Sidebar: A Glimpse of Saudi Arabia
When you travel to a truly foreign land, sometimes it’s the little things that take you aback. In Saudi Arabia, the big things, of course, are the dress—women sheathed in black from head to toe, men often similarly robed in white—the unintelligible spoken word and inscrutable written characters, the arid climate, and the desert backdrop wherever you go. These are constant elements. But little things pop up at unexpected moments. Such as when visiting a fast-food joint in a shopping mall.
I had made it a point to eat at the number-one-rated (per TripAdvisor) food purveyor in the entire country: Al Baik, a fried chicken chain that turned out to be extremely yummy. During my visit to an outlet in the mall attached to my hotel, I noticed a “Ladies Only” ordering line; a reminder that the mingling of men and women is carefully controlled in the Kingdom. (A further reminder was the “Family Only” areas of the mall itself.) There was also an electric sign letting Al Baik’s patrons know when they could expect their order to be ready—to two decimals of precision. The sign informed me that I’d be enjoying my chicken in 8.19 minutes.
That was actually my second attempt to eat at Al Baik. On my first try, I was greeted by lines outside a locked door. Why, I wondered, would people be waiting if the place was closed? Soon I learned that I had arrived at one of the five daily prayer breaks, during which most businesses shut down for about forty-five minutes while the bulk of workers and patrons pray. At shopping centers, right below the signs directing shoppers to restrooms, there are signs pointing to enormous prayer rooms.
Another abnormality for Westerners is surely the lack of alcohol. One knows this intellectually when traveling to Saudi Arabia, but being in the midst of it is another story. It took me quite some time to stop looking for the wine menu at restaurants. When I first arrived at my hotel room, I was delighted to be greeted with a chilled bottle of “Champagne,” which turned out to be sparkling grape juice. The room service menu offered a selection of beer—all non-alcoholic. Night clubs serve “mocktails,” which can be quite intricate but never spirited. Eventually you get used to it.
The streets are different, too. While being driven by my hosts from the hotel to Paragon, I noticed that the broad, immaculate boulevards had no disruptive stop-lights or unsightly overpasses. So how does one make a left turn? Every 1000 meters or so there’s a U-turn lane. You simply start going the other direction, then turn right. The system has some drawbacks—the U-turn lanes can get backed up in peak periods—but it nonetheless struck me as quite ingenious.
I didn’t know what to expect from the Saudi people. As it turns out, they were incredibly friendly. There is no such thing as foreign tourism in Saudi Arabia; the country doesn’t even offer tourist visas. Consequently, my presence was something of a curiosity to the average man on the street. Yet rather than being cautious, everyone I met was open and warm in an unforced way. Gabi Rijnveld of Crystal Cable, who has visited the country many times now, tells me that with each trip she develops a deeper fondness for the place and its people. Despite its strangeness, I could definitely see Saudi Arabia having that effect on me.
Paragon: Room by Room
Entry Gallery: When you first walk into Paragon, you find yourself in an open area so expansive you wonder if it’s the entire store. That impression is furthered by the fact that from here you can’t see any other rooms. This space houses one full system—during my visit it was anchored by KEF Blades—multiple desktop options (none of them Bose), and a swath of top-notch portable gear from Astell&Kern, Ultrasone, and others. As it turns out, the entry gallery is just the tip of the iceberg.
Room 1. This room is long enough that it can house two completely separate systems, one on each end. During my visit, the end intended for more compact systems, such as entry-level gear from Naim, Arcam, and KEF, has been cleared and given over to seating for the grand opening event. The other end contains a system composed almost entirely of Crystal Cable and Siltech product. Crystal provides the Arabesque speakers and, of course, the wiring, while Siltech’s beguiling SAGA supplies amplification. The source is a dCS Rossini. This system is notable in that the wiring from source to speakers—including the interconnects, speaker wire, and even the SAGA and Arabesque internal wiring—is all exactly the same monocrystal cable.
Given this consistency, plus the engineered-in synergies between the Crystal and Siltech gear, it’s not surprising that the sound is unusually congruous. In keeping with the trademark SAGA sound, the presentation is absolutely ravishing, with effortlessly impressive transparency. This is an exquisite system that’s more personal in scale than those of the next rooms.
Room 2. I didn’t spend much time here as this room is still a work in progress. The components—Wilson Sashas, Soulution electronics, dCS source—are in place, but Stirling is still dialing in the setup. There are many variables, since both the position of the speakers and the acoustic treatments are movable. Still, even in its sub-optimal state, the room shows great promise, with the Wilsons strutting their pinpoint imaging and the Soulutions pumping out dynamic, extended sound.
Room 3. Here is where we get into the big stuff, both physically and monetarily. The speakers are Rockport’s hulking Arakis. These transducers, which literally require a crane to assemble, each need four channels of amplification. That’s currently being provided by a pair of Dan D’Agostino stereo power amps. Still, the Rockports could use even more power, so plans are afoot to replace the stereo amps with a bank of monoblocks. The CD player is made by Origine, a company with which I’m not familiar but that earns raves from the Paragon staff.
Despite the price differential, Room 3 doesn’t strike me as categorically “better” than Room 1. Both are exceptional at conveying music the way only a top-notch system can. That said, Room 3 is a major step up in terms of sheer scale. It’s capable of producing a cavernous soundstage that extends forever in all directions, including height. The Arakis conjure core-of-the-earth bass solidity and extension. This room inspired me to play as many tracks as time permitted, just to hear how they sound on such a consummate rig.
Room 4. After Room 3 I wasn’t sure how much more bespoke an audio system could get. But Room 4 is meant to be the ultimate, which is why it is anchored by the rare and imposing Magico Ultimate horns. Behind these were a dCS Vivaldi, eight channels of Avantgarde Acoustic electronics, and what must be half the world’s supply of Crystal’s esoteric, extravagantly expensive Absolute Dream cables. If you’re keeping track, you’ve already calculated that this system costs well over a million dollars.
All of these components had been in place and wired for only three days when I arrived. Given the complexity of the Ultimates and their DSP-based active crossover, the multitude of setting options on the Vivaldi, and many other moving parts, it would take far longer than that to reach a fully-tuned state. However, the Paragon staff had some support in the form of Magico’s own Alon Wolf, who helped dial in the system. He did so without ever leaving his California office. Rather, Stirling and Roy had the system generate pink noise, which was picked up by a purpose-built mic, digitized, and transmitted to Alon over the Internet for analysis. Alon then used a software tool to arrive at optimal settings for the Ultimate’s crossover.
Unfortunately, when I heard the system the Ultimates were hampered by a glitch in the crossover—perhaps the result of a power spike—that effectively shut down bass response. Despite this impediment, I could still hear that the system is amazingly clean, tight, and fast. The noise floor is uncannily low. Horns are often chastised for being colored, but the Ultimates make it clear that an all-out, take-no-prisoners horn design can be even less colored than even the very best dynamic loudspeakers.
Fortunately, as I later learned, the crossover (and everything else) had been working perfectly during the grand opening demonstration. And the problem was diagnosed and corrected shortly after my visit. At some point, I’ll just have to go back to hear Room 4 as it is meant to sound.