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Positive Feedback ISSUE 42
march/april 2009


The Wood Carver - On a Golden Pond, the Good Doctor Journeys Forward into the Past

Dr. Sardonicus

In the fullness of time a famous artisan, a woodcarver, took an apprentice and for the long years necessary to build a craft the two worked quietly together; the master sharing his skills, the apprentice attentive and energetic.

But it is the nature of life that it changes with time. We all grow old… if we are so fortunate.

As the years passed, measured and filled with beauty, the young apprentice (who had come to be a man) began to notice his old teacher's failing skills. More and more his teacher's work took on a crude, almost childlike appearance, although his work continued to enjoy favor from a number of patrons.

The young apprentice's skills grew with each passing month, and one day he realized he had surpassed his master. He was now the master, and it was time for his old friend to acknowledge this bitter-sweet, but inescapable fact. Such things are sad, but as with most of life, ultimately inevitable.

But old men are sometimes stubborn, and they are often difficult to reason with. Hints were of no avail. Each time the subject would come up, the master would reply,

"Yes, yes, I am getting old, but you have so much yet to learn."

For a while the apprentice remained patient, but eventually his patience grew thin.

One day leaders from the village came to see the master to commission a work for the spring festival. The young apprentice knew this was the time. He boldly suggested that both he and his master would carve and then the village elders would judge the two works, which would be much more interesting than a single piece.

While the village elders were, indeed, interested, the old man shook his head, saying the apprentice was not yet ready for such a contest and gently suggested he did not want to see the young man embarrassed in front of the townspeople. This angered the young apprentice greatly, and he spoke harshly, insisting that it was he now who was the master, not the old man, and he would demonstrate this at the festival, a few short weeks away.

Reluctantly, the old man agreed.

"What would you have us carve?" the old man asked his apprentice quietly, a small smile on his lips.

"Carp." The young man exclaimed, without preamble. You see, this was his best subject and for a spring festival what could be more appropriate?

"As you wish," the old man said.

Immediately, the young man set to work on a piece of wood he had kept hidden away for years for just this time… without human touch, in its natural state, the piece was luminous, beautiful… and he began his work in earnest, spending long hours each day, painstakingly carving the intricacies of this most prized of fish.

The old man, on the other hand, went about his daily routine without mention of the contest and without apparent thought as to the short time remaining before the festival.

Finally, one afternoon a few days before the contest, the old man walked to the scrap pile and, tossing a few pieces of cast off wood aside, found a perfectly uninteresting piece of soft pine, and began hacking at it as though he were a child. Through the course of one warm afternoon the old man consumed a pot of jasmine tea and carved the crude outline of a fish, working almost negligently as he enjoyed his tea and the soft spring breezes, scented with newly born flowers.

The young man's anger faded as he saw how badly his old friend's skills had fallen. He was ashamed of himself. What kind of respect did he show by exposing his frail master to the scorn of the townspeople? While his own carving, nearly done now, was a thing of exquisite detail and beauty, the old man's carving was crude and without art.

The day before the contest he could stand his shame no more and went to the old man, planning to plead with him about the contest. He spoke gently, telling the old man the contest had been a bad idea and that he had changed his mind.

"Oh, do not worry," the old man counseled him, "The town people know you are an apprentice and so they will not judge your work too harshly."

Filled with the anger of pride the young man stalked away, declaring to himself that he did not care now what humiliation his old teacher faced.

The next day both men walked separately to the town; the young man having made excuses for leaving earlier and walking fast to get to the town before his master.

When he unveiled his carving first, the assembled people gasped at its beauty and exclaimed among themselves that surely no better carving of this most important of fish could be done, even by the old master. They marveled at the detail, each scale visible and catching the light, like gold or silver does.

When the old man arrived he was tired from the walk, but he took several minutes to examine the young man's work, complimenting him sincerely and warmly before unwrapping his own piece and setting it down next to his apprentice's work.

The people went silent. They looked back and forth between the two… it was so apparent to everyone that the old man had lost his skills, but no one wanted to say these words.

Finally, the old man looked up, wiping the perspiration from his brow.

"Your long faces… why?" he asked.

An old friend of his spoke, haltingly, "Old master… your carving…" and then he stopped, unwilling to speak his mind.

The old man smiled at his friend, "Oh, I understand, but carp do not live on tables… they live in the stream," and before anyone knew what he was about, the old man gathered up the two carvings and walked briskly to the nearby stream, which abounded in fish.

First he gently and respectfully placed his student's carving on the glittering surface of the sunlit stream, loudly clapped his hands and commented with delight how beautiful and intricate it was. The people applauded. Then, almost as an afterthought, he tossed his own carving into the water without care, where it immediately sank below the surface and could not be distinguished in any way from the living fish it joined.

There was silence. Then the young man drew himself up straight, bowed low to the old man, and said one word… "Master."

Back to the Future

I dunno… maybe I am finally getting old. But just maybe I am also experiencing the growing simplicity that accompanies wisdom (or is that reduced arterial blood-flow?). As I watch the death spiral of this greed and exploitation based world economy of ours, part of me hopes for the phoenix of a more rational and sustainable future to rise from the ashes of parasitical and predatory practices. I grieve for the personal tragedies, which are endless and profound, but part of me welcomes what might come when people are diverted from the vacuous pursuit of material wealth at any and all costs.

For myself, I have been preparing for some time. No debt… canned food and shotguns (just kidding about the shotgun part)… and lastly, a strangely serene decision to pare back my primary audio system to a much more modest (from the outside) form, which ironically has resulted in more satisfaction and harmony.

Over the years I have enjoyed some of the most expensive and beautifully crafted audio equipment in the world. Make no mistake… no high moral tone here… I loved my BMW's, $300 lunches and taking a suite at the Empress… and I loved the profusion of huge, ornate equipment that mostly populated my various listening rooms.

As the narrator in Conan observed, "Wealth can be wonderful." But as he also ultimately observed … it always comes with a price. Starting nearly ten years ago I decided I was both unwilling and unable to continue to pay that toll, and started to slowly retreat from what had become the unsustainable American dream (read, "freaking nightmare").

This has not been some peaceful Zen-like journey, punctuated with long periods of contemplation and serenity. It has been red of tooth and claw. When you try to change your life, it will tend to notice and come over to play with you… and mostly it plays very, very roughly. Be warned.

But this ultimately is the lesson given… we get where we are in spite of the incredibly narcissistic illusion that we steer (remember, the guy who wrote Invictus killed himself). Mostly, the truly significant things in our lives are matters of chance … or occurrences over which we never had much influence (except in our minds, as we reconstruct our lives, ex post facto). A turn here, a step there … and our lives are unalterably … altered.

So, I am getting married again in June of this year. No one is more surprised than I am, and the circumstances of it… the chance meeting… the simple act of impulsively reaching out to a beautiful stranger… and I am forever changed. Who knew?

For those of you who are impatiently waiting for me to get the audio part of this narrative… be patient… it is coming. Doing things quickly takes time.

So, OK… if most of us can no longer have everything we want… what if we can still have what we truly need?

The Ming Da EL-34-AB

I have been playing around with this piece for over two years now. It has performed flawlessly, and I am just getting around to replacing the stock tubes (for the curious, this would be with JJ's E34L's, EC-99's, and mayhaps a pair of NOS RCA brown bottom 6SN7's).

Previously I commented on having sent this amazing 70 watt integrated to Jennifer Crock of JENA Labs for an estimate on what I expected would be substantial component upgrades and such. (After all, audiophiles are so sure that Chinese manufacturing is inherently and intrinsically inferior, both in parts and workmanship.) She observed that it was made the way pro tube gear used to be made, and suggested that other than maybe upgrading some caps (which apparently newer versions have done), to leave it the hell alone. And remember, Jennifer hates everything.

In addition to the potato-chip level addictiveness of the piece itself, there is, apparently, something about the sound of EL-34's that I just love. And after a recent, absolutely incredible experience of seeing the entire history of radio in a modest shop in Eugene Oregon (the video report of which to come to PFO soon)—from a $100k best-of-class example of the incredible Zenith 2A3 driven Stratosphere console radio, to working iterations of the first transistor radios, through operational solar-powered portable radios from the fifties… (yes, boys and girls, solar powered radios from the fifties)—I have decided that, other than my beloved Marantz SA-7 SACD player, I am back to tubes… period.

I kept my JENA Labs custom Technics SP-10/SME 10/Cardas Heart table, the BAT VK-P-10-SE phono stage, and I wait patiently (perhaps eternally) for Jennifer to finish my speakers… so the immensely enjoyable VPMS-20-c's are still in place… and of course, the Critical Mass stands, and JENA labs wire and AC treatment. The rest? Arrivederci.

The result is smaller, simpler, and definitely much lower tech than I have had in my main system for a very long time.

But Doc, how does it sound?

Well… curled up on the couch with my shockingly beautiful fiancée, listening to Stacey Kent, Mozart, Death Cab for Cutie, John Fahey, Lenore Raphael, and yes even Matrix… I am transported. OK, so perhaps I am not completely parsing the experience out, but there is a deeper point here.

When did music become so separated from life for us audiophiles? How did we get to single-seat listening rooms and endless discussions about fractional fretting? When did we start listening to music like we were watching an autopsy?

In short, how did we become such boring bastards?

Me? I give up. I am done.

So, three announcements… first, I am getting married in June. We are registered at Walmart, Target and other fine stores, or you can send cash directly to the: "Send Swan and Rick to a Honeymoon at the Club Med of their Choice," fund at the Bear Sterns local branch of your choosing.

Secondly, I am (with a few, very few possible exceptions) done reviewing audio equipment. I will continue to write for PFO, but I am turning my attention to music, and music-related topics.

And lastly, what I was most reminded of by the aforementioned tour of the history of radio (as I went to pick up my refurbished and absolutely yummy 40s vintage, Bakelite Silvertone table radio) is the humanity of music that I think we have lost, or at least dented real hard.

My system now is smaller, more intimate, more human… and at the risk of drawing ire this one final time… better. Instead of intimidating and off-putting, it now draws people like a warm, cheery fire… and instead of provoking analysis, it is simply relaxing and beautiful, which brings me full circle to my first announcement and my primary metaphor (allegory, parable… pick one), which is… now my music system swims among the fish it seeks to honor.

Best wishes, all.

Doc S.

I wanted to update readers on my birthday upgrade of the Ming Da EL-34 AB. 

I replaced the stock Jinvina EL-34's with a matched octet of JJ E34L's, and had intended to replace the 12AU's with a pair of JJ EC-99's, which worked great in the first iteration of this amp I played with, but were DEFINITELY not suited for the current one… sounded terrible and elicited noises of distress for the amp… so we pulled them. Must have been a circuit change in between iterations. 

Jennifer Crock of Jena Labs will be trading me out of the JJ EC-99's for presumably an NOS alternative to the stock Chinese 12AU's.

We replaced the Chinese 6SN7's with a sweet pair of Phillips JAN NOS tubes I have had for some time. Since I also had a pair of Sovteks 6SN7's, we tried those too… sounded terrible… flat, dry and mechanical.

Conclusion… if you enjoy tube rolling, you will get your money's worth here. Man, is there any smell better than new tubes cooking? Oh, wait… yes there is… never mind.

How did the E34L's sound in the Ming Da?… just as advertised… tighter, more extended, more resolving and punchier, which is something the Ming Da already does very well… certainly a finer focus, even with just a couple of hours on them. Superior in every way to the stock tubes.

One of my other birthday presents to myself is a 200 gram pressing of David Crosby's, If I Could Only Remember My Name, which seems deliciously sardonic since I am, ahem, the age I now am.

So, a nice XO, David Crosby's mescaline-laced music, and new tubes… sigh… happy birthday to me, happy birthday to me.

Give me the luxuries of life and I will happily forgo the necessities (with a tipof the snifter to FLW).

Doc S.