Dumbed down audio

It’s interesting to me that when you look at what’s behind the accusation (often heard on certain partisan news networks) that people are in any way “dumbing down”, what they usually mean is that the people accused don’t know or aren’t interested in what the accuser thinks they should be interested in.

In the meantime, people are busy learning what THEY think is important. Most people really are not dumb, they are smart enough to know what skills the society REALLY wants, which it indicates through how it rewards people who acquire them. Business, Sports, Politics, Entertainment and Financials are where the rewards pretty much are. Science and Mathematics are mostly for the “nerds”, who rarely get paid (I say rarely because there is the intersection between Finance/Business and mathematics where the nerds do manage to get paid. But those are the exceptions). One pundit (me) observed that if we paid Teachers and Scientists even five percent of what we pay athletes, actors, bankers and politicians, we would be scientifically unstoppable. But when the rubber meets the road, we just don’t do it.

Subjective testing of audio gear is often cited as dumbed down audio. But really, you don’t have to understand graphs and mathematics to listen to audio equipment and decide which of it you think more evocative of real, live music. The technically inclined may think one is going about it from a position of ignorance, but the non-technically inclined think they are doing just fine, Jack. And they are. You don’t need to study meteorology to know it’s cold in the winter so bring a coat, or to check out the Weather Channel for the forecast. But knowing how Twitter and Facebook work and how to text on your iPhone can lead to “enriching social interaction”, so that’s technology worth knowing…

Now, understand that I am not saying there is no value in the charts and graphs. I work in a technical field and understand them fairly well and like to see them as a checkup of sorts on what I hear. But if, ultimately, what matters in music is the emotional/intellectual state it induces in the listener, then what better test than listening to see if a particular piece of equipment does that job?

It’s kind of hubris that some people think people should buy what is determined “objectively” best rather than what they think is best through their own aural evidence. To paraphrase Chico Marx, “Well, who you gonna believe, me or your own ears?” I could argue that charts and graphs are most interesting out of intellectual curiosity (at least to those not actively engaged in the actual design of components, speakers, etc.).

All this does put a premium on the listening/evaluation process. I am always suspicious (keeping in mind I can only conjecture about other people’s actual abilities) of someone who listens to a piece of equipment for ten minutes and has definite, unshakable opinions. Personally, I can tell something I probably won’t like fairly quickly, but once it has passed that test of being at least adequate, it takes me a while to formulate a useful opinion.

In fact, in some ways, the most useful information comes in those “ah ha” moments of just listening for pleasure when it hits you how good (or not) a particular piece of music sounds through the equipment in use. In combination with your familiarity with live music and the time you spend listening analytically to recordings you know, this gives you the best chance I know of to make a sound (ahem) evaluation.

ProArte Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances and “calibrating for the reviewer”

It’s always interesting to get other perspectives on audio and the recordings we listen to for our pleasure. I ordered the ProArte recording of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances (Mata/Dallas) recently as result of a recommendation on the “REG on Audio” Yahoo Group. TAS reviewer Robert Greene (REG) considers this to be a sonically better recording than the more generally acknowledged “audiophile” recordings of this work. What follows is the results of listening to this CD on my system including Magnepan MG 3.7 speakers.

ProArte is a bit of a mystery label, as far as I can tell. Some classical and a lot of oddball and novelty type CD’s, much of them look like “licensed” material. I am really not sure if the label instigated and recorded this on their own using their own personnel. As I recall, they were an “off price” label back in the day, but that’s about all I remember about ProArte. As far as technical info for the recording under review, the mystery continues.

ProArte bills this as an “Audio+ Direct to Digital” recording and infer it’s something of an audiophile release. They even provide some recording info, but it’s all pretty vague. For example, they list K&K, Shure and AKG mics, but give no model numbers. K&K appears to be a company that specializes in pickup mic’s designed for acoustic instruments, so that doesn’t help much and Shure
and AKG made everything from exotic to prosaic instruments, so who knows? All we can do is listen…

This is a recording that sounds as if it were recorded with a rear-hall sound in mind. At first, it may seem dull and the sound field a bit vague, but really it’s a pretty credible example of the sound balance one would hear at that distance from the orchestra in a typical hall. There does seem to be a bit of opaqueness as though the mics were not absolutely first-rate, but overall, one would have to consider this a successful recording with much beauty to be heard from its calm balance.

One can contrast this to the Johanos/Dallas/Turnabout recording of this piece. This has a definite front of the hall perspective and exhibits a very spatially distinct, vivid and detailed sound. Unfortunately, this also results in a recording somewhat lacking in hall ambience, which robs the sound of some of its potential beauty.

The Reference Recordings Oue/Minnesota recording may be the most sonically successful, to me. It also has a somewhat close-up sound, but sounds as if some discreet accent mics were blended in to add some hall ambience and back off things a bit. This results in a front hall, but still ambient, sound.

Recordings being compromises in first principle, I would say these recordings all present viable perspectives on an orchestra in a
concert hall. Which one you will like best will depend on what kind of concert hall you prefer and where you prefer to sit in the hall. Personally, I am glad to have these quite different sonic perspectives available and find much to enjoy in all three, but would have to say the Reference Recordings has the “best” sound based on my tastes.

That said, the reviewers sonic preferences should be an important factor in your assessing the reviews of recordings and equipment you may read or hear. I will refer to this as “calibrating for the reviewer”. As you read any reviewers work, they will tend to betray their inevitable biases and likes in their reviews. In my mind, the better reviewers will give you enough straight reportage of the sound to allow their descriptions to be relevent to you once you figure in the calibration factor between you and the reviewer.

Spendor BC1/SP1: tonality uber alles

The Spendor BC1/SP1 were outgrowths of the BBC’s research to create monitors that could be relied upon to make reasonable judgements on the audio quality of their broadcasts. They were, in fact, pretty much identical to the BBC approved LS 3/6, themselves reissued by Sterling Audio recently with modernized drivers (and reviewed well by REG in The Absolute Sound recently).

The BC-1’s, like the original Quad ESL, were one of those brilliant designs that more or less fulfilled exactly what the designer intended. When they hit the market in the late 1960’s, they were widely considered one of the few “box” speakers able to compete with the original Quad on its own terms, that is tonal refinement and relative lack of coloration. Though like the Quads, the bass and treble were less outstanding than the midrange, while still quite serviceable (this was somewhat improved in the later SP-1).

Even today, listening tests show the BC-1 to be outstanding in the areas of its strengths. They are smooth, free of obvious tonal problems and, yes, beautiful to listen to. And, considering it’s hard to spend over $1000 for a pair on the used market, an outstanding value. So that’s it, game over, right?

Not exactly. In order to enjoy the BC-1’s (easy to do, BTW) you have to forget the literal sound presence of the concert hall. The BC-1’s give you a tonally sophisticated sound but much less of the scale, power and presence of the concert hall experience. To be fair, most relatively small box speakers do this. The scale of a concert hall just cannot be reproduced by a speaker of this type, partly because it is a speaker of this type (with a relatively point source nature) and partly that recordings (which are VERY different from reality) just don’t contain enough of this information. Unfortunately, microphone/recorder does not equal ear/ brain.

In my view, the only way to even try and approximate the scale and power of concert hall sound is to employ speakers that augment the recordings in this aspect, line sources, planars and the like. Now let’s be clear.  Speakers like this involve more of the characteristics of the listening room and of their specific radiation patterns which mix with the (limited) spatial cues present in the recording and it’s fair to say that this is not an accurate reproduction of the recording. But it results (at least to me) in a sound more accurate to the gestalt of the concert hall experience, though in a somewhat generalized way due to the leveling effect of the unchanging nature of your room acoustics.

Whether this is for better or not is a subjective decision. Some would say the recording is what it is and all we can do is to try to reproduce that limited reality as well as we can. Others would say the original sound as experienced in the hall is the only arbiter (which is BTW, the original “Absolute Sound” philosophy), whatever gives more of that impression is right even if it somewhat compromises the limited reality present in the recording. Me, I waver. Sometimes I like the let it all hang out concert hall approach and sometimes the limited but tonally truer impression of something like the BC-1. If I had to choose one, I like the idea of the concert hall impression. But I don’t have to choose, so I can have Magnepan 3.7 in one room and KEF LS-50 in the other. Hey, some people like Chocolate AND Vanilla, it’s OK, relax…

There is another issue here. The lively BC-1 speaker cabinets, though their effect is figured in and integral to the final sonic result, still produce their own sound artifacts that cloud and obscure the sound somewhat. Here the heroic efforts of the KEF LS-50 to deaden the cabinets pay dividends in terms of clarity and the concentric drivers more fully approximate a point source type of radiation pattern, resulting in a more accurate to the recording sense of the placement of images in its limited-in-scale soundstage. Though the extra warmth of the BC-1 is certainly welcome.

It must be said that the Magnepan 3.7 (reviewed earlier) planar, while not quite as tonally accurate as the BC-1, do provide a more convincing sense of scale and presence and overall convey a more realistic impression of an orchestra in a concert hall. But if tonality is all to you, the Spendor BC-1’s are hard to beat and are one of the true classics in stereo era audio.

KEF LS50 Further Thoughts

I have owned these speakers now for about a month and a half, so it’s time for some updated impressions.

I have listened in the living room on the big rig and in my bedroom system. In both cases, the speakers acquitted themselves quite well. I take the bedroom performance quite seriously, BTW (ahem). I like to listen there late at night and often leave the system playing softly as I sleep. Speakers that have significant performance shortfalls can lead, rather than to enhanced sleep, to 3AM wake-up calls to turn the damn system off! The LS50 passed this test with flying colors, making sleep time more pleasurable and more anticipated than even my old age and borderline laziness can on its own.

The speaker did well in the living room environment, filling this large-ish space well at reasonable levels of playback. The soundstage was especially notable, it did not have the height illusion that a planar or a physically large speaker can conjure, but the rest of it was quite fine, befitting the way the particular recording was made.

Of course, no small speaker will produce prodigious bass and that is true here. But it passes the bass “Mendoza Line” test handily. (Mario Mendoza was a major league ballplayer who was (in)famous for hitting around .200 year after year with his main contributions on defense. So .200 became the “Mendoza Line”, MLB jargon for barely adequate. The ProAc Tablettes bass is at the Mendoza Line, for example. Ironically, Mendoza finished his career above the Mendoza Line…)

So with the obligatory bass disclaimer out of the way, we can look at what this speaker excels at. There is an overall sense of transparency, as though you can hear through the speakers to the essence of the recorded performance. This comes from a number of attributes. The tonal balance is quite good, the limited bass extension is balanced by a less than insistent treble and a generally flat midrange. I say generally because there is not quite the midrange smoothness and neutrality of something like the Harbeth P3ESR, for example, but the competition is close. Where the KEF trumps the Harbeth is in the lack of “cabinet fog”, which allows a clarity and detail the Harbeth can’t quite muster.

The other contributor to the sense of transparency is the soundfield the KEF manifests, which is a result of the concentric driver and the lack of sonic contribution of the cabinet due to its relative lack of resonance and its carefully radiused shape that discourages secondary radiation from the cabinet borders.

The cabinet quality here really can’t be overemphasized. This is actually quite a thing to hear; to realize that some of what we are used to hearing in speakers is an artifact of cabinet radiation and diffraction. Of course, in general, small speakers tend to have a certain clarity, their small size steers what resonances there are to frequencies where they can do less harm relative to a larger cabinet and provide a smaller surface to radiate the result of the resonances into the room, but the KEF shows what more can be done even in the context of a small speaker.

And kudos for the KEF UniQ driver, too. Making a generally flat driver is not easy and making a flat concentric driver is even more difficult, but the UniQ is a quite good driver as these things go. It could be argued that a heroic cabinet that allows the driver to do most of the speaking is good only if the driver is worth listening to. Here we have a driver that is worth listening to. Not perfect, as mentioned above, but competitive to even separate high quality woofers and tweeters while bringing the advantages of the concentric format to the table.

Overall, the KEF strikes me as an excellent product and something of a minor classic. It brings many strengths to the table and few weaknesses not directly related to its small size. It would seem the UniQ driver has come to maturity, the limited opportunities I have had to listen to the flagship Blade show similar levels of performance in a more full range context. As of now, the LS50 is my favorite small speaker in the moderate price range, its $1500 pair price being at the lower end of that range for a high quality mini.  I suspect the next significant step up for a small speaker application would be the Magico or Raidho which are both into five figures. Hats off to KEF for a fine accomplishment.

Across the pond for an audio show, the UK National Audio Show 2012

I just got back from the UK where I attended the National Audio Show sponsored by The Chester Group as part of a week-long vacation. While I was in London, I caught a concert at the Cadogan Hall, Enrique Bátiz conducted the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in  Wagner’s Overture to The Flying Dutchman, Sibelius’ Violin Concerto (soloist Jack Liebeck), and Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. I had literally front row center tickets, and what a powerful (as opposed to just loud) sound you hear in those seats!

As good as our stereo equipment is, it’s still a fair ways from live music. But to be able to hear the great music and performers of the world play at your command makes whatever fidelity loss we experience tolerable. Nothing at the audio show rivaled the concert, but there was some excellent sound (judged by the standard of home audio) to be heard. Here are a few of the products that caught my interest.

HART D&W was showing the “Aural Pleasure” loudspeaker which amusingly looked liked little bronze Buddhas squatting in the corners. But if you saw THIS Buddha in the road, killing it would be quite a feat. The knuckle test on the cabinet results merely in sore knuckles. They provided a powerful sound but with limited bass, the corner placement meant to make the most of the bass from what is, after all, a small speaker.

ORIGIN LIVE was displaying their well crafted tonearms and turntables with Mark Baker doing the honors in the room. This company started with Rega arm upgrades, but has progressed to bespoke arms, turntables and now electronics and Astute 8 speakers, the speakers hanging rather than rigidly fastened down.  A very interesting company for sure.

ICON AUDIO designer David Shaw loves the sound of vintage tube amps and was showing an extensive (to say the least) line of tube amps, everything from push-pull to SE amps with just about any audio tube you can imagine as outputs. He seems to bring a lot of passion to his craft and I enjoyed very much talking a bit of shop with him.

TOWNSHEND AUDIO’s Max Townshend has seemingly been around British Audio forever and his latest products look very interesting. His new passive preamps and CD/SACD player were displayed along with his well-regarded Rock Turntable and Maximum Supertweeters.

HI END CABLE is a UK retailer displaying the new revision of the Raidho monitor, the C 1.1 along with Bel Canto electronics and getting quite a good sound. This is a small monitor I am much curious about, expensive but with some real technology in play. The shy Dave Jackson didn’t want to speak about the system much at first, but once started sounded like a senior BBC presenter!

PALMER AUDIO’s Jon Palmer started shy and stayed so throughout! But no denying the wonderful sound his Palmer 2.5 12 was making driving the suave Harbeth Compact 7 ES3 loudspeakers. Quite a striking looking table to boot.

AUDIO NOTE was at the show, playing vinyl to excellent effect. The presentation was low-key, no talk, just music.

DELTEC AUDIO is a name from the past back in the game with some new interesting products. The “Little Bit” was a fine D to A converter back in the day and their new designs include more compact units that looked quite interesting.

LORICRAFT AUDIO was displaying their record cleaners, turntables and Garrard restoration services. Terry O’Sullivan was holding forth with some quite interesting stories to go along with their interesting products and services.

VTL and VIVID AUDIO provided some mighty convincing sounds from their Giya G1 loudspeakers driven by VTL Siegfried Mk 2 amplifiers. To me, this was one of the best sounds of the show.

DECENT AUDIO (modestly named, ‘eh…) reminded us of just how good even the entry-level Magnepan designs can sound, displaying the MG12’s  and the new Magnepan Mini (not heard).

Unfortunately, I was not able to attend both days of the show, so my impressions were a bit limited. But it was a fun show and it was very cool to see what the hi-fi world looks like across the pond up close and personal. Next up, RMAF 2012!

HP resigns from The Absolute Sound

Per TAS website:

On August 31, 2012, TAS founder Harry Pearson officially resigned from the staff of The Absolute Sound. As some of you may know, HP has had very serious health issues this year, which is the reason why you haven’t seen his contributions in our pages over the past seven or eight issues. He has now decided to pursue his own personal projects rather than return to the monthly grind of TAS.

Truly the end of an era. For many audiophiles, especially during the height of HP’s editorship, The Absolute Sound was eagerly anticipated from issue to issue. Not just for the equipment reviews, but for the music reviews and coverage such as interviews with the conductors, performers and recording engineers and for the many “thought pieces” on anything to do with reproduced sound. It seemed HP wanted to create not just a great audio magazine, but a great magazine by any measure, and he largely succeeded.

Back in the day, he also expected the same high standards of his writers and was not afraid to let that be known in print. I’m sure that some of them didn’t like it, but I suspect that many of their writing skills improved because of his criticism.

Since HP was replaced as Editor at TAS, the magazine has evolved somewhat away from its direction when Harry ran things, for better or worse. But this is not the place to mourn whatever was lost, but to wish Harry the best in the future. I selfishly hope that someday we will be able to read more from the man who is, in my view, the best to ever write about hi-end audio.

KEF LS50 loudspeakers, a bow to the past and a nod to the future (part 1)

Any company in any field that can claim 50 years in business is doing something right. But the UK’s KEF has a vibrant history both in terms of their own finished speakers and the products that the fruits of their research made possible. The drivers that KEF designed back in the day were classic and many of the speakers that employed them are enjoyed in homes to this day. BBC researchers, who designed monitors without commercial intentions but only to provide as faithful as possible monitoring of their transmitted signals, used KEF’s drivers liberally, most notably in the LS3/5A.

If all the KEF drivers inspired were the legendary LS3/5A, they would hold an honored position in audio history. But many other classics used the B-110 and T-27 and the other KEF designs. In addition to numerous KEF designs, the Linn Kan and Isobarik, JR- 149, various IMF’s and TDL’s, various Celef’s, various Tangent’s, early Meridian, ProAc and Monitor Audio’s, employed KEF drivers.

Now 50 years later we have the LS50 where the “LS” is a nod to KEF’s BBC legacy. But that’s pretty much where the similarity ends. While they do still employ KEF designed drivers, the drivers are nothing like the Bextrene coned units of yesteryear. KEF calls the new drivers “Uni-Q”, and they are a concentric design with the tweeter mounted in the middle of the driver where the dustcap would be in normal drivers. The concept of a concentric driver actually goes way back to the old Tannoy drive units from the late ’40’s, but KEF started their investigation into their technology in the mid ’80’s with the benefit of modern technology and materials. The first KEF speaker to employ the Uni-Q was introduced in 1988 and the driver has evolved quite a bit since then.

The latest versions of the Uni-Q were produced for the “Blade” project, which finally saw the light of day as a commercial product in 2011. The Blade is an excellent design, but sells for $30,000. I was going to say “unfortunately sells for $30,000”, but when you consider what flagship speaker designs from established (and non-established!) companies sells for these days, the $30,000 almost seems reasonable…

So when the LS50 was announced, the first thought prompted by its looks was “mini-Blade”. I am not sure it’s quite that, but it does seem apparent that it benefitted from the Blade’s research in its design. I also think it looks pretty cool, the piano black, curvaceous cabinet and Rose-Copper colored concentric driver making a nice looking modern style package, in my view (though it might not go with your Chippendale sofa and Tudor balustrades). So this looked like a likely prospect for my small speaker project.

My first move upon obtaining a pair was to deploy them in my bedroom system for break-in. In the bedroom I mostly listen to FM radio through a small Job Amplifier, itself an intriguing Swiss design that inspired some of the later Goldmund amplifier designs (unfortunately, the Job is discontinued now).

First listens were intriguing, the announcers voices on my local Classical music station (WWFM) sounded quite natural without excessive chestiness. It was interesting to me that LS50 tonality was good enough to let me guess that an unfamiliar piece of music (it turned out to be Adventures in a Perambulator by John Alden Carpenter) was a Mercury Living Presence recording and a Beethoven 7th was a Deutsche Grammophon (Carlos Kleiber). So far so good!

But the two things that struck me right away were the speakers disappearing act and the low-level of cabinet coloration. The imaging, even under the less than optimum conditions they were operating under, was quite fine. And there was this sense of purity, as though you were hearing the driver talking for itself without influence of the cabinet. Now this might be expected from a small speaker with a highly engineered cabinet, but it’s unusual to hear none the less.

Part two will give further impressions after break-in and in my main system. Stay tuned.

London…is a little bit of all right

In a few hours, I will be getting on a flight to London UK for a week’s vacation. This is one of my favorite places to go, as an audiophile I can hear live music at the concert halls there, shop for records (especially Decca’s) and just drink in the atmosphere where the music of my early teens was produced.

I have two must-shop record stores there. The first is the Classical Music exchange on Notting Hill Gate. This is a quiet, somewhat studious place with a deep stock of records. There are unsorted bargain records for 1 pound or less downstairs (in varying condition) and more expensive stock sorted in Composer order upstairs. There is also a section of “collectables” priced as such and usually a couple of rows of new arrivals. One interesting feature is that non-collectable stock that doesn’t sell at its original price will eventually be marked down until it does sell, sometimes you can find a bargain this way. Of course, a lot of these records are old hat to the British collector, but from across the pond these look most alluring! Down the street are affiliated stores for Rock, Soundtracks and the like if you are so inclined.

The other is sometimes less productive, but always more fun! That’s Gramex, near Waterloo Station on Lower Marsh. Roger, the owner, is a great guy. An eccentric, but knowledgable guy in his 80’s, who seems more interested in talking to you about whatever comes up than selling product. I have been to his store about 6 times and he always seems genuinely happy to see you. These days, the store leans more to used CD’s but there is usually a nice stock of records in the basement area. Classical, Opera and Jazz can be found here. As I type this, I am thinking how cool it will be to see Roger again…

There is Harold Moores on Great Marlborough Street, but I usually don’t waste my time. At least when I have been there, high prices on even common LP’s. Maybe a bit better on CD’s.

On Portobello road there are a few Rock shops for vinyl and you might also want to check out Oxfam’s. This is sort of like a Salvation Army type of used goods store with outlets all over the city, but only some of them have records so you will have to do some research. In past years, I found some stuff here, but recently its been a bit fallow.

I have three concerts on tap this time, so that’s exciting, two at the Barbican and one at Cadogan Hall. Other times of the year find a busier concerts schedule, if you go to London, you might want to time it for the “Proms” which is a month or so of non-stop concert activity in August (it coincided with the Olympics this year, so not for me). The Southbank Center has concert halls (including the Royal Festival Hall and the Queen Elizabeth Hall) and is also a cool place to hang out with stores and small restaurants right on the banks of the Thames. I went to the Meltdown Festival there one year (that particular year featured groups picked by Ray Davies) and saw a great concert featuring The Crazy World of Arthur Brown and the Legendary Pink Dots, one of the best concerts I have attended, so there is lots of action here. Check out http://meltdown.southbankcentre.co.uk/archives/ And don’t forget the Royal Albert Hall (of which we now know how many holes it takes to fill), Wigmore Hall etc. Lots of musical fun to be had in London.

This year, I will be in town the week of the National Audio Show, sponsored by the Chester Group, which I will be covering for http://www.avshowrooms.com/ . Looks like 40 plus room featuring UK manufacturers, distributors and retailers, so it should be fun.

But what I really like is to walk around in the evening listening to early Genesis, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull and the like on my mp3 player on the streets that were the cradle of this music. Evocative of another era and my youth…

AudioNote AN-E/Lexus Speakers, the gateway drug?

One of the roads less traveled in quality audio is the world of vintage and vintage-based-technology equipment. Usually tube based, often very low power mated with high-efficiency loudspeaker designs, it generally makes the more mainstream audio community go right into grid current (a little tube joke for the ham operators out there).

It’s also characterized by a seeming disregard for technical measurements (by the retro-audiophiles and sometimes even the designers) and for decent, moral regard for the sacredness of accuracy and neutrality. These musically horny tarts are so depraved as to…oops, lapsed into a Monty Python bit. Sorry.

All seriousness aside, the retro-phile (as it were) prizes emotional response and musical satisfaction over the usual concerns about accuracy (to whatever one thinks playback should be accurate to, I guess). Dissecting music into pieces for analysis is anathema to them, akin to testing wines through chemical analysis. One thing I admire is their insistence on assessing audio gear without the reassuring recourse to measurements to back their opinions up. That’s a tightrope with no net and, for many audiophiles, really just to dangerous.

For the most part, this equipment is not seen that often in mainstream print audio (remember when they were called the “underground audio press”? Meet the new boss…), except for the past writings of Peter Breuninger for TAS and Stereophile and currently by Art Dudley of Stereophile, who have, I am sure, suffered slings and arrows from the establishment for their apostasy.  But it WAS championed in print by “Sound Practices” and “Positive Feedback” back in the day and in print and later on line by the late Harvey Rosenberg, who the grim-faced arbiters of audio morality loved to hate. BTW, go check out Harvey’s legacy website http://www.meta-gizmo.net/. Now THERE was a dude who loved to write, especially about his beloved audio interests. And with a sense of humor, which was a big reason why “the grim-faced arbiters of audio morality” (is it OK to quote yourself, especially in the same paragraph?) were so outraged.

But once the seeds are sown, like forbidden fruit, this subculture beckons. Is it for you? Is it for me? I certainly don’t think it’s for everyone. But you’ll never know till you dip your toe in the water and find out for yourself. One way to ease into this is with Audio Note speakers. The AN-E/Lexus is not representative of the very latest or even the very best Audio Note has to offer, but it can give a healthy bite of the AN sound. And, although it has more in common with the audio hedonists rather than the traditionalists, it’s not too scary to the uninitiated as this speaker derives from the Snell E designed back in the early 1980’s by the late Peter Snell (who was firmly in the audio mainstream).

The AN-E/Lexus is a fairly large 2 way, designed to be elevated on a short stand. It’s also a bit unique, in that it is designed with corner placement as an option. In fact, corner placement is how Audio Note shows the speakers at audio shows and really, the design appears to be more optimum for this placement, the anechoic response starts to shelve down in the midbass and the reenforcement the corner placement provides brings the bass up closer to the midrange in level.

I tried the speaker both ways, in my den system, an approximately 12 X 14 foot room in the corners and out in the room in my main room which is larger, but has no realistic way to employ corner placement. I did prefer the corner placement as the tonal balance was indeed better this way, the midbass especially thinning out under these circumstances. But what I really liked was that, in a small room where speakers placed out in the room can seem physically (and sonically) in your face, the corner placement made the room look much less cluttered and created an expansive, if more distant than typical, soundfield. Maybe corner placement should come back into vogue a bit, for both sonic and esthetic considerations.

Overall, the tonal balance tends to the mid-centric and if your ideal is Harbeth/Spendor flatness of response, you won’t find it here. Not that it’s wildly bizarre, though. This is a sound that emphasizes a somewhat more “organic” sound at the cost of what some may consider accuracy. But in many ways, it does tend to bring an alluring sound to a great number of recordings, not requiring the best recordings for musical enjoyment and helping to ensure that relatively poor recordings are not heard at their worst, either.

To really hear all of what Audio Note can do would require exposure to their currently manufactured more costly designs which I have only heard at shows. You can spend anywhere from $6000 to $20,000 on what’s basically the same speaker with tweaks as you go up the line, the top models employ Alnico magnets, hemp cones, silver voice coils and external crossovers with higher quality components. The Audio Note show systems I have heard have sounded quite fine. I can’t tell you where the optimum cost/benefit line is, but I will say that if you don’t dig what you hear from the lower levels of this model, I doubt that going for the throat will make the difference. On the other hand, if you do like the basic design, I suspect that as you move up you do get more, Audio Note has stayed steadfast to this design over the years so they should have a pretty good idea what’s going on with it at this point.

Audio Note speakers make a persuasive argument that classic “neutrality” (whatever that really is) as aspired to by more mainstream designs may not be the only way to musical satisfaction. Certainly, this road can exist in parallel with the currently more established paradigms, I think.

Keep it quiet, but here’s the Lectron JH-50 amplifier

There are some things that it’s tempting to just keep to yourself. This is a story about one such audio product.

From about 1984 to 1999, I performed repairs on tube audio gear for various clients. There are some benefits to this beyond making a few bucks outside of your day job. One of the biggest is getting to hear equipment you otherwise wouldn’t (you have to test it out to make sure it won’t fail when you return it to the customer, after all). That’s how I first came to hear the Lectron JH-50.

It looked cool and sounded excellent, but was beyond my price range at the time. It was also not that common here in the US, being designed in France by one of the legends of the French audiophile community, Jean Hiraga. Mr. Hiraga was one of the seminal figures in the tube/triode/horn renaissance in Europe through his magazine l’Audiophile, so the amp had an excellent pedigree. I was determined to keep my eye out for one when finances allowed.

My next experience with the Lectron came at a friend’s audio store, years later. He had one of these in his personal collection and we were listening to it on a number of different speakers. We both decided that, somehow, this amp seemed to make whatever speaker we hooked up sound about as well as it could sound, it just had this uncanny ability to bring the best out of whatever it fed. My offer to buy it was rebuffed, but my determination to find one was re-energized.

Perhaps the magic of the JH-50 is in the (British) Partridge output transformers (that have always enjoyed a good sonic reputation). It employs EL-34 output tubes, always a pretty sweet sounding tube and that may help, as may the use of octal based drivers rather than the more common miniature tubes. Or maybe some synergy with the circuit design and the parts used. Whatever it is, it’s one of the best medium power (about 40 watt) tube amplifiers I have ever heard. Creamy without sounding fat, clear and beautiful, and in control.

Of course, like all tube amps, it is not completely “neutral” from a technical standpoint. But our speakers and our room are not perfectly neutral either, so how the sum of the parts of the Amp/Speaker/Room interface align is always up for question. This without questioning whether a “neutral” system is really desirable in the first place (he said provocatively).

So we fast forward to about 2004. I had finally found a JH-50 on Audiogon for a reasonable price and was waiting for it to arrive when an audiophile buddy of mine, who favors the tube/horn path, called late one afternoon. In our conversation, he lamented how hard it was for him to find an amplifier he was really happy with. In an unthinking moment, I mentioned the JH-50 and how it might be worthy of his attention. Now understand, my friend can be driven when it comes to his interests, so he went out a found a JH-50, liked what he heard, found another to have a spare and told all his friends who put on full court presses to find their own. Suddenly, the Lectron’s prices on the used market seemed to shoot up. Never content to leave well enough alone, folks started having their JH-50’s modified, which made $2000 amplifiers into $3000 amplifiers. Luckily, I already had mine.

So I am almost afraid to mention the JH-50. Not that I am so egotistical to think that just a mention on my blog is all that, but hey, it happened once before…