By profession I work in Investment Banking, not in the audio industry. Luckily I live in central London, and on the way home from work in Canary Wharf can route myself in time to concerts at Barbican, Wigmore Hall, St. Martins, Kings Place at King’s Cross, Southbank (Royal Festival Hall). I watch 40 – 50 classical concerts a year, a few rock, and listen to bootlegs of Led Zep on Youtube. When I audition gear, I use the frame of reference built through listening to classical music to look for a natural tone, with good decay, and the soundstage, separation and dynamics that form an orchestral illusion. The Natural Tone was one of the names considered for this blog, as all three of us are classical enthusiasts. I am not necessarily looking to reproduce what’s on the recording unless that helps create a realistic illusion. At the same time, allowing good recordings to be reproduced accurately can be the best way to create that illusion – in short, don’t be stubborn about principles.
I believe that most audiophiles, because of regular listening to their system, tend to make their own sound as a reference to compare other sounds too. The best learning I had was when I sold off my speakers, because it reset my reference. Despite listening to live concerts occasionally, regularly resetting the ears to our home system on almost a daily basis can play havoc with the live show reference.
Over the last two years, I cultivated a new hobby – traveling to, and listening to the gears of other audiophiles that I got to know over various forums. I think this is a separate hobby, albeit with some overlap, of listening to music (which one does not necessarily need a high end system for), and building one’s own system. Similarly DIY audio can be yet another related branch of this hobby. There are overlaps, but the things that drive us to pursue one branch over the other are different.
My articles on this blog are an attempt to share my listening notes. My articles should be viewed exactly for what they are – Listening notes was yet another alternate name we considered for this blog (though my preferred was Money Pit). I go by sound, not by measurement or by design, though I do take some interest in them, a natural part of the hobby.
The best thing about the traveling was that it allowed me to get rid of biases. Regularly listening to drastically different stuff ensures biases don’t develop – one day you are with someone who has built a great DRC system over decades, next you are with a vintage hifi expert, and then you end up meeting a multichannel expert. This helps bring you up to speed on various learning curves built over decades. I see so many forum buddies being stubborn on various principles – digital sounds same as analog, SETs only, horns only, cone woofers are required for bass, valves only, valves are colored, no to DRC, etc – the best thing to do is visit rooms known for the principle that you don’t believe in, to challenge your own views. Visiting radically different rooms also attacks once own tastes nipping biases in the bud, before the biases are fully formed, after which they can be mistaken for “experience”, just because they have stayed with you a long time. It helps you pick up tips from other audiophiles, and calibrate your ear to theirs, as you have spent a listening session together.
As you read this blog, if you see me changing views, try to note the date of observation mentioned in the blog. Given that the visits I am making are systems already famous for some attributes, it is but natural that I pick up something new that changes/challenges pre-existing views. Change is progress.
Reference Components (those not linked will be updated with reviews)
Big Space, Big Budget
- Evolution Acoustics MM7 – 150 to 200k Euro.
- Yamamura Horns, the version (4) made for and owned by Pietro in Milan
- Apogee Grands (80 – 100k USD restored from Henk) /Apogee Full Range (30k USD restored from Henk in Holland). The big Apogees would require minimum around 27 feet depth, and around 16 feet width, ideally with a flat wall behind the speakers with diffusers. The more you can pull them out the less the flat wall matters
- Apogee Full Ranges, restored by Henk in Holland or Rich Murry in the US
- Trios with bass horns – Once you have the space, room treatments matter less as they are directive. Fantastic bass and dynamics. Not a fan of smaller models. There are other horns too, some better, but this is the choice from the commercially made, dealer available ones.
Tune Audio Anima, Analysis Audio, are other speakers I like. Not a fan of smaller models.
Regarding price, please note that for Apogees, the prices are real prices, so you should match them with the street price for other components rather than the retail price, i.e. many high end components are seen in the used market at less than 50% of the price, and even from a distributor at 50 – 60%. And the restored Apogees do not embed in distribution costs, margins for marketing or for hifi shows. They are upgraded with high quality crossover components (choose your pick from Mundorf to Duelund, and you can switch them). But on the other hand they lack local service like many of the well established current brands. And each model sounds different, so if you hear a model you like, tell the restorer to reproduce exactly that.
Small Space, Big Budget – assuming 18 to 20 feet length, 13 – 15 width .
In no particular order
- Restored Apogee Duettas – this is also the cheapest of this lot at 16k USD from Rich Murry, or 7.5k euro from Henk, though you pay for upgrades to components if required, but still around 10ish k Euro.
- hORNS Universum Mk III – would require 4.5 – 5m width, and some 5m or so of depth. 26k Euro. I am generally a fan of big horns, and not their smaller models. I believe that with horns the compromise is much more than with cones and panels. The non-flagship horn models IMO struggle with bass integration and sound too bright. But in the case of this line, the hORNS is their flagship model.
- YG Hailey – they can sound hard if set up incorrectly, but once you take that hardness off, they are like Quads with more bass and dynamics. 40ish k USD, expensive
- Stenheim Alumine 5 – fast, bassy cones with large scale reproduction – 45k Euro. In fact, I think most full range cones are too big for the rooms they are housed in, which makes this the cone of choice.
- Audio Machina
I am not a fan of Rockports (haven’t heard the Arrakis), but I like the Rockport Grand Mira II (very different from the Grand Mira or the Mira II. This is a D’appolito MTM design. You need symmetry at the sides, and a distance of around 1.5m from the side firing woofers (also has front firing woofers). You will also need to crossover to external subs for the best use.
Small space, small budget
- Used pair of Acoustat Spectras
- Heco Direct – At 2700 quid, it is a steal and is brilliant. You can set it up in a bathroom sized place if required. Just buy it till you get a bigger budget ready, and drive with 10 – 25w low cost amps
- Wilson Sabrina but more expensive than the Heco
If you are not an audiophile, buy a KEF LS50 and enjoy music
That’s easy. Lampizator – you have to get to their DHT designs, Big 7 or GG for the ultimate. Look at the Atlantic if you are in a small budget bracket. Lukasz is a genius who will only make it better
Neodio Origine is the second digital to be added to this list
A learner here, and many of you seasoned analog audiophiles will have more experience than I, so expect this section to change the most.
- Thorens Reference, that was easy. But rare to find and 50k USD
- Techdas in the modern expensive TTs
- Schopper modified Thorens 124 at Euro 7k for the giant killer seeker, buy this and stay happy till you can get one of those super expensive machines
- Neutral cartridges – Zyx Universe Premium and Clearaudio GFS for the big budget audiophile, Zyx Universe II, Ortofon A95/Anna/A90 depending on your budget. In SPUs, Ortofon SPU a95. The only time I have heard a Koetsu sound good was on the Fidelity Research arm
- Big Budget – Vitus class A SM 102 and up, or equivalent, for tone, body, fluidity, liquidity.
- Boulder for superb cleanliness, inflections, dynamics and speed, and the inflections in vocals are like a SET.
- Please note I am meh about amps. As long as you keep out the wrong amp, things do not make much of a difference on SS amps. I have heard Gryphon Mephisto, Colosseum, Burmester 911, and lower down the price range, Plinius, etc – but still how much better they are than a used Krell FPB 600+ can be debated. Vitus and Boulder seriously make a difference for the money you pay. The Luxman M900u is my third recommended amp because for the price it is tough to beat how organic it is without jumping to something like the Vitus.
- Ypsilon Aelius have great tone and soundstage but I found it struggling a bit on tough to drive speakers and bass shy. Might work on easy to drive speakers.
- Dan Agostino Momentums are the best amps I have heard driving the Wilson Alexandrias.
- I need to do a SET amp compare, so expect this to be updated. The NATs and Kronzillas are excellent, as are Silvercore 833c/EL34 amps. And in push-pull valves I like the Jadis and AR 250SE.
- Berning Quadratures – This could be the best amp for you if your speakers are 4 ohm+ and if it does not lean out the midbass.
Among preamps, not having been a big fan of AR before, the Audio Research Ref 10 is now my favorite preamp having beaten the older Dartzeel model and Ypsilon PST MK1. Still need to compare it with VTL 7.5 Mk II/III
And finally, my favorite amp by far for the right speakers, but unfortunately not made anymore and had reliability issues reported well over the web
My reference audition music is as follows – I do add other stuff but this is staple:
- Cecilia Bartoli for female vocals, usually track 2 and 5
- Bach Cantatas – 1 for Choir with church like decay, 2 for baritone, 6 for duet
- Pictures at an Exhibition, Fritz Reiner, Living Stereo – Gnomus, for dynamics and detail, and while Gnomus is sting like a bee, Old Castle is float like a butterfly
- Scheherazade, Reiner, Living Stereo – 2nd movement goes through various individual instruments – bassoon, strings, woodwinds, to trombones and dynamics. 4th movement is great dynamics. The Reference Recordings CD has better quality but I prefer this music.
- Mahler 2, Channel Classics – fantastic recording and performance, also available in DSD. The slams test the system, so do the softer passages. A system should do the highs and the lows of this smoothly.
- The Mendelssohn Elijah 1846 McGreesh from NFM is often used for A/B compares of electronics – the first track is a baritone, then is extremely dynamic orchestral, that ends with a giant choral. Allows for quick and easy compares.
- Solti, Chicago Symphony, Beethoven, for the ultimate test on the 4th movement. Right from the first you can see how the tympanis integrate, the recording quality is average, but does test the system.
- Bruch Oistrakh Scottish Fantasia to test the violin tone
- Winterreise, one needs to be drawn into these vocals and soft piano
- Argenta Espana, dynamics, and shows separation, ability to handle complexity and dynamics
- Beethoven’s Emperor, apart from Rubinstein’s being my favorite performance, this recording easily shows difference between cartridges, phonos, and TTs. I have used this many times
- Holst Planet Mars, Zubin Mehta with LA Philharmonics for dynamics – check out the last half.
- Scheherazade – Excellent recording, this Analog Productions reissue. For test notes same as 4 in digital
- Added Solti, Chicago Symphony, Beethoven, for the ultimate test on the 4th movement.
- Richter Liszt Piano Concerto for the initial part of a powerful bassy piano that can sound muddied on certain carts.