The Perfectly Realized Illusion: why high-end audio matters

One day, in the late nineteen-seventies, I visited my local high-end audio salon, Sound Components, in search of my favorite classical record magazine Gramophone. As I walked in, I was stopped in my tracks by a piano recording that was so lifelike, so real, that I had to sit down to listen to it through its conclusion. I was hearing the slow movement of a Mozart piano sonata played by the legendary Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau — a pianist I had the privilege of hearing live in Miami playing Liszt. This was an off-the-rack Dutch Philips LP playing on what was, arguably, one of two or three super-high resolution, stratospherically expensive — for then — two-channel audio systems: the Mark Levinson HQD system with, if I recall correctly, a Linn Sondek LP12 turntable as the source. The speakers used in that system to reproduce the midrange, where most music exists, were two pairs of the legendary Quad ESL-57 electrostatic loudspeakers, probably the most neutral transducer ever designed.

Being very familiar with the sound of a real piano at home and in the concert hall, that recording on that system was a revelation. Not because of the obvious allure of the gear, or anything like that; what impressed me was the perfectly realized illusion that Arrau was there in the store, in the flesh, playing Mozart on his Steinway, for me, and the two store employees who were having their fast-food lunch. It is not hyperbole to say it was paradigm-shifting in its impact and that it forever changed the way I listened to recorded music. It is the reason I am an audiophile today, in a constant quest to improve the sound that approaches what is heard in a live performance.

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I purchased my first audio system in 1975 at one of Miami’s discount audio shops: a 40wpc H.H. Scott receiver, a pair of Altec bookshelf loudspeakers, and a Kenwood turntable with a Shure M95 cartridge. My $500 system was simple for its day. It wasn’t expensive, but it wasn’t cheap, either, especially for an eighteen-year old earning subsistence mail-room wages. That system gave me enormous pleasure for many years, allowing me to discover all sorts of great classical music and, my solace during the disco years, jazz. The day I bought that system, if memory serves, some guy was talking to the owner and some of the salesmen and showing off photos of Audio Research amplifiers and Magneplanar Tympani loudspeakers. I had no idea what the hell they were but I remember the guy describing the system. They looked very cool to a newbie just starting his audio adventures.

It wasn’t until the advent of the compact disc in 1982 that I even started giving a thought to changing my components. I was perfectly happy with what I had since I could not afford anything new. The CD was touted by Sony and the record labels as “perfect sound forever.” Personally, I thought they sounded like shit: they were shrill and lifeless simulacra of what had once been recordings of music. They were not in the same universe as a British EMI or Decca pressing, a London FFRR, a Philips from Holland, or a pre-1964 Tulip-clad DG.

I was an analog holdout of the worst kind. I continued buying LPs and stubbornly refused to buy any CDs, to the utter amazement of my friends who had all jumped into the digital pool. By 1987, as supplies of vinyl dwindled at my local record stores, my LP collection stagnated. Due to enormous cuts in LP inventory — the infamous “black diamond massacres” in the monthly Schwann catalog — and a lack of any new releases on LP, I finally surrendered to digital.

The first CDs I purchased were Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, in a live performance by Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic that was recorded the same year I had heard them play the very same work at Carnegie Hall in October of 1982, and Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run, the quintessential rock album, with my favorite rock song of all time, “Thunder Road.” I justified my betrayal of analog because that specific Mahler performance was not available on LP, and because I had worn out the Springsteen LP.

The dreams of Levinsons, Linns, Audio Research, Quads, Ampzillas, Phase Linears, et al, remained just that: dreams and fantasies that poor audiophiles have. I bought my first CD player, a $300 Yamaha model, because it was the best sounding of the ones I had heard that I could afford. After a year, when its drawer mechanically failed, I took it back to the store where I had purchased it and they generously exchanged it for a brand new Denon CD player. I took the occasion to upgrade my receiver as well, also a Denon. Not high-end, but not a system you would buy at K-Mart, either. The digital sound was satisfactory, not great, but I still had almost a thousand LPs to satisfy my musical avarice.

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The deaths in 1989 of Herbert von Karajan and Vladimir Horowitz, and in 1990 of Leonard Bernstein, all of whom I had been fortunate enough to hear perform live before their passing, was in a strange way a harbinger for what the nineties would become for me as a music collector. I came to the sad (and wholly incorrect) conclusion that LPs were no longer going to made or sold. I decided to replace as many of my prized LPs with CDs as possible. In 1992 I sold about eighty percent of my LP collection to a collector in Melbourne, Florida. He bought the whole shebang, less a couple of hundred I could not part with, for about $700. Despite my misgivings about digital sound, I was finally going to cross the digital Rubicon. In my mind there was no going back: I even gave away my turntable. “He that puts his hand to the plough, and looks back, is not fit for the kingdom of heaven.”

In those early days, I never enjoyed CDs as I had enjoyed my LPs. I knew this was a medium that was here to stay and I had to adapt or perish. In order to get the most out of CDs, I started experimenting with different options I would read about in Stereophile, The Abso!ute Sound, or Audio magazines. In 1993 I swapped out my very long-in-the-tooth Altecs for a pair of PSB Alphas, good bookshelf speakers that were very inexpensive and had been very well reviewed. They sounded so much better than the Altecs in just about every way.

Two years after that I purchased the Audio Alchemy DAC-in-the-Box digital-to-analog converter. I was hopeful that this little device would convert the digital stream from my CD player and improve it before reaching my receiver. It was the best money I had spent since going over to the dark side. My CDs finally started sounding better. The harshness was not gone, but I could actually listen to an entire CD without that “digital fatigue” that so plagued the early discs and machines. I found that a good disc transport (my Denon) and a good DAC were the way to go to actually begin to approach improving digital sound.

In 1998, I swapped my pair of PSBs for a new pair of Bowers & Wilkins DM302s. These small (and inexpensive) masterpieces of loudspeaker design, while superb in midrange, don’t go comfortably below 60Hz. However, just by changing my loudspeakers an amazing thing happened: these little speakers were so revealing that CDs I had thought sounded OK, started sounding like crap. What I once thought were good recordings and/or digital transfers, weren’t so hot after all; great recordings (Harmonia Mundis, Audiofons, MFSLs) were amazingly good, better in fact, than I had heard them before. Close but no cigar. This proved to me that digital had enormous potential if done properly.

(I still own those little 302s and use them very successfully, thirteen years after I purchased them, as my left and right front speakers in my 3.1 home theater. With a good subwoofer like my B&W ASW-650, these are killer loudspeakers. I can’t tell you how many people with mass-marketed home theater brands ask me why watching a movie in my living room system sounds so much better than theirs…)

My purchase of the B&W 302s led me to conclude that I needed to examine every single link in the chain to find out what could be improved upon. Did I need a subwoofer, or maybe a pair of full-range loudspeakers? Was my Denon CD player pushing all of those ones and zeroes out properly? Was a better transport the solution? Should I upgrade my cables? Should I see a shrink?

I decided to buy excellent gear, as needed, but used (or as the salesmen say, “pre-owned”), or reduced in price to where I could afford it. With a wife, a young kid, a mortgage, two cars (one car payment), an old house that occasionally sucked money out of us like an Oreck vacuum cleaner, I had very little (if any) discretionary funding to satisfy my hobby — a hobby that as we all know can cost in the high hundreds of thousands — even millions — of dollars if taken to its extreme.

Starting in 2001 I started my quest in earnest. I purchased a DAC made by California Audio Labs: the GAMMA. A highly regarded piece of gear that, for the price it was being sold for, would be a bargain addition to my system. That DAC made a very tangible improvement in my system. CDs that I considered references sounded very, very good, in fact, they sounded better than they had before. I retired the DAC-in-the-Box.

A serendipitous conversation with one of the guys that worked in the classical and jazz departments at a local record store I’d been haunting since the seventies led me to the next upgrade. He asked if I would be interested in buying his spare CD player, a California Audio Labs DX-2. It wasn’t one of the highly regarded vacuum tube players CalAudio made; nevertheless it was a top-notch high-end CD player he would let go for $300! I jumped at the opportunity to hear what this player would do in my system. I was more than a little shocked at the difference this one component made. What I heard when I played my favorite CDs proved to me that digital was not the devilish invention I once thought it was. Every one of the reference CDs I played sounded fresh and musical, and closer to analog than I had ever thought possible out of that shiny little 5-inch disc. I rarely used the Gamma again since the DX-2’s sound was excellent.

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Then, like a patient relapsing from a rare, debilitating, tropical disease, I developed a bad case of analog fever. I really, really wanted a turntable again. Not an Audi or a Porsche or a Harley. I wanted a turntable. Again. My wife described my condition as some sort of weird audiophile mid-life crisis and muttered something like, “you’ve gone completely nuts.”

Like Galileo, who had recanted his scientific discoveries, I had recanted my love of analog. I was desperate to say, “but it does move!” I wanted to rediscover that emotional bond we all have with our favorite music. So, in 2002, going on ten years without having an analog source in my system, I bought a new turntable I could afford: a Rega Planar 2 with an RB250 tonearm and a Grado cartridge. It wasn’t the best sound, but it was better than what I had had in the past I could now listen to the 200 precious LPs I had refused to part with. Of course, it also meant that I would have start to buying vinyl again. Dear Lord, I thought, I’m mad!

My favorite analog references are an LP of the eighth symphony of Shostakovich with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andre Previn (on HMV), and Bizet’s Carmen conducted by Leonard Bernstein (on DG). My favorite digital references are a Mahler First and a disc of William Walton’s orchestral music, with the Florida Philharmonic, conducted by James Judd, both on Harmonia Mundi, and an album of solo lute music from the German Baroque, all engineered by Peter McGrath. Any one of these recordings, recorded, engineered and produced with singularly accurate and natural sound, will really give you an immediate yea or nay on whether your system (and especially your speakers) are up to snuff or not. Unfortunately, as good as those references sounded, my beloved little 302s could not deliver that the bass I had come to love in the concert hall. Now I had to upgrade my speakers to match the quality coming out of my CAL Audio.

I hate paying full price for anything when there are deals out there for the asking; you just have to have the guts to ask. Recently resurrected South Florida retailer Sound Advice was a Bowers & Wilkins dealer for a long time. After being bought by Tweeter Etc. in 2001, they stopped selling B&Ws for, what I was told, was a long-standing dispute between the two companies. I walked in to their store near my home looking to buy loudspeakers with a cast-in-concrete budget. My choices were limited by price and wattage, or so I thought. The salesman informed me that all floor models were for sale since they were no longer selling B&Ws. In other words, everything had to go. Not wanting to waste an opportunity presented by the audio deities, I auditioned all of the speakers on the floor and settled on a pair of B&W 604S2 loudspeakers that they sold to me for less than half-price and a little over my budget! For being at the right place at the right time I improved the overall sound of my system to new heights.

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I kept listening and listening and kept tweaking the my system. I added a pair of Parasound separates to replace my Denon receiver. It was a little underpowered for driving the 604S2s. I bought them new, at a very reasonable price. The lesson being that with a minimum of cash, anyone can build up a decent system: my Parasound pre- and power amps, my DX-2 and Gamma, and my Rega. And, of course, PS Audio interconnects.

In 2005 I upgraded to a Classe preamp I purchased used, and a Bryston 3B, also used, that is a workhorse. Since then I’ve gone through two Marantz SACD/CD players and a couple of different DACs.

As for analog, I finally fulfilled a long-time dream and bought a Linn Sondek LP12. It has an old tonearm and a new high-output moving coil cartridge. The prodigal listener who had mistakenly abandoned analog was determined to do it right this time. It’s a wonderful piece of equipment. My LPs sound like never before. Ever hear Toscanini’s Beethoven Symphonies on German pressings? Or the Harnoncourt Brandenburgs on Telefunken? Wonderful. And there’s nothing like Sinatra on vinyl.

In early 2008, through a fortunate circumstance, I was able to budget for a new pair of loudspeakers. I auditioned a pair of Magneplanar 1.6s with my Bryston amp. What speakers! In the end, though, I wisely decided against driving these magnificent speakers with my underpowered amp in my cramped room. One day, maybe. I opted instead for a pair of B&W 804S speakers. (Discounted, of course; old habits die hard.) These speakers, above all else, have revealed to me just how much bass I’ve been missing on my recordings. The bass drum smack in the last section of The Firebird is close to what I’ve heard in the real world. They are wonderful loudspeakers.

The last two tweaks I have made have been small, but have been very significant in what they have brought to the synergies in my system.

I purchased Nordost Blue Heaven Flatline interconnects to replace my Mapleshade Audio and Monster Interlink 400 interconnects. And I can tell you the hype about Nordost is true. They truly open the soundstage and what comes out of the Oppo BDP-105 is so much better resolved. I wouldn’t have believed these cables could do so much unless I had heard it myself.

I did not expect a tweak I made to my system to make as much of a difference as it has. PS Audio sponsored a contest a few years ago whereby a limited number of folks would get a PS Audio Soloist A/C Outlet if they wrote an email and explained why they needed it. I, of course, never looking a gift opportunity in the mouth, fired off an email and was generously selected to receive one in exchange for a write up. Of all the things I have done over the years to improve my system, changing my crappy electrical outlet for this one has had the overall effect of — and forgive me for not being able to describe it more precisely — using a Squeegee on a dirty windshield. There it is. Everything I play through my system sounds crisper and more alive since I added the outlet. The hum is gone. LPs, CDs, my reels, radio, my optical connection from my Mac. Everything sounds cleaner and quieter than in it had before. Paul McGowan isn’t kidding when he tells us how important clean A/C power is.

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So, here I am, 38 years later, still buying LPs and CDs. These days I also download high-definition tracks and play them through my Mac to my DAC, on my iPhone or iPod. I own over 2,500 CDs, over 1,000 LPs, and about a terabyte of music on hard drives. I’m not as rigid in my thinking as I once was; this old dog is willing to learn new audio tricks, after all.

Is buying all of this gear and spending money on tweaks a complete waste of time and money? Couldn’t I get the same result with regular off-the-shelf stuff? No. I want to recreate what I heard so long ago, that perfectly realized illusion of great musicians playing just for me in my home. Why do I participate in this crazy hobby? Simple: the tears I shed whenever I hear the resignation in the Adagio of Mahler’s Ninth, or the love for his wife in the Adagietto of his Fifth; the power of Beethoven’s Eroica, and Grosse Fuge; Mozart’s Don Giovanni; the golden sadness of late Brahms; any Chopin; the anger of Verdi’s Requiem; the almost indescribable beauty of Puccini’s La Boheme; Bernard Herrmann’s score for Fahrenheit 451; the goose bumps I always get when Stan Getz begins “Here’s That Rainy Day”; Sonny Rollins attacking the notes in “St. Thomas”; when Paul Desmond and Dave Brubeck play anything together; Bruce Springsteen singing “Thunder Road”; Pink Floyd lamenting their friend in “Shine on You Crazy Diamond”; the amazing music of pre-revolution Cuba.

Despite all of our enthusiasms, the gear is always secondary; what the equipment does for us, in the end, is give us the wonderful gift of music.

(Originally published July 8 2011 on PS Audio’s late, great weblog, PSTracks.)

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One Response to The Perfectly Realized Illusion: why high-end audio matters

  1. Pingback: Quo vadis, “analog”? Or, how I learned I’m not spending thousands on a losing proposition – The Mighty Thunderer

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