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Positive Feedback ISSUE 8
august/september 2003


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Greetings Positive Feedback Onliners!

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It’s… J-10, he breathed into the mic.

Musical Chairs

As some of you know, he said modestly, I wrote features and reviews, and conducted interviews for ten years at Stereophile, the last three as Senior Editor. Though I was downsized out in March ’02, I have to say that my reviewing career was, more than anything, a constant source of joy and wonder. It was a privilege experiencing so much music so vividly through such interesting, individualistic, occasionally psychedelic equipment, then writing about the experience for you.

I always wanted my reviews to seem intimate, putting you in the Ribbon Chair, while I breathed down your neck on the slightly taller Frank Lloyd Wright Midway Chair positioned just behind it, up against the wall. What’s the Ribbon Chair? Kathleen and I love art and design, and we’ve a modest collection of interesting chairs. We rescued the Pierre Paulin Ribbon Chair, designed in 1965 for Artifort, from a used furniture place on Lafayette Street. After cleaning it up, we enjoyed its oh-so-60s orange fabric and white base. When lolling about within its cozy grasp, you’re in our primary sweet spot. The second listening position is in the Midway Chair.

We also have an original Eames Rosewood Lounger and Ottoman. It only required attention once—an audio manufacturer (of course) banged the arms so hard the entire back assembly crashed to the floor. What I do for Queen and Realm, Moneypenny. A nice Brno chair by Mies van der Rohe in light gray leather rounds out the collection, along with a set of the beautifully architectural Midway chairs designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for the Midway Gardens in Chicago early last century.

The listening chair is important. We’ll talk about it. The short form is, you should be comfortable first and foremost. Listening should be a relaxing experience, not a pain in the pancreas, but do avoid couches with high backs. The same goes for high-backed chairs, especially those with winglets, let’s call them, unfurled behind your audiophile ears. You may want to work on the reflective/refractive elements behind the listening position, but you want to do it intelligently, with purpose, not haphazardly.

Babes In Toyland

While at Stereophile, I engaged with many manufacturers and distributors who bubbled with enthusiasm for their particular designs and implementation of the audiophile dream. Most of them were great to know and, in many cases, learn from. I just got turned off when a few of them insisted their way was the only way. Nevertheless, they’re devoted people who march for their cause, because they must. It’s in their blood. I respect that enormously, but it never stopped me from writing what I thought. There were a few who, ahhh, must not have been thinking globally, who were hostile or just behaved strangely. I always prefer to be professional with everyone to the extent that I can. Thank you.

Not everyone remembers that before joining Stereophile, I spent a year and a half at TAS! And I’ve done a few articles for overseas audio publications, and a vinyl shopping tour for the Atlantic Monthly.

Recent Monstrous Events

A month or so after leaving Stereophile, I heard from Noel Lee, the Head Monster himself. "Sure," I thought fast, "I can work on those projects, but you’ll have to hire me!" Short silence, then "Uhhhh, okay." A few weeks later, cruising the hallways at HE2002 in New York, we closed the deal on the cell phone. I was a Monster… who’d have imagined it?

Traveling two weeks a month to Monster HQ in SF, sweating it out in the commercial trenches, some elemental truths became all too evident. As a journalist, I thought I knew exactly what was happening in my field. But I didn’t know the half of it, so to speak. Working the other side of the fence changed my perspective entirely. And how. Nothing like working a pressured, deadline-driven job in a large, competitive consumer electronics firm for a high-voltage reality check. I bridged engineering and marketing with white papers, did public relations work, PR, manual and promotional writing, and contributed to the huge efforts needed to bring new products to market.

The experience was consuming. And so, after leaving Monsterville in August after almost a year and a half, I accepted David Clark and David Robinson’s offer to contribute to PFO while reorganizing my work life. It is from these lofty heights that I shall spew.

We Now Rejoin Reality, Already In Progress

So what’s happening out there? Let’s begin with the laughable RIAA. Aren’t they having quite the annus horribilus? Their pratfalls are keeping the cable news networks up at night reporting their hilarious high jinks. And now they’re telling us that the barely adequate CD (sounding so much better these days) might not even survive as Universal opens the sluice gates at 30% off to move the goods. Of course, the entire situation is laid at the feet of those unscrupulous, criminally minded downloaders! Like the 12-year-old honor student in NY who apologized and reported that her stomach was all tied up in knots about it. Lookin’ good, RIAA.

They don’t seem to realize the recording business has changed. In the past, millions were invested in grooming an artist for their hit single, album, and video. That may explain some of the greed and avarice. But now the market can decide for itself from its virtual station on the Internet. One cannot defy the march of time. We should, in my most humble opinion, find a way "in" for these people to embrace music in higher fidelity, not co-opting them out right at the beginning.

Yes, the world is a crazy place, dangerously shallow and without empathy or much merit. Ben and J-Lo, they’re on, they’re off, who cares? Who gets the 40-million-dollar home theater system, the better to watch Gigli? Six-pack abs and perfect bodies, rampant media sexuality. Briiiiiitney! Yo! Yo! (As if…) Yes, it’s the Race to the Bottom. No depth in life, no room for knowledge and wisdom, for connoisseurship, for knowing and deeply enjoying. Today, everything starts NOW and lasts for but a moment until the Next Happening Now moment comes along to weakly titillate.

I’ve always told Those Who Believe to get off their collective butts, stop lamenting The End, and make a New Beginning in this admittedly flawed Bushian consumerist/high deficit world. It is your obligation to entice family and friends to the listening chair and crank it up. Some of them will just keep chattering away, but some will "hear it" and want it. A/V types, do the same! Blast ’em out of their chairs with special effects if you must, and some will recognize their pathetic HTIB (Home Theater In A Box) for the little underperforming (and unprofitable!) runt it is.

Little Shop Of Horrors

Walk into many shops and you’ll see plasma screens without audio! Look at the plasma ads in the magazines—no audio! Apparently the outside world is largely unaware of their sense of hearing and wants to keep it that way. Banker Boy coughs up $5000 on a luxury HDTV display and assumes the crappy $600 HTIB by Afterthought Electronics will do the job! Bzzzzt. At least put the plasmas in a good A/V room and show how much better their home entertainment system can be with more horsepower and better components. Home theater can be very visceral, so eviscerate them! Don’t wait for the next big thing. It’s already here.

Why isn’t HTIB touted as a temporary solution, creating an upgrade path in the idiom, say, of high end audio? It’s that race to the bottom mentality again, and everyone participates, from the manufacturer to the dealers who appear stymied, to consumers, who are fed up!

That Was Then, This Is Now

Our traditions have changed. Audiophiles once saved for upgrades to their system: a preamp or a better integrated, stereo then monoblock amps, speakers and wires. Today, many of these disillusioned would-be/could-be audiophiles are throwing it in and buying into consumer-level home theater for, they imagine, a better Quality of Cooping or Cocooning (simply put, staying at home!) You e-mail your friends to find out if they’ve TiVo’d that special on Ovation last night. In fact, you never go out!

Our new-age social disorders, exacerbated by pervasive national angst, coupled with a complex, depressed global economy, have had a powerful effect on the ol’ Leave it to Beaver lifestyle. It’s way too scary out there, so let’s cocoon and watch a DVD at home tonight! One might say it’s not entirely a bad way to spend time with your loved ones. Forgo movies and listen to music if you can manage it.

The Consumer Society’s new cooping instincts fueled home entertainment’s recent growth, in my view. Rather than run from it, we, enlightened audio species that we are, should embrace the changes and lift DNA samples of whatever opportunities for growth in video and audio are to be found in it. Grow, learn, change, or die, grasshopper. Home theater grows, audio can grow too, as the industry learns to market its products better, and to a wider audience.

Home theater is an exciting, immersive experience that can, on first explosion, captivate newcomers like nobody’s business. Let’s take this consumerist momentum and bring "them" closer to our fold. Get their jones up about surround sound and maybe a clever dealer will expose them to real music playback. Show them that it’s more than compressed bits of lame, screechy, flatulent noise in the mall.

High resolution? Don’t have time, babe, gotta run…

MP3 is the work of the devil. I tried it during my two-week stints at Monster and wasn’t much impressed with the sounds from my hard drive, even with a Little Headroom and More power supply on a pair of Sennheiser 600s and Cardas cable. 

If you’ve read me before, you’ll know I love upsampling and SACD. As I’ve come to learn, DVD-A is another worthy storage medium when recorded and mastered well, but too often, DVD-A recordings are played back on consumer-grade equipment in mid-level A/V systems. The comparison isn’t "fair and balanced," with the significant rift between consumer DVD-A decks and SACD machines with improved analog output stages and stiffer, regulated power supplies. Still, there’s enormous musical potential in both formats.

The music business must adapt to the New World Order and come up with a business model that encompasses market realities in the 21st century. I’d naturally like to see high resolution and standard CDs remain on the market. Perhaps we will become the totally downloading society, but for now, uncompressed is best. We have to consider if Universal’s move invigorates sales and other companies follow suit, if small labels will suffer, and what the numbers reveal. Speaking of numbers, Best Buy and Circuit City are down in the market today while specialty retailers are up. Catch the wave.

High resolution digital is so worth it though. And don’t get me started on analog, my true love. It’s never been better.

Chez Ten

Kathleen and I? We have a modest home theater system around a Toshiba 32-inch HDTV. It’s a pastiche of components that sound, as the French say, pas terrible—not terrible.

But our tastes run to two-channel’s siren song. Our digital front-end is a Classe Omega SACD/CD upsampler with separate power supply, built like a jewel chest from Bulgari. It handles everything with control and elegant aplomb.

For vinyl, I still thrill to my vdH Grasshopper IV Gold mounted in a thin Forsell Boron arm on the Air Force One. The flywheel is fine, but the trick for best sound is a stretch-thread drive that absorbs the little bump made by the old dental floss knot flicking around the capstan of the ‘wheel. The sound is sweeter and more stable with the softer stretchy thread. The dependable, ever-adaptable and quiet BAT VK-P10SE phono stage makes for an appealing analog sound.

My preamp of choice is the Lamm L2 Reference. It’s hard to imagine a more direct, non-editorial switching gain device than this. Its power supply and tube regulation are in a separate chassis, solid state output stage in another. This remarkable hybrid brings the music home without fail and seemingly without effort. We can talk about it, but the bottom line is its fabulous neutrality, the integrity of the sound and imaging, and just how stable its electronics remain in all situations.

In fact, in my experience, when playing with well-engineered power supplies like these, no power conditioning is necessary. Good connections, dedicated lines, and good grounds when possible, and let the money you spent on these upper-crust front-end components do the work for you.

Before anyone’s bile bellows forth, let me add that today’s components offer huge performance for the buck, way more than even three or five years ago. And although Kathleen and I are spoiled beyond reason, we all must focus on the entry-level domain to impress, educate, and indoctrinate the unknowing.

Our summer amps are the Linn Klimax Solo 500 monoblocks, appreciatively cool-running, with trick power supplies and quick, elegant white wine sound. We bought’em, they’re fab, that’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it!

When the weather becomes cool, I savor a fine Bordeaux, then wire up the original Krell 350mc monoblocks. They’re hot, honey, even when in "bias-down" mode. For our old leaky loft, that’s no sin. They grab the Utopias in a tight, sexy embrace and produce an awesome, powerful, tight, and tuneful bass, terrific die-for-it midrange, and sweet class-A treble. Sweet? You bet, ever so big time.

I have to work out my cables, but all things in good time.

Your Mission, Mr. Phelps…

I will pontificate further on the State of Things, and welcome your feedback. (Sometimes it’ll take a while to get back to you, but I will.) I’ll also write about system setup, basics to bullshit. And talk about footers, resonance, electrical considerations, speaker positioning, and other matters of import to us all. Maybe I’ll have a look at some new components, too. In the meantime, loosen up and enjoy your system, whatever it is. We’ll make it perform! Enjoy…


Oh, and let me tell you about your origins.

Let’s step into the Wayback Machine—thank you Mr. Peabody and Sherman—and we find ourselves at the entrance to a cave, 24-96 Rubble Strewn Drive. There’s audio erectus and his cousin, video maximus, our very own knock-kneed ancestors.

Audio leans on his club and wiggles his toes. He’s remembering the deep dish from last night’s party around the fire. It was all so deeply satisfying; pounding on the hollowed-out tree stumps, rapping the coconuts with sticks, drawing on the wall, and howling with the gang. We gotta do that again, he thinks. And again, and again.

Harp music, pages falling from a calendar

Consider the following modern-day scenarios. You’re single (you dog), 30-something, and largely unfettered by family, but have lots of friends. You and your buds are camped around the HDTV, the surround system cranked, and you’re taking in the US Open as Roddick turns Ferrero into "peanuts, no I mean peanut butter!" offers an enthusiastic Kathleen, my audiophile wife, otherwise known as K-10. (I’m J-10, as that’s the way K-10 says my name, Jon-a-ten.)

Popcorn, chips, nachos, and beer are already showing signs of advanced depletion. As the peanut crumbles and Roddick launches a shockwave serve at 149 mph, the whole gang jumps up pumping their arms and howling at the moon while beating on any piece of furniture "falling readily to hand." All you’d need are a few coconuts.

Scenario two: Upon arriving at the manse one Friday evening after work, you’re gratified to see mom, sis, and Bud ensconced around that huge new plasma screen watching a thunderous Terminator 3, or is that Arnold’s latest press briefing? You give everyone a hug and thank the A/V gods your boy isn’t out taking drugs and your daughter’s not spending time with that hatchet-faced cretin from the electronics outlet store.

If you’re a prosperous guy or gal, you pull out your hookah and slippers and tiptoe into the listening room and fire up the stereo. If, alas, as is too often the case, your company is downsizing, join the family around the A/V system and vow you’ll enjoy music over the weekend tout en famille.

And Your Point Is?

Trailing mauled analogies behind me, I (finally) get to my point. There has always been an active culture of listening to music, from the earliest lute’n’corn chips party through Mahler in candlelit rooms, to Ravel, Stravinsky, Basie, Ellington, arena rock, rap, and Moby. And in these multimedia days, music—everywhere around us—is augmented by video imagery that for many enhances the "experiential" sense of involvement for multchannel music, home theater, and other electronic entertainment systems. That’s part of the problem, but we’ll come to that.

So every time you come home, kiss the missus (apologies to Ellen DeGeneris), pull off your shoes, and fire up your A/V system—or, more meaningfully, the stereo. You’re propagating an ancient, vital, very human ritual. Bless you and your honored ancestors. And the op amps they rode in on. Keep the faith, go forth and make the world a better place!