Stop #8: Gingko Audio. Having worked at the huge Lucent plant for 20+ years as a systems engineer and within 3 miles from his present home, Vinh Vu finally retired from the telecommunications industry to pursue his audio hobby as a business. Harry Weisfeld's VPI presence as one of his Cliffwood neighbors might have stimulated notions on how such a dream could be made to manifest. In fact, Vinh's first products were acrylic turntable dust covers. The additions of the Cloud 10, 11 and MiniCloud resonance control platforms were a direct outgrowth of his needing something affordable but efficacious for personal use. Harry's subsequent endorsement convinced their designer that his own ears and measurements could be trusted. Less than a year later, his cloudy enterprise is in full swing and could, within another year's time, expand to offer audio products very different from the current mix. However, they still must conform to Vinh's mantra that if it ain't affordable, living-room friendly and demonstrably better than competing products at the same price, he couldn't be bothered to spend his time or your money on it.

Giving us a quick tour of the countrified setting he calls home, Vinh took us to his brother's waterfront house just north of Sandy Hook and overlooking the bay while facing NYC from a safe distance. While Vinh is a late windsurfer, his older brother's apparently a very serious sportsman who embraces anything that's potentially hazardous to one's health.

Our quick sojourn to the beach and back through some of the many horse ranches that give Colts Neck its name had us appreciate the truly garden-like surrounding greenery. It's somewhat suggestive of Hawaii which Southern Jerseyans probably take for granted but desert dwellers like us note in well-moisturized culture shock. Back in the house, Vinh's wife Mai had cooked up a delectable storm somewhat in contrast to her hubby's laughing in-car comment on how, upon first coming to the States, he was shocked to discover that Americans ate a whole chicken all by themselves. "One chicken would feed a whole Vietnamese family for a week. We'd find a way to cut it up into such small pieces and make those so salty that we'd stretch one bird with plenty of rice and vegetables to last."

Vinh's office system only uses affordable components like Bruce Rosenblitz's small 1.5-watt Transcendent Sound OTL amp, Pioneer Elite players and an older Jeff Rowland preamp purchased used a long time ago. Speakers are by Bill LeGall of MillerSound, a close friend of Vinh's to whom he would introduce us shortly. Though once a commercial product, the MillerSound speakers, according to Vinh, were too good for too little money to survive in a market place jaded by glitz and escalating notions of how much one must spend to get good sound. Vinh clearly doesn't buy into that crap and his big rig reconfirms his value-conscious sensibilities. But first, he wanted to try on us a visual demonstration for his platform's effectiveness on video. He's fine-tuning the demo for an upcoming tradeshow. Using two S-video inputs on a Loewe television with split-screen functionality, he fed two copies of James Taylor's famous concert video from two identical and naturally synchronized Pioneer Elite players - each remote command was picked up by both machines simultaneously. The difference was not subtle and both my wife and I picked out which DVD player was isolated without needing James Bond's golden eyes. While sonic differences often elicit scatter-shot reactions spanning the gamut, a sharper, more three-dimensional video image tends to be unambiguous, concrete and obvious to all onlookers. I predict legions of converts once Vinh springs this presentation on an unsuspecting public. [The above shot shows different segments of the same video while Vinh experimented to gauge our reactions. Still, the right one is clearly superior.]

The living room system employed a diagonal setup with LeGall-modified Vandersteen 4As and an Audiomeca Kheops player or VPI as source. Sounding more like Vandy 5s than 3As, with a fully embodied presentation of surprisingly fine resolution, this system mirrored the office rig in sheer listenability, a factor the resident grand piano -- which Vinh's daughter plays and which, on occasion, sees her famous Russian teacher concertize for a party audience -- clearly influenced by example. Unlike so many audiophiles who construct a fantasy facsimile of the real thing that has more novelty than conviction factor, Vinh had his system dialed for music. That sounds like the obvious thing to do but happens less often than one might assume. It's not unlike purebred dogs. They eventually conform/succumb perfectly to some arbitrary breed standard but lose the wholesome rightness of certain mutts who are more intelligent and far healthier.

The fact that I forgot to inquire which preamp and amp were on duty is emblematic of the Mutt Effect: Does anyone truly care to divine the ancestral ingredients of mutts? You simply don't bother. You spend little money or pick them up for free at the pound. You get a life companion, not some fickle pedigreed beast with moody temperament to require its own therapist, dog walker and manicurist. Vinh clearly understands that. It wouldn't occur to him to claim that his own Gingko Audio products are the be-all and end-all in their respective categories. In fact, he has no interest to manufacture or market anything cost-no-object. His interest is in coming up with value solutions that will get you most of the way for a fraction of the sticker shock. The same approach was evident in his systems. They didn't invite analytic dissection into 'wow' shopping list attributes but simply played music.

So here's that reminder again: It's definitely possible to overtweak a system or, in even more poignant parlance, "tweak it to death" by going to one extreme that sacrifices overall balance. Ultra high-performance systems must be tweaked to gain a millimeter here and a millimeter there which eventually makes a small difference that becomes a big one when you're within inches from the peak. High-performance systems, on the other hand, can be less fussy when your goal isn't the peak but the last base camp before the final assault. In fact, you're far better off there. Vinh and I talked about that. When you have hobbies other than just audio, it makes no sense to go all-out on any of 'em. In fact, you don't even have the Jones for it. Your interests are too varied to obsess ad infinitum over just one. And that, to me, seems the healthiest way to approach audio as well. Never mind us nutty reviewers. It's our job to make it seem as though nothing else existed or mattered. So here's another Metropolitan Museum photo insertion about time immemorial and the bigger picture - a reminder mostly for yours truly unless you too need reminding to stay sane and happy.