again. No more obligatory sweet-spotting, no more insanity driven tweak parties, no more passion-anality driving me crazy. My new system is a part of my larger life and is placed in a living-breathing room. It is a place of multi-use and solace, not a strangulated space of self-absorption and solitude. My sonic goals are relatively undemanding, but in being so, they are as equally difficult to reach as complex ones. I desire relatively low-cost, small footprint gear; the fewer components the better. Due to ears that wince from allergy pain and a room that requires a fair amount of off-axis listening, I need an audio system with expansive sound and excellent resolution at low volume levels that still knows how to rock when I strap on my Stratocaster Air Guitar for an evening of imaginary power chords.
After much debate, I decided to build a low powered SET system; primarily because I love the sound that vacuum tubes make and secondarily, because it was a subset of audio I had not experienced. I began by choosing Don Garber's wonderfully unique homage to affordable audio artistry, the Fi-Xi passively integrated amplifier, as my touchstone. By doing so, it meant I would be melding one of fine audio's oldest design concepts, the Single-Ended Triode Amplifier, with one of its newest, the Slim Devices Squeezebox 2 Music Player http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue21/squeezebox2.htm as my digital transport of choice. In keeping with self-imposed budget and size limitations, I stumbled upon the terrific little Birdland Odeon-AG DAC to marry with the Squeezebox 2 for digital playback duties. Since mine was to be a simple system, devoid of fancy tweaks and water-hose sized cables. These new pieces of kit would have to fit on a small table and not dominate visually in order to be accepted (by guess who?) in the desired locale. The chosen components fit my requirements perfectly leaving me the task of finding the proper speakers.
Moving and Grooving
Flea-power amp lovers already know that choices are limited for small footprint speakers which perform well with 3.5 watts. The superb little Audio Note AX-2 Signatures (http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue20/audionoteax2.htm ) were still residing in the place of honor whilst I began this commentary. At 90dB sensitivity, they were clearly not the ideal partner with the Fi, yet in a twisted sort of audio-fate, they sounded terrific. I realized just how terrific when unwittingly performing one of audio's most intriguing listening tests—the ORT, a.k.a. the Other Room Test. As I was sitting in the OR, writing about the AN on my CPU, the sound from my new system began to draw me in. I didn't have to get up and move into the living room, I was captivated from two rooms away. The AX-2 Signatures mated so well that if they had been able to provide more volume they'd still be here—the synergy was near-perfect. The AXs sounded so wonderful, when I found I had a rare opportunity to live a few days with a pair of 94dB Audio Note AN-Es, I nearly swooned over the thought of how good they would sound. The AN-Es were clearly the more resolving speaker and the sound was shockingly good, but in another bizarre turn, they did not make an emotional connection and leaving me an unfulfilled listener. After a few days, I unhooked the Es and reinserted the AX-2 Signatures. The sound was amazing. At that very moment the following observation struck me like lightning; were the AN-Es too resolving? It was not a case where the ancillary components could not keep up; there was no detectable wall that was hit, whereby a piece of gear was not up to snuff. No, this was different; this was about more than just my ear-brain connection and what sounded better to me electro-mechanically. This was not about accuracy, realism, or even simple musicality. This was a near cosmic collision of math and science, earth and universe, flesh and spirit. It was a realization that true synergy forms from within the unexpected expression of musical beauty; not unlike the feeling we get while singing in the shower, head-bob grooving in the car, or tapping fingers and toes while listening to a song on a tin-box AM radio. No matter our background or musical taste, we've all felt this infectious groove. I've dubbed it "The Gestalt of James Brown" - the music has soul baby!
Considering these facts, it would be easy to assume that I do not like listening long-term to systems of extreme resolution. I have questioned and considered this possibility many times, and it may well be true. If the loose definition of "Audiophile" is someone who strives for the highest order of audio reproduction, does this mean I am not an audiophile? No, I think not. A highly resolving system is not the be-all-end-all of audio, nor can it be the ultimate predictor of my own personal synergistic ideal. I have reveled in the intangible musical bonds of soul with other systems that would blow my current gear away—compared purely on high fidelity performance. My now departed Cary/First Sound/Berning/Merlin system was just such a beast and I absolutely loved the music it made. Conversely, I have found the same rapport exists with my sub $1k Pioneer DV-578A/Panasonic SA-XR50/Hsu Ventriloquist system. It certainly does not have the same ability to resolve and reproduce recordings that the aforementioned system had, yet it still gives me goose-bumps when playing a multi-channel SACD or DVD-A. It sounds so fabulous in my tiny home office that I almost abandoned the idea of building a new two-channel system altogether.
In a Cold Sweat
So how do I tie a neat little bow around these related findings? I have always thought the determinate factor of great audio to be choosing components which mated well electrically and sonically. This is certainly true, but to stretch the definition, attributes that need matching do not stop at the balances of cold vs. warm or forward vs. recessed. It seems that by sheer accident I have finally realized this audiophile's own emotional system must be well balanced too. Music should not only sound fabulous to my brain, but feed my spirit as well. I now believe this to be the root of true synergy in audio; the answer to why each of us attempts to find it in very different ways, and why some may never attain its lofty height at all.
As for me, I am not quite done with my personal search for the system that will produce the screaming "I feel good!" godfather-of-soul musicality that I love so very much. I am getting very close however, and look forward to sharing my breakthroughs as I recount my quest for the musical version of the law of common fate—The "Gestalt of James Brown" - Part Two. Obviously, there is no way to predict how soon I will find the magic bullet, but with high expectations and a hopeful outlook, perhaps I'll be shaking and shuffling in a cold sweat very soon! Yeeeooow!