FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 35
These are a Few of My Favorite Things
Those of us in the fine-audio journalism arena are too often oriented towards the next new fix, seeking ever more novel and stimulating experiences. Very much like dating, it is the chase and the promiscuous scent of new flesh that feeds our ever more jaded senses. And, of course, there is always the implicit pressure for "new and improved" from readers.
Once we have "planted our flag" as it were, we move on, and that which occasioned our thrills last year, or last month, is often relegated to the benign neglect of familiarity. Like memory, these things are simply incorporated into the gestalt of our system, and we are only aware of them when we specifically choose to be, or when something changes.
And yet, if we allow ourselves to grow and learn in the process, these foundational things form the necessary base to improve our perceptions and train our sensibilities. They function as a grounding point for understanding and contextualizing new experiences. As we become more sophisticated, increasingly they allow us the luxury of focusing on ever more minute degrees of improvement, while trusting the whole to remain firm and grounded.
Day after day, week after week, month after month and even year after year, these foundational elements of our systems continue to perform without fuss, without complaint …and we forget. The best of them disappear into the complex "pond" of our systems like the apocryphal carved carp that slips into the water and is indistinguishable among those living things it represents. (Yes, I know …Taoist references in an audio piece are borderline pretentious, even for me.)
This is human nature: to consign what was precious to the assumption of continuity; to take things for granted, until we lose them.
I suspect the only thing to be done about it, is to periodically re-examine and re-energize our relationships with the familiar …the second honeymoon …the anniversary celebration …something which reminds us of what is enduringly important and nourishing.
Which brings me to this piece …a celebration of the familiar.
JENA Labs Cables and AC Treatment
Right now I am apparently weeks away from taking receipt of the first statement speaker from JENA Labs; a wait of over four years for me.
As I look back, I realize it has been over a decade since I first tossed a piece of Jennifer Whitewolf-Crock's cable into my system and our relationship began. I was living in Portland, Oregon at the time, and had a new room which necessitated a rather long run of balanced cable between my pre and power amplifiers (at the time, the BAT VK-5i Preamplifier and VK-500 power amplifier). Literally within minutes my ongoing, frustrating, and largely unproductive search for wire was ended. The experience was that profound.
Since that day I have never seriously considered any alternative products and have slowly replaced the wire in my primary and most of my secondary systems with JENA Labs products, and each time I am persuaded that with Jennifer's cables, the money you spend is right there on your plate when you get the product. No trumped up cosmetics, no flashy marketing, no voodoo engineering, no off-shore assembly …you get the most carefully designed and executed products extant, and all directly from the hand of the designer, an increasingly rare and valuable thing these days.
I have also upgraded several times in my primary system, finding that the basic sound of Jennifer's wire remains very constant, but the level of "goodness" rises appreciably at each step.
To be sure, during this extended time, I have been courted by others, and have even flirted a couple of times, but never for long and never enduringly. I am just as susceptible to "differences translated as improvements" as the next, but always after an extended listen, I return to dancing with "she what brung me."
While there are always those neurotic audiophiles who will jump from one thing to another with no more reason than the siren's cry of creeping insecurity, or someone saying something somewhere that leads them to believe nirvana resides in the next county, or the next product. The adults among us know, viscerally, when we have found that which we have sought, and settle down into blissful monogamy.
Now, as I count down the weeks to receiving her new speaker I know that this is "until death us do part."
I have never been much of a "tweaker," so it took a long time and considerable skepticism-abatement to seriously consider both after-market power cords and AC treatment. Don't get me wrong, I accepted that such things produced differences, but "different" is not always an improvement (for example, my second wife), and often it seemed to me like compensatory behavior for other kinds of problems.
A number of years ago, I tried my first after-market cords and AC distributor; it definitely made a difference for the better. I wouldn't say I was a passionate convert at this point, but convert I did. Frankly, of most use was having a heavy and well-designed alternative to crappy distribution strips, and actually having enough outlets. I know this sounds prosaic, but as I said, I am not much of a tweaker.
On various occasions, I listened with mild academic interest as Jennifer described her "washing machine" filtering outlet box but it was priced way outside my range …and for something to just plug things into …well…
I did try her regular power cords and found them to be a distinct improvement over what I was using, and so migrated to them.
I was over to her and Michael's house one day, on some sort of errand or another (probably nagging her for timetables on her speaker, for which I have been waiting now a significant portion of my life, or so it seems), and I saw Mike working a new product on the bench …an AC filtering power cord, with an in-line box filled to the brim with premium components.
Once again, my interest was primarily academic, well at least until they brought one (called One™) over. Damn you Jennifer …I can resist anything but temptation.
I put it on my source of the time (the Lindemann 820 SACD player) and I was simply pole-axed. This is/was a five-figure, top of the line player, and this new box of Jennifer's transformed it without altering the basic presentation. It simply made all the goodness of this impressive player, more good …bigger, smoother, more liquid, more detailed …and most importantly, in aggregate, significantly more musical.
The One™ never left my house, and has been joined by the Eze-One(s) (different cabling) and even a Two-Eze (two outlets for my dual mono VK-600-SE power amplifier). This last bit was a real trial, because often such devices have the effect of "choking down" big power amps. Not here …the redoubtable VK-600-SE simply got more coherent and dynamic …again, while preserving the essential character of the amplifier (which I have always very much appreciated).
While the effect on digital sources is the most dramatic, once you have heard your electronics with these filtering power devices, it is very hard to go back. To date, there has been only ONE component where these devices did not work magic and that one was simply too broken sounding for resurrection.
I suppose the most reliable indicator for finding true excellence (or true love, for that matter) is that, once experienced; you cannot comfortably endure its absence.
JENA Labs in Toto
Quiet. That is her stuff does …the wire, the AC treatment …inky black, preternatural quiet …the absence of micro-level blur and ring, of high frequency hash that used to be music and is now just disconnected noise, separated from its apparent source in the time stream.
It is a sad testament to the nature of this business that Jennifer and her products have not garnered the fame and fortune so richly disserved, but this is often the nature of art …the feckless and base will prosper feeding on fads, ignorance and gullibility, while the true artists often languish in obscurity, and this largely because so many would not know true excellence if it dropped out of the sky on to their faces and started to wiggle.
For a complete description of the JENA Labs product lines, please visit their website at http://www.jenalabs.com.
Foundations - Critical Mass Systems
Again, I am not a tweaker …so for me, other than mass-loading the stand for my turntable, I got by with standard racks and that was that. About eight years ago, I discovered Black Diamond Racing cones and shelves and began to understand what micro-isolation could do for the sound of my system.
To be completely frank, I am not sure how it was that I ended up in contact with Joe Lavrencik of Critical Mass Systems (http://www.criticalmasssystems.com) …but contact we did …and in due time I took receipt of some beautifully made racks and filter platforms.
Just as with the JENA Labs products, experiencing the Critical Mass products was an epiphany which changed the course of my system, and (also as with JENA Labs) CMS now dominates my reference system, from floor placed amplifier units to filters under virtually all of my reference components.
One of the enduring things I have come to appreciate about Joe and Jennifer is that they are completely nuts …totally obsessed with what they do. They are not normal people. Normal people don't spend years of their life carefully refining something many people assert does not exist. Either they are nuts, or they understand things at a different level from most of the rest of us.
The last "upgrade" I got from Joe consisted of these composite pucks he put together, where the GLUE was tested for its auditory properties …as I said, nuts. What is distressing is that they work like crazy.
My experience is that Jennifer and Joe are not nuts. My experience also is that there is a level of synergy between these two product lines that is truly memorable. They fit together sonically in a seamless and harmonious way; this I think, because they are based on similar principles about how things work.
During the past few years, I have challenged my own assumptions, and taken my system down and reassembled it with modest wire, Belden power cords, regular racks and no isolation …you know, just to see if belief had taken over for reason and perception.
I have two …the first of which is …the effects of these things are both enduringly real and profound, and the second …there are people running to modders, or dumping components for upgrades or trade-outs, without doing due diligence to plumb the depths of what they already have.
Remember, a mod is a crapshoot, and different is not always better, even if you initially hear it as such. A great portion of assembling a truly satisfying system is exercising patience and systematic experimentation. Simply getting nervous and jumping this way or that (and not understanding that most often you will jump right into the unsympathetic jaws of someone who is there to separate you from your money) is not the answer.
No, your buddies are not going to "ooh and ah" over an isolation platform (well, they might, these CMS babies are really beautifully constructed and pleasing to the eye, as well as incredibly effective). They aren't going to gasp and gesticulate wildly at the sonic differences, because the true differences produced by effective isolation reside within less impressive, but more enduring and important aspects of the musical experience.
Musicality and Fatigue (in F major)
Apart from the obligatory and relentless audio adjectives …the effect of Jennifer and Joe's work on my system is quite simply a dramatic increase in musicality and an equally important reduction in listening fatigue.
Did you ever wonder why most audiophiles listen in sound-bites, why they restlessly pursue this and that …and use only a small portion of their library (and their brain), and eschew the rest? Why listening sessions with others are more aptly described as "talking" sessions? They blame components, they blame recordings …they blame the phases of the moon. Blah, blah, blah, and screw the guy next door trying to listen.
The dirty little truth is that even relatively modest componentry can and does produce highly satisfying music, if one has the patience and craft to coax the best out of it; and even the most hideously expensive equipment can be incapable of even producing a convincing stereo image in the absence of this effort and knowledge.
Are you at risk?
Here is an easy diagnostic tool.
Does your mind wander? Do you become restless and irritated? Does the dog begin to howl? Do you take a valium and a shot of Stoli's on your bathroom break? Do you break a glass and start to saw on your wrists mid-way through the second disc? Do you have an increasing desire to claw the ears off of the side of your head?
This is fatigue, and in many systems it can set in distressingly fast. I have walked into way too many listening rooms that had me twitching within five minutes and in abject misery in less than a half-hour.
It is in this context …in the reaction within your sub-conscious where the madness begins …the effects of listening fatigue, leaving you vulnerable to cognitive deterioration fueled by pernicious audio mags and internet blogs.
You wander the mean streets of endless upgrades and trades; everyone knows your "nick" on Audiogon …the local pusher, er …dealer gets you into a new brand of wire every three months …and finally you begin to explore esoteric and mystery-shrouded topologies and voodoo practices such as voiding your warranty to have your new CD player "modded" because everyone on the internet is doing it, and surely they know best …after all could "Audiogods" be wrong about this, when he/she/it crushes any dissenters with a vicious flame to the thorax and long dissertations on microfarads?
You move on to NOS tube-rolling, trading your Audi Quatro for a brace of vintage Golden Lions KT-88's …you give yourself over to telephone teleportation tweaks, and putting pictures of your ex-wives in the freezer before visitations.
Before you know what has happened, your bank account is empty and you are panhandling to get change to put on top of your speakers.
The moral of this sad story, ladies and gentlemen? The devil is in the details.
Wire, stands, suspension, and AC treatment are NOT tweaks; they are the context within which your system functions. Properly selected and used, they are that which coaxes the best from what you have by addressing the details which often spell the difference between an expensive din, and a truly musical audio system.
So, what does the CMS system do?
Quiet. That is what it does …inky black, preternatural quiet …the absence of micro-level blur and ring.
In the same way even the slightest shift from a clear external focus (such as when watching a very slightly out of focus movie, or when its time to change your lens prescription) will give you a headache as your brain keeps trying to focus what cannot be focused internally, so this micro-level vibration takes the auditory "picture" just enough out of focus to trigger a tension response that gets worse with each passing moment.
CMS sucks this fatigue-producing vibration down into the filter and translates mechanical energy into thermal energy and dispels it (at least insofar as I understand the explanation).
Now, Let's do the Math
When does one and one, equal one thousand? When there is an exponential effect. This is the magic of these two products in combination with each other: JENA Labs wire and AC treatment and Critical Mass Systems.
Drive attention deficit disorder from your listening room! Get up from two hours of listening feeling enervated and rested, not bug-eyed and cranky.
Before you move on to greener pastures, make sure you have seen what you have all gussied up in her pretty party dress, and ready to dance the night away. You might be very surprised.
Old Friends - Balanced Audio Technology VK-51-SE, VK-P-10-SE and VK-600-SE
This is my last long-term follow-up and formal mention of these three remarkable products. I may be seeing some new offerings from BAT down the line, but either way, it is time to close this chapter with respect and admiration.
BAT has been with me since I began writing for Positive Feedback back in the days of paper and ink, and has always been the heart of my primary reference system. Nothing I have had in on review has tempted me to move on, and I have had some of the finest electronics made in the world come through my room. While I have added some pieces, I have replaced none of the BAT gear, except upgrading within the BAT line (I started with the VK-5i Pre, VK-P-5 Phono and the VK-500 Power amplifiers).
Amplifiers come and go, but the BAT's remain … and through all these years, without drama or fuss, as reliable as the sunrise, they continue to make wonderful music with nothing more than a replaced fuse now and then, when I have done something completely pork-brained. No failures.
I probably have said about all there is to say about these pieces, sonically. While they are not for the fashion-driven audiophile, and they really don't like single-ended operation …they are the perfect combination of power, warmth and extension …for true music lovers …utterly listenable, adding only the merest soupcon of delectable richness to sources and speakers.
But my final comment is in the context of the New Year, and a deepening appreciation of old friends as another year turns; in this case, recognition of the incredible reliability and dependability of these three pieces. One wag suggested only two things would survive the nuclear holocaust: cockroaches, and Keith Richards. I want to add my BAT equipment to this list.
On New Year's Day I had a long telephone conversation with a friend I have known for over fifty years. Some things and some relationships do endure, and that is worthy of the most respect and affection I can offer.
To Victor, Steve and Geoff at BAT …my enduring thanks for thousands of hours of enjoyment.