Welcome to Sunday Morning Hi Fi #1, the first installment of a weekly blog and a place to discuss high-end audio, discover new music, get sneak peaks of new products, make breakfast, and uncover existential crises related to our favorite hobby. Each week I will delve deep into the world of gear, share a few laughs and tears, and hopefully start a conversation among the TAS community and newcomers alike. This first installment is just the tip of the iceberg.
This is a place where you can share your thoughts and feelings about high-end audio, and save some of that audio-therapy money for new gear. Let’s start a conversation. Let’s start something big. Let’s have pithy debates, and lose the denigration. Let’s avoid slighting our fellow commenters and bring something new to the table. I want to hear from you, and I want to grow our hobby, expand our ranks, and bring hi fi to those who want better sound, yet don’t know how to achieve it. Let’s be inclusive.
The Philosophy of High-End Audio
What is the true philosophy of high-end audio? What is its ultimate purpose? We can call it many things, but my personal philosophical definition would be: High-end audio is a vessel through which we seek to elevate music to its highest emotional potential. I say emotional potential—rather than sonic or ultimate fidelity—because musical enjoyment should not be neglected in favor of an idea of what’s “correct” or “perfect.” When the Apple iPod first came out, I experienced an immense amount of musical enjoyment, regardless of the fidelity. Our gear should be a means to elevate our musical enjoyment, and should not be viewed as a linear ratio in which satisfaction will only be achieved if more money were available.
There are many types of audio enthusiasts, just like there are many types of car and truck enthusiasts. My first car was a 1970 Chevelle, which I bought when I was 15 (I’m 28, by the way). It wasn’t the fastest car ever, and the rivalries with Ford and Mopar lovers was never-ending; but with each tweak, each upgraded carburetor, I felt that excitement all over again—no matter how minor the upgrade or how much faster the other cars were. What gave me pleasure was the car and working on it, not comparing it to those who had spent $50k, $60k, or even $100k on their hot rods. So let’s view our systems in the same way: as the coolest, best, most emotionally impactful gear we have ever owned, because keeping up with those who have “better systems” does nothing but take away from that enjoyment. Let’s upgrade our systems because of our passion, rather than some notion that they are lacking in some way. If you own a high-end system—no matter how much you spent—you have a tool to touch people at an emotional core, and that is powerful. Use that power; enjoy it.
There are audiophiles who a tweakers, there are audiophiles who can’t get enough music, and there are audiophiles who want nothing but the best money can buy. I’ve met all types of audiophiles, from those who spend every dime on audio gear, those who want to keep their hobby secret, and those who have extravagant houses, cars, and systems to match. No matter what audiophile you are, being an inclusive audiophile is key. Show off your system to your friends, let people play with your gear, listen to music, spin their favorite records, and rock out with their iPod. One of my favorite things to do is to have friends over and let them naturally gravitate to my system. Inevitably, someone can’t resist asking about the racks, the speakers, the glow of tubes, the walls of vinyl records, and the boxes of accoutrements. I hand them my iPad and let them build playlists, stream music from Spotify, hook up their phones, or pick out some records, and the fun begins. People are curious; let them explore your system on their own terms, not audiophile terms. I’ve had far more luck converting people using passive techniques rather than overt messages of the advantages of high-end gear. This is supposed to be fun and emotionally moving, not a chore or a lecture. Including everyone in the joys of high-end audio will also bring you joy, guaranteed.
Music is Food for the Soul
An old English guy who liked sappy poetry and tragicomedies said, “If music be the food of love, play on.” Even back then, music was something emotional. I woke up and sautéed bell peppers, fried some bacon, scrambled some eggs, made my coffee (black, medium roast, French press), and threw on the 3-LP, 45RPM Mobile Fidelity box-set reissue of Bob Dylan’s 1966 Blonde on Blonde that I recently got from Music Direct. Ooh la-la, what a beautiful reissue this is! Everything is good ole U.S.A. made, the vinyl is pressed by the gurus at Mobile Fidelity on 180g vinyl, and the LP-sized artwork is filled with nostalgic photos of Dylan in all his skinny 60s glory—puffy hair and cigarette to boot. What a great Sunday morning: Coffee, eggs, bacon, and Bob Dylan on 45RPM. This numbered, limited-edition box set isn’t cheap, but $74.99 is worth protecting the first pressings from further play. Plus, this album fits the Sunday morning mood well. More info: Music Direct
Up next was another Mobile Fidelity LP reissue of Keb’ Mo’, the self-titled debut album from, of course, Keb’ Mo’. No, this isn’t a Mobile Fidelity advertisement, it’s just the music I picked up this Sunday morning. Keb’ Mo’ is an upbeat bluesman, with an infectious quality that gets your toe a-tappin’. It’s perfect music for lounging around on a Sunday, drinking some coffee (no matter how you like it), and getting your day started off right. After spinning side A, I felt instantly happier, more energetic, with a sense of urgency to take on the day. That’s how I like to start my day. Van Morrison has the same effect on me, but I haven’t listened to the Keb’ Mo’ album but once or twice, so it was a nice change of pace. Plus, this album is significantly cheaper: $29.99 from Music Direct isn’t half bad for a high-quality, 180g reissue. All of Mobile Fidelity’s albums come with a high-quality Master inner sleeve. Now the only thing to do is to place that record in an outer sleeve, and your vinyl will last a lifetime. More info: Music Direct
A band that I have been really digging lately is Portugal. The Man [sic]. Evil Friends is Portugal. The Man’s seventh album, and in my opinion their best. Most bands go through a roller coaster of changing moods, success and failure, and by time they reach their seventh album things are muddled at best. But Portugal. The Man has steadily progressed, and with production backed by Danger Mouse—Gnarles Barkley, Broken Bells, Gorillaz, Beck, The Black Keys—Evil Friends is one of those rare albums that you can listen to from start to finish and never be bored. How to describe the music? Upbeat alt-rock? Indie rock anthem? I’m not really sure, but it’s catchy, makes you want to get up and groove, and will be a hit during parties. Of course, if you like this album, they have six others you can explore, some of which might delve a little too deep into exploratory indie rock, but will nevertheless be a memorable journey. I’m a big fan of listening to an artist’s entire catalog to experience their musical arc. And for $20.99, taking a chance on this great LP won’t break the bank. Of course, you can listen to it on Spotify first to see if it’s your cup of tea—or Sunday morning coffee, rather. More info: Music Direct
For those who have read some of my recent reviews, you will know that I’m super in love with Ludovico Einaudi’s latest album, In a Time Lapse. This album is…sublime. I can’t get enough of it, and every time I take it to an audio show people are clambering to find out who made this ethereal and haunting ode to life. Einaudi’s masterful piano scores are accompanied by glockenspiels, harps, and violins to form a beautiful amalgamation of sounds. Recorded in a remote monastery in Verona, Italy, the sonics of this album are superb, the music is enchanting, and the CD and vinyl sound great. If you like this music and want the vinyl, hurry and buy it, because it’s a limited pressing. CD: $18.87. Two-disc vinyl: $35. More info: Amazon
For the younger crowd, and for those who really like exploring new genres, Bonobo is a brilliant U.K. electronic producer, whose latest album The North Borders combines elements of multiple genres to create a unique sonic experience. The album is emotionally impactful from the get-go, with haunting vocals, sonic ticks, pops, and claps, and an ethereal string section for added air within the soundscape. The music is like a multi-layered canvas, and has the ability to transport you beyond the here and now. Music is so subjective, and I will be the first to admit that this won’t be to everyone’s liking, but if you give it a listen, I think you will find that this type of music can be extremely seductive. Listen on Spotify first. More info: Amazon
Since I am on a vinyl kick this morning (which is not always the case; I love digital!), I want to introduce you to an amazing phonostage from Rogers High Fidelity, the PA-1A. With a retail price of $7000, the PA-1A is a serious piece of equipment with only the finest build quality. Handmade in Warwick, NY by former aerospace engineer Roger Gibboni (think NASA and the DoD), the PA-1A is probably the last phonostage you will ever own. All Rogers High Fidelity products come with a limited lifetime transferable warranty (meaning it transfers if you make the transaction through an authorized dealer), and are built like a tank, but perform like a fighter jet. The noise floor while using the PA-1A is so astonishingly low it’s eerie. The retro-modern styling is sleek, and the PA-1A is capable of loading your favorite MC cartridge with precision, or will take your MM cartridge to new heights. If you have a dealer in your area, make sure to check out the PA-1A. If you don’t, contact Rogers High Fidelity; they’re great people and will take care of you. Actually, all of Roger Gibboni’s products are of the highest quality, and will blow you away with their all-tube performance. More info: Rogers High Fidelity
Another new piece of gear is MartinLogan’s BlancedForce 210 powered subwoofer. Kaboom! I’ve been using two of these with ML’s PBK (perfect bass kit) room correction, and wow. With 850W of punchy Class-D amplification and dual 10” woofers, these bad boys really kick if you want them to, or meld with whatever speakers you run. Whether floorstanders or stand-mounted, your speakers will be thankful for the added oomph these subs give music. The problem with relying just on your speaker to reproduce the entire audio spectrum is that you have to pump lots of power into them to build the right amount of sound pressure. Sometimes, though, this means that you have speakers blaring before things start to sound “right.” With the aid of dual subs, you can build that low-end SPL without cranking your speakers. The music sounds tighter, punchier, with more presence and more completeness. $2995 each. Perfect Bass Kit will set you back another $100, but well worth it. More info: MartinLogan
My favorite bargain high-end audio speakers should be mentioned. The Audioengine A2+ powered desktop speakers are super killer for $249. Everything you need in one box, including USB, RCA, and 3.5mm inputs. They sound great, produce plenty of sound, and are the perfect gift for a college student, your kids, or anyone that needs great sound in a small package. Check out my full-length review here: Audioengine A2+
Until Next Week
Now that I’ve listened to several hours of music and have drunk a little too much coffee, it’s time to say sayonara. We are just scratching the surface here. The tip for this week is inclusion. I’m not trying to be preachy about it, but that’s how I got into this game. During college, Rick Duplisea of The Audio Alternative in Fort Collins, Colorado used to let me hang out in his hi-fi shop, which was actually his house, and never complained about how much—or how little—I spent on hi-fi gear. I spent several thousand dollars at his shop over the years, and he never once pressured me or told me to get out. He treated me like a high roller every time I walked in the door (which was quite often). I bought my first Rega turntable there, my first Revel speakers, my first AudioQuest cables, and my first DAC (back in 2007, there weren’t a lot of DACs on the market). Because of his inclusive nature, I fell deeper and deeper in love with this hobby. Even though I had been building SET amps and buying gear for years, Rick’s open door gave me the confidence to continue down this path. The pressure to buy, and the pressure to spend a lot of money—or at least the perception that lots of money is required to be in this hobby—keeps many young people away from hi-fi shops. Luckily, Rick is a music lover at heart, and that allowed my love for music and hi-fi gear blossom. Go to his shop, and you will probably see more vinyl records, CDs, SACDs, and music on his music server than at any other shop in the nation. Last time I was there, he had over 30,000 records on his shelves! I’m looking forward to shaking hands with him at Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. More info: The Audio Alternative
Until next week, Happy Listening! Oh, and happy Labor Day! Eat a hamburger for me.