It’s a strange conundrum. High-end audio is designed, or so they say, to bring the listener “closer to the music,” “into the recording studio with your favorite musicians,” even “closer to an emotional connection with the artist.”
But then at audio shows and in showrooms around the world, it’s all about the hardware. Piano gloss finishes, outrageous prices and mind-numbing specs are all audiophiles seem to talk about.
This is somewhat understandable. The high-end audio industry is driven by equipment sales. And while vinyl is making a heroic comeback, physical media is still a tiny percentage of the way most people enjoy music.
We wanted to ask what music audiophiles used when auditioning hi-end audio equipment. The answers we received were surprising.
We visited a number of exhibit rooms and took notes on what music was being played to show off the equipment, and what it sounded like. For example, Paragon Sight and Sound had both rooms on the 2nd floor: the big Renewal Room showcasing the Wilson Alexx loudspeakers plus D’Agostino amps & preamps, the dCS Vivaldi Digital System, the Brinkman Balance turntable, plus Transparent cabling and HRS stands, and the Sheffield Room, featuring the Wilson Yvette speakers driven by Doshi electronics and the Brinkman Spyder table. Both rooms sounded great, whether they were playing Dean Martin on reel-to-reel tape, or Oscar Peterson on vinyl, or the USAF Heritage of America Band playing the Liberty Fanfare on DSD. It didn’t seem to matter what music they played, or what format they used, both systems were dialed in. No one wanted to give up their seats when the demo was over.
The TIDAL Audio room by The Voice That Is (Rm. 342) also sounded great, playing Sonny Boy Williamson on vinyl, and Bela Fleck and Marcus Miller on digital files at 16/44.1. The AIX Records room in Lakeshore B featured a stellar, relatively low cost system ($18K total) consisting of an Oppo UDP-205 into the Benchmark AHB2 amp and through 3 Benchmark DAC3s, driving 5 Emotiva Airmotiv T1 speakers, with the JVC DLA RS 620 projector. They played 96/24 files, most produced by Mark Waldrep of AIX in live studio sessions with video cameras rolling. The sense of the “real” and “natural” was unsurpassed. Cambridge Audio was playing .WAV files of classic rock and roll from Styx to Joy Division.
Other rooms had less success. One room I won’t name had speakers costing $80,000 a pair driven by a pair of monoblock amps selling for $48,000 with a $24,000 preamp, and it all sounded fairly mediocre. There was a lack of detail in the high end, and no sense of air or space. The lows were mushy and inarticulate. The midrange and vocals sounded harsh at all volume levels. I checked their music source, and it turned out they were playing digital files at 16/44.1: Paul Simon, Mel Torme, Dire Straits, Diana Krall, all familiar, but nothing clicked. Consequently, the room had constant turnover, with people moving from place to place, looking for the elusive sweet spot.
It was refreshing to run into a number of respected manufacturers, artists and journalists at AXPONA who are passionate about what music they listen to, and what they are listening for. Some of them insist that the listener should be intimately familiar with the music source in order to suss out what a good hi-end audio setup really sounds like. Many believe vinyl is still the best source of hi-fi music for its uncompressed and naturally high-res sound. A few even carry around their own records, SACDs and vinyl from room to room.
We conducted video interviews with a wide range of visitors to the largest high-end audio show in the United States, AXPONA 2017, which took place at the Westin O’Hare in Rosemont, IL from April 21-23.
Dave Wilson of Wilson Audio, a legend of high-end audio (he even spoke on a panel at AXPONA entitled, “Legends of High-End Audio”), was not available for a video interview, but sent us his listening selections, including Mark Wetch, a pianist that Wilson personally recorded on his own label (Wilson Audiophile Recording ; WCD-808 CD). He also uses a hi-res master recording (MTC0301-2) of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, recorded in a church he’s no doubt intimately familiar with in his home state of Utah. Because he’s frequently attended the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra at the Musikverein, he listens to their Mahler #2 (Deutsche Grammophon 474 594-2 GSA2, SACD), as well as singer Elina Garanca, who he has heard in person from distances of 10 to 40 feet (Deutsche Grammophon 477 8776 GH). Wilson makes the effort to travel to hear different music halls, recording studios and artists. When we last spoke to him he was on his way to our home town of Cleveland to listen to Franz Welser Most in rehearsal with the Cleveland Orchestra in Severance Hall. Dave spoke to me for a half hour about what he learned on that listening trip.
Richard Vandersteen of Vandersteen Audio also told us that he uses master tapes of recordings that he himself has made, “so that I know what they sounded like when they were made.” One record he mentioned is Only Love by Terry Garrison on Vandersteen Audio Records (VA-
Michael Fremer Recommends the Best Vinyl for your Turntable
Michael Fremer, senior editor of Stereophile magazine and the editor of AnalogPlanet.com, the acknowledged guru of high-end turntables and vinyl, insists that one need not be familiar with the music to make a determination of what sounds right: “You know what ends up happening? You spend three years playing the same five record over and over again.” Instead, just listen to it (whatever it is), and listen to it again on another system. He does admit to loving the new direct-to-disc Berliner Philharmoniker Brahms symphony cycle by Sir Simon Rattle, and a late 1950’s stereo recording called The Sound of Jazz, reissued and mastered from the 3-track directly to the lacquer (Analogue Productions – AAPJ 111). Off camera, he also confessed that the four early Brian Eno pop LPs (Here Come The Warm Jets, Taking Tiger Mountain, Another Green World, Before and After Science) are unsurpassed for their meticulous detail. And his later ambient recordings are cool, too. Enjoy the video. http://www.AnalogPlanet.com http://www.Stereophile.com
Julie Mullins of The Absolute Sound on Which Vinyl She Uses to Test Audio Equipment
Julie Mullins is the Managing Editor of The Absolute Sound magazine, and she listens to an awful lot of high-end equipment. Like Fremer, she appreciates vinyl for its “richness of sound, the dynamics, the sense of life and presence.” She brings along a wide range of her own vinyl records to listening sessions, from El Vy to Joni Mitchell to Buena Vista Social Club. Watch the video as she explains what she listens for with each musical selection. http://www.TheAbsoluteSound.com
Part-Time Audiophile Eric Shook On Music to Drink To
Eric Shook of Part-Time Audiophile just wants to have fun. While the next generation of young listeners is driving vinyl and turntable sales, what hasn’t changed is the desire to listen to the best on your system, just for how it makes you feel. And sometimes that involves a beverage. “That’s what makes this hobby fun, the social aspect.” Eric digs the classic jazz of Lyn Stanley as much as he does King Crimson and the little known 1970’s British funk/soul outfit Cymande. View his video to pick up on his passion. http://www.PartTimeAudiophile.com
What Records Does Jana Dagdagan Listen To?
Jana Dagdagan has recently been writing social commentary for Stereophile magazine as their editorial coordinator, bringing a fresh perspective to a field dominated by old white men. She’s an electronic musician herself, so she listens to her own music, along with other electronica such as The Aphex Twin. But she also auditions everything from Elton John to Norah Jones. Watch the video to hear it in her own words. http://www.Stereophile.com
Dan Laufman of Emotiva on Listening to High-End Audio Equipment
Dan Laufman, the founder, president and CEO of Emotiva, gave a shout out to Walter Becker’s LP Circus Money, pointing out, “I know the recording. I’m an ex-pro-audio guy, and ex-studio guy, so I spent a lot of time listening to control room monitors and high-end audio, in a more analytical setting.” He also seeks out selections from the Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs label, and he even listens to vinyl on occasion. Dan can explain it better himself here. http://www.Emotiva.com
Audiophiliac Steve Guttenberg’s Favorite Audiophile Records
Steve Gutenberg is known as the Audiophiliac and writes for CNET.com as well as Stereophile magazine. He’s known for his no-nonsense approach to audio, always keeping an eye on the affordable end of the market, while also staying in touch with the sine qua non of the industry. He spent a lot of time in the Ear Gear Expo, which showcases headphones and personal audio. Crammed shoulder to shoulder, one could feel the palpable energy in this room, the passion for music, and the obviously affordable price tags, although some headphones range to the mid-four figure range. When it comes to his test records, he likes to use “really simple recordings, that don’t have a lot of processing, so they sound more real.” He likes audiophile recordings from Chesky Records and Reference Recordings, plus some well-known records like Radiohead’s recent release A Moon-Shaped Pool. Hear more insights direct from Steve in this video. http://www.CNET.com/audiophiliac
What Vinyl is Jonathan Valin Carrying Around From Room to Room?
Jonathan Valin serves as the Executive Editor of The Absolute Sound magazine, so his ears are pretty well tuned up. Like his colleague Julie Mullins, Jonathan came prepared to our interview with a stack of vinyl that he likes to listen to when he auditions equipment. “I listen to a little digital, but vinyl is far better than digital. It preserves more of the music.” In fact, he told us he brings up to a dozen different vinyl LPs to each room, with specific aspects he listens for on each recording. On the Analogue Productions of Johnny Hartman he listens to the naturalness of the human voice, along with the sax and trumpet. On his vintage copy of Fine Young Cannibals’ The Raw and The Cooked, he listens to the low bass. Hear about all his selections in this video. http://www.TheAbsoluteSound.com
What’s in Jason’s Bag?
Jason Victor Serinus of Stereophile magazine makes no bones about the need to be familiar with your music source. As an opera critic who loves electronica, his musical palette is as eclectic as they come. The resonant human voice provides an emotional response, and tells you a lot about the room it was recorded in. So he carries around a bag with a flash drive, CDs. and SACDs of singers Eileen Farrell, Elly Amaling and Rosa Passos. “Oh my goodness. When you can get the actual feeling of the finger touching the string on the guitar, and you can feel the palpability, it’s quite exciting.” Catch Jason’s excitement in this video. http://www.Stereophile.com
How Does Steve Rochlin Test Audio Equipment?
Steve Rochlin of EnjoyTheMusic.com is a fixture at audio shows with his custom steampunk Audeze headphones strapped around his next like an audio prophet from the future. He is not shy about his opinions, and he’s seen (and heard) it all, so we were not surprised when he insisted (with just a bit of tongue in his cheek) that he listens to test tones to evaluate equipment. Beyond that, he’ll record his own drum set and listen to how that sounds compared to the real thing. But he does use some well-known recordings as well, such as Roger Waters’ Amused To Death. Listen and smile as Steve points the way to audio nirvana. And his headphones are for sale, if anyone is interested! http://www.EnjoyTheMusic.com
Lyn Stanley Creates Her Own Audiophile Test Records
Lyn Stanley has taken the whole audiophile recording thing to an entirely new level, in a way that only a few other artists and labels have.
Working with the highest quality engineers (Al Schmitt), equipment (Frank Sinatra’s microphone), musicians (David Bowie’s pianist Mike Garson), and recording and mastering techniques, Stanley essentially creates a test record with each new release.
Some of her material is now available on reel-to-reel tape, and her upcoming release Midnight Sessions will use a customized 1–step process that creates a limited edition of high-quality vinyl records. Listen and watch here. http://www.LynStanley.com
Please check back. Feel free to re-visit this page, as additional interviews and reviews will be added. It takes a while to decompress from the intensity of a show like AXPONA. We spoke to a lot of people, and a lot of people spoke with us. We’ll share as much as is humanely possible, with the help of a little technology.
Hey, that sounds like a good mission statement for high-end audio, doesn’t it?