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The phone rang. It was 21:40. "Hiya Nino." As a jeweler with a downtown Vevey boutique, our friend Nino Medina has participated with a lakeside stand at the Montreux Jazz Festival for decades. Did we want tickets to Andreas Vollenweider now? He could get us two at the door. They were usually from CHF 80.- to 200.- but a guy flogged two for just 40.- the set. When did the concert start? 22:00. Done. Grabbing the free bus which shuttles the lake front between Villeneuve and Vevey every 15 minutes during summer evening concert hours, it happened to leave our end stop as we approached. The driver kindly waited. We pressed plenty of flesh before reaching Nino's exhibit through the slowly meandering hordes of boardwalk revelers next to the mini golf course. We grabbed his scalped tickets, duly got out wrists slapped with the obligatory hospital-style band well past the entry to Miles Davis hall, doubled back and now properly admitted dove inside through the open doors. We actually found two seats whilst reams of standers already packed the wings like sardines. Then the French announcer introduced Andreas Vollenweider two minutes after we'd settled in. Synchronicity, sweat and no tears. Time to chill and thrill. Gracias Nino!

As usual the stage had been booked for a twofer. Richard Bona & Raul Midon had played the first set from 20:00 to 22:00. Vollenweider's troupe didn't actually come out until 22:30. This had made our impromptu rush perfectly on time. And our seats were right off center in the third-last row. This gave me a clear line of sight into the sound engineer's booth with its large real-time SPL meter. More on that anon.

Nino Medina at his Montreux Jazz Festival booth

This concert was one of the very best I've ever attended. Superb! It also was Vollenweider's 30th anniversary. As a still very risky harp + four percussionists experiment, he'd first played Montreux in 1981. By 1996 when he returned, his electrified harp—first catalogued as New Age, then Contemporary Adult and now probably World Beat—had become instantly recognizable and chart-topping. With 15.000.000 albums sold, numerous Grammy nominations and global fame as the perhaps most successful Swiss musician, 2011 was a well-deserved retrospective. The programme overviewed a rich and prolific career. A few bars in, the audience greeted nearly each composition with a warm applause of recognition.

For me too it was an anniversary of sorts, a 33rd in this venue. At 16 I had played here Bruckner's 4th Symphony as a member of Germany's BJO or Bundesjugend Orchester. My only memory now of the locale then is actually the giant lake fountain of Geneva. There our summer vacation troupe which had been shuttle-bussed down from Germany's rehearsal facilities had boarded the long ferry to Montreux. On a spectacular summer day we had crossed the length of Europe's largest lake which is so gloriously surrounded by snow-capped mountains on the Eastern end of Montreux/Villeneuve.

At FNAC Lausanne I'd recently seen and then acquired Claudio Abbado's concert DVD of Mahler's 9th Symphony with his orchestra of soloists from the 2010 Lucerne Festival. I'd recognized on 1st and 2nd clarinet Sabine Meyer and Rainer Wehle, on solo trumpet Reinhold Friedrich who'd been part of the BJO during our Bruckner programme.

Had you told me then that one day I'd live a mere 10-minute bus ride from Montreux not as a classical clarinetist but publisher of a popular audiophile Internet magazine—there was no Internet then, I didn't know the word 'audiophile' and my English was passable at best—I'd have called you insane. Never mind my 20+ intervening years in America, three in Cyprus and all the rest. Watching the cherubically chubby Andreas Vollenweider take his seat now at far stage right behind his harp, keyboardist to his left against the light wall, two percussionists with giant drum sets separated by translucent walls adjacent, guitarist upfront to the far left, woodwind to his right, center stage empty for various surprise guests, these memories flashed. There also was brief wonder. What might my life have been like had I not gone Indian ashram shortly after my 18th birthday? But then the live concert took over to bring me into the hear it now.

It was truly fabulous. Andreas brought out Richard Bona and the blind Raul Midon for a stunning improv session halfway through. Other guest artists were a trio of South-African acapella singers who sounded far more than just three and past their solo act contributed all manner of vocalized jungle sounds. Vollenweider's London producer who usually never takes to stage later guested on guitar with a dread-locked Caribbean vocalist dressed in all white. His honey-drenched Reggae-inflected delivery reviewed a track from Vollenweider's otherwise instrumental new studio album announced for next year.

This gets us to audiophilia vs. live. Remember that SPL meter? Background din between tracks was never lower than 55dB. Mostly it held steady at 63dB. Whenever I looked, the jamming band at about 12 meters from the stage clocked between 85 and 92dB, never higher. That made for maximally 30dB of dynamic range. Ha! Juxtapose that to the 144dB S/N claims audiophiles stress over with D/A converters. Bollocks. Juxtapose that with amplifier power claims that to produce realistic SPLs requires a kilowatt or more. Poppycock. Invoking audiophile realism would seem to be about all the wrong things. (Of course one could have deliberately sat front row for SPL four-or-more times louder. I pass, thank you very much.)

Based on this and other concerts this year, claims from the hornspeaker brigades that dynamics are the key differentiator between live and canned would seem exaggerated to me. Tone density associated with dominance of reflected over direct sound was quite senior in magnitude. Hifi's clear boobie prizes are pin-point imaging, razor-sharp image outlines and depth layering. Those simply don't factor on stage, period. That's not bad though. Without the assist of eye sight on the playback of music, one can benefit from and enjoy exaggerated visual cues as a function of hifi artifice. Just don't call it realistic. To be blunt, when people talk of hifi realism, they mostly talk wind on a number of factors. At 5.5 x 12 meters for example, my room already is bigger than many. It still would have been far too narrow to physically house more than the two drummers with their colossal arsenals of weaponry.

My neighbor would have to host Andreas, his keyboardist and the human beat box performer to even approximate original stage width. By the time we get to the symphonic scores those —cough—most 'serious' audiophiles love to flog as evidence for their realism, such discrepancy gets more grotesque still. It's really best to make peace. For most of us, realistic scale and impact are impossible. Anyone who says otherwise whilst occupying a normal-sized room is delusional. Then there are those who'd reference unamplified music as the only allowable standard. Hello? This concert was amplified and masterfully so.

Because of it the balance between instruments as disparate as harp, baritone sax, electric guitar, didgeridoo, tin whistle, drums and vocalists was perfect. The output of each was cannily matched to the auditorium. Without amplification the drummers would have drowned out the harp. This kicks the legs right out from under certain absolute sound precepts. Returning to hifi systems, live music has more bass and less treble; a lot less detail definition and separation; and far superior meatiness, density and warmth. By implication, hifi lacks and lags behind worst in harmonic richness and fullness of tone. Live instruments are also louder than we tend to play them back. And they mostly play larger venues than our own while being recorded. I could drive you out of your room crying Uncle with my unamplified clarinet's upper registers. Promise.

Rather than replicate the original event—impossible on raw real estate except for acoustic duos perhaps and impossible period by reducing the original participation of five senses down to just the ears—the best a hifi can hope for (if we even involve any connection to live concerts) is an emotionally charged response. As eroticism shows, imagination plays a huge part. Imaginary factors need to have very little overlap with objective reality to generate very powerful subjective reactions. If you want to be emotionally triggered by a hifi, whatever works up your imagination to create that response is good and right. Whatever limits or prevents you is bad and wrong. All the wisdom of audiophile sexuality boils down to this. If you're hot you're hot. If you're not you're not. That's it. Sex without love tends to require more athletics to satisfy. If you want to keep things simple and uncomplicated in audio sex, figure out what your equivalent for love is.

Sonically—related to just the ears and thus not automatically an emotional response—if I wished to approximate Vollenweider's live concert in my system, I'd focus first and foremost on maximally saturated rich tone. Here tube amps have the advantage. Even their lesser separation as derived from greater warmth and their higher noise floors is actually more realistic. On digital the cheap R/2R Metrum Acoustics NOS Mini DAC Octave followed by Burson Audio's HA160D trounce other comers and their flashier specs. Forget panoramic scale and magnitude though. My room is a shoebox compared to the area the Miles Davis hall had allocated to Vollenweider & Friends. And I listen by myself, not surrounded by an audience with my wife next to me. Everything is very different. Why expect the same outcome? [Richard Bona at right.]

Even if achieved, sonic verisimilitude need not equate to any heightened emotional response. Too much else is missing. But it might come close if you compensate strategically. You just must learn what works for you. This might change over time. All you can do is pursue your current trigger points without regard for conventions. For inspiration, read David Kan's recent tome on Polking fun at DIY speakers.

Assembling a personal hifi to deliberately manipulate our senses into a satisfying experience is a personal endeavor. It's not for the "Ask Dr. Ruth" crowd. It's not about answers from experts. It's for those who understand the subjectivity behind it. It's for those who appreciate that it's about nothing less (or more) than pleasing yourself. Doing so involves a steeper learning curve than cuffing the bishop or polishing the ruby.

But that should derail no one - except those too lazy to embark on their very own journey of discovery or those too cheap to spend money on various dead ends. Sorry but audiophilia's voyage of self discovery entails a lesson plan. If you want to actually graduate and do the work, that's tied to expenditures. If all you want is an attendance record—I came, I read the reviews, I bought what they recommended—you might... er, get off cheaper but never really hit the jack pot.

Attending concerts is a good reminder. Any concomitant disappointment with your hifi should be embraced as another lesson rather than failure. Understanding what's possible versus what's delusional should shorten your journey. Keep live/playback separate. They are two different experiences. Each has its own rules and rewards. Remain mindful of what the above implies about whiners, wankers, reviewers and those who read them and why. Our kind can contribute data points but we cannot interpret their relevance to you. That takes self knowledge. And to arrive at self knowledge takes experimentation, curiosity, commitment, involvement and investment. All these are things only you can—and must—do if what you're really after is complete and utter satisfaction with your hifi.