13 December 2001
My first recordings were done using a cream-white plastic mike placed on top of the lid of the record player's loudspeaker, inside a cardboard box lined with a piece of rubberized cloth, stolen from my mother's table cloth (first acoustic experiences with damping and sound quality improvement). And so the first decent record player became a Dual deck setup with the Pioneer amp, Scott loudspeakers and a Philips tape recorder, which had a central spindle pulling mechanism for the change of the recording speeds. I would have to wait 20 years before my teenage dream could come true: a Quad 33 pre and power amp combination was purchased second hand and hooked up to a pair of Mordaunt-Short Pageant loudspeakers. Ever since then the quest for an improved system has been with me as a precious tool in the appreciation of mankind's first artistic mode of expression, music. Naked and terrorized, maybe even before being able to talk, primitive ape like creatures that we must have been, we were whistling, moaning and emitting harmonious sounds in imitation of birds. I don't think I remember that ancestor as well as my beloved grandfather but that's how it all started, long ago.
The Quad 33 was a revelation but it couldn't keep up with the expanding need for my then budding exploration in the field of slide show projections. I discovered the marvels of dissolve slide shows. Enhanced by a well-mixed soundtrack, the quality presentation seemed to me to be the perfect symbiosis of my favorite hobbies namely music and photography. A Cyrus amplifier coupled to an Audiolab pre-amp with it's myriad of in/outputs was the perfect solution for the mixing needs of the slide shows while retaining the excellence of the sound reproduction system.
It all worked well until one day I stumbled across a small advertisement in a local newspaper: "Discover the sound of Valve Amplifiers, call for an appointment" which I did and decided to take my wife along just for fun. The old house had a weedy unkempt garden and a rusted fence; I hesitated before ringing the bell, afraid to wake up the residing ghosts. It was good old Raspoutine himself who came to the gate, tall and gaunt, bushy eyebrows and dark sunken eyes set in a pale spooky face. His big bony hand waved us inside, the dark corridor as gloomy as the landlord himself.
The dusty listening room had a high ceiling and an old marble fireplace that must have choked on smelly coal brickets a long time ago. A pair of towering two meters high speakers flanked the fireplace and a shaky cupboard with glass doors stood at the right of them. The bending shelves were laden with antique looking crystal jars, bottles and lidded glass containers. A full glass orchestra, only waiting to resonate with the flow of music from the huge speakers. To the left a massive wooden table, straight out of a monastery and on top of that an impressive piece of machinery.
"This is a magnetically floating Verdier turntable and the belt is a cotton wire" said the raspy voice of Raspoutine. An array of Valve powered amps filled the rest of the old monks' table; every shape of glass bottled electronics and all sizes of transformers were pandemoniously displayed. I couldn't tell pre from main amps, half assembled kits from industrially made apparatus.
"Have a seat" and the bony hand waved us down into low-seating, backbreaking bordeaux colored sofa facing the fireplace. It all looked and smelled like Ali Baba's cavern had been beamed up to the heart of the old Russian Empire and zapped back to Thomas Edison's junkyard. Reality forced its way back as I felt the metal coil of the sofa's cushions press into my butt. That's for the bottom end and we were about to be impressed by our first encounter with High-end Audio, too.
Strangely enough Raspoutine wouldn't play an LP but used his CD player for the initiation we were to undergo. I had brought some of my favorite CDs, as he had requested over the phone when I called for an appointment. The first CD he ejected after fifteen seconds dismissing it as a disgraceful recording. Pressed, impressed and now I was starting to feel depressed
The second CD was the revelatory ingredient that made the magic work. The music flowed and breathed from the mouthpiece of the saxophone straight into the audit-neural connections of my brain. The fingers could be heard sliding over the guitar strings, taking a bend, a double stop and lifting up again at the turn of a finger plucking change of chords. I could see the stage depth right into the blackened mouth of the fireplace. Music reproduction would never be the same again. Raspoutine towering above us, flabbergasted in our torturing couch. The listening session had not even suffered from the presence of the glass orchestra in the old cupboard. We made arrangements for a demo in our own flat and left humbled but enriched by the experience.
A couple of days later Raspoutine came to our home, his car packed with amps and a hand built phono pre-amp and a box of tools. "always something that needs some adjustment" he said. And he was right about that. Most of the evening was spend trying to adjust the impedance of his homemade phono-preamp to my Denon 304 Moving coil. Eventually it all failed. He packed his gear and we never heard anything from him ever again Apparently the alchemy could only work in his own spooky manor.
This turned me off the Valve experience; it seemed too much improvised, cottage industry like and unreliable. Surfing on the web (in the early days) I came across the Counterpoint Hybrid amp which appealed to me as a bridge between the Raspoutine experience and the rational world of transistor reliability. Transmission line speakers by TDL were then in my setup and the magic seemed to work again.
Luckily I came across a McIntosh C-22 pre-amp some insecure audio freak had returned to the shop and couldn't find a buyer for it. (can you believe this? he left it for sale in two different shops and no amateurs had discovered the great metziah - that's Yiddish for bargain -! There must be a savory Turkish expression for that, too) It was still originally boxed and I had just read a rave review by Ken Kessler so I took it home for trial, guess the rest
The Alchemy really transformed into all into gold when I got the Martin Logan SL3 into the equation. For these speakers I needed some serious wiring and this is where the story begins ( hold on, do you mean to say the rest was just foreplay? )
After two weeks of experimenting with various cables on loan from my favorite dealer I decided to get the Kimber 4TC in biwired mode for the SL3. Now that's an impressive bunch of wires and the system was located in an adjacent room to the living room. Some thirty meters of Kimber would be necessary to reach the speakers and those could not be tucked away under the carpet or around the furniture.
The apartment needed a fresh coat of paint and maybe we would get a new floor covering, too? See where the WAF factor comes into the equation, right here and now. So we ripped the old carpets from the floor. Hired a wood scrapping machine and then cut two sets of grooves into the wooden floor to bury the Kimber cables. Added some extra wires for the Surround speakers. Got the new carpet to cover everything up and behold the WAF factor reached an all-high top ten score! But this was only the first in a series of changes that eventually led to the sale of the apartment and the purchase of a new house!
The new owners of our apartment agreed to let me recover my Kimber investment as they planned to rip out the new carpet (just one year old) and replace it with a new wooden floor!
Keeping the past alive is a typical Jewish obsession. With me it extends even to the stereo systems I've owned. Most of them are still around, several amplifiers, turntables and speakers have found a second life in the family or await a future donation in the cellar of our house. Thorens, Mordaunt-Short, Michell, Luxman, Audiolab, Counterpoint, Musical Fidelity, Kenwood and Meridian. All of them still there and even the 35 years old Scott loudspeakers are still in active service in my own hobby workshop in the cellar of the new home!
The first new addition to the house was guess what? An all Valve amplifier! Yes, finally I decided to cross the Rubicon after extensive research within my self-imposed budget limit, I auditioned and bought the Sonic Frontiers Power2. This took us back to Raspoutine's listening sessions and we must say that he really opened our ears. But time had passed since the old days of the cottage industry and the Sonic Frontiers looked sturdy, reliable and sounded really like what we both liked to hear for our musical taste.
"Don't let others do tomorrow what you can do yourself today" that's the motto of my hobby workshop.
The new house had stone floors everywhere. The kitchen was smaller than the apartments and located on the first floor of the house. This is where the WAF factor comes into the equation once more. But brace yourself ladies because which one of you companions to us High-end freaks would have accepted to trade a kitchen for a recording studio/study room combination called "The Scriptorium" (see pictures)!!! To be honest I must add that the new kitchen, located downstairs was bigger and had a direct access to the garden and was more convenient for the weekly grocery bags chore. On the other hand it meant 18 months of permanent disorder and carboard boxes pilled up two meters high in the living room.
It took me 6 months to build the new Scriptorium, from scratch, bare walls to total finish including plumbing and electricity works. Working only weekends and late evenings (see pictures).
A slipped disk hernia surgery topped the work a few months after the last nail had been driven. So the really last finishing touches to the stereo system's wiring were delayed by a year.
The WAF factor again, gentlemen. Not even my wife would accept 17 more meters of Kimber cables lying naked in full view on the stone floor, because this time the slide show screen and the SL3 speakers were not on the same side of the living room! Extension cables had to be laid out and one speaker would then be able to migrate from the right hand side of the room to the extreme left hand side (see pictures).
Luckily for her, my wife's husband is not only an audio freak and amateur photographer and aquarium hobbyist and guitar player and handyman and furniture designer and ceramic artist and professional jeweler but he's also a painter. Down on my knees gentlemen, to please the wife. Twenty meters of hand painted fresco work to imitate the stone floor (see pictures) and no more Kimber cables in sight.
That was the final touch. Nearly four years after having moved into the new home. Now everything is ready for the new Dissolve Slide Shows projected by Leica computer controlled projectors linked to the digital output of the Scriptorium's High-End sound system.
It's the symbiosis of all of my hobbies, computer artwork, high-end audio and high quality photographic equipment (Contax cameras with Zeiss lenses). A dissolve slide show brings it all together on the large projection screen, showing pictures that are not only fascinating but vibrating in color and sharpness that no TV or video can ever achieve. High-end audio is not a goal in itself; I'm not a member of some engineering society. It is a means to enjoy music and in this case to bring a different form of art into the living room for a circle of friends.
My wife and I will readily switch of the TV and listen to some music, she can hear every nuance when I try some different cables and I must say the WAF factor runs at a constant 8/10! Are you guys jealous or what? Our children each have their own system carefully chosen within a cheaper budget range and many, many books are scattered around the house. Music and literature are at the core of our home, tools for the shaping of minds and knowledge. It doesn't have to be the latest, the most expensive or the most fashionable but we all enjoy the exciting challenge of knowledge, musical discovery and of course a little sunshine in our small city garden, summer or winter.
Music I listen to:
Jazz 30%: Mingus, Dolphy, Mal Waldron, Monk, David Murray, Steve Lacy, John Surman, Rabih Abou Khalil, Chico Hamilton, early Miles Davis and Coltrane.
Folk 10%: British and American folk, authentic world music ( no DJ remix, thank you ) oriental music
Classical 30%: Bach, Bach and more Bach, Shostakovich, Brahms, Shubert, Chopin, Tchaikowsky but no Beethoven and no Mendelsohn and definetely no Mahler.
Blues 10%: Chicago blues preferably long guitar solos like Roy Buchanan's
Does that add up to 100% then something's wrong because I'm always on the lookout for somethimg new and challenging
Harold's comments about his System:
AA: "Harold, how would you describe your system's sound?"
HJ: "If it has one then that's bad. Ideally it should be "transparent" like the SL3 membrane but unfortunately it isn't. So it's a bit laid back, which I enjoy because I hate the SPL type of loudness that most speakers throw in your face. The stage depth is tremendous, partly due to the setup in the room (see picture). When listening to baroque music and jazz the transparency really pulls you into the performance and that's what I'm after, to feel the musicians performance on stage. Large scale opera and classical music isn't for my system, nor is it to my taste anyway !"
AA: "Do you think there is room for improvement?"
HJ: "My God, how arrogant to pretend there can't be any improvement. Sure, a little more bass perhaps ( as I really like the instrument !) and something I haven't really heard yet &endash;liquidity of the mid-range- whatever that may be. But that's only because I'm curious to hear what I've always read about in the magazines ! No seriously, I've never heard a true SET with horns or an OTL amp so yes that could mean improvement. But first let me enjoy all my LPs, please."
AA: "Have you got plans for upgrading?"
HJ: "NO, NO
well maybe a little yes if the wife isn't reading
over my shoulders
Some other valves in the McIntosh or
a better 78 turntable ? What I would really enjoy is a small
Valve system in the bedroom, if only LP's didn't mean
getting out of bed to turn them over !"