Krakow Sonic Society - Meeting No. 91:
John Zurek of Positive Feedback in Krakow
Meeting with journalists from a leading audio magazine in the world are both a pleasure and a test. It is a test for us as the people from Krakow Sonic Society, but also for us as Krakowians. But it is also an opportunity to test out a nice guest. This time it was a double pleasure - John Zurek, in his spare time a journalist for Positive Feedback, turned out to have much in common with Poland and the visit was his first ever sentimental journey to the country of his grandparents.
Dziękuję bardzo, John Zurek [Ed. note: original ending, translating "Thank you very much"]
And how can you not help such a guy. Slowly but steadily I was organizing John's visit to Poland. Read on to find out what kind of visit it was and what happened.
John lives in Colorado Springs, which is his real HOME that he loves and feels good in it. However, due to its high altitude above sea level the air is dry and you have to drink plenty of liquids to not get dehydrated. I took this into account while planning John's visit to Krakow, and I arranged a pub crawl around the Old Town on the previous night before our KSS meeting. It started from the "U Jožina" pub where you can enjoy Czech beer and food. We were able to get a better look at each other and broke the ice within twelve seconds, as soon as I brought the first mugs of beer to the table. Actually, John is the kind of guy you just can't not love, like and respect. Calm, with that mature calmness that reflects experience, brilliant mind and a great talker. There were four of us to welcome him; apart from me, Andrzej, Tomasz and Andrzej S. The latter Andrzej, who was visiting us from Lodz, met him a few days earlier and was John's guide around his home city from where they drove to Krakow. Navigating around Lodz these days turned out to be similar to Brownian motion, necessitated by the total redevelopment of the city center around the main train station and the repairs of the main Piotrowska Street. They were trying to find John's family but it was hard in those conditions. Maybe next time. And there will be "next time" for sure, so at least John assured me before leaving Krakow. He might even manage to bring over his wife, he said, whose family comes from the Czech Republic, although she is not Czech. From what he said her roots are in the Hungarian minority that lives among our southern neighbors. Both John and his wife are born Americans, though—another small descent-related American conundrum.
In any case, Andrzej S. was John's guide in Lodz, after taking him over from the equally venerable hands of Adam Mokrzycki, in his spare time a journalist for Audio and Audio-Video and Audio Show's organizer, who was taking care of John in Warsaw. During his time in the Polish capital John met, among others, Mr. Lukasz Fikus, the designer and owner of Lampizator. John could not speak highly enough of him, thanking also Adam for all his help.
It's really, really hard to beat something like that. Actually, I didn't even try. And even if I did, I tried not to exaggerate. I deliberately used the fact that one of John's grandmothers came from near Krakow, and that he: 1) likes beer, 2) likes good music, 3) is an audiophile.
We took care of the point no. 1 on the first night, as I said. The visit to the "U Jožina" Czech pub was to be the first in a series that evening. An alternative was the large House of Beer at the Holy Cross street (in Krakow, almost everything is Holy). However, after leaving the friendly Czechs, it occurred to us that we better look before we leap, and decided that one more pub would be enough to get us properly hydrated. Therefore, we made the practical use of the fact that only about 6 meters from the House of Beer there is a pub with Belgian beer, which serves a few dozen varieties of bottled and tap beer. Reaching this sanctuary of bliss was relatively easy as we just needed to walk straight about 500 m along St. Tomasz Street. The BeerGallery – LUXURY, located on the corner of St. Thomas and Holy Cross Street, is a relatively expensive place, hence not so crowded and noisy.
Did I already mention that one of the importers of some outstanding beers is Roch Młodecki, former deputy chief editor of Audio-Video? Well, I do, now. It is him who delivers certain brands of beer to the BeerGallery and House of Beer in Krakow. And also to what I call a "Magic shop" not far from my home, where I regularly go to restock my supplies. It stocks over 300 brands of this wonderful beverage while looking like a cross between a dive and gangster den, but actually is a wonderful place. Roch also runs the Smak Piwa ("Taste of Beer") online store. I need to write more about it sometime.
We talked with John about his visit to Poland, about Colorado Springs, about Positive Feedback and about life in general. Emerging from the pub after a longer, rather than shorter, period of time I knew that John was already OURS.
I still had to do something about point no. 2 and 3 from the list above. I took care about our guest's falling in love to Krakow by arranging for him a friendly city guide who deals with all of my English-speaking audio guests from abroad—as she recently did with Mr. Kazuo Kiuchi (Reimyo, Harmonix). But those two points were tougher nuts to crack. That's why I asked for help from a group of people with whom I arranged the 91st meeting of the Krakow Sonic Society.
RWL-3 Acoustic Conditioner
There were two reasons for the meeting. The first one arrived some time ago to Janusz S. and Richard B., ordered with some other audio accessories from Acoustic Revive. The visit of its owner, Mr. Ken Ishiguro, left in its wake some new AR converts. No one present at his presentation earlier this year had any doubt that it was really special, and that things which seemed hard to believe found their reasonable and clearly audible explanation and (see HERE). The guys now brought their newly arrived RWL-3 acoustic panels that had made such an impression on us. They ordered three panels each, to place them behind the speakers. However, that's only partial implementation of Mr. Ishiguro's full concept. His whole system consists of seven panels - three in front of the listener, two on the sides, one at the back and one above, on the ceiling. Having six panels at our disposal, we could largely achieve this preferred setup. And that was reason number one for our meeting and discussing it with John.
To better understand the impact of the sound panels, we split the audition into two parts. First, we set up three panels, exactly as Mr. Ishiguro had showed us during his presentation, then we added three more. We decided to dispense with the ceiling panel. John was seated in the central listening spot, with the Acoustic Revive RIO-5II ionizer just in front of him. I will come back to it later, because John made fun of it for quite some time. Not for too long, though. Until he saw the light, that is.
In the first round we set the panels exactly as Ken Ishiguro had done while at Janusz's. It is a slightly modified option no. 3 from the Acoustic Revive website (see HERE). The corner panels were not parallel to the speaker line, but slightly toed-in. This variant is supposed to improve resolution and depth for a "dramatic" soundstage improvement.
I'm not sure whether it's the wine or the panels, but adding the panels made for a completely different sound. It was softer and fuller, with a significantly improved bass. I'm sitting on the side, but maybe that's precisely why this was the aspect that hit me so hard. It was really is completely different, much better, sound.
To be honest, it's not what it was cracked up to be. I'm not saying that nothing changed as the change was impossible to miss. But it didn't pin me to the floor hard enough to immediately start thinking about buying it. If there was some sonic improvement, it would be a darker, more full-bodied sound, and less glassiness. However, these differences were not as substantial as I expected.
I think I understand what Tomek's getting at, as these were not the kind of changes like swapping cables, rolling tubes or other components. The improvement they bring seem to me very important, though. I think it was the first time I noticed these particular changes although they seemed really small. Adding the panels changed the sound in the right direction and I had no doubt that that was what this system had been missing. A very expensive system, to be clear. So far, I'd always thought that albums with classical music sounded differently than others. In my opinion, they sounded inferior; too aggressive and less coherent. As if the system could not adequately "display" many instruments at once. The panels allowed to calm it down and for the first time classical recordings sounded to me as interesting as jazz and rock. Now we had more space. I also paid attention to the bass, which was much better defined and better controlled, with deeper extension. This alone, in my opinion, the improved presentation of classical music, justifies panels' presence. But for me, the changes were not electrifying.
Let me start by saying that this system has a unique, absolutely phenomenal coherence. I have never heard such great vocals as here! Honestly, these were the best vocals I ever experienced on an audio system. I bow deeply! As for the panels, I have a different opinion than the preceding speakers. For me, everything sounded better without them. Maybe not "better" but different, and I prefer that method of presentation. The point is that with the panels I missed some air around the performers. Everything was slightly suppressed and closer up, but did not have such momentum as before. I have problem with that and will say something that may sound a bit schizophrenic: although everything seemed more open and had a greater momentum without the panels, I ultimately preferred the sound with the panels. I know it may sound strange, but I need to sort it out in my mind first, and to better understand it. Let me also add that I missed some top end spark with the panels.
What can I say, I've already bought three of those panels… But seriously, in my opinion, the difference was clear, and the changes big enough to talk about a new quality of listening. The panels add something that results in a live concert music instead of studio production. The instruments may be more "flat" with them, not so three-dimensional as before. Yet at the same time their sound better fills and saturates the space, without simply "being" somewhere out there, in front of us. The instruments now "breathe" with the listening room. Before, I couldn't listen to some of the CDs we auditioned, like the new album by Możdżer and Danielsson—incidentally, terribly boring—or Niemen. Now you could almost "see" their acoustics.
I hoped it would be better. I noticed most changes on Niemen, which had improved attack and decay. The bass on Burdon's *War** came alive - interestingly, it was the bottom range that benefitted most with the panels. But generally speaking, I'm not sure I like all these changes. In my view, some of the system's warmth evaporated and the midrange charm was gone.
I'm not sure we're all listening to the same thing, but OK, everyone can speak up his mind. In my opinion, the difference was spectacular. Listening to what you said, my opinion on the direction of change may come as a surprise to you—now there was "more air". Since I've already had these panels for some time, I got used to them. Their proper reception and evaluation after only a short audition may be a problem. It took me about two weeks of listening to understand what they do. The sound we heard now is similar, has a similar "manner", to what we'd heard at Rysiek's from analog tape [Ed. note: you can read about our meeting with a reel-to-reel in the main role HERE]. It was a huge surprise for me. Now the sonic elements were less cut out from the background and did not draw such attention. On the other hand, the whole had incredible breath and was better. Do you remember our comments on what we'd been hearing from the Studer? That it's a completely different space than with vinyl and CD? Much poorer-defined yet more natural acoustic planes, as if live. Now I heard exactly the same thing. The space as such appeared smaller, in terms of its size. But the instruments were more realistic. Now the music was happening here and now. It wasn't fabricated but played. But as you know my opinion can be distorted by the fact that I've already bought the panels.
This is a variant we have never tested before. You will not find it in the Acoustic Revive diagrams, either, but we can assume that this is the variant no. 6, less one panel on the ceiling. Mr. Ishiguro makes the following comment about it: "It would be perfect if the panels could be placed behind the listener and on the ceiling." What can I say—nobody's perfect.
In my opinion, it now went in the right direction—the sound was more and more like a real concert, not music from a "box". Still, I would have to listen to the same tracks one more time without any panels to confirm it 100%.
In my opinion, now the differences were larger than before, with three panels. I mostly noticed greater ease in my perception of sounds and in how I listened to them. Now everything was better audible and clearer. But generally, for me, compared to three panels the change wasn't "colossal", as some will surely claim.
A slight disappointment with classical music. My impression is that we're probably reaching the limits of home reproduction of this type of music, mostly in terms of emotions. But I was positively surprised by a change with other types of music. With Burdon it was almost as if we were listening to a different track. The same with Możdżer—there was no further calming of sound compared to three panels, no slumber. Everything got more vibrant and liberated. Apart from classical music, I preferred the sound now, with six panels.
I'll just repeat what I said: I don't really like the direction of changes brought about by the panels. But that's just my opinion, probably based on being used to something else. The changes themselves are large and completely modify the sound. For someone looking for something like that, it will be great. Earlier, I heard the sounds a little further back, now everything was fleshy and full, but only in front of me, behind the speakers. For me, such "disappearance" of air is a step in the wrong direction. I preferred the sound with three panels; I could accept the changes they brought, enjoying the benefits and not paying attention to flaws. The latter deepened now, in my opinion. Again, maybe not so much "flaws" but simply those characteristics I don't really like. Let's say it this way: the changes I heard before were now even more pronounced.
It all started well, and everything was stronger with the organ playing. Definitely an improvement. Then things got worse. In the place where I'm sitting, close to the back wall, the sound with the six panels was muffled and the soundstage that stretched wide to the sides before, now got smaller. For me, this kind of presentation was worse.
With the three panels, I was particularly impressed with Niemen—it was the kind of change I would wish for every system. Now other albums joined, too. Burton sounded light, gentle, smooth and without aggression—pure pleasure. Możdżer surprised me with a coherent and sensible sound. In my opinion, the six panels allowed to combine aspects of both studio and live music, to make for an even more comfortable listening.
I do not have much to add. After the first opening bars of music I knew what was going on. I immediately heard that everything quietened down. Slowed down, even. I'm not sure if that's a step in the right direction.
Since some listeners wanted to hear the system again without any panels, we took them all out. This gave us the opportunity to evaluate the change from a theoretically "better" to worse settings.
What can I say —a better, bigger space. Or rather, better for me, because greater. Now everything was broader, more spread across. With the panels, the sound was warmer, smoother and more intimate. But in classical music I prefer momentum, power and punch. The panels calmed it all down a little.
I am all steaming at what I hear you're saying. The difference is fundamental and talking about more or less of this or that makes no sense. Guys, we're not talking here about mere hi-fi! This is not about warmth or any such crap! With all the panels in place the sound audibly had a full spectrum [Ed. note: Wiciu declared here his vote of dissent]. To talk about the sound being more or less natural during playback at home is nothing but BS! The point is such music presentation that can move us. And the panels allow us to perceive more than just noise. They make everything find its place. I was sitting and listening with a feeling that everything's just fine. Without the panels there was immediately noticeable a hopeless strong upper midrange, which—attention—neither I nor you heard before. We had no problem with it. Now, without the panels, it's annoying as hell.
I have to agree with Janusz: without the panels I was merely listening to the sounds. It was great, and this system never sounded so well. But with panels I was listening to music; it was what I'm looking for in this hobby.
Now I am 100% sure as to what I was hearing and what to think about it. From the far side spot where I'm sitting, I heard much better space with the panels. And I don't only mean the placement of the instruments, their size and the like, but also genuine acoustics, a sense of participation in something real. I know it's only a reproduction, but it felt like being at a concert. What's more, I heard, and even "saw" an even, continuous space in front of me. Without the panels I just heard the left and right speakers playing each on their own.
I'm tucking my tail in and I'm sorry for what I said earlier. If I could, I would have it deleted. After adding three more panels, surrounded by them, I thought that the change was not worth the money you pay for them. Only removing them all and returning to a bare system made me realize something Janusz said: the sound without the panels was impoverished. Of course, we all exaggerate to better describe our experience as even the bare system was outstanding, and John was so engrossed not without a reason. Only that those changes are crucial and make for something more than a simple "less" and "more".
I have one more remark to make, although not only about the panels. Even with them in place, regular CDs didn't sound like audiophile releases, i.e. they didn't become a music event. And yet I know that on Wojtek's system even an average CD sounds as if it was SOMETHING. Here, a poor CD simply sounds poor. I understand the need for differentiation, but we shouldn't immediately write off anything that's poorer, but rather try to get out as much as possible from it.
It's a huge gap. The transition from better to worse is often a very instructive experience, and here we you could hear why. All the panels together give a sort of "calm in calmness."
That's why before I say anything about a product I review for "Positive-Feedback Online", I need to spend at least a month with it. This applies most of all to speakers that usually raise my doubts and where proper positioning is crucial to achieve the optimal result. Also in this case, as we all see, it takes many attempts to understand the changes and to address them. After those few hours, I can say that my preferred sound is with the three panels in front followed closely by that without the panels. If I had to choose, I'd choose listening with the three panels. I think, after all, it's a matter of personal taste. The sound change so much that it's impossible to buy them without trying them out at home for a longer time. I'd rather listen to them at home for some time and maybe then I would take to them fully. I think two weeks would be enough to me :)
Room acoustics correction, for example by using acoustic panels, is crucial in making the most of the audio system. The end result may depend in up to 50% on room acoustics. It is still a forgotten component of the audio system, but also one that is most difficult to change. There are very few manufacturers that intentionally do something about it. Acoustic Revive with the RWL-3 offers an incredible help in overcoming the greatest ills. Their influence is very big. It's just that the changes they bring may not be to anyone's liking.
However, we concluded our meeting with something else. Recently, the first copies of Platinum SHM-CD discs fell into the hands of audiophiles all over the world. We could not miss such an opportunity. We prepared equivalent SHM-CD or other releases and blind auditioned them, not knowing which disc was playing when. It was an A/B comparison, with the A and B unknown. After auditioning, we cast our votes, first by saying if there was any difference at all. For brevity I will just say that all participants heard the difference between the auditioned versions and it was, I need to add, a significant difference.
We selected three albums for an audition:
• Dire Straits, Dire Straits, Vertigo/Universal Music LLC (Japan) UICY-40008, Platinum SHM-CD (1978/2013), was compared against SHM-CD (but not the latest HR Cutting release; we had a "regular" SHM-CD)
• Queen, A Night At The Opera, Island/Universal Music LLC (Japan) UICY-40006, Platinum SHM-CD (1975/2013), was compared against a regular Japanese mini LP release
• Derek and the Dominos, Layla, Polydor/Universal Music LLC (Japan) UICY-40004, Platinum SHM-CD (1970/2013), was compared with SHM-CD.
With Dire Straits album everybody voted for the disk denoted "B". Three people correctly identified Platinum SHM-CD and four were wrong, which shows that at first they didn't know what to look for. SHM-CD was voted to be definitely inferior. It sounded really bad, very "thin" and chaotic. For comparison, we also listened to the older European version that features Super Bit Mapping. It turned out to be far better than the SHM-CD. But it was only against the former that we could finally appreciate Platinum advantages: fullness, depth and incredible smoothness.
Similar comments appeared after auditioning Clapton and company. This time, everyone but John correctly pointed to the Platinum CD. John said he'd chosen the "A" disc ("A" denoted the SHM-CD version) simply because he liked it more. That was when we could finally pinpoint the differences between us and John when it comes to our particular listening preferences. Our guest prefers lively and open sound, while we rather go for smoother one, even at the expense of dynamics.
There was no doubt whatsoever with the last CD (Queen): we all correctly identified the Platinum and every one of us preferred this version. I think this indicated a phenomenon defined as a "reorientation". We need to know what we're listening to, or to "learn" the new sound, in order to interpret it properly and then to evaluate it.
Even after this short (just over an hour) audition, the technology revealed a few characteristic features that were common among all the discs we had. Platinum SHM-CD sounds incredibly smooth, showing large sophisticated sounds. Regular CDs may seem more open, which may be convincing to some. For us, Platinum SHM-CD wins in every respect. In comparison, SHM-CD seems to be an interesting yet unfinished project, somewhat lean and with "snags" on sounds. The Platinum is extremely smooth.
At the end of our meeting we came back to the Acoustic Revive RIO-5 II negative-ion generator at John's feet and the RD-3 demagnetizer by the audio rack. John was making some fun of them, especially of the latter, although he did mention that back at home he used the Milty Zerostat Gun (see HERE). So we did a few blind auditions, after which John almost knelt down before the products from Acoustic Revive, bowing low and backing away from what he'd said earlier. To verify what we heard, we also listened to John's CD-R, first as it was and then after being "treated" with the demagnetizer and ionizer. The improvement was even more pronounced! Depth, calm, soundstage depth and absence of edginess—that's what we get with two devices used together.
Saying goodbye to us, John, visibly moved, thanked all those who took care of him in Poland, especially Adam and both Andrzejs, taking back with him the certainty that he would be coming soon again for another visit, and that he needed to buy the RIO-5 II and the RD-3. And that he just had to try out the panels back at home. See you again soon John Zurek!
My interview with Dr. David W. Robinson, chief editor of Positive Feedback can be read HERE