Kidding aside, over the years I've developed a pretty good ear; I listen to lots of live music. I have a large record and CD collection. Writing comes naturally to me. I'm an open kind of guy and enjoy conveying my passion for the things I love and the joy I take in them; family, friends, work - I love teaching and writing and mentoring young legal theorists. Mostly, I take pride in not being an asshole.
I listen to music at least three to four hours a day. I listen while I write, and I listen while I watch sporting events on TV with the mute engaged. I am listening now. I love all kinds of music, but I confess to being more knowledgeable about rock, pop, blues and jazz than about classical and world music. My daughter is a tap dancer as well as a student. My oldest son [right] is the family intellect and a storehouse of information about music. Through him, I am never too far out of touch with the modern scene.
I am a believer in both authority and modesty -- the two are connected -- and so I am happy to rely on others to help me develop my tastes, especially in classical music. Years ago, I received a list of classical pieces recommended by Richard Shahinian (who makes a hell of a fine loudspeaker), purchased everything on the list, and so began my education into classical music; I mean that kind of classical music that's not a Broadway musical!
As I have said in another context, I write not because I think I have a solution to a problem or an answer to a question. I write to convince myself that I understand what the real issues and questions are. I am trying to understand myself, the world and my place within it. Music helps.
I have two reference systems - one in my home in Connecticut, the other in my NYC apartment. The Connecticut system is housed in a room of 30' x 18' x 9' that has a wood floor, crown moldings, irregular shapes, lots of bookcases and art, a fair number of windows, a baby grand piano and two soft sofas. It has proven to be an extremely sympathetic room with the exception of deep bass which is hard to reproduce for many speakers. I generally place speakers along the short wall. My experience is that speakers tend to do well between two and four feet from the back wall. I have two seating positions for critical listening. One is nine feet or so from the speakers, the other is 16 feet from the speakers. With all but some hornsystems, the sound is less immediate from this positon but invariably relaxed and coherent (with good equipment).
My NYC apartment room is 17 feet deep, 8 feet high and open to the front hallway and dining room. The overall room is thus 30 feet wide but the speakers are located in a 15-foot expanse. There are hardware floors, a wall of windows on one side of the room, bookcases, large plants, an area rug, two sofas and a chair. The wall behind the speakers is drywalled; the wall behind the listening sofa is the outside wall of the building and thus very sturdy and thick. Speakers do best 2 to 5 feet from the wall. Interestingly, this room reproduces bass extremely well - much to the chagrin of my neighbors.
I try to keep both systems as stable as possible. Unless I am doing a system-wide review, I will only review sources and speakers in the Connecticut system. I hate breaking up that system for reviews. I also strongly believe in what I call 'one voice' systems. My preamp and amplifier were born for one another and every other amplifier and preamplifier I have tried in that system has come up short - often very short, so much so that I don't think review preamps and amps in that system can be fairly compared with my reference. If I receive an amp for review that is best set up in the CT system, I will try to get a preamp that is a known match for it. I did this with the Reimyo system, for example.
My CT system also produces only 8 watts of power and so the number of speakers that can be fairly reviewed using it is limited. I have two pair of backup amps of 35 and 40 watts respectively but neither is of the reference quality of my amp and so I am reluctant to use either for reviewing truly high-end speakers. I have much more flexibility in NYC and am open to reviewing all manner of components there.
Sources: Shindo Garrard 301 turntable, Shindo Mersault arm, Shindo modified SPU Classic cartridge. In the past two years, I have listened to a number of high-end tables including the Well Tempered Reference (a true best buy), the Redpoint Testa Rossa and the Brinkmann Balance among others. The Brinkmann was the class leader of this group but no table matched the Shindo Garrard for outright musical persuasiveness. That table is not for everybody. There is no arm lift and the platter/bearing combination and technology is about 50 years old. The 301 has a suspended idler motor and requires a great plinth to really sing. On most any plausible plinth it will have tremendous dynamics and visceral impact. But it won't sound like a true high end table in the league of the Brinkmann, for example. It won't have world-class resolution or detail. That's where great plinths come in, not to mention modified bearings and a great arm/cartridge combination. You can get by with a very good sounding Garrard 301 combination for about $4 or 5K with a decent plinth, an older SME 3012 and a Denon 103, but you will have no idea what the table can sound like fully tricked out.
CD player: Revox 226 Signature. Digital remains a mystery to me. I am no expert. I have listened to a number of really fine players over the past couple of years. Of these, the Reimyo single-box player was the best. I had great experiences with two Exemplar modified Denon players and currently have the new Reimyo DAC in for review. I very briefly heard the VRS hard-drive system and thought it was the best digital I had experienced. I hope someday to have one or a system like it. For now, I am very happy with the Revox which uses the same chip as the famous Zanden DAC. The player is extremely immediate and detailed - surprising for a player from its era. It can sound a bit rough around the edges compared to the best modern players but it sounds more alive and natural than most. The tray is always an issue with Revox but this is a classic piece worth searching out.
Phono stepup transformer: Shindo Arome. This is basically the same transformer that is included in Shindo's top of the line Petrus preamplifier. It is optimized for the SPU cartridge
Preamplifier: Shindo Catherine (each channel in a separate chassis), dual mono, all tube, full function preamp, balanced and unbalanced out. I loved the Monbrison, which judging by sales, is loved by many others as well. It is a terrific preamplifier but the Catherine is a definite step-up in small ways. It is more refined, slightly richer sounding, more detailed yet even more natural sounding and invariably at ease. Like all other Shindo preamplifiers from the Monbrison on up, it comes with an internal stepup transformer, a distinctive circuit design and a handful of unusual NOS tubes. Some folks don't like dual volume controls but I love them. No room is balanced. The dual volume controls allow one to really dial in the sound and nail the imaging (to the extent that is interesting or important)
Amplifier: Shindo WE300B Ltd monoblocks. An extremely powerful 8 watt amp. If the driver stage were an amplifier, it would output 3.5 watts. This allows the amp to drive many more speakers than the usual 8 watter. This amplifier puts the lie to the common view that 300B amps are syrupy and lack detail and extension on top and control down below. I could give you a list of a dozen 300B amps of which that charge is basically true but this ain't one of them. Incredibly detailed and resolute, it is xtended enough to shine through the DeVore Silverback speakers whose tweeter extends to 40K. The amp is switchable between balanced and unbalanced. Balanced means an input transformer so that output impedance from preamp and input impedance of amp are perfectly matched. Like other Shindo amps, the WE comes with attenuators that are not in the signal path for fine-tuning of sound.
Speakers: DeVore Silverbacks, Tannoy 15" golds in a transmission line/quasi back-loaded horn design built by Anthony Abbate from plans by Shindo (with slight modifications). The DeVore Silverback replaced all others as my dynamic speaker reference. It is a better balanced speaker than the Wilson Watt Puppys and makes the Audio Physics Virgo II with which it is often confused physically sound like it has a blanket over it. The speaker is an absolute steal at $14K. It works with all manner of amplifier, tube or solid state, low to mid to high power. It sounds best with tube amps. Depending on room size and listening habits, anything above ten watts from a serious amp will work just fine. The speaker deserves to be paired with the best upstream components. Its one shortcoming is that it is not by nature a very dynamic speaker when compared to, say Wilsons but more dynamic than Avalons, Audio Physics and other more well-known speakers.
The real treat has been the Tannoys. At 94dB, they are a more welcome match for my amplifier. Historically, Tannoys like being driven by 15-25 watt push/pull pentode amps but this one loves the WE 8 watters. Most 15" Tannoy drivers wear something of a rubber tire aound their midsection. This one minimizes that effect. The lowest midrange and upper bass are not as resolute and articulate as the midrange but the difference is absolute minimal. No speaker allows you to hear a bass line like Tannoys; and no speaker has a more natural or dynamic upper and mid bass. Until I can afford the Shindo Latour loudspeakers which to my ears are as naturally dynamic as Tannoys as revealing as the Silverbacks and as natural sounding as Quad 57s, I will live happily with Tannoys and the Silverbacks.
Equipment Rack: Harmonic Resolution Systems M-1R. I own two of these. They are expensive but an equipment rack that controls resonance improves every component you place in it. Nothing else you add to your system can do that. I was a novice on resonance control and equipment racks until about a year or so ago. Since that time I have heard several highly praised systems. Not every rack is going to work for all components that you happen to have. The HRS racks have been the most important addition to my system. I would simply not trust reviews from reviewers who do not have their components in good equipment racks. The difference in detail, balance, naturalness and microdynamics that a good rack can should never be underestimated. Several turntable manufacturers including Brinkmann and Redpoint use HRS isolation platforms as parts of their analog systems. There are other good equipment racks. Please take resonance control seriously. Look into one of these racks. The HRS is it for me.
Cables, interconnects, power cords: Stealth Indra, Auditorium 23 speaker cable, Audience Au24, Stealth power cords, Au24powerChord. I use Stealth Indra throughout my system. It is simply the best cable I have ever used. It has the detail and resolution some associate with Nordost Valhalla but unlike the Valhalla, it never becomes too much of a good thing. Its one shortcoming in my book is that it is not as lively or punchy as some other interconnects; but for being as detailed and resolute as it is, the interconnects are remarkably relaxed and easy sounding. The Auditorium 23 speaker cable replaced all others I have had, some costing three times as much. This may well be the best value in all of the high end. It is extremely well balanced, natural and never gets in the way. It may not be quite as revealing as the best Stealth or Valhalla speaker cable but if it misses it is not by much - and the loss is more than made up for by the full, natural yet resolute presentation let alone the good price! Shindo equipment is voiced from chassis to the feet underneath them. This includes their choice of power chords. I use their power chords on their equipment.
Line Conditioner: Stealt Mr.T I have tried many power conditioners over the years and they gave with one hand and took away with the other. I remained a skeptic. I tried several that were highly praised only to be even more disappointed no matter what gear I plugged in. The only reason I tried Mr.T was because it matched my electronics. I figured if any conditioner would work in my system, it would be Mr. T. In fact it has worked extremely well but I have too little information about how it performs in other systems to recommend it to others. If you have a Shindo system, then by all means get one. If not, I don't know what to tell you. I did have the Audience adeptResponse in for review and in many ways that represents a state of the art alternative to most power line conditioners.
New York System
Sources: Revox 226S CD player; Well Tempered Classic; Well Tempered arm; Roksan Shiraz cartridge (currently not in use). See above on Revox. The Well Tempered is one of the great bargains in turntables but has some of its own special issues. The goop changes consistency with the weather and so the table performs a bit slower in cold weater and a bit faster in hot weather.
Preamplifier: Transcendent Sound Grounded Grid. Only comes in a kit. This is the fifth one I have owned. It is transparent, lightning-fast and very dynamic. It is a steal and corners had to be cut in some places. The one that has been most obvious to me is resonance control. The GG comes with none to speak of. There are no giant killers in audio, but the Grounded Grid comes pretty damn close.
Amplifier: Shindo Montille. I guess that I'm a Shindo guy when it comes to electronics. In this case, there is another answer. The main speaker in my apt is the Siverback and the Montille is one of John DeVore's favorite matches for the speaker. Good enough for me. The Montille is a modestly priced amplifier with the Shindo sound - closest perhaps to the Cortese which uses the F2A tube that the Sinhonia did
Speakers: DeVore Fidelity Silverback. With so many speakers changing in my CT apt, I wanted a place where the Silverbacks could sing on a regular basis.
Interconnect, Cables and power cords: Same as above.