Factory tour of Living Voice and Definitive Audio
Every few years -- if lucky -- we audiophiles get to have a seminal experience. It may be the first hearing of high quality vinyl. Or the first hearing of the wonderful sound world created by a beautiful valve amplifier. Perhaps the first time you substitute a good enough 300B for a Western Electric. For me, one of these seminal encounters etched in time was when I first heard the Living Voice OBX-R2.
Great stuff, great memories, ah, the glorious past. So I sat musing grandly on my trumped-up DIY throne when a slightly dark cloud gathered on the horizon. At some point last month, I'd gone up to Definitive Audio and heard Kevin Scott's Kondo/Living Voice system and okay, I lost my head. You know, like a one-night stand kind of thing. I won't go into details but I remember vaguely that at the time, I thought it was unbelievable, the way-most-fantastic sound I'd ever heard by a margin. In that moment's passion, I'd gone bonkers and ordered a Kondo KSL M77. You know how these things go. Which had to be certifiably insane since I'd already been offered a review loaner.
In the cold light of day, the move looked like crap. As the memory of how good that definitive system sounded began to fade and my new Canarys started to run in and come on song, boy did they start sounding good. Unbelievably good. Not to mention that they were designed as a pair. So I was starting to think the Kondo would arrive and I'd have to mask the disappointment. I just didn't see how that M77 was going to pull off the trick of beating the Canary 903 four-box preamp at its luscious liquidity and poise.
On top of that, I was worried I'd fallen down the subliminally-impressed-by-ticket-price hole in Alice's Wonderland. I don't know about you but so far in my experience, systems with ridiculous prices have not managed to justify themselves particularly well on sonic grounds. Even among components, I haven't heard a 50K turntable that seems audibly in a class above every one else's. Same with amps and speakers. In fact, I find the ludicrously expensive systems and components slightly irritating. I do get the market forces argument but normally I prefer to have some kind of meaningful relationship between price and performance. That's the rational man in me speaking. Who knows what the subconscious is simultaneously up to, however? I suspect it's being mightily impressed and wanting to actually find out by taking these super components home for the night. I mean, think about it, Edward. Your credibility, crucially in your own eyes, is going to be a lot greater if you've lived with an SPJ turntable for a month over a Garrard. In other words, watch it. Keep a close eye on that Emperor's new robes. Hey, have you seen that? Incredible how they've made translucent ermine!
Anyway, at some point I mentioned how happy I was with the Canarys to Kondo importer Kevin Scott. Being a completely classy guy, he was genuinely thrilled for me. Then in passing he mentioned that he was now bi-amping his system and perhaps I should pop up and hear it. That's right, bi-amping. With Kondo Gakuohs. My head started to reel. I heard voices in the night saying: "Woowooowooo, go on, do pop up to Nottingham."
The excuse (should an alibi be needed) was that I was supposed to bring back my OBXR2s so they could be turned into upgraded OBX-RWs. So finally I found a free day and made the trip up. Driving rain, traffic jams on the M1 motorway, jack-knifed lorries across two lanes, 70 mph winds bowling across the landscape and turning the odd oak inside out. A fine spring day in the UK. And I'd forgotten to load me speakers. Whatever.
I do finally get to the Definitive Audio showroom in a refurbished textile mill in the heart of the British industrial revolution [above]. Let's just stop at the door and think about this place for a second. I'm not sure we in the UK really understand the amazingness of what's happening here. This is the workshop of a guy who twenty years ago was one of the most extreme underground audio gurus around; who then went and put his money where his mouth was and designed a revolutionary hornspeaker that is still highly influential to this day; and then turned that into one of the UK's most successful valve speaker companies with a major worldwide reputation; and... and he also runs a shop. You can buy a complete system from him plus get all that incredible knowledge and intimate understanding of technical issues -- but above all, system matching and musical integrity -- thrown in for free. It's kind of incredible. Imagine your local HiFi shop run by Dave Wilson or Mssrs. Conrad and Johnson. Here we've got one of a small number of ultimate audio guru/manufacturers and he'll put together a puny Rogue integrated system for you if that's what you want. Quite how he gets the time is beyond me. But one thing is clear from the first minute of talking to him: his passion for music and ways of reproducing it properly just never runs dry.
There is no question that we audio folk live in a crazy world at the moment. We read magazines and articles endlessly celebrating the component and sift, at vast expense, through an endless collection of part bins for said components in our systems. Especially now with Internet sales dominating, it is getting harder and harder to actually hear components first. And what we need is not to listen to components but to great systems in the first place. Let's be honest. Very few of us have the time, experience or the obsessiveness to really get the sound we want. How much better would it be if we had our own super guru who could show us the Promised Land and better yet, stake it out for us?
Kevin Scott believes profoundly in systems as a whole and he is more than a little wary of the approach that creates audio systems via scientific analysis rather than using the services of a talented and experienced chef. We certainly can't tell a good risotto from a bad one by putting it under a spectroscope. The same is true for a balanced audio system. So of course Definitive has built up an extremely loyal following and customer base all over the world because of the sound Kevin Scott achieves. In any given week, he could be in Thailand, France or the US. Of course, this is usually to set up super systems. But even in the ordinary mortal world, buying a small system from him is an amazing experience. I'm convinced that at any particular budget, Kevin would produce a much more musically satisfying system that responds to a music lover's criteria than just about anyone else I've come across. Ultimately, components might be exciting but for me, the real badge of audiophile honor comes to those lucky enough to be customers of Definitive Audio. I can't think of higher praise.
So let's step inside now. Look, an Aladdin's cave of goodies. What's over there? Audiomeca Mephisto IIs falling out of closets. In fact, he doesn't like the original Mephisto II. What makes Kevin a completely brilliant dealer is that he is ruler straight about his stock. I once called him up a long time ago about a fashionable Italian speaker. He said, "you know, I got to break it to you, that speaker is objectively bad." Hello? Isn't he supposed to be trying to sell those things? Or what about the time that he convinced me, against his own financial interests, to buy a second-hand Canary 803 off the Internet after he had stopped distributing the brand? Acts like that may be crazy but work for Kevin because people trust him implicitly. However mad that may be in the short term, over the distance it's a stance that reaps dividends. In fact, in Kevin's case, I think he's just pathologically unable to say anything besides exactly what he thinks.
Hey, did you see the Solatron valve-regulated bench power supplies under that stack of Western Electrics? Did I mention WEs? Definitive supplies the real thing. No dodgy Chinese OEM clones but the actual 100% pure genuine article. And once you've heard them, it's a no-brainer. No choice, no competition. For a long time I've had doubts about the 300B SE thing. Turns out that the problem for me was not necessarily in the topology but that a lot of the limitations are based on the valve itself. To get the glory of that sound, there is only one road. It's called Western Electric. Simple as that.
|SME 10 with a modded SME V* and an Io-J, into the M77 with the Kondo step up. Anyway, sound comes out. Within five seconds, Ive died and gone to heaven. What gives? I think at that point we were onto Beethoven's Opus 74 The Harp Quartet. Quartetto Italiano on Phillips. We go into the music. I try to surface for sound but fail miserably so when we talk, we talk music instead. The only thing I remember is feeling that this is the first time I've heard reproduced massed strings sound in any sense musically convincing, meaningful and emotionally powerful. Another first. Fifteen minutes ago, I would have said the only way to even begin to do that is to mike up each instrument to their own amp and speaker.
|Next, I'm whisked off to a Shostakovich concert. An amazing Execution of Stepan Razin, with a dark brooding baritone faintly reminiscent of Boyars and orthodox anti-strophes. I didn't know the story but I'm off to buy the record. Then we get some Jazz. Art Pepper I think. And some rock. Each time, the system does a complete transformation. The classical one was built only for classical. The jazz built to work very specifically and exclusively for Jazz. And so for rock. Plays hard. No quarter. Never heard anything like it. Palpable textures an order of magnitude greater than I've come across. It's like having the ultimate deep soul understanding of a musician's gift. Complete, utter, living Zen.
Kevin decides to move the arm and cartridge over to a Kuzma. Just one of the baby ones. Things open up even further. And then he kicks in the battery power supply. I've hit a trance state at this point. We get Fink's Fresh Produce. Burnt Freidman's Just Landed. Don Cherry and E Blackwell's El Corazon on ECM. It just gets better and better. And then Art Pepper's Smack Up on Contemporary Cop 031. Now I thought I knew Art, but it was like hearing him for the first time and my body went into this tingling thing like lightning was having its way in my veins.
The rest? I can't remember. Brain gaskets blown at this point. We had lots of fun. I left seven hours later for a long drive home among stinging raindrops and oncoming traffic flaring their lights across my bug-blurred windscreen but the truth is, I'm not the same person. In a few hours, I've effing grown a beard and changed accent. Yes, everything's changed. The whole damned world has puppy-flipped upside down. My old beloved priorities: kebabbed. I'm like the schooner suddenly realizing it's on the wrong side of the world, or a tanker trying to turn on its dime. Okay, the good side is that now, at last, I've finally heard where I'd like to get to. Yes, it is a very high mountain to crawl up on hands and bleeding knees but at least it won't be the old experience of stabbing 'round in the dark.
I went up this month because this biamping Gakuohs lark was just something Kevin was playing with and that particular bit of obsessive craziness was soon going to disappear again into the blurs of myth. But there is good news here. He's decided it's too good to miss out on so he's going to buy another pair for Definitive and keep the biamped system up as a permanent demonstrator. Can you believe that? Which means of course you don't have to take my breathless twaddle as gospel. Instead, you can hop on a plane, or a car, train, coach, donkey or unicycle for all I care and get yourself to Nottingham. It will be worth it, no matter if you've crossed an international date line to get there. For the first time in my life I feel this is a system genuinely breaking new ground (usually it's just breathless reviewers catching up with what some audiophiles have known for ages).
Think about it: the speakers have been designed using this amplification. And because the system makes everything so audible, it's a lot easier to hear things rather than make "edge of the psychoacoustic guess choices" which is what so many designers have to put up with. Bi-amping with Gakuos does really take the system to a completely another level. And the battery power supply? I was sort of expecting to be stabbing around having a guess when it was on. My experiences with battery power to date have been a little less than stellar and my hearing -- or more precisely, aural acuity -- has never been good for much. Well, if you run everything of a massive, carefully designed battery system that puts out a perfect sine wave, its not just that you can hear it, you really really hear it. No, it's not an essential part of this system (in the sense that you still get an incredible sound without it), but it's the kind of audible that doesn't need to be talked up. Anybody who hears it will move it way towards the top of their wish list. Everyone who feels they've built a mature system should hear this supply. It's going to retail at around £10,000 plus VAT and nominal installation fee and it's just about to go into production. Put it this way. I'd been expecting it to be good for people with bad mains power supplies and not something I'd need. Now I've started measuring spaces in the back room.
An overall assessment of the day? I've heard some great systems in my life, the kind that make really beautiful music. I have one like that. So when I get back home, when I finally get the guts to turn it on, what does mine sound like? Good. Really good. Excellent. Like a kid hitting a trash lid with a wooden stick. Stick with it, kid. You might learn something. Mine, like every other great system I've heard, sounds -- how can I put this -- just entry level in comparison, high street riff-raff. That's a hard thing to say but it's what I feel right now.
Is there anything I can salvage with the slightest shred of dignity? Well, the I0-J now becomes the best cartridge I've heard and I'll be desperately hoping to get hold of one. Without individual comparisons, it's tough to call these things. I'd say the Finish is likely to win a place on a second arm with that system. But I don't see big problems with my analog setup. On the other hand, the Tom Evans has for the first time been asked very very serious questions. 'til yesterday, I would have put my hand in the fire that you needed it along with the Allaerts to take your vinyl to its current limits. Yes, I agreed, it was a touch thin but you need that kind of speed to get to the heart of things. So until yesterday, I leaned towards the "you need an active stage" rather than a step up to get the best from vinyl. Given the Allaerts was so good -- and it looks very much like it needs active -- my recipe for the ultimate vinyl experience had been the Groove Plus (with the Connoisseur and Isenburg phonostages as looming wonderships on the distant and beckoning horizon). Right now, my guess is that the Io-J with the Kondo step up and M77 walks it easy. Hopefully I'll get the step up and Io-J in to really find out.
Definitive Audio website