Yesterday I chronicled a skeptical vision quest through the realm of high-end audio appreciation. It brought me to one of the darkest corners of the High End hi-fi trade show in Munich. I found myself in a room surrounded by silver-haired purists in front of a bespoke rig by Pioneer subsidiary TAD Labs.
I took a seat near the back in the dimly lit room, trying not to make any errant noises that might distract fellow attendees from their current task: enjoying extremely high-resolution playbacks of ABBA jazz covers. This version of “Money Money Money” had been captured at Benny Andersson’s own Mono Music Studio in Stockholm using the same Evolution One speakers we were now hearing as studio monitors. My position in the stereo field was far outside the coveted “sweet spot,” but even then I could tell that something special was going on in front of me.
I slipped into one of the leather chairs in the center of the room as soon as possible. It was here, with my head in perfect alignment between the $28,000 pair of speakers, that I had my first psychedelic experience at High End.
Must Be Funny / In The Rich Man’s World
As an ABBA superfan I found the extremely high-fidelity, smooth-jazz version of “Money, Money, Money” that first came through the speakers offensive on an artistic level; maybe that’s why I did my best to forget what I was listening to and concentrate instead on how it sounded. Slowly I began to feel that pure acoustic soundstage of yore in a dramatic way. Although we were listening to a digital recording, this wasn’t an electronic depiction of reality; it was a whole new sonic environment masterfully rendered by recording engineers into a kind of super-reality I’d never visited before.
I could almost detect fingerprints through the fleshy clicks of hand-plucked contrabass
It was halfway through the next selection, a quietly seductive 24 / 192 recording of “Cielito Lindo,” that I realized I was enjoying the music quite a lot, not because I particularly enjoy bossanova versions of Mexican classics, but because the Evolution One speakers were recreating one of my favorite things about eating psychedelic mushrooms. The singer’s voice felt wider than is usually possible under normal circumstances. The subtle panning of the mic across the vocalist’s ever-so-slight head movements suddenly adopted deep emotional significance. I could hear individual strands of brush drumsticks moving on snares, could almost detect fingerprints through the fleshy clicks of hand-plucked contrabass, and like on an 8K television with a billion-to-one contrast ratio the silent moments were imbued with just as much importance as the music itself. This was a sound that was completely human and completely alien at the same time and all I could do was close my eyes (hi haters) and appreciate everything about each moment that passed (hi) in real time.
“And that,” cooed the TAD representative, “is the end of the show.” Although his North English phrasing was more supple than a well-oiled driving glove it was still jarring because it was just regular-real, not hyperreal, and he seemed to understand this: “I’m afraid we’ll have to close up for today, but we’ll be back tomorrow morning with the big guns.” What? A wicked little smile: The first one’s always free. This man had built a career on gratis introductions. He’d spend the rest of his days cashing our checks in one form or another like the proprietor of a Dickensian opium den.
It turned out the $39,500 system we were sitting in front of (Blue Smoke Black Box audio server, $7,000 –> C2000 preamp, $2,400 –> M2500 amp, $2,100; Evolution One loudspeakers, $28,000 [pair]) was just some pussy shit: A tenfold price increase would bring you the truly top-end Reference One-based system — but that wouldn’t be making an appearance until the next morning.
As trade shows tend to do, High End had hidden the intoxicating products from me until the very end of the day. I was forced out of the Munich Order Center 15 minutes after closing time: I had a fever, and the only solution was more high end.
The atrium level at the Munich Order Center is dense with the dreams of a hundred different audiophiles — any recording would sound like a million bucks (in some cases, the systems actually cost that much). But there were a handful of standouts even in this arena of overachievers, complete systems where every atom was calibrated to a hyper-specific tonal vision. While TAD had won me over in a general, love-at-first-sound kind of way, lesser-known players upped the game in their own preferred categories.
At first blush, high-bandwidth digital playback systems appeared to be trouncing the performances of their turntable-based competitors: the vintage Western Electric PA from Silbatone, the “holographic reproduction system” from Straussmann, and Prestige Gold Reference monitors from Tannoy were all impressive, but most seemed to be tuned to relatively delicate symphonic works. And then I found TRON.
The British company’s demo room pounded with the meatiest chunk of AC / DC’s 1985 blaster “Danger,” the pristine Fly On The Wall LP turning proudly under a TW-Acustic Raven 10.5 tonearm. The German Raven AC Anniversary turntable fed a TRON 7 line stage, two TRON 7 monaural phono stages, a TRON Telstar power amp, and finally a pair of Cessaro Liszt loudspeakers that would’ve fit nicely in a Dr. Seuss book. Like a stack of prime British meat between crusty German bread, the TRON inner core brought Brian Johnson and Angus Young into the room with us: The Aussie-Euro analog sandwich, glowing with huge vacuum tubes and valued by a TRON rep at €200,000, was the perfect sustenance for my rapidly-expanding sonic pallette. You could feel the thunder down under raging as they were meant to be heard in the context of the mid-’80s, toppling the emergent digital racket with the purely-analog power of guitars, tape, and raw wattage.
My DAC beat up your honor roll student
Perhaps it was destiny that sent me next into the showroom of Constellation Audio, a reservedly intense American outfit with a passion for digital precision.
I was the last person in Munich that could’ve been pegged as a Nils Lofgren fan, but there was something in the understated heft of Constellation’s matte-aluminum components that kept me in the room for a live recording of “Keith Don’t Go.” Beneath the somber face of their Cygnus II file server was the only 32-bit DAC I was aware of at High End; that fed the Virgo II pre (respect to my astrological amplifier) and a pair of 500-watt Centaur monoblock amplifiers. The TAD Reference-1 speakers at the end of the chain couldn’t keep Keith from going, however, and left me unimpressed by the extra 8 bits of resolution during the song itself. But as I started to leave, Lofgren’s live audience began to clap, and my brain lit up yet again: the hyperreality flared up as the audience cheered. Each manual percussive shone bright like a diamond in a dark sky thick with points of light: It was the most lifelike reproduction of sound I had ever heard. And then, as abruptly as it started, the audience was gone, replaced unceremoniously by the hard click of an un-crossfaded mix into “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes.” Rhymin’ Simon had harshed my blissful mellow yet again. Perhaps it was the stark contrast between good and bad that made the moment stick in my mind, but I don’t think I’ll ever forget those precious few seconds of 32-bit clapping I experienced in front of $300,000 worth of Constellation engineering. Maybe their shimmering memory will lift me up one day when I’m feeling down in a lo-fi puddle one dark, Coby day in the future.
A brief survey of modern Serbian amoebic-vacuum midrange
It was in an unassuming, under-trafficked corner of the atrium that I found the sonic vision most closely aligned with mine: I stuck my head, almost as an afterthought, into a poorly lit gallery where a Macbook Pro running Windows Vista was perched next to a leather-wrapped amoebic enclosure.
The knobby blob turned out to be Auris Audio’s prototype Tpianta DAC / preamp. It was the centerpiece of a relatively simple system: Matching monoblock tube amplifiers were the only components between the source and a pair of Engelholm Solo M loudspeakers. “Handmade in Serbia” was the only sales pitch in their signage, and proprietor Milomir Troŝić was flatly disinterested in talking specs (when asked what cabling was used, he just shrugged his shoulders: “Nothing special”). Instead, he directed me to a stool in the center of the room while a beautiful barista brewed me a strong shot of espresso.
The very structure of my eardrums felt as if it were changing
After gauging my appearance briefly Mr. Troŝić scrolled through his music library and cued up what sounded like a Balkanized version of Orbital, my very favorite band. Having established himself as a good judge of character he sat down next to me as we listened to the song build. It was the first time I had heard any electronic music other than Kraftwerk at the High End show, which was already a good sign, and the curvaceous components were easy to rest eyes on as the beat began to blossom with accordion and vocal flourishes. There was a lot of negative sonic space in this precisely produced track to appreciate: When sound was present, it sat right inside my head, kind of straddling the ear-brain connection where other systems had stayed anchored in the space around me. And when the sound wasn’t there, it was still inside my head like a some sort of dark matter or black hole: That was an authentically trippy experience.
Halfway through the composition a simple saw-wave came to life in the Engelhorns’ hyperdriven ribbon tweeters, which sat perfectly level with my ears. As the arpeggiated synth bobbed gently around the stereo field I felt yet another novel psychedelic experience — an intensity of midrange so unprecedented that the very structure of my eardrums felt as if it were changing along with the saw, a sort of elastic tickle that I could feel all the way down my spinal cord. Everyone has been bombarded by bass, most of us have been tweaked by treble, but this shock wave of middle frequency was something from a different dimension. It made me want to book a trip to Serbia to find out what they’re putting in the water over there.
Auris Audio was the only company I took the time to visit more than once, and when I came back on the last day of the show Mr. Troŝić remembered me and shook my hand, giving me another once-over as if to take my sonic temperature yet again. I could hardly believe my ears when the opening wisps of “In The Air Tonight” took shape in the room around me. As I had lain in bed the night before trying to think of songs I’d most like to hear on this system, Phil Collins had topped the list. When the drums kicked in it was all I could do to keep my head from banging in and out of the perfect stereo field: For a few minutes the world around me disappeared and my entire universe was contained by that perfect expression of soulful ‘80s rocktronica. It was awesome.
Music for the masses
In a lot of ways, I wish I had never gone to Munich. It was a super-rarified atmosphere, a singular nexus of money, engineering, and dedication that I won’t be likely to experience ever again. The car stereo I take a lot of pride in suddenly feels a little less engaging; my library of 320Kbps MP3s now sounds like it could use an extensive and time-consuming resolution remodel.
But that doesn’t mean I can’t strive to recreate those magic moments again one day in my own living room: I now have a general sketch of what I want my upgraded future to sound like, and I feel like with enough time and dedication I might be able to build it from scratch.
One thing I don’t think I’ll ever do, though, is buy an XLR cable that costs more than a nice bag of groceries. The extremes to which companies will go to sell luxury goods still disgust me, and Auris Audio had shown me that some version of perfection can be attained on a sensibly scaled budget... as long as my own specific (and relatively poverty-stricken) aural pinnacle is in my sights. I have been to the top of the mountain, and it was beautiful. The work now, I think, is to democratize that zenith — because it would sure be lonely up there if no one else could afford the journey to the top.