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Sound - a selection of recordings used during these auditions: Bill Evans, Selections from Live at Art D'Lugoff's Top Of The Gate, Resonance Records, HLT-8012, Limited Edition #270, blue wax 10” LP (2012); Cannonball Adderley, Somethin’ Else, Blue Note/Analogue Productions, AP-81595, “The Blue Note Reissues, 45 RPM Special Edition #2468”, 45rpm 180g 2xLP (1958/2008); Clifford Brown and Max Roach, Study In Brown, EmArcy/Universal Music Japan, UCJU-9072, 180g LP (mono); Depeche Mode, Delta Machine, Columbia, 460631, 180g 2xLP (2013); Eva Cassidy, Songbird, Blix Street Records/S&P Records, S&P-501, 180g LP (1998/2003); Keith Jarrett, The Survivors’ Suite, ECM Records, ECM 1085, LP (1977); OMD, Dazzle Ships, Virgin Records, 205 295-320, LP (1993); Talk Talk, Spirit of Eden, Parlophone/EMI, PCSDX 105, 180g LP+DVD 24/96 (1988/2012); The Cure, Disintegration, Fiction Records, 532 456-3, 180g 2xLP (1989/2010); The Montgomery Brothers, Groove Yards, Riverside/Analogue Productions, AJAZ 9362, 'Top 100 Fantasy 45 Series', 45rpm 180g 2xLP (1961); Tingvall Trio, Skagerrak, Skip Records, SKL 9057-1, Limited Edition, 180g LP (2006); Tommy Schneider & Friends, The Hidden Port, Kolibri Records, No. 12001, 180g LP (2012); Wes Montgomery & Wynton Kelly Trio, Smokin’ At The Half Note, Verve/Universal Music K.K. [Japan], UCJU-9083, 180g LP (1965/2007); Yaz, Upstairs at Eric's, Warner Bros. Records/Mobile Fidelity, MOFI 1-020, Silver Label, Special Limited Edition No. 2044, 150g LP (1982/2012); Zakir Hussain, Making Music, ECM 1349, LP (1987).

Shirokazu Yazaki is a man who knows exactly what he wants. In his work as chief designer he is guided by a logic which he presumably learnt at college but unlike many of his colleagues also in Europe, he is not its slave. Rather logic adapts to conditions and whatever material he deals with. This material being music, it requires thinking outside the box and going beyond the confines of academic knowledge which is quite often dull when it comes to coping with things difficult to measure that ultimately need to be worked out with that most sensitive instrument of the human ear.

In their pursuit of a music truth or an internal logic, designers are doomed to work out compromises and make choices. This is how it was, is and will be. No invention or technology can change that. Mr.Yazaki knows this well. I can hear it using his products. I can feel it listening to them. I can hear and understand it. The reference sound for this Japanese designer are tube devices from the Western Electric days and its more exotic types though 300B are included. This is how he tunes his class D amplifiers. This is also how he tuned the REQ-1S EX phono stage.

If we were to distance ourselves from the music and concentrate just on its sound, this one would seem quite warm and in ultimate terms of limited selectivity. In short this isn't a microscopic tool with which to analyse various pressings and versions of the same record. Although it uncovers much relevant information, these data arise along the way and in the background. These elements are audible, they occasionally even manifest themselves but never do so in the foreground and never are comparable to or confused with the main presentation.

The first example about this is how the machine renders recordings somewhat similar by rounding over attacks and saturating colors. These two features generate the impression of warmth. Yet there is no actual warmth because it's hard to claim that any part of the frequency range is emphasized. Vocals and instruments operating across a similar range are not brought forward or exposed. The mix is always even, the distance from the listener, the perspective of a given instrument primarily dependant on the mastering engineer. Despite the fact that by comparison to an RCM Audio preamplifier the SPEC did sound warm and not terribly selective, all through the audition it was obvious that it had an inclination towards or a sort of weak spot for records pressed from analog not digital masters - even when the latter were of 24/96 or even 24/192 resolution. The difference between them was not clear at first. It was not about color or resolution, at least not directly. Good productions of digital remasters such as ECM's Making Music by Zakir Hussain, the new reissue of Talk Talk's Spirit of Eden and The Doors box set sounded surprisingly convincing in fact. They had fullness and depth with no trace of sharpening or brightening as can occasionally happen on an overly dry playback system.

But it merely took listening to something fully analog like the reissue of Groove Yard by The Montgomery Brothers and Somethin 'Else by Cannonball Adderley from Analogue Productions; or Study in Brown by Clifford Brown and Max Roach and Smokin 'At The Half Note by Wes Montgomery on 200g Japanese vinyl to immediately feel what it was about. I got a much deeper smoother slightly less muffled sound. The muffling here doesn’t refer to a rolled-off withdrawn treble. It's simply SPEC's signature. It occurs on all recordings no matter what. It's thus something deeper and more intrinsic. It is a sense of suppressing all the upper registers. I recognized it from speakers with poorly crossed-over drivers or an incorrect amount of internal damping. The vocal delivery of Talk Talk’s front man Mark Hollis was warm, full and sensual but also slightly nasal. Ditto for Alison Moyet's voice on the reissue of Upstairs At Eric's from Mobile Fidelity or the new 180-gram vinyl version of Disintegration by The Cure. The same pattern repeated itself. They all sounded surprisingly nice but depth and access to instruments was limited. But this wasn't the only scheme governing the sound. It simply demonstrated the priorities of SPEC’s designers. Another indicator would be played repertoire.

One hifi axiom is that the audio system should be universal. Audio equipment should sound as good playing a large symphony orchestra as it does with death metal. There's truth in that, the same kind that insists audio equipment should not interpret but show exactly what was recorded. In the real world where such axioms seem more abstract and idealized, a designer can choose between several equally attractive options on just one condition: it must lead to a better understanding of the music and enhance our experience.

And so we connect music playback to the people who design it with their peculiar preferences and beliefs. That applies both to the internal design—the engineering choices embedded in each component—and the external assembly of a complete system which music lovers build to suit their needs. Reviewing the REQ-1S EX I had no trouble knowing the answer. Yazaki-san looks for the truth in each musical performance. To explain that I must first spill some ink on the debate about the superiority of one truth over another, a debate far older than hifi itself. The question to answer is philosophical in nature. Should a designer attempt to bring the sound as close as possible to a live performance; or should he be concerned with a maximally accurate rendition of what was recorded?

Although it may seem otherwise, these are two completely different paths. In the first recordings are somewhat homogenized as the character of the equipment imposes itself on them. In the second we have great differentiation between recordings but also more problems which carry over from the recording studio to our home. It would be best if the two were reconciled and in absolutely top systems we get something of a cease fire where both remain in a very delicate balance. In any other case one must choose sides!

The Japanese phono preamplifier joins the live event camp. It is best suited for albums which rely on acoustic instruments or electric ones recorded through stage amps. Then we get a brilliant marriage of emotion and technique very smooth and coherent. Unlike with albums converted from digital masters, the muffling of the upper midrange then is utterly nonexistent. In absolute terms however the treble is still soft and the whole rather warm. Yet this is perceived as an asset rather than flaw. Although live instruments are more open and a real live soundstage is more expansive, the REQ-1S EX guides our playback experience by a different set of rules to actually become richer and more human than technical.