Radio Free Chip
The Conflicted Audiophile - Diminished Expectations in the Digital Music Epoch
Early on, when I made my initial forays into high end audio, I found myself harkening back to my earliest experiences with my father's AR3 loudspeakers and Sony reel-to-reel tapes and the KLH/Dual turntable compact stereo that made my early college experiences endurable. The joy I experienced from total immersion in good music marked me as a natural for good audio gear, and over the years I did my best as budget permitted to upgrade my rig.
But as I discovered on those six hour drives between SUNY Oswego and my Long Island home (in the pre-FM Car Radio/Walkman Epoch), the experience of good music often transcends the delivery system.
I used to schedule those long drives upstate so that I'd find myself an hour north of New York City after midnight because there was a Canadian AM station out of Toronto that would broadcast six hours of uncompromising jazz until dawn. Believe you me, those long miles of lonely highway simply melted away when John Coltrane intoned "A Love Supreme," even through the associated noise and interference of flawed AM radio transmissions (Edwin Howard Armstrong, hallowed be thy regenerative frequency modulated name).
Still, as I discovered. if the experience of music is profound enough, carbon based life forms are endowed with a spiritual Dolby circuit, wherein if we cannot cancel out all that aural schmutz, we can psychically compensate by zeroing in on the music itself in such a manner as to render the interference all but invisible. Ah, bliss.
But, as I am wont to say, you can't polish a turd.
One of the enduring ironies of high end audio is that as your system grows more and more sophisticated; the level of dynamics and resolution more impactful and realistic, a sense of diminished expectations rears its ugly head—because each musical experience represents a fresh opportunity to hear just how flawed individual recordings actually are. As in, "Holy Shit… what have I been listening to?"
As the image of physical media grows more obscure in our rear view mirror—and for many young people, the compact disc now seems as quaint an artifact as the vinyl LP—the temptation for recording, mixing and mastering engineers to dig deep into their trick bag often proves irresistible, as they seek to accommodate the tastes of modern listeners by acknowledging the nature of downloadable and digital media—such as the ubiquitous iPod and a rogue's gallery of portable tablets and phablets which now represent the primary delivery system for music.
This represents the spiritual obverse of polishing a turd, wherein engineers seek to dumb down the recorded sound—to maximize its impact for a lower order of stereo system, or more properly, to sound great on the newest generation of digital media and computer delivery systems.
It's debatable as to whether or not this is necessarily a bad thing, but it is surely a double edged sword.
Recently I had a very unsettling experience while perusing new recordings by a pair of progressive jazz artists with impeccable credentials—two of my all time favorites—yet I found myself so put off by the mass market style of mastering, that I simply stopped listening.
I don't want to call their names, as this would not be fair to them and would not really advance my argument in a way I could demonstrate outside of my living room.
Still, the experience of their music, juiced up and hot-rodded as it was, proved downright fatiguing on my all-singing all dancing audio rig. I had barely to turn up the volume on my Rogue Hera II Pre-Amp/Manley Massive Passive EQ/Medusa Hybrid Power Amp/Upgrade Company Signature Edition Oppo BDP-105 Blu-Ray-Universal Disc Player/Dynaudio Confidence C1 Loudspeaker combo… and it was already too damn loud.
The music was mastered so motherfucking hot, it had like zero dynamic range; was so gain heavy and compressed, that it proved too draining to listen to from my sweet spot in the near field. I had to get up from my listening chair, seven feet from ground zero, and repair to the adjacent room, wherein I could experience the majesty of the music indirectly, off-axis, where physically it proved less enervating.
This is not a function of my system, outputting as it does a he-man sized 400-plus watts per channel into the Dynaudio C1's 4 ohm load. What I was seeking by deploying such reserves of power was not a matter of sheer volume, but of dynamic headroom and image stability, frequency linearity and sonic realism, where the system literally recedes from view, to reveal a palpable acoustic space with a believable depiction of both the softest and loudest sounds, from ppppp to fffff, and all points in between.
For me, as a guitarist, it is not unlike the experience of plugging into a vintage 1965 blackface Fender Twin Reverb Amp. And though the volume knob is initially only on one, it is already too damn loud. This is not a put-down of a Twin Reverb, a truly classic guitar amp, but putting out as it does roughly 85 watts RMS into a pair of 12" speakers, it is to these ears ideally suited to attain a big, clean, dynamic sound. If your preference is to make the amp bleed, to achieve a sweet, bloomy blues sound, wherein the signal kind of breaks up in a throaty, vocalized manner, my personal preference would be to plug into a 22-watt Fender Deluxe from the same era, as you can push it harder and get a more expressive sound as you roll up the volume on the amp to say 5-6-7, and control the output from your guitar. If you tried turning the Twin up past five, sweet merciful Django, you'd be hard pressed to stand next to it without blood surging out of associated orifices.
I'd liken it to the act of making love as opposed to simply engaging in spirited sex, if I might draw that distinction, because sometimes it's all about the tenderness while at other times it's about passion bordering on…well, let's put it this way. Imagine yourself engaged with someone for whom you harbored deep feelings; taking it slow, like the sixty minute man you are, maybe you blow in her ear, gently stroke the nape of her neck, let your fingers move oh so imperceptivity up her thigh until, masterfully, conclusively, opening her up like a desert flower, you touch her inner muse, and pluck on her harp strings until she sings like a tuning fork.
Conversely, maybe you've opted for a night out at a fine bistro, yet are too impatient to even allow her to even remove her wrap; you rip off her dress in the hat check room, bend her over the back of a straight back chair, and grabbing hard at her hair, pull back on her neck and hammer away from astern until the sounds of copulation resonate resoundingly like a gas powered weed-whacker in the Carlsbad Caverns.
But I do go on.
Don't get me wrong. In my experience so-called "Audiophile Recordings" often suck even worse, moving as they do in precisely the opposite direction, in the general direction of some bloodless, antiseptic, no-gain approximation of purity—as if the music were recorded in the triage room at Mount Sinai Medical.
In such cases, perhaps the perceived aural signature of the music is of greater importance than the music itself. I recently ran across an on-line advertisement for a new iteration of Jazz at the Panwshop, which deeply offended me, suggesting in a giddy blurb that this was "The Best Jazz Recording of the Century."
I mean, give me a break. More like the most boring, overrated recordings of the century, never mind the second-hand, third-rate nature of these weak-assed Benny Goodman borrowings. The experience for this naysayer is commensurate with some of those awful Sheffield Lab "audiophile recordings" that purportedly represented a pinnacle of the engineer's art. Gag me with a spoon.
For this listener, be the music overtly jacked up, or drained of all life in the name of some jive paradigm of aural purity, count me out.
Don't get me wrong. I am not King Canute standing on the beach ordering the tide to roll back; believe you me, as far as digital media and computer audio is concerned, I am all in—more or less.
In fact, these past 3-4 years, while fine tuning my main reference system (and trying without much success to refrain from the temptation to pursue further upgrades), my audio journey has largely centered around enhancing my capacity for computer archiving and playback, let alone music on the go. Color me boring.
Some time back, having tired of generally crappy sound, reams of wires and jive sub-woofer contrivances, I queried my friends about a simple, effective audio companion for my computer. The consensus led me to invest in a pair of tiny (6" H x 4" W x 5.25" D), self-powered, Audioengine 2 loudspeakers, which for $200 (and another thirty bucks for a pair of hard-rubberized stands which effectively decouple them from the desktop and place them at an ideal listening angle) are simply the bomb.
I purchased the older iterations. You connect them to each other with a single speaker cable (in my case, a four foot spade terminated run of Monster Cable's pricey Sigma Retro Gold, a bit of overkill to be sure, but old audio geek habits die hard, so sue me); you run an outboard power supply from one speaker; plug into the back of your computer, and bingo—two-channel nirvana.
With a tiny vented 2.75-inch Kevlar woofers and 20mm silk dome tweeters, they are—in the near field—damn near flawless: richly voiced, full-sounding and dynamic with surprisingly clear, convincing bass, a smooth natural frequency response and a wonderful sound stage. Nor am I alone in my enthusiasm. I recently came across a web posting by my worthy constituent Steve Guttenberg, who felt compelled to confess how often he found himself listening to his Audioengine speakers in lieu of his supercalifragalistic audiophile rig (Steve has at one time or another, written glowingly of the active Audioengine 2, its larger brethren the Audioengine 5, and the passive Audioengine P4).
I too find myself doing a great deal of industrial listening on my Audioengine 2 in the very near field. I deploy my own PC as a kind of Cro-Magnon cross between an old time radio and an outsized iPod (I have well over 1.5 terabytes of music, mostly red-book WAV files, on one of three, three terabyte hard drives), so it is often easier and more convenient to simply call up specific music on my hard drive and listen to it on the Audioengine 2's when I have a hankering to hear something immediately and not go digging around through the morass of CDs in the next room (God knows how many, maybe on the order of 5000-7000, with an equal number of vinyl LPs in the hallway). I know, I know; there are much more sophisticated ways of organizing your digital holdings, but I haven't graduated to them.
And when I want to access music from my hard drive on experience it on my main rig in the adjacent room?
About two years back I purchased a GT40 USB 2.0 DAC by Furutech, a high quality, blissfully simple, 24-Bit/96KHz Digital Interface, which I use to override the sound card in my computer and connect to my main audio rig in the next room through its RCA audio outputs with a seven meter run of JPS Labs Superconductor 3 interconnects. It is neither the most expensive nor the most sophisticated DAC you can deploy for computer audio (I have been hankering after some of the hipper new Wytek DACs which offer even higher PCM resolution and are capable of handling DSD files, but I have thus far resisted). Still, the audio quality is exemplary; it doubles as a phono line stage; has a high quality headphone amp, and allows me control the volume in the next room from my desktop.
Recently, being kind of simple-minded, with help from a young techie buddy, I finally figured out how to access music from LP-cassette-digital sources in my main system, input it back into my computer through the Furutech, and deploy my Audacity program to digitize and edit music on my hard drive. Hardly something to puff my chest out about, but a significant achievement for his technically challenged old klutz as I undertake the task of archiving 30-35 years worth of live music recordings, interviews and LPs that never made it from the analog realm to compact disc.
Finally, at my daughter's behest, I completed my immersion into the digital age by graduating to an adult cell phone, after using a pathetic little Consumer Cellular flip phone lo these many years. It made phone calls. It worked.
In my own bass-ackwards way, I was motivated to upgrade by the necessity for recording phone interviews. I was reading about a USB recording device that function as a flash drive, a Forus FSV-US Cellphone Recorder, which plugs directly into the 1/8" headphone jack, and allows one to make high quality stereo recordings—which can then be stored on your hard drive as .mp3 files. I finally accepted that it was unlikely to mate properly with my shitty flip phone, which inspired me to finally step up to a full featured modern device and surrender to the forces of Verizon wireless by bellying up to the bar and committing to your standard two year phone/data contract.
In the meantime, I await a return visit from my technically astute young friend, who promises to download one of them new fangled "apps" with which I can bypass the physical medium of the external cellphone-recorder and do it all in the digital domain.
So, yeah, I'm just as late to the cellular party as I was to the celebration of High Definition Video Displays. Hell, only 12 years had passed between the time I saw my first 42" Plasma TV at the 1998 Stereophile show in Los Angles, to my purchase of a Panasonic Viera TC-P42G25 1080p Plasma HDTV at the end of 2010 (by which time the price had come down from $11,000 to, chuckle, $750). Having seamlessly integrated it into my 2-channel, proscenium arch audio system, I must say I am quite the happy camper.
Likewise, when it comes to my new cellular device, color me enthusiastic—I have come to simply love my Samsung Galaxy Note II, which I would liken to a Swiss Army Knife with a nipple.
A phablet about half the size of the mini iPad, for some people the Galaxy Note II seems an ungodly large smart phone, but for me it is the perfect size, fitting snugly into my hand and shirt pocket, making me look for all the world like one of those 1950s engineering major geeks, with a pencil case and slide rule jutting out of his white button down shirt (or in my case, a fresh supply of cotton-pocketed Hanes Beefy T-Shirts).
And as good a cellular device as it is, and much as I have come to depend on its computer functions for both work and pleasure, it also has a wonderful video display, with which I can extend upon my YouTube addiction while on the go, and for my audio fix I find myself listening to an inordinate amount of streaming music from Pandora, Wolfgang's Vault and Sugar Megs, as well as a buffet table full of.mp3 files I have downloaded onto a high speed Class 10 ADATA Premier Pro microSDHC card.
Yes, sports fans, I have made my peace with the .mp3 file format; I can even begin to appreciate how appropriate some of those hot-rodded, modern mastering jobs—which sound so fatiguing on my reference audio rig—can be quite compelling on a set of modest headphones competing with the roar of a jet engine on a trans-continental flight.
And let me hip you to the remarkable iGrado headphones, which for a lousy fifty bucks, have brought me an enormous amount of pleasure, whether listening to music on the Galaxy Note II or tethered to a Mac Book Pro. And recently, I was pleased to discover that I could engage in hands-free phone conversations with the Galaxy Note II in my shirt pocket, and the iGrados connected to the 1/8" jack just as I did for music; the sound quality is excellent for speaker and listener alike, and not Blue Ball devices are necessary. Much more relaxed for extended conversations then holding the damn thing up to your ear until your arm goes numb. And no one is aware of any speaker phone anomalies.
Based on the same transducers as the acclaimed Grado SR60 headphones, these ultra-light, over the ear/behind-the-head style of open air-cans are incredibly musical and bring the signature Grado sound—smooth highs, rich, open midrange and tightly articulated bass—down to the level of the kind of simple, portable, knock-about device I was looking when out on the road. Hell, I was so impressed by their musicality and bare bones price point that I purchased a set of Grado SR80s for my wife to deploy on her iPad or when practicing Bach on her digital Yamaha keyboard. She too was blown away by their enormous sound and no-nonsense simplicity—pretty damn impressive for a lousy hundred bucks. And I recently sent my high end Grado RS-1 headphone back to Brooklyn for service, and the new cable they attached enhanced the clarity and transparency of the sound enormously; much sweeter and more revealing, with a smoother more extended high end, and tighter, more defined bass. Plugged into the headphone jack of the Furutech GT-40, I am indeed living large in a Grado state of mind.
So no, I am not at all turned off by products of the digital age, and in point of fact have taken them like a duck to confit.
Nevertheless, I remain committed to hard disc media and to the traditional audio signal chain, which to my ears, still confers a level of audio verity, and, for want of a better term…a greater degree of humanity to the experience of music. Likewise, I surely understand the appeal of downloadable technologies, be they for portable music devices or the latest audiophile passion play—high definition downloads. Recently my Positive Feedback editors Dave Clark and David Robinson sang such impassioned arias on the joys of double DSD, that my eyes began to glaze over.
Be that as it may, having finally achieved an absolute level of audio verity on my reference audio system a lifetime in the making, I find myself more drawn of late to the joys of Blu-Ray discs, allowing me as they do to finally experience the pure splendor of high definition audio AND video resolution in one combined system. (Like I said, I came kind of late to the party, maybe twenty years late…I mean audio AND video, Chip, what a breakthrough. Alert the media.)
So while in tune with those aural attributes which motivate audiophiles to bypass physical disc devices and thus all of that jitter and sundry aural schmutz…I just can't be bothered.
First, because my life it complex enough. Secondly, I remain drawn to the sound of the hard-wired audio signal chain. I experience it as warmer-sounding, more human, more intimate and involving. I am still drawn to that style of musical immersion, and thus, to tube electronics, dynamic loudspeakers, and physical disc devices, even as one sub-set of audiophiles leave such effluvia in the past, while the more fundamentalist of my colleagues continue to eschew digital entirely and retreat deeper and deeper into their pure analog womb, and the enduring sonic glory of vinyl LPs, and a world of very expensive turntables, tone-arms and cartridges. Hey, wouldn't be much of a hobby if we all experienced things the same way.
Having said all that, at this point dear reader, you might be inspired to address the [c]HIPSTER[n] with this pertinent query: "Aren't you the same blowhard who began this meandering screed by railing against jacked up, dehumanizing, fatiguing techniques for mastering music?"
Guilty as charged.
And much as I love my newly minted DAC, my computer audio and portable music devices, first and foremost among my most cherished new acquisitions is the Oppo BDP-105, a Universal disc player, that not only handles all of your garden variety pulse code modulation (PCM) based compact discs with aplomb, but also.mp3 discs, SACD (DSD-based super audio compact discs); DVD Data Discs and what few DVD-V and DVD-A audio discs remain on the market—not to mention the new generation of Blu-Ray video and audio discs which have been captivating me of late.
For those of you who wish to go on referencing your vast libraries of discs, to enjoy the most recent iterations of high definition audio and video formats, to experience the film-like clarity, low-noise resolution and extraordinary sonics of the Blu-Ray format—and who do not view their audio and video functions as mutually exclusive—the BDP-105 is one of the greatest bargains in contemporary audio and video, easily bridging the gap between audiophile aspirations and consumer audio budgets.
At only $1199, the Oppo BDP-105 is such a no-brainer I don't even know where to begin.
Perhaps by going back to my most recent Positive Feedback piece on its predecessor, the BDP-95, which I'd only just completed reviewing in both its stock and Upgrade Company Signature Edition iterations, when lo and behold, here comes the roll-out of this new and wildly improved rendition, and more tellingly, the lovingly customized new Signature Edition version of the BDP-105 from David Schulte and The Upgrade Company, which for $2500, easily takes on and stomps all over disc players costing three, four, five times as much.
I kid you not. Again, some years back in these pages, I had the pleasure of a long conjugal visit with a wonderful Luxman multi-format disc player with a set of very hip DACs, the discontinued DU-80. Still, with a list price above $10,000, I couldn't afford to keep it, which ironically turned out to be a piece of good luck, because as fast as things advance in the high end audio/video paradigm, its roll-out preceded the introduction of HDMI/HD functions, let alone of the Blu-Ray format as a high end audio option, and as good as it sounded in its day, its performance pales besides that of the Upgrade Company's Signature Edition of the BDP-105—for one quarter the price!
By installing their own motherboard and sundry outboard tweaks, and by deploying Schulte's proprietary shielding techniques to banish as much extraneous noise as humanly possible, The Upgrade Company have taken an excellent performer in the Oppo BDP-105, and with their Signature Edition, put it way over the top in terms of no-compromise audio and video resolution.
In my review of the BDP-95 Signature Edition, and my extended interview with Schulte, I went on at enormous length to describe the technical process and the sonic pay-off, which in terms of every dollar invested, is really, really significant. For $2500, the Upgrade Company's Signature Edition of the BDP-105, has really put my entire reference system over the top. Not to mention the incredible levels of resolution I've experienced since upgrading my pre-amp to the Rogue Audio Hera II, which having as it does a set of balanced inputs, allows me to run the Signature Edition of the Oppo BDP-105 fully balanced, through the auspices of a wonderful new set of balanced Acoustic Zen Absolute Copper interconnects. (And if you follow this link to an Audiogon Forum, you can read a very detailed analysis on a buyer's very personal experience of the Acoustic Zen Absolute Copper's remarkable resolution and musicality.)
So thrilled was I with how these final enhancements put my digital front end over the top, and on par with the rest of my system, that as an experiment, having sent my Massive Passive Parametric Tube EQ back to Manley's master techie Paul Fargo for a 100,000 mile check-up, I had them ship the unit to Schulte at the Upgrade Company to afford him an opportunity to consider possible upgrades. Well, when he opened the Massive Passive up, he was mightily impressed by the build quality and how Manley had basically optimized every square inch of the unit to max out its performance. So while there was no room within the chassis to consider any fancy new capacitors and what-have-you, and while Schulte was limited to the application of his proprietary RFI/EMI shielding/attenuation/dissipation and dampening techniques, the sonic impact was really remarkable.
As good as the Massive Passive sounded before, with its dramatically reduced noise floor, my experience of the EQ through the processor loop of the Rogue Hera II has been a revelation. The overall sound is smoother, more dynamic and extended; the bass response is tighter; while the midrange and treble frequencies are more relaxed and detailed in ways which allow for a more subtle application of tonal contours. Don't get me wrong; the fundamental sound of the Manley remains as it was; the Massive Passive is a wonderful piece of gear which has long afforded me an enormous degree of flexibility in zeroing in on the sound I hear in my mind's ear.
However, by reducing the noise floor of the Massive Passive, in fine-tuning the soundstage of my rig, I am now conscious of having a greater degree of control; of enhanced musicality. The Upgrade Company's enhancements are for real, and dollar for dollar, a terrific value. They've made a believer out of me.
So where does all of this leave an old audiophile facing the future?
Oddly enough, I find myself right back where I started when I began my audiophile journey, more enamored of the music itself than of the delivery system. Given how much I have invested in my system, I am keenly aware of just how absurd that statement sounds on the face of it. I suppose that while my head says enough is enough, my heart is a lonely punter. MORE! I am one conflicted old audiophile, God help me.
Yes, I can hear around corners and discern subtle differences with the best of them. And I still enjoy getting together with my audiophile friends for hard core exercises in critical and comparative listening. Nor am I immune to the appeal of newer, even more enhanced technologies, promising greater and greater levels of resolution, as I have surely made clear in my ramblings. But as my friends brag to me about the appeal of super high-resolution downloads, and of transcending the physical medium entirely, I find myself hunkering down to enjoy what I already have, seemingly more interested in enjoying the music than in discerning smaller and smaller degrees of detail.
I'm not saying that I cannot hear the differences. Nor am I denying the appeal of the audiophile's eternal journey, nor putting anyone down for following up on these latest technologies.
It's not so much that I don't care, but at this point in time, I really cannot be bothered. My life is complex enough, already.
Who knows how my attitude will change moving forward, but as I have a newly minted grand-daughter, Mia Caroline Stanley, I find myself far more interested in her evolution than in discerning the differences between .mp3, 16-44, 24-96, 24-192, 32-386, DSD, Double-DSD and what have you. At a certain point, you have to say, it's good enough.
Those words ring a tad hollow, don't they? I know that many of y'all are hip to the syndrome. Could I see myself undertaking further upgrades to my system?
Okay, take the gun away from my ear. I confess. I still covet further upgrades and enhancements. I could easily see myself giving in, even though I'd much rather invest money in helping my daughter to raise my grand-daughter. Does passing along my Signature Edition of the Oppo BDP-95 to my daughter and son-in-law enhance my little Mia's life? Is music that important or am I that full of shit?
Both, apparently… I recently visited the noted audiophile David Caplan in Brooklyn, to take the measure of his rig, surely one of the best sounding systems I've ever heard. It was breathtaking. Some of the impact was based on his gear, some on his tweaks; in any event, it was an overwhelming experience.
Without getting into specifics, let's just say he showed me a number of very interesting components and tweaks, and we are most certainly on the same page when it comes to reducing noise—the more noise you remove from your system, the deeper one's experience of the music can be. That is undeniable, and from my use of good cabling to the positive impact of voltage regulation and balanced power, the reduction of noise has been an ongoing pursuit, and has elevated my system to levels of resolution which belie the more or less humble nature of my associated gear (humble that is only by the most highfalutin of audiophile standards).
David took great pleasure in demonstrating any number of curious light-emitting devices, custom fuses and what-have you, not to mention how he deploys the totemic and totally amazing Hallograph Soundfield Optimizers (which he himself developed through a long process of trial and error in collaboration with Ben Piazza of Shakti Stone renown). Having already experienced the Hallograph Soundfield Optimizers in a select number of applications at high end shows, and conclusively in David's own system, I find them to be completely remarkable.
Help! Somebody stop me!
So yes, I could easily imagine a pair of Hallographs behind my speakers, and one behind my listening chair; it would be fun to gauge the impact they might confer on the spatial dimensions of my soundstage, let alone to assess their other musical attributes…but for the moment, we solider on…
Finally, much as I love my Dynaudio Confidence C1 mini-monitors, there are times, more often than not, when I find myself pushing my system so damn hard that the thought occurs to me: "Son, you just need MORE SPEAKER."
And when I allow my mind to wander, what do we covet? More than we can afford at the moment, I'm afraid.
AA while back, shortly before loudspeaker innovator Jim Thiel passed away, at around the same time my mother became quite ill, I had the opportunity to audition a set of Thiel 2.4 Signatures at the behest of my buddy John Potis, who owned a pair of the standard edition, and was quite curious as to how I would enjoy them in my system.
I only had them for a little while, and at the point where my mother's health took a turn for the worse, auditioning speakers was not much of a priority. The line of audio writers waiting to audition my review samples was substantial, and I thought it only proper to cut the process short as I wasn't sure when I would have the time or focus to do them justice. So I invited the estimable Micah Sheveloff of WIRC Media Tactics to come by for one final listening session before packing them up. Micah is a very fine keyboard player, and we enjoyed a nice drum-on-piano encounter before the 2.4 Signatures finally went bye-bye (and it is worth noting that Micah's 2012 solo album, Exhibitionist, is not only an excellent example of the singer/songwriter's art, but one of the more robust-sounding, realistic renderings of acoustic piano and acoustic drums you are likely to encounter in your musical journey—an authentic audiophile-quality production, not some prissy bullshit).
The Thiel's sonic signature was surprisingly close to that of my Confidence C1 mini-monitors; not surprising, as they share a first-order crossover pedigree, not to mention a low distortion short coil/long gap motor system in the woofer coupled to a passive radiator, and a coincident array, in which a 1-inch aluminum dome tweeter is mated to a 3.5" aluminum midrange in a single driver. They overall response was again, remarkably similar to my own mini-monitor, albeit with a greater sense of presence (brightness if you like, given the metal signature of its midrange/tweeter array) than the Confidence C1, and dramatically extended bass.
I guess that mini-monitor quality, with extended bass, represents what I am hearing in my mind's ear if I was presently n the market for a new set of speakers. The two other sets of loudspeakers that I've experienced in the past few years that fit that profile and conferred a significant woody—though never in my own listening suite—were the Vandersteen Quatros and the Acoustic Zen Crescendos.
I heard the original Quatros when they were first introduced at a trade show, and then at a dealer's showroom where I was quite taken by how natural and dynamic they sounded. But then over the years, Richard Vandersteen's designs (particularly his Model 5 and 5A, which I heard to excellent effect at countless shows) have made a believer out of me.
Likewise, the Acoustic Zen Crescendos, which I first heard paired with Ayon Audio electronics at Neil Solina's Clear Sound Audio in Patchogue, Long Island (http://www.clearsoundaudio1.com/); then on two occasions at the Acoustic Zen showroom in San Diego (when visiting my daughter who lives a short distance away); and finally at Positive Feedback editor Dave Clark's home during a recent visit to San Diego (when I was first introduced to my grand-daughter).
Dave had just gotten in a pair for review, and I must say that much as I enjoyed previous auditions, when I heard the Crescendos in the Clark living room, I was so taken by how well the coupled with the superb room acoustics that I thought I was going to lose my mind. For my tastes, I regard the Acoustic Zen Crescendos as the best sounding dynamic loudspeaker I had ever heard at that price point. In Dave's room, they disappeared to such a degree that I was simply flabbergasted.
I own a pair of the original Acoustic Zen Adagios, and did an extended review of them some years back; John Potis heard me enthuse about them at length, and he went on to review a pair of the Adagio Juniors at my behest The Adagios and Adagio Juniors both employ short-coil/long gap drivers and a ribbon tweeter of Robert Lee's design, for an exceptionally low distortion, high resolution sound in a modestly-priced, easy to drive design.
To my ears, the Crescendos represent the ultimate, no-compromise expression of Robert Lee's vision of a loudspeaker as first expressed in the Adagios; but that was a price-point driven design, whereas the multi-driver Crescendos spare nothing in their presentation of the music.
They are smooth, realistic and extended in a manner that I have found to be exceptionally musical during each and every audition in a variety of acoustic spaces—save for my own living room. Again, the quality which makes them so appealing to me is that they offer exceptionally natural, uncolored sound, with minimal levels of distortion—for a spacious, exceptionally revealing, fatigue-free experience of music that belies one's expectations of a floor-standing, full range speaker.
That is to say, the scale of the speaker never betrays the scale of the music.
Therefore, if you are listening to chamber music; intimate music with profound spatial characteristics, the Acoustic Zen Crescendos do nothing to exaggerate the scale of the instruments nor to jack up the low frequencies in such a way that would draw your attention to the speaker itself and away from the music—again, very much like a mini-monitor.
However, if you are listening to bigger sounding music such as I did in earlier auditions, such as the heavy funk of James Brown or Parliament-Funkadelic, or orchestral music with a wide dynamic range, the Crescendos shrug off the big transient swings without breaking a sweat or obscuring the midrange in the name of bass, Bass and Even More BASS. Oh, there's ample low frequency extension and visceral impact, though not on the order of some full range speakers, where one is literally steam-rolled by the sound.
As such, profoundly extended and impactful as they are, the Acoustic Zen Crescendos manage to convey the intimacy and spatial dimension of music as I like to experience it. Admittedly, I listen to a disproportionate amount of acoustic jazz and classical music, but now and again I crave a lap dance and a facial (two bits) when tossing on something like Prince or Hendrix, or the Blu-Ray of Cream at the Royal Albert Hall, or a muscular orchestral piece, such as a Mahler symphony or a Wagner opera. Because again, the Crescendos are not voiced to max out the bottom end, but to be very linear while providing an authentic foundation in bass—to be only as impactful as the music requires. They might not be the first choice for someone who listens to a lot of rock-oriented music and who wants to pop their eyeballs out with each playback. They are very refined and very high resolution and very much suited to a musician's experience of music, thus representing my own musical priorities. For other listeners, they might be too refined, too high-resolution—perhaps altogether too revealing, while wanting in visceral qualities.
But for me, they conferred a heretofore unimagined wealth of inner details, to particular effect on some home-made DSD recordings of a guitar-bass-drum trio I made in my home studio on a Korg MR-1000 1-Bit Digital Recorder. I was conscious of dimensional and dynamic nuances in Dave Clark's crib that had otherwise eluded me, save for David Caplan's system (and my own perspective from the drum throne during our initial improvisations). I was overwhelmed by their spacious, transparent, luminous presentation, and at some point, my waning interest (cough) in new gear notwithstanding, I should very much like to audition the Crescendos in my own reference system, and hear how effectively (or not) they might couple with my own acoustic space.
In the meantime, Pilgrims, we soldier on, and trust me, I am not suffering, With the recent addition of the Rogue Medusa and Hera II, the Signature Edition of the Oppo BDP-105, and the Acoustic Zen Absolute Copper Balanced Interconnects my audio system is now way over the top—the best it has ever sounded.
Still, one can always dream.
Follow this link to Chip Stern's new blog, RADIO FREE CHIP: Sound Signatures
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