Once Upon An AXPONA...

First blog post...ever. I promise moving forward they will not be this long and self-indulgent. Feel free to skip towards the bottom where I commence with thanking all of the important peoples.

In a few days I will be attending my first Audio Expo in Chicago http://www.axpona.com (also my first time in Chicago). I have to say, I’m pretty excited. Over the last two years I have upped my hi-fi game and this trip will most likely launch another new chapter.

Before I fell in love with film or found myself a professional in the film industry, I can look back at any moment of my life and know my constant companion has been the quest for sound.

Since my first Panasonic dual cassette deck and its ‘Ambience’ switch, I’d sit, player in lap, head positioned directly between the speakers and flip that switch back and forth, marveling at Peter Gabriel’s So, a CD dubbed to tape given to me by my Uncle Bob, or getting lost in the huge drums of a Phil Collins compilation tape, given to me by my other Uncle, Uncle Greg. I cannot remember a time when listening to, studying, or tweaking ‘my tunes’ was not very important to me.

Some of my earliest memories are of playing tapes on a crappy black and silver ‘office’ tape deck so common in the 70’s. I’d play The Muppet Movie tape over and over again and an Annie Broadway Show tape (yes, its ok to laugh) till they wore out and/or I accidentally hit the record button one too many times while listening. In 1977 or 1978 I remember walking downstairs to our living room just as my Dad’s friend dropped the needle on the Star Wars soundtrack. What a thrill! Music and its varying forms of playback have always just been there for me, with me. Whether I was poised with my finger on the record button, waiting patiently for my favorite songs to come on the radio, so I could tape them (children of the 80s know what I am talking about) or trying to understand bias, Dolby, and which tape oxides worked best while dubbing vinyl from my uncles turntable. Or maybe it was me trying to steal just the audio from concert VHS tapes or straight up stealing songs by downloading MP3s from Napster, or me moving all around the east coast in the early 2000s with my prized crates of vinyl, even though I didn’t own a record player. Any way you slice it, I have been painfully dedicated to this sound quest. Just take a look at my ever-changing, bonkers, somewhat respectable home HiFi setup.

 End of 2017...

End of 2017...

 ...things look a bit more like this now

...things look a bit more like this now

I guess I can blame my father. I remember sitting in front of our home stereo system as a child, my dad putting gigantic headphones on my tiny head, pumping Neil Diamond records directly into my ears, and writing those songs into my child DNA. To quote Bill Murray in What About Bob?, “There are two kinds of people in this world, those who like Neil Diamond and those who don’t.”  https://youtu.be/TFtDTJ89Xyw?t=155 I guess I’m an aberration. I know all his tunes and can sing along with ease, but I can’t say I like or dislike Mr. Diamond. I just know for sure, “love on the rocks, ain’t no big surprise.”  

When we were kids, my father also enjoyed recording my brother and me on a Teac Reel-To-Reel recorder. I remember he’d tell us the stories of where and when he purchased all his audio gear: the Teac player, the Dual Turntable, the Kenwood Receiver—in the Air Force, from the base store. Soon stories of San Francisco and his and my mom’s time in Germany would follow. He’d tell me the story of my Uncle watching me for a day, at our home, and how I put my finger through one of my dad’s Pioneer woofers and how my uncle surprised him, the next time he watched me, by having the woofer repaired before my dad got home. I do have an intimate and poking nature when it comes to sound and its music-making machines. 

It’s amazing to think about the many devices (headphones, tape players, boom boxes, Walkman, iPods, iPhones, speakers, receivers, amps, preamps, computers and their virtual players), and media (tape, CD, MP3, WAV, AIFF, SACD, DVD-A, HDCD, oodles of CD-Rs and vinyl), and wires (power chords, RCA/Phono, digital, optical, and coaxial cables, XLR, USB, HDMI and a metric shit-ton of speaker cable!) that connect the moments of my life, that keep my personal soundtrack playing. I know, from what I often find myself listening to, that the song remains the same, but the gear changes, new things are revealed...and I change. But strangely it’s not about me, its the self-erasing joy of just listening. That’s the big draw.

I guess I pursue Transcendence...no biggie. Music (and its personal reproduction) is my Church. As I press ‘Play’, one hundred years of invention by Scientists, Engineers and Technicians and their resulting machines should vanish, re-presenting music AS I WANT TO HEAR IT. A recorded expression alive again just for me. And all those expressions, captured and replayed—so many Artists, Musicians, Mix Engineers and Producers. Listening reveals their decisions, sonic and emotional potentials, re-opened and waiting for today’s discovery. Yet the music is always created sometime in the past, captured in a forever younger time. Hmm...Listening to recorded music is just a weird, wild, strange mix of so many things.      

I’m really not looking for Truth, but a modicum of accuracy and predictability is certainly appreciated in both my media and gear. And really, how much Truth could one hope to attain or recreate in one’s home when it comes to music playback? What is a reasonable amount to spend to accomplish that? And who has the time and space to dedicate a whole room just for listening? (Fortunately, I do.) And honestly, does the quest for fidelity really matter much? (It certainly it does to me to some extent.) But a good song or even a bad song with good production value ‘expresses’ more than any number of playback methods or media or in any room, car, or even through any earbud. The music makes it through.

I guess the real question is, what are we attempting to be faithful to when we speak of High Fidelity? I will save this deeper discussion for my next post, but for now let’s just say listening—in any capacity—is fidelity to human emotions, and also the celebration of humans as tool makers, creators, and communicators. 

Music persists, becomes popular and remains popular because it does something personal for the listener. Can popular music find a higher fidelity playback situation? Yes for sure. Will that guarantee a more personal connection to that music for the listener? Possibly Maybe? Could the listener gain more insight into the music they love by taking the time to sit down and listen to their favorite songs on nice playback equipment in a quiet room? Hell yes(!) if they so choose, but it is not essential for the listener or the life of the song.  

Right now, personally, I’m aiming for pleasurable playback with my system, playback that works for extended listening sessions at a bit louder than normal volumes. I want listening in my home to be an event(!), a religious experience and/or meditation that I can turn on or off when I want to. And it doesn’t hurt that California has made easy access to cannabis edibles this year.

I thank you and Jimi Hendrix’s music thanks you.  

On that note, I’d like to thank my wife for being supportive of my music addiction. I’d like to thank my uncles, especially Uncle Bob, for making me a music addict. I’d like to thank my father for his pride and passion for all his gear and for his unwavering love of Neil Diamond. I’d also like to thank my family for putting up with my perpetual teenage rewiring of things without their knowledge. I’d also like to thank my brother for making music and making music his life. 

I’d also like to thank the following Audio Professionals for their time, patience, and attention:

Dan Wright of ModWright (http://www.modwright.com). I’d like to thank Dan Wright for his time, excellent execution, and amazing Sony and Oppo mods. Dan’s gear was my first taste of high-end, my first tube gear. Buy ModWright now and don’t look back! Dan Wright and Kristin B. will always take care of you.

Emotiva (https://emotiva.com). Emotiva was my audiophile ‘gateway drug’. With the overwhelming amount of choices available to the burgeoning audiophile and the insane costs associated with audiophile gear, Emotive makes it easy and cost-effective to begin your sound quest. I think I can count myself as an ‘early adopter’ of Emotiva gear. Back in 2009, after working on Avatar, I purchased a USP-1 Preamp (which I will always keep) and a UPA-1 amp. Emotiva gear is now easily competitive with the best gear in the industry while still maintaining VERY reasonable prices. Thanks to Nick H., Janna R., and Cathy L. of Emotive for their time and guidance as I made my first hi-fi purchases.

Roger Sanders of Sanders Sound Systems (http://sanderssoundsystems.com). Mr Sanders is a Scientist, a man who makes the finest electrostatic speakers in the industry, and two incredible amplifiers that can drive any load. To get an idea of Mr. Sanders’ philosophy, allow me to briefly paraphrase some of what I have gleaned from our conversations...”If it cannot be measured, it doesn’t exist. Tubes and vinyl are flawed, avoid them. Balanced connections are unnecessary and potentially detrimental over short runs. Sample rates above 96kHz are wasteful. Traditional cone speakers distort and cannot be recommended. DSP and Pro Amps can be valuable tools, use them.” I agree with much of what Mr. Sander espouses and have turned some of his suggestions into purchases of gear that currently reside in my setup. He was INCREDIBLY PATIENT WITH ME until I made the mistake of mentioning how I don’t enjoy the perceived larger-than-life scale of the sonic image created by electrostatics. Mr. Sanders told me I was “odd” and on my own after that.  :-(

I guess I am odd. With my listening setup I am most interested in replaying—with fidelity—what was created by pioneering artists and engineers in various recording studios. Ideas that became sounds that no one had ever heard before and no instrument or live performance could exactingly recreate. If you don’t know what I mean, just think of almost anything by Hendrix or, for a specific example, The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows.” 

Fritz of Fritz Speakers (http://www.fritzspeakers.com). Right now I am not looking for the kind of truth that Fritz strives to build into each of his speakers. I am still in my juvenile audiophile phase, too ‘young’ in my pursuits to be worthy of his designs. (In other words, I still seek the occasional face-melting volume and/or heart-attack-inducing bass of my teenage years). Each of Fritz’s speakers are hand-built, with drivers chosen for the least distortion possible and matched with custom crossovers to attain the flattest response. The only area in which Fritz indulges in ‘coloration’ are his choices of veneers. Selected and arranged with the utmost care, Ribbon Mahogany, Oak, and/or Walnut veneers are applied so that pairs of speakers are visually matched almost as well as his drivers. Like a good doctor, Fritz is very generous with his time and has been know to make house calls. 

Tony of Humble Homemade HiFi (http://www.humblehomemadehifi.com/index.html). Tony believes he can hear the sonic attributes of different kinds of capacitors. I believe him. He spent hours, days, and years listening to what different capacitors do when used in speaker crossover networks and he has compiled an incredibly thorough list detailing his thoughts. Here it is, it’s crazy! http://www.humblehomemadehifi.com/Cap.html . I have not been fortunate enough to hear any of Tony’s speakers, but he shares all his cabinet and crossover designs freely on his website. Amazing!

Chris Johnson of Parts Connexion (http://www.partsconnexion.com). Chris refurbished my beloved Sonic Frontiers Line 2 Preamp. He’s the one to do it; he was one of the designers and owners of Sonic Frontiers. Upon return of my preamp I had some repeated tube issues that Chris worked with me on. I believe he sent an additional 3 tubes till we got one through the mail in functional condition. His packing for return shipping of my preamp was impeccable.  

Roger Paul of Holographic Cloning Amplifier Technology (H-CAT). Roger Paul has been working on a new way to handle audio signals in any electrical circuit. He believes he can treat the audio signal as a “sound object” thereby removing inherent distortions caused by transmuting sound—traveling at the speed of sound—into an electrical signal—traveling near the speed of light—and leveraging the travel-time lag between the two to apply minute corrections all along the amplification pathway. His technology removes group delay as an issue and does not need any negative feedback at the amplifier output stage. Those who have heard his gear will never part with it. Mr. Paul’s site is down at the moment but I have copies of his H-Cat White Paper and clones of his site for those interested.  

Mr. Johnson of Conrad-Johnson (https://conradjohnson.com). What can you say? One of the owners and creators of a legendary company, whose amplifiers and pre-amplifiers are sought out around the world, will actually respond to your emails. (What!?) And holy smokes does my little MF2275, hooked up to my ModWright Oppo 105D and JBL 4312a’s, makes recordings sound like the master tapes! Air, harmonic richness, transparency, and a near 360 degree holographic soundstage. If it weren’t for some listening-fatigue-inducing stridency in the JBLs, and the lack of deep, quick bass, I would have stopped my system evolution right there. If all Conrad-Johnson products sound like, or better than, my little MF2275, you absolutely cannot go wrong with anything Conrad-Johnson produces.

Bill Flannery of Flannery’s Vintage Audio Repair (http://www.flannerysvintageaudio.com). Mr. Flannery is quick to respond to emails and goes out of his way to make time for a phone call, which is really just better than so many emails. If you need repairs on your Carver gear, he has the ear of the legendary Bob Carver himself. It is an absolute pleasure to speak with Mr. Flannery. He’ll let you voice your concerns regarding your gear and gently guide you back to trusting Bob Carver’s designs and letting him (Mr. Flannery) just clear away aging parts, making subtle improvements where possible and appropriate. Mr. Flannery will soon be servicing my increasingly rare Carver Signature Sunfire amp. I can’t wait for that vicious beast to be back to its full monstrous power. Infinity Kappas, 8 or 9, beware!        

Crown Amplifier, Harmen Professional Solutions, and Peter Stauber in particular (https://www.crownaudio.com/en/products/xls-1500). I recently discovered Crown XLS amplifiers. Wow! I would not have considered Pro amps if it were not for the suggestions of Roger Sanders. Mr. Sanders would probably not approve of the Class D DriveCore XLS series from Crown, but these amps have solved several problems for me in my current setup. (Shortly, I will be utilizing two 1500s and two 1502s.). They run very cool, which is excellent in my smallish California listening room, where a sad little in-window AC unit struggles to keep it reasonably comfortable. That AC unit, a refrigerator 12 feet from my listening position, the freakin’ overhead dimmable lights, and the 1940s wiring (and being the first house on the block connected to the giant power transformer) all make for extremely noisy power! The Crown XLS series was designed to handle pretty much any/all power situations. At the very least, the synergy between the Class D Pulse Modulation stage and the switching power supply seems to be masking many of my power issues, and I’m totally cool with that. And these little suckers—approximately 8 lbs. each—are easy to move around, and they put out 1500watts into 4ohms bridged(!), which is just what my power-hungry Infinity Kappa speakers need.

Rick Henry of Equi=Tech Corporation (http://www.equitech.com). Mr. Henry took some time out of his day earlier this week to talk to me about Equi=Tech products. We discussed my particular setup, potential power needs/issues and he made some specific suggestions regarding which Equi=Tech products would work for me. I am already using an odd ball 8.3Amp version of their Son of Q. Jr. that I picked up second hand. Not only does the Son of Q Jr. feeds power to all my front-end gear, it sure beats the computer-oriented universal power supply (UPS) I was using. The Equi=Tech unit makes no sound and keeps my digital gear (computer, ModWright Oppo, AirPlay router) and analog gear (power supplies for my Sonic Frontiers and Oppo) super quiet. Just be careful: with any Equi=Tech gear, there’s a lot of copper in them so they weigh a ton, even the Jr.

Sweetwater (https://www.sweetwater.com). Sweet water and their reps get back to you super fast! They always have great deals on audio components, and if you have any questions they will make sure you get answers. I purchased a Behringer Europower EP4000 from them last year. It was a demo unit and showed up in pristine condition. The unit has started having some overheating issues, and they offered to work on it as long as I pay for shipping, which seems reasonable.

Steve Hoffman Forums (http://forums.stevehoffman.tv). The Steve Hoffman Forums is an indispensable resource for any and all audio related questions. Mr. Hoffman is an adherent to the, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" school of audio remastering. Pick up any of his work on vinyl or digital media and you will be impressed! You'll really hear the tape, noise and all, but also the amazing natural decay of room and plate reverbs. Just wish Genesis would let him remaster their catalogue to 24/192.