FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 30
The Good Doctor Experiences an Epic, Epistemological Epiphany - A Break on Through to the Other Side
[Photographs and image processing by David W. Robinson]
I started this article a year ago …moved by a specific set of circumstances …circumstances which were at the same time temporary, and foundational. I think have discovered something, and I have been methodically examining and re-examining it through the past year to see if it holds …if it is more will of the wisps audio nonsense, or if there is substance here.
It is precisely a year, now, and I have concluded it is worth talking about in print…
(April 2006) This is not a rational thing. It suggests that what will ensue after the "fall" will be some sort of fantasy, unless of course, the rabbit is a metaphor and then it all makes perfect sense.
Could this be a metaphor for that universal experience where we suddenly and violently go from being an observer to participant? But how could that possibly apply to audio? After all, being a relatively passive observer defines being an audiophile, does it not?
The Good Doctor is hit up by AARP or, "Sir, can I help you with your groceries?"
This past weekend marked my 55th birthday. I faced it with some degree of dread. It's not being closer to death. Death doesn't scare me; life does. You see, when your life does not look like those touted in glossy magazines or slick made-for-TV dramas, there is always going to be a bit of ennui on those "special" days.
However, the universe took the occasion as an opportunity to teach me once again that there can be magic just often enough in living an unconventional life to justify the slings and arrows.
Sheet Cake Sushi
I did not have a yellow sheet cake with my name on it in sugared frosting. I was not surrounded by my family (a bleakly terrifying thought, that), urging me to blow out the candles before they tripped the smoke alarm. There were no gaily-wrapped packages, no black balloons …no Martha Stewart (how ironic is THAT?) executing her fantasy of a perfect Connecticut country birthday party.
However, a work friend ordered several boxes of doughnuts and over the weekend I did have Uni with quail egg, some excellent hamachi and the fun of pretty much taking over a sushi bar with my friends (friends, the family you pick for yourself). If its poikliothermic, swims, slithers or clings to a rock in a tide pool, we pretty much had it raw on rice.
Afterwards, almost as an afterthought, Jennifer White Wolf-Crock (JENA Labs) tossed me pair of speaker cables to add to the ones I currently have as I was leaving her and Michael's house.
She was saying something about how she always tells people that bi-wiring speaker cable is more practical and sounds better than a split single run, and was complaining they never listen to what she is saying …but I was really not paying much attention to what she was saying.
When my (now X) friend Lynda and I got back to my home I tossed the additional set of speaker cables in and fired up the Lamm Reference 1.2s (review underway at that time, now they are in David Robinson's room) to warm (takes about an hour).
The Lamm M1.2s on Walker Audio Prologue Reference Amplifier Stands in Ye Olde Editor's listening room—how sweet it is!
My friend Lynda is an artist and we spent the time working on a brochure detailing some of her current offerings.
Freshly ground Costa Rican coffee, a dear friend, the creative process of mixing photographs of her art with graphic design …again, not a conventional birthday I grant you …but not bad, either.
I do admit it's not a polyester tie or a subscription to Sports Illustrated, but then again, those are the perils of the unconventional life.
Anyway, after we got to a stopping point with the brochure we wandered down into the listening room and I punched play to resume a Joe Beard disc I had on when she arrived in the morning for our trip to Portland.
Let me emphasize this. When she arrived in the morning, my system was up and I was playing an old Joe Beard Audioquest recording on CD; not SACD, not even a JVC XRCD, just a plain old CD. I remembered that she really liked the bit she heard that morning when she was showing me her new work, so I figured I would just play the whole thing for her. Blues, birthday …seemed apropos.
So we sat down and cued it up.
I was sitting there, disoriented, trying to digest what I was hearing when she looked at me and said, "What the hell?"
Lynda and I have been friends for several years and while she is not even the least bit an audiophile she is an avid music lover and (most importantly for this article) she has heard just about every iteration of my system for at least three years. She has never reacted as she did.
For my part the only way I can describe how I was reacting was that the recording opened up in front of me, and I fell in.
Now, I completely understand if you react to that pronouncement the same way Terri Garr did to Richard Dreyfus in "Close Encounters," when he tried to tell her about the aliens at the railroad crossing. And I don't even have the asymmetrically tanned face to prove that something actually happened. I am just glad I was not alone.
I want to emphasize something. Our sushi fest earlier that day did NOT include fugu; nor were there any other hallucinogenic or psychoactive fish on the menu. The only stimulant I had ingested that day (other than the wasabi) was some coffee.
Ok, back to the Close Encounter …Lynda nudged me when I didn't respond to her, "What the hell?" question.
"I have never heard anything like this before," she said quietly.
I didn't say much, and when the disc ended I simply got up and put another on, another CD, not an SACD.
I put on Cyndy Lauper for heaven's sake. Sue me. I have long admired her singing, in spite of her unfortunately whacky affectations and her often-questionable taste in material. As familiar as I am with her music, I was suddenly lost in her performance.
Through one familiar song after another …her voice …her breathing, the sound of her head turning just slightly as she sang …the recording was suddenly new again, mysterious …I could almost smell her sweat …and I was being flooded with all of these emotions.
I looked at Lynda and her face was flushed, eyes dilated.
And then it got really, really spooky.
I put on the DCC gold disc of The Doors, LA Woman, and cued up "Riders on the Storm." I could smell the ozone, feel the water in the air as the storm wrapped around me; those monstrous XLH Reference 1812 speakers were simply gone.
The mammoth XLH Ref 1812 speaker …not easy to render "gone"
I am listening to a song I have heard at least a hundred times previously …and there it was …layered behind his voice, behind the plate reverb of his own voice, a cascading, ghostly chorus of male and female voices singing in unison with him. Real voices or electronically altered versions of his own …I am not yet sure, but I will be, before this journey is over.
I thought for a few seconds I was hallucinating. But I wasn't.
There, buried in the noise floor of this classic recording, something I had never heard before. Not subtle, not hidden, just …buried.
Four solid hours we listened …to everything, DCC, XRCD, plain Jane Redbook, SACD …At more than one point we both sat there, tears streaming down our cheeks evening when listening to ENYA, for cripes sake. It was simply so beautiful there was nothing else one could do.
Finally, and I had been avoiding this, I put on some serious, big music... Dvorak's Stabat Mater, from the original Telarc DSD sampler. Frankly, I was afraid my heart would explode. Each individual soloist clearly was placed so clearly against the panoramic sweep of the orchestra and the chorus, and finally, not just the back wall, but the edges of the auditorium …that ineffable feeling of air in motion that defines real music; as much about touch as hearing.
It was as though all of the emotion that digital stripped from music had been released in a torrent. Both of us were shaky and exhausted. Lynda looked at me, and without guile said, "I think this was better than sex."
When I talked to her the next day, she told me she had trouble sleeping and was still babbling excitedly about the effect the listening session had on her, including generating all kinds of new ideas for her own art.
I spent hours on the phone that night in a verbal torrent, trying to explain to Jennifer and David what happened to me, and I think …probably failing.
The Morning After
The next day I switched amplifiers (moving from the Lamm to the BAT VK-600-SE) and fired my system up again with considerable trepidation. What if the magic had been transitory, some irreproducible combination of Sunday-calm electrics, ozone, sushi and convivial fellowship?
Would the phantom chorus still be there, Jim's doppelgangers? Or would it be like Nessie, or Big Foot, or an ethical attorney, a mythical creature seen once so briefly, indistinct in the mists and then never seen again?
The BAT VK-600-SE and the Lamm 1.2 power amplifiers are quite different from each other, so I figured it should be a sufficient change to interrupt my insanity …right?
Uh, no. Yes, they are different, but frankly after the past few days I have to return to the drawing board on describing both of them, because various characteristics I may have attributed to the equipment may more accurately reside within interaction effects and the lack of optimization in my reference system. With those effects taken out of the mixture, I simply have to reassess.
Before you judge me too harshly on this admission, remember: I told you the truth about it and every other reviewer is probably facing the same issues to a lesser or greater extent, whether or not they even know about it or are willing to say.
Since I have to redo the reviews I currently have underway, I am going to yank a piece from one of them (the full Lindemann 820 SACD player review) as a framework for my Sunday listening session.
"A Word about Detail"
In his side-bar to my preview of the Lindemann 820 SACD player, David Robinson suggests I may have some "issues" with high levels of detail. I will concede his point, but with an explanation. If what I hear is an increased amount of the splatter of pieces, then yes, my tolerance level is only moderate at best. However, if I am hearing what I believe is musical detail, I can't get enough.
Here is what I think may be happening. I think there are two, fundamentally different ways of looking at, and experiencing "detail" in recorded music, once we get past the gross effects of detail "problems" (blurring, gross euphony, opacity, etc.).
The first is detail that which brings out the "pieces" in bas relief against the background. This is the most common form. Can I hear the individual pieces and parts clearly identified? Are subtle sounds (clicks, movements, inhales, etc) readily apparent? Does it sizzle?
The second type of detail is, I believe, much more rare and quite the point of the Lindemann. Beyond "pieces" resides the final frontier of fabric, not the notes themselves, but the silence between the notes, the background …the context against which those parts reside. It is here that digital has struggled most valiantly and taken its hardest licks.
See, digital should be theoretically superior to analog; greater dynamic range, broader frequency response, no dependency on highly variable geometries and other mechanical errata …less noise, etc. No tiny bits of incredibly expensive, incredibly fragile stuff with which to cope. With DSD addressing most of the historical objections about Redbook PCM, it should be no contest. And yet…
The flat-Earthers insist that there is something about a data stream that music doth not love …but they say the same thing about transistors. Simplistic dismissal.
On the other side, analog/glass mavens are dismissed as euphony-loving, atavistic Luddites; also a simplistic dismissal (although I find the image of an Audiophile Luddite chuckle-inducing, every time I conjure it up).
We get so caught up in debating who is right that we lose track of the fundamental question, which is …what constitutes …what forms, what creates the emotional connection in listening to recorded music? What is so missing from digital reproduction that many audiophiles are willing, nay eager to live with the harsh demands of analog? Where does this emotional content reside?
Think about it objectively; think about what analog playback requires of us, the sacrifices that have to be made …and except for those few who really relish setting VTA for every fragile record they play (dork alarm), there is an inescapable conclusion here …something is missing from digital that makes the rest of the hair shirt nonsense surrounding analog somehow worthwhile. Now THAT is significant!
This is the phenomenon that interests me. And I am going to advance a hypothesis.
Dr. Sardonicus advances a hypothesis
Perhaps it is because analog reproduction is the beneficiary of over a century of continued, incremental improvement; perhaps it is because of some fortuitous, inherent advantage in the analog process (something equivalent to how we humans perceive certain forms of auditory "distortion"); perhaps it is because of something we have not even considered …something is missing in digital that is present in analog.
This is my hypothesis. I think something is missing. I don't think it is missing from the recording; it's missing from the playback. And I think that what is missing is musical detail; not parts and pieces, not mechanical resolution, but rather something buried deep in the information flow. I think that in those obscure waters there swims an elusive creature that digital playback has not yet brought completely into the boat.
Wow, can you believe I just did that without mixing my metaphors?
Make no mistake; we inch closer all the time. Just consider the significant improvements gained from SACD and DVD-A. Look at the strides that high resolution digital has driven in Redbook reproduction. We up-sample, we over-sample, we "up and over-sample" (Boulder) all with the same thing in mind, extracting that missing mineral.
This is the detail to which I am referring.
We will accept spurious noise, gross distortion, dynamic range and frequency range limitations, obvious coloration …if we can get musical detail. This is the enduring lesson of analog …priorities. This is what I believe the Lindemann 820 is doing, capturing that very low level information where the soul of the music resides."
Ok, so this low-level detail. Where does it reside?
In my Sunday session I only intended to listen long enough to see what effect changing out the amplification had. That was my intention. It isn't what happened, but it was what I intended to happen.
Instead, I sat for three hours, transfixed, unable to leave the room. I only left because I had to pee and I was exhausted.
This is how crazy it got. I listened to all three of the initial Nylon's CDs, back-to-back; The Nylons, Seamless and One Size Fits All.
I didn't intend to do this; I just couldn't help myself. Each recording was so different from each of the others. Even the two versions of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," (The Nylons, and One Size Fits All, respectively) were so different. I have to confess to slightly preferring the campier version, but both are delightful. However profound the differences among these three recordings, I fell into each one of them in succession. Yeah, the last one was better done than the first one, but it hardly mattered to my enjoyment of the music.
These are not especially well made recordings, and I have always thought the CDs were markedly inferior to the LPs. It has been forever since I listened to them, because they are not particularly well recorded although I adore the group, both for their live performances and for their recordings.
Hum, let me rephrase this, dramatic pause …I love the music, but not the digital playback of the recordings, so I don't listen to the recording. This means, in real terms, the music is no longer available to me.
Chew on that one for a bit. I love the music, I own the music, but I can't stand to listen to the music, because of the playback.
Gee, what if I could fix that?
Oh wait, I just did!
And now …oh my, how completely enjoyable these marginal recordings have become. Regardless of the relative quality of the recording the MUSIC was there. I don't know any other way to describe it. Fixed.
Captain, there be MUSIC here!
This is what I want so desperately to make clear. We all know the pitiful angst-driven audiophile who has ten "audiophile approved" recordings (five of them are Patricia Barber) that he or she can stand to listen to, and even the poor wretch who may have been reduced to making "samplers" with fragments of songs …all in this desperate desire to find musicality by screening anything out that is less than optimally recorded.
Lest we feel too sorry for this hapless dork, all of the rest of us have hundreds, perhaps thousands of discs we don't listen to because they annoy us. No high moral ground here, folks.
Even more subtlety, and more frequently, those many instances where we try to settle down to listen and we simply can't enter the experience …frustrated, we wander off and go do something else.
The Sunday after my 55th birthday I discovered I can now listen to anything in my digital collection and dive right into the music instead of being held at arm's length by recording playback deficiencies. I could never do that before, even with analog.
The real deficiency in digital music lies with our reproduction of the recordings. If we can solve this problem even the most modest of recordings will engage us, if the music and the performance have merit.
In an extended telephone conversation Saturday night with David as I ranted and raved and tried not to drool, we came to agreement.
We have not yet really tasted completely of what lies deep in these aluminum discs.
To do this, first the sources have to improve (which they are at a dizzying pace) AND we have to optimization our systems for digital reproduction. This requires careful and systematic consideration of vibration control, AC filtering, and most especially, interconnects and speaker cables. Those things we learned about analog over nearly a century, we have to re-learn for digital.
A Northwest Logging Metaphor
I think that what finally broke the log jam in my system was the simple fortuitous act of bi-wiring the JENA Labs speaker cables. As good as Jennifer's cables are the mechanical-electrical effect of two separate runs finally drove the noise floor in my system down low enough to allow the musical fabric to be revealed, and with it …came the abrupt release of a torrent of emotion, the meaning and connection we have all been hungering for.
I have been teetering on the brink of this (like the heady times just before Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier) since the addition of the Lindemann to my system, but this wonderful player in and of itself, was insufficient to the task. It came as almost a surprise (which is stupid), that this breakthrough required the entire system to work, not just the individual pieces. You cannot simply open expensive boxes and accomplish this.
Here is what it is …the serendipitous breakthrough.
I am not saying that other combinations won't work, but this one DOES work. It will change how you experience digital music.
Like breaking the four minute mile, now we know it can be done we can refine how.
Now, I am not going to be drawn into some running gun battle of defending this specific list of equipment …the broader point …is the POINT.
If you are serious audiophile, on the quest …it doesn't matter how much money you spend. It doesn't matter which equipment you chose. If you do not successfully optimize issues of vibration control, AC filtering, and connections, using methods that are complimentary to each other, you will not hear what you have …the magic will elude you. Even high resolution digital will keep its secrets.
And you will miss the real message of hope here.
It may truly be that the magic is widely, not narrowly distributed, that there are any number of combinations that will produce this outcome, properly optimized. I would actually be very pleased were that the case. I simply don't know.
I am an audio journalist; I am here to help you
Over the years I have heard, in various combinations, a significant cross-section of the finest audio on the planet, and more rarely than encountering a competent government employee, have I ever found magic.
Now I have found it at a level I have never experienced previously. And it is magic that endures. I can change something fundamental, such as my choice of amplification and still keep the magic. Over time, I am going to systematically change other things in this combination too see how much range of motion is available.
I am also going to explore how far down the price curve I can push this. Is it possible by careful optimization to extract degrees of this magic from more modest components? This is a question that must be answered.
This is important. This means something.
Of Patent Medicine and the Fleecing of the Audiophile
I understand completely if you are utterly dismissive and cynical about my assertions.
There is no area of audiophilia more choked with snake oil, pretend engineers and outright fraud, than the three I just mentioned. Because it is relatively simple and inexpensive to manufacture isolation products, interconnects and AC treatment just about anyone can do it, whether or not they have a clue as to what they are about. Sadly, it is mostly about marketing, not engineering. Who is the most convincing? Not what sounds best.
Most of us have a closet full of "tweeks" that have rotated in and out of our systems over the years. We have all fallen prey to the siren's song.
I wish I knew of a foolproof way of avoiding pitfalls here, but I do not. This is one of the things we will ponder and address as time goes on.
This is important …this means something.
I be in here someplace, mon…
Now, exactly one year later, my system is comprised of the new EMM Labs CDSA SE single box SACD source (great DAC, increasingly questionable transport, sadly), the same BAT VK-51-SE with the ECC 99 mod, the BAT VK-600-SE and the aforementioned JENA Labs wire and upgraded Critical Mass isolation filters …all driving the staggeringly cost-effective VMPS RM-30s… A NEW ROOM …and the magic endures.
Through a number of component changes the Jena Labs EZ and Model One AC treatment, Pathfinder or better level cables, and the Critical Mass Stands continue to extract the ultimate performance from whatever they touch.
Perhaps the most startling example of this to date is the Meitner SACD player. Jennifer's products produce an immediate impact on the performance of this player that is simply staggering.
A few days ago, just to clean up my perceptions, I stripped the Meitner of all of its Jena Labs and Critical Mass accoutrement …it took about ten seconds to decide this had been a most unfortunate choice. Back in it went.
The Doctor Concludes
I sat on this for a year. I thought about it …I turned it around and around …I put other things in my system, but I am convinced.
To reach the musicality buried in them little pits, it is necessary to optimize connections, suspension and AC treatment …without taking the time and effort even the best equipment out there will fall short of this goal, and of its ultimate potential.