State of the Art in D.C.

Neil Gader Visits TAS’ Jacob Heilbrunn

Tubed power amplifiers,
Disc players,
Loudspeaker cables
Continuum Caliburn,
dCS Vivaldi,
Transparent Cable Transparent Opus,
Wilson Audio XLF Flagship,
Ypsilon PST-100MKII,
Ypsilon SET-100 Ultimate,
Ypsilon VPS-100
State of the Art in D.C.

Audio reviewing tends to be a mostly solitary endeavor. But that’s not to say reviewers are anti-social. However, as much as TAS staffers like me would like to pay a colleague a visit to check out what he’s listening to we also tend to be geographically rather far flung from one another. Frankly it’s a drag both personally and professionally that in all my years working with Jonathan Valin I still haven’t visited him in Cincinnati, nor has he had a chance to stop by for a listen at my home in Los Angeles.  In fact only recently did I spend an afternoon at Robert Harley’s lovely home in Carlsbad (although, darn it I haven’t been down to hear the Magico Q7s–at least not yet). It’s a shame because one of the most insightful experiences we can have as audio writers is when we’re afforded the opportunity to hear a colleague's system in depth.

To that end, in late January my wife Judi and I travelled to Washington DC ostensibly to attend the Inauguration festivities. But also to spend some time with TAS colleague Jacob Heilbrunn and his gracious family who welcomed Judi and I to spend the greater part of our stay in their home and for me to enjoy Jacob’s custom-designed downstairs listening room. The home itself is an attractively spacious two-story that they’d recently renovated. And, Judi and I would add, with marvelous guest quarters. But fair to say it was the basement listening room that I was really excited to experience.  Over the course of the basement’s renovation Jacob had sent me updates and some final pics but little could prepare me for the reality of actually stepping inside this bespoke space. Some basement!! It’s a beauty, no question. And far more sophisticated than the initial impression.

Its dimensions are a stately 35’ x 20’ x 11'3". (For west coast home owners like me, a basement of this scope is unheard of. But remember this home was built in a different era and–at least on the east coast–basements this large were not atypical.) Jacob explained that the room has been constructed as a "room within a room."  That is, the ceiling and walls are floating on isolation clips attached to the existing structure. These walls consist of a layer of plywood and two layers of 5/8" sheetrock, with the "green glue" compound applied between each layer. As Jacob pointed out, this amount of mass on the walls and ceiling was designed to aid bass response while minimizing room nodes. And remember it’s not only a room within a room but it’s also mostly beneath street level. Finally the floor is a 6" concrete slab on 6" of gravel. The dedicated lines are supplied by an Equi=Tech 10kW wall isolation transformer that outputs balanced power.

Room tuning is fairly straight-forward actually. There are diffusers on the front wall and resonators on the side walls plus the ceiling grid has a few added fiberglass panels. Bookshelves filled with JHb’s fine LP collection line the sidewalls and backwall behind the couch–thus serving double-duty as bass-traps. The goals for the listening room hinged on achieving a high level of isolation first and foremost and then adhering to basic loudspeaker placement standards like the Rule of Thirds-plus tried and true acoustic measures like dampening the first sidewall reflection and the wall behind the speakers? That, and fine tuning with a lot of listening.


The equipment reads like a Who’s Who from TAS’ recent Buyer’s Guide.

Front end, Analog: Continuum Caliburn turntable with dual Cobra tonearms, Lyra
Atlas and Lyra Titan mono cartridges; Digital: dCS Vivaldi playback system, Electronics: Ypsilon PST-100MKII preamp, VPS-100 phonostage, and SET-100 Ultimate amps, Musical Fidelity MB700amps on the subwoofers. Loudspeakers: Wilson Audio Alexandria XLF and two Thor’s Hammer subwoofers and dual Watch controllers. Speaker cables and interconnects:Transparent Opus; Power cables, Basis, EnKlein, and Isoclean Supreme Focus. Isolation platforms: Minus K, (5 including turntable) Enough said?

Prior to actually listening to the system, I sat down and simply took in the ambience of the space. No music, the system merely idling.  It does something quite incredible. It is as silent and still as it is possible to describe room silence. Zero noise artifacts, street or otherwise. More like the glassy-still surface of a bottomless lake. Eerie.

What I anticipated to hear from this system was very different from what I actually experienced. I knew it would play large, loud and dynamically. How could it not?  I knew it would be very transparent, highly resolved and that there would be little the system would struggle with. But I thought I would enjoy a grand two-channel system within a room–two separate and distinct entities–system and room at times in conflict with one another. What I didn’t think I’d hear was a near seamless blending of the two. Inseparable as sources, a stereo system partnering with the listening space like a pair of dancers.  As a series of LPs and CDs were cued (from Blue Note monos to the latest Beatles remastered LPs, plus a smattering of classical and jazz) it resulted in a sense of unbroken three-dimensional space. During a series of solo piano tracks, the keyboard was reproduced nestled in a center-left niche about four feet behind the XLFs. Images of the utmost delicacy, like the harp that appears during Previn/LSO The Wasps Overture are like holograms, with an unworldly specificity that carries through to every pluck of the strings. But it is at its best scaling dynamics and often achieving a level of concert level reality that can only be heard to be imagined. Unveiled transparency is a given, the level of immediacy stunning but equally significant are the benefits the system reaps from the exquisitely low noise floor of the room itself. It’s a pure stillness that effectively widens the perceptible dynamic envelope from the softest pianissimos to the most terrifying fortissimos.

The deepest bass doesn’t rattle the room either. Rather it is heard and felt as an almost subliminal presence within the venue of the recording itself. One particular surprise was listening to the Beatles cut “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except For Me and My Monkey" where, and this is a first, a deep, sustaining bass resonance appears at the end of each chorus and seems to slowly sink beneath the room’s foundation. How many times have I heard this track? Don’t ask. But there it was, like a London subway heading for the next Tube stop.   

Personally the moment that truly gob smacked me was listening to the old M&K direct-to-disc classic “For Duke”. Never, I repeat never have I heard this recording reproduced with this level of fidelity and dynamic explosiveness.  The system holds nothing back. Bill Berry’s trumpet blasts became a living breathing force of nature and underscored the master tape-like brilliance of the direct-disc format. Yes, the Sheffields, M&Ks, etc., of that bygone era were difficult to produce but as sources they still stand at the zenith of analog playback.

As an aside, the paradox to all this is that the less I heard of the equipment, the more the curtain behind the recording was drawn back so that I became aware of the mechanics of many recordings–noises in the studio, equalization and compression or the sense of a venue’s ambience,  or lack of it.

Personally I’ve never heard the Alexandria XLFs sound this good, even at Wilson Audio’s own facility. But I would venture that JHb’s room would flatter a variety of flagship designs like the estimable TAD Ref One, the larger Rockports, the Magico Q7 and certainly the mbl X-Tremes, a four-tower design (reviewed by Jonathan Valin a few years ago) this room would appear to be tailor-made for. As for me, I’m starting to like the idea of dropping in on colleagues. I might start making it a habit. So next stop, Robert Harley’s home and the Magico Q7. And watch out JV-you could be next.