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Positive Feedback ISSUE 41
january/february 2009


From Clark Johnsen's Diaries - A Grand Opening Feast in Florida, and for Dessert, Black Ravioli


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Early in December Florida's Gold Coast was graced with a new audio salon: The Sound Experience. And here am I, on vacation anyway and invited to the opening. Not only that, but Michael Fremer is the star guest. Might be fun!

A few days in advance I drop in to meet David Zucker, the proud proprietor, and get a handle on what to expect. I know that the main room will feature Scaena loudspeakers, the midsize version scaled down from the giants that Harry Pearson and I both admire—and which captured awards at RMAF. But what would be driving them? And so forth.

Unannounced I appear in Boca and discover David at his desk along with assistant Sherrie and another fellow who likewise just dropped by. They're chowing down on lunch, which I've already had, so everyone is relaxed and I get David talking. While pleasantly informal, he takes his new business seriously and thoughtfully. His background, he tells me, is in the food service industry and he draws several parallels. "Food and audio—both involve passion and the pursuit of knowledge. Plus, if you're my kind of person you need music just as you need food. Both have become service businesses as well. You strive to make people feel good and be happy.

"Now I think that I've arrived at my true place in life. And as with your chef, I like being in the room with the customer, not exactly hovering over him but there to make sure everything's all right and that he's enjoying himself.

"It took me a couple decades pursuing audio as a hobby, while working in the food industry, to finally realize that there were three main pastimes in life I was mainly interested in, and they are, in order, food, music and audio."

"Great order!" I interject. "Although, I'd like to put wine and beer in there somewhere."

David smiles. "That you may. But in all three, or four, as elsewhere in life, my intention is to take the ordinary and make it extra-ordinary. And not just in life, but in business practice as well. Great music is long-lived, so should a company be. I'm here to provide a place people can come to for years, and relax, and know that the products they buy will be firmly backed."

Wrapping up lunch, David swings out of his chair and beckons me into the two inner sanctums. "It's almost all very, very high end. I think that's what many people will be looking for in this store because they can't find it anywhere else. And we've had the rooms acoustically fashioned by Performance Acoustics Labs." Both rooms are tasteful, but more in an acoustic way than, say, a family way. There can be no doubt these premises are dedicated to good sound. The front wall features an elaborate acoustical collage reminiscent of Louise Nevelson albeit more regular. The side walls sport RPG-style diffuser panels and more, and everything is painted gray. Spotted around, however, are colorful works of art and nature to break the chromatic monotony. The design is intended to accentuate the equipment and it serves that purpose very well. Whether such an excellent demo environment will help sell to the ladies, is one of those eternally ponderable questions.

David plays me a few cuts in both rooms, all sounds well and I promise to return.


I arrive with my Ft. Lauderdale buddy Rob Hart just as snacks are delivered. Did I say snacks? This is a grand al fresco spread as befits David's love for good food. Huge shrimp, golden chunks of deep-fried lobster, thin-sliced rib lamb chops that can be held in your fingers. To think we had discussed heading over to the Mexy place across the street! Well contented, we proceed inside for the sonic feast.

The back room features Hansen Princes for loudspeakers. (The rest of the gear is listed at the end.) On deck is a Jackson Browne tune and it sounds not good, the bass slovenly and slow. Naturally I say nothing because as a reporter there's an obligation to observe and be silent. Someone else soon brings the subject up and the presenter, who turns out to be Wes Bender, replies, "Yes, it is, isn't it? But that's the way this recording sounds. These speakers will do that. They're very revealing of the material."

Who hasn't heard that line before? After a few more cuts however, my cynicism fades, for they are very much responsive to the material. These Hansens are excellent speakers and I understand the praise they've received.

But it's the Scaena room that's the more popular and crowded, although again one must remain in the background. For David's sake those who may become paying customers should get the good seats. Hence this reporter spends hardly any time inside. Also the hallway crowd proves highly congenial and anyway that's where the wine is served. Did I mention the fine wine?

There too I strike up a conversation with the earlier backroom presenter and discover Wes's identity, and when he hears my name he goes, "Oh, Clark Johnsen! Good to meet you." This writing gig does have its moments. So we yack it up, the scene shifts, people are lining up for more wine and then I'm back in the back room again—and alone with Mikey.

"Quiet in here," I unnecessarily comment. But not quiet for long. Mike pulls out his famous CD-R (every year a new and different famous CD-R, made mostly from LPs played on his Continuum turntable with some expensive cartridge or other—who needs digital?) and asks, "Shall we?" The first selection, he announces, comes from a lacquer cut from a studio recording of a live 1957 television show. I recognize it as "Zing Went the Strings of My Heart" in a masterful arrangement stylishly played. Not only that, but the sound isn't half bad. Or maybe even better. Very listenable.

Huh! The Milton Berle Show. Who knew?

Mikey, knew!

Shortly thereafter Peter McGrath enters and we exchange pleasantries. Then Mike puts on a cut from the L.A. Philharmonic, a Poulenc piece. Soon Peter nods his head and goes, "Sounds like spaced omnis." They were, of course, I expect, but isn't it amazing how some people tune right in to one thing about sound, others to another? For myself, I had already noted that the absolute polarity was set right—although few ever seem to care. That's my chief gripe in audio life.

But what is it with CD, that the sound sucks so seriously sometimes, or even mostly, yet when done right can convey some of the subtlest aspects of analog? (Just askin' …I'd like to know…)

Next, a pair of cuts of the same tune, still off an LP except one was made after the record had been demagnetized on a Furutech. [Sidebar: I had noted this phenomenon back in the late Eighties when playing around with CD "degaussing" and had convinced several other people, but the effect then was mild. Anyway there had already been the Zerostat, although it was intended only to remove static electricity pops, not to improve the sound. Maybe it did, but no one back then was attuned to that.] So we have Tom Waits' "Step Right Up" times two, and afterwards Mike asks for my reaction. OK. Well, I'm amazed at so much improvement, but let's take it slow. Maybe I'm being tested by an avowed non-tweaker—they do that you know. "Well ... the bass was more tuneful... and his vocal production settled down into the chest, instead of seeming to be from the throat... I can't hear any way the sound is worse... in fact, I love it! The most result I've ever heard from degaussing a record!"

Then: “Have you played this for many others? What do they say?"

Mike smiles. "Yes. And you know who? Tim di Paravicini! He heard it right away, and he agreed." "Uh, Tim's not an easy date." "No."

Here's a short piece by Elliott Carter. Someone who has stepped in, remarks that you don't hear much Carter in audio and I observe that back in Boston, even as we speak, there's a Carter festival and he's all over the radio too. "Well, that's Boston." Yes, that it is.

Van Dyke Parks, "Song Cycle". The Supremes, "Where Did Our Love Go?" Finally, Art Blakey's "Night in Tunisia", the exciting and vivid 1960 van Gelder-engineered recording, from a 45rpm lacquer. Oh Lord God! Talk about rhythm in the bass! Talk about sonic authenticity! But please shut up, right now we're having a spiritual experience, just the sort of thing that David Zucker brought this equipment together for, and this room, and these people. Pity he was occupied elsewhere. Pity so was everyone else. The star guest and I were alone together, just laying back for five minutes to enjoy the music.

And Now for Dessert - How Can You Have Good Sound If You Don't Eat Your Ravioli?

Down from the winter winds of Canada, visiting his daughter, myself too, and Rob here in Florida, presenting, Mark Schrauwen of Vulcan Audio, soon to be tagged as Kid. Although we don't realize this yet, he has brought along some new thingies from Scotland called Black Ravioli. Normally, black ravioli are made from fine semolina flour and squid ink, but these pastas are crafted to be placed under audio gear to reduce vibration transmission. And to dampen internal vibrations. (And, it is whispered, even more…)

Not until the mid Nineties were such needs discovered, and this reporter was on the scene. It still beats me that CD players, working as they do in the vaunted digital domain, should require isolation much like turntables, but there you are. Nor does anyone know why, nor does anyone even seem to care to ask himself why he doesn't know why. Ain't that a bitch!

So here we three are in Rob's large living-room in Fort Lauderdale, hanging for a few days enjoying each others' company, music, and audio. Beaches. Beverages. Dinners. Every time I visit Rob, something's different in his system. His changes run from minor to massive, nor by any means does he neglect what the jeering crowd calls "tweaks". This year the main change has been the CD player, a Raysonics 168 in place of a Stibbert. This, he tells us, is much better. And who's to disagree?

Then one night we're wasted and drinking and Rob puts on a live Jackson Browne CD (actually a superior Reality Check dub) and we lean back. Although late, we listen to almost the whole thing. It's that good, and we're pleased with ourselves just for being there with it. Everyone knows how that goes. The Kid, however, begins to fade—it's way past his provincial bedtime—and falls off to sleep, although later than the night before; they grow up so fast these days.

Next day Kid rummages through his luggage and hauls out a nickle bag of Black Ravioli. Huh! But here we are spending the day like normal guys, cruising the beach, hitting Home Depot, stuffing ourselves at Anthony's awesome coal-fired pizza restaurant with their super chicken wings.

The experiments tonight proceed per usual. Rob tries the only eleven Ravioli under various components and results are clearly better than what he had before (Herbie's Audio Lab), although with only these few to use we're unsure where to leave them. The damn things are effective even under his electronic outboard crossovers! However, we all agree that under the Raysonics player they work the best, especially when doubled-up: four little piles of two Ravioli each. Finally, before Kid must be put to bed Rob inserts the Jackson Browne disc and we settle back immersed in the absurdly enhanced experience. Man does this sound great! But after a few minutes Rob sits bolt upright and mock-screams at Mark: "You had to keep these in your goddam bag last night didn't you?" Kid smiles and shrugs. Then I leap up, jabbing my finger at him: "The way you let us go on last night? Without the Ravioli? I should have known! It sounded like TOTAL FUCKING SHIT!"

Laughter: The best medicine.

Consequently I have arranged to travel with Black Ravioli to this year's CES. Report due—probably not very soon. Also, U.S. distribution has yet to be arranged. So consult the UK site below.

The Sound Experience

Performance Acoustics Labs

Black Ravioli or call Globe Audio Marketing (Canada) 800-330-3804

Review of Black Ravioli

Michael Fremer, Music Angle

The reference room system was:

  • Scaena 3.2

  • VTL Siegfrieds

  • VTL TL7.5 preamp

  • Transparent Opus cables

  • Boulder 1021 CD Player

  • Boulder 2008 phono stage

  • SME 30.2 with SME 5 arm and Koetsu Coralstone cartridge

  • HRS stands

The backroom system was:

Hansen Princes

  • BAT Rex preamp

  • VTL 6.5 Phono stage

  • BAT VK150SE mono amps

  • Transparent Ref cables

  • Transrotor Orion TT, Graham Phantom B-44 arm, Airtight PC1 cartridge

  • Esoteric DV60 CD Player

  • HRS stands