Monday, October 31, 2016

Audiophile Sound Systems

I opened up the link to the New York Times article with anticipation: Listening Clubs Tantalize Audiophiles in London:
Numerous listening clubs now invite people to experience recorded music played through hi-fi rigs that most humble audiophiles can only dream about.
The newest is Spiritland, a cafe-bar in central London that claims to offer “the best sound system in the world” — an imposing array that dominates the room like a shrine in a temple. Two sets of bulky yet elegant speakers finished in vintage wood sit on either side of an Italian amplifier with colorful valves and tubes that glow orange when the lights are low.
“I always wanted to go somewhere which could be all about musical appreciation, to hear someone dig really deeply into their record collection and explore their private passions,” said Paul Noble, Spiritland’s creative director. After two successful years with a pop-up venture at a restaurant in East London, his team found a permanent home and invested heavily in a customized system, designed by the British company Living Voice. It is valued at just under a half-million dollars.
Well, cool! We used to listen together a lot. With a friend I spent a few nights building a Marantz kit amplifier because we couldn't afford to buy an expensive one. One time I blew his mind by slapping on a record of the Mars movement from Gustav Holst's The Planets when he had the headphones on. That'll wake you up.

However, as the article progressed I began to get uneasy:
“These speakers were built totally without compromise,” Mr. Noble said. “When you have equipment this good, it can deliver such high quality that it emotionally connects you to the music. We’re not afraid to say that listening to music is a very magical thing.”
Listening to music is always magical if the music is magical and if you are really paying attention it doesn't have much to do with the sound system. I remember reading an article in an audiophile magazine decades ago about what different systems people had. There was this prominent audiophile with his expensive system raving about the physical presence of the music when he listened to a Mahler symphony. Then there was Pablo Casals sitting listening to an old record of Arthur Rubinstein playing Chopin on a tiny little box system. The contrast was striking. I'm pretty sure that Maestro Casals, with his little box, was getting more out of the listening than the audiophile because he was listening to the music, not the sound system.

As I read on, it all became clear:
At a recent Classic Album meeting, a pair of Klipsch La Scala speakers (valued at $8,000) were installed in the basement bar of an East London hotel on either side of a Rega P9 turntable at center stage. The audience sat in rapt silence for New Order’s 1983 record “Power, Corruption & Lies,” taking in every detail of the sparkling electro-pop riffs, soaring vocals and bouncy polyrhythmic beats.
They're listening to electro-pop!?!?!?!?!? Agghh!

Because I move around a lot, not just city to city, but country to country sometimes, I tend to lose my sound system as soon as I get a good one. That Marantz amp that we built from a kit? A couple of years later I sold it when I moved to Spain to study. In Montreal, years later, when I started listening to a lot of Shostakovich, I realized that my speakers just couldn't really project the low bass lines with much clarity so I bought a pair of Cerwin-Vega speakers for around $500. They sounded great. Alas, a couple of years later I moved to Mexico so I had to sell that system. For a while I had no designated system, just computer speakers, then a low-end component system. So a couple of years ago I decided to invest in a decent system and bought a Harmon/Kardon CD player all-in-one system that they apparently don't make any more:

The sound is very good, but I thought it might be a little weak in the bass, so I added a Polk Audio sub-woofer:

And that's it. I have a good pair of AKG headphones, but I rarely use them. This system, which is under a thousand dollars, (including the headphones) is quite sufficient for my listening needs. Orchestral players that hear what the orchestra sounds like every day from the inside, also think my system works just fine. Emotional connection? You bet.

Let's hear that Mars movement as our envoi:

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