The World's Number One Audiophile?

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The World's Number One Audiophile?

December 10 - "You have to see it with your own eyes to believe it." So I was told by more than one person during the GuangZhou audio show about the hi-fi systemâno, make that systemsâof a Mr. Ji Hui Li.

Everyone who mentioned Mr. Li invariably referred to him as "the world's Number One audiophile."

The show was winding down and we were leaving the next afternoon for Zhu Hai to visit the Original CD-player factory. The town in which Mr. Li lived was a few hours out of the wayâwould we like to visit? How could I pass up the opportunity to visit "the world's Number One audiophile?"

We arrived at a completely nondescript building in middle of the city of Yang Jiang. The outside of the building gave no hint of what lay inside. Mr. Li, an extremely jovial and friendly man, greeted us himself with great enthusiasm. He led us to the elevator of his seven-story "house" and the tour started on the second floor. The elevator doors opened and the first thing I saw were two massive AC power stabilizersâall to power his hi-fi gear.

And these were the stabilizers for just the second floor; each floor had an identical pair.

Entering the house itself, I was confronted by a veritable museum of classic hi-fi gear, much of it displayed behind glass, but some of it connected and working. Marantz Model 8s and Model 9s? Check. Altec Voice of the Theater? Check. Original Spendor LS3/5s? Check. The world's first CD player? Check. The list was seemingly endlessâthere must have been a hundred pairs of vintage speakers and scores of electronics on display.

We walked into an adjacent room, a large, acoustically treated space with four Wilson WATT/Puppy loudspeakers and a Wilson WATCH center channel in a 5.1-channel configuration. Two massive Sony CRT projectors hung from the ceiling and a projection screen dominated the wall behind the speakers.

This was the one of the multichannel music rooms that could also serve as a home theater. The electronics were an EMM Labs DAC6e six-channel DSD decoder, EMM Labs transport, and EMM Switchman six-channel preamplifier.

The room was filled with other gear, most of it not connected, including about five other pairs of expensive loudspeakers. Mr. Li's assistant (he has a full-time employee to take care of the systems) played some multichannel SACDs and the effect was mind-blowing.

The sense of space, continuousness of the soundstage from front to back, and immersion were as good as I've heard from any multichannel setup.

We left the "Wilson room" to discover a smaller space with a pair of Venture loudspeakers (about $65k) and a whole host of top-end electronics and sources, including a huge Burmester power amplifier.

A pair of speakers was off to the side, unused at the moment. Both rooms were filled with CDs and LPs lining the walls, and CDs were stacked on coffee tables in front of the listening seats.

We didn't stay to listen; there was more to see. Unfortunately, I didn't take detailed notes of all the sources and electronics in each room; it went by so quickly and cataloging everything would have been a major job. Nonetheless, I didn't see any gear that was anything less than first-rate.

We took the elevator up a couple of floors to find another system based on the JM Lab Grand Utopia driven by the massive Mark Levinson monoblocks.

As with most of the rooms, this one featured two turntables, one fitted with multiple arms and cartridges. All the turntables in Mr. Li's house were spinning and ready for action. We didn't stop to listen to this system; it just happened to be on our way to another huge room, this one featuring the MartinLogan Statement loudspeaker.

The Statement is a massive four-piece electrostatic-dynamic hybrid system about eight-feet tall with similarly sized dynamic woofer columns. It represented MartinLogan's best effort, and cost, if I remember correctly, about $85,000.

This room also had video projection and multichannel capability. Electronics included a Mark Levinson No.40 Media Controller ($30k). The LFE channel was reproduced by a pair of Wilson WATCH Dog subwoofers. Again, the sound was spectacularly great; effortless dynamics, huge soundstage, and tremendous bass extension and power.

On the way to the next stop on the tour, we saw a small room with just one listening seat and a pair of Venture mini-monitors set up for nearfield listening. The main attraction, however, was the adjacent space, which housed a pair of the big Kharma Exquisite Reference loudspeakers. One of the turntables was the giant multi-tonearm Thorens (I don't remember the other), and the CD source was a top-of-the-line Goldmund.

The walls of this room, like the others, were lined with CDs and LPs.

This is where we spent the next 45 minutes listening, with Mr. Li choosing selections from his vast library. Watching him adeptly run the system, along with his ability to put his hands on any piece of music he wanted to play, showed me that all this gear wasn't for the sake of having the gear, but of using it as a vehicle for exploring the world of music.

There was a reason we spent most of our listening time in this room; the sound was extremely warm, beautiful, and musically engaging. Mr. Li had had the Kharmas only two weeks and said they needed more break-in time.

Would we like to see the LP collection? I thought we already had, in the rows and rows of LPs lining entire walls of most of the rooms and in walk-in-closet-sized rooms adjacent to the listening areas. The 60,000-LP archive on the third floor consumed about 700 square feet of floor space, with shelves to the ceiling. The collection was well organized and protected by temperature and humidity control systems.

The music spanned a huge range, and included European classical music, jazz, traditional and contemporary Chinese music, and rock.

We had finished the tour of Mr. Li's house, but there was more. Mr. Li had set up a hi-fi club in a nearby building for the benefit of anyone interested in high-end audio. The club was a large space with about 40 seats and a system consisting of classic Westlake loudspeakers driven by Gryphon monoblocks.

A huge array of top-end sources, preamps, and power amplifiers was arranged behind the system (an amplifier I remember seeing was the vertical tubed Nagra amps, which cost about $40k). The walls were lined not with an LP collection, but with single LPs mounted on the walls as tribute to the musicians and music. Portraits of composers also hung on the walls.

The club also housed the rest of Mr. Li's LP collection. The rest of it? Mr. Li recently bought the entire 200,000-LP archive from a library in Japan. The library, which might have been the equivalent of the U.S. Library of CongressâI couldn't get the answerâhad just digitized all their LPs and wanted to divest itself of the vinyl. The LPs were shipped in containers to the club and were awaiting organization, and, presumably, a new home in Mr. Li's house.

I would estimate that these 200,000 LPs consumed a volume of about 5000 cubic feet. The photo shows one room of LPs; there were three others just like it.

This description doesn't do justice to the vast array of gear in every room and to the massive range and amount of music everywhere. In each of the rooms, I would look around and happen to catch sight of other gear on-handâa Linn CD12 CD player, a Jadis preamp, a top-of-the-line Goldmund phonostage.

The list was seemingly endless.

All this gear is put to good use; Mr. Li opens his house to anyone who wants to come and hear music. He's extraordinarily passionate about music and high-end equipment, and shares that enthusiasm with anyone who's interested. Similarly, the club is open to the public so that ordinary people can come and hear great music wonderfully reproduced. What a wonderful gift to the people of Yang Jiang.

Several people in the hi-fi industry made the trek from the GuangZhou show to Mr. Li's home, and afterward we shared a wonderful meal in Mr. Li's restaurant.

The photo shows, from left to right, Mr. Li, Dick Diamond (representative for YG Acoustics), me, Peter Lau (founder and designer of Audio Space), and Alfie Liu (the U.S. representative of Audio Space).

So, is Mr. Li the "world's Number One audiophile"? If he isn't, I can't imagine who is.

Read the first installment of Robert Harley's trip to China with a detailed report on the GuangZhou Hi-Fi Show.