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It has previously seemed to me that there are two distinct high end paradigms. The first is purely audiophile hifi, which involves throwing a convincingly deep and wide soundstage, with instruments appearing in the room; fast dynamics and coherence across the audible spectrum; and room-filling scale to boot. It's a reasonably tall order but it is realisable without too much difficulty and if well-chosen second hand components are used, it doesn't have to be expensive. This could almost be called the listening to hifi school. Not without enjoyment.
The second high end paradigm instead focuses on the quality of the musical experience aiming to capture the artistic content of the recorded musical performance. It may have to do this by losing some bandwidth or some clarity or some dynamics - as long as the musical intelligibility is preserved.
Now however, with my KSL Kondo/Living Voice system, I have stumbled into a completely different world from the two examples described above. One that I believe is entirely distinct and otherworldly. Yes, it ticks all of the hifi boxes; it goes high, it goes low, it's stable during complex passages, the sound is big, it has depth, there is dynamic range and scale and so the list goes on. It's got the lot. On any of these counts, the KSL/LV system is simply better but what makes it transcendent is that when all of these performance parameters are blessed to this same exalted standard, then the hifi truly removes itself and you cross the Rubicon into a world of naked musical performance. I had no idea it was quite so beautiful.
How has this third way been achieved? It seems that this is the result of being maniacally focussed, of having a soul and brilliant ear, great discernment and confidence. A good number of people like this become designers. While there are lots of good products at the lower end of the market, ironically it seems to me that systems which deliver the real musical goods are rare indeed when the prices shoot up into the stratosphere. Audio jewelry rules here partly because there are a lot of people who want the best but have no idea what it is. They are inevitably attracted like moths to a flame to fancy casework. However, this approach is of little interest to those who really care about music.
With the M77 a few things are obvious right away. Firstly, it doesn't have a sonic signature as the term is usually understood. It doesn't interpret, shape, sweeten or round the signal. It does however have two telling characteristics that in some way flow from the same source. The first is an incredible inner energy. Most audio systems sound like the reproduction of an event; as if light was being bounced off something and what we see is the reflection. With the M77, the energy of the sound seems to materialize as if the light was emerging from the centre of the note itself. We aren't seeing a reflection but the creation of a sound. It takes a signal and it brings it forth into reality. This is a fundamentally different way of making music and it is telling right away. It's one of the things that stops me short every time I turn it on. And I suspect that its somewhere in this domain that the M77s emotional magic takes place. The second thing that's immediately striking is the way the M77 deals with tone. It is simply more subtle and realistic than I have ever heard before. The live sound has a vibrancy and texture that I have only ever heard when playing the M77 into Living Voice OBX-RWs.
Many audio systems excel at simple music but fall flat the moment things get complicated. How many systems almost wean the listener to a diet of basic audiophile-approved nonsense music because that's the only time they sound impressive? I know I've had periods of that. It happens almost unconsciously. Not so with the M77. It's incredibly liberating, a tour de force really. The harder the music, the better it does.
Massed strings are magnificent, it seems to thrive on complex counterpoint and huge orchestral swells. The inner energy means that it simply doesn't get things wrong. Every instrument is placed in an accurate point in space or rather, in a musically meaningful time and place within the rest of the orchestra.
More prosaically from a strictly reviewing point of view, the M77 has an uncanny way of telling you precisely what every other piece in the chain is doing. This is bliss for those like myself who have to describe sounds in words. "How is this power cord affecting things?" Now I can hear without doubts about psychoacoustics - differences become obvious, easily audible and describable. This valve or that cartridge or different microphone techniques - it all gets spectacularly easy. One thing it won't do (thank god) is make bad components sound good. No, it will tell you right away and having heard it in various contexts in my system as well as others, I'm more than comfortable with saying that if you hear an M77 sounding bad or indifferent, better look elsewhere in the chain. As Srajan heard in Hong Kong, the 6x4 rectifier wants to be changed on a regular basis as in this topology, it is worked quite hard. Obviously and with all valve amplifiers, if the valves get tired the component will sound listless and lacking in energy. For an M77 in regular use, consider changing this rectifier twice a year. The 6072a valves will last a very long time, however.
But what is of much greater significance to me than all of this is that the KSL Kondo M77 is a superlative maker of music. Music is not just a combination of sounds, it is an expression of an artistic vision, something to participate in and be moved by. We can talk about the special aspects of 'the sound' for days on end but we will have missed the point completely. I'm more and more uneasy about discussing such specifics as it risks focusing down the wrong end of the telescope: width, depth, bandwidth - what's happening? Yes these things do matter but the questions we should be asking are, how is this music affecting me, why am I being moved? Or, why am I not being moved? We can be profoundly moved or overwhelmed by a new piece of music we've heard while stuck in a jam on the car radio and then we hear the same piece on a super rig and we can be left scratching our heads. Why is that? How much of it has to do with expectation, or with a demand for a musical rush rather than meeting the performance where it needs to be met and on its own terms?
I'm not suggesting for a second that the M77 will turn banal melodies into masterpieces or that every piece of music I put on it has a Götterdämmerung-like significance. But there is no question about it, I have been changed by this box. My relationship to music is shifting and the experiences I feel I've been through because of it are considerably more profound and meaningful. And they happen much more often. Why that is I'm still not sure but I do know it's not due to non-musical factors such as pride of ownership, rarity or anything like that. It is to do with the way it gives music.
Taking a break from writing, I sit back and listen to the Gloria. I'm not synaesthetic but I do now experience tone in terms of color and I'm more than conscious that this is not an effect I get live at concerts. Which started me thinking. At a concert I'm going for an experience and part of that is physically being there. More senses than hearing are involved when sitting or standing next to others, picking up their vibes, watching the spectacle, inhaling the smells and the ambience. When I am at home in my listening room, I'm usually completely involved in the direct aural/internal thing, just soaking up the music. So it's not surprising I can be more of a pure music receptor at home and pick up aspects of musical experiences even more profoundly than at live events. Sure - Vivaldi's Gloria in Santa Cecilia in Rome was entirely unforgettable. Sacred music in its actual context is quite something. But at the moment I'm close to preferring my home sound to a concert at the Barbican, say. And for the first time I'm finding that the home experience can be even more rewarding and profound than a live concert can be. It's something to do with being completely relaxed and 'disembodied', being able to become just a being reacting to music and nothing else. The experience is extraordinary. But substitute the M77 for what I had previously thought of as a stunning preamp and I lose that aspect of things. Gone is the emotional and spiritual intensity of the experience. We are back to a pale copy.
What about Nina Simone's After Hours? It's late now, it's been dark a long time and the sound is barely above a whisper but when on "Wild is the Wind" she sings "but when you kiss me my life begins' - whoa, the hairs go up on the back of my neck. Her sense of utter longing, of unobtainable devotion and loss and some unnameable tragedy is somehow so shocking and profound and incredibly moving. It's like she's living some ultimate love beyond what is imaginable. It really is poetry.
As a reviewer, I really want to avoid pissing on other people's parades. Respecting different needs and budgets and sonic priorities is a good place to start. But at the same time, this sometimes clashes with the important requirement for a reviewer/music lover to be as clear as possible about what they like, which also means sometimes explaining what personally doesn't work for them. For example, there's a kind of sound that doesn't work well with me. It's big, it's bold and above all, it's painted in a few bright primary colors like those in a children's playground. So at first it might sound really attractive and clear as opposed to transparent. It's like the way fashion models are made up to be photographed. When the picture comes out, the contrasts are emphasized so the model has no nose, high cheek bones and arabesque eyebrows. Looks great. Except that's in the photo. If you're standing by the camera. it looks like a Noh mask. And the point is, all the subtlety of the human face has been lost. The character. They all look much alike. The subtle chiaroscuros of musculature and expression are lost under a cake of makeup. It's the same with this kind of sound. Everything comes over as simple, over-contrasted and 'clear' although lacking in significant harmonics. This kind of sound is actually really well suited for the sound you want at a nightclub. It's physical, it whacks you around and it thrives on processed compression. But soon I suspect most music lovers would find it tiring, obvious and banal. It's from the school of fast food and instant gratification.
The only reason for mentioning this is that the M77 is the polar opposite of this kind of sound. It's not that it can't whack you around but that it will only do so with that type of processed music. It will also sound simple and clear and bold. But if the face isn't wearing a ton of makeup, you'll find a far more beautiful person before you. You'll find a sound where all the intimate delicacies come forward and give you a much greater understanding of the person. You will find simply superb gradations of chiaroscuro; the infinite varieties of sun and natural light as opposed to the artificial high key tones of the studio.
Lets go back to emotions. Take Neil Young's "Ohio". On a car radio, it will usually come across as a nice song for the MOR stations but give it to the M77 and an altogether different experience emerges. From the urgent and insistent introductory guitar notes, the pent-up anger, the sorrow, the denunciation and the need to do something are way out in the open. "Four dead in O-hi-o". It's that emphasis and insistence on the name of the State with each vowel given a beat that makes the purity of anger and outrage so potent. The point here is that through the M77, you cannot ignore this part of the song. Hell, that song had a huge impact and was played mostly on people's Dancettes. But there's a big difference now, like looking at a Caravaggio or the Sistine Chapel in a picture book or looking at the actual thing. The scale and emotional impact of the real experience is incomparable. With the M77, it's like you are suddenly sitting in a Chicago park with flares and flowers in your hair watching the police charge. I remember it clearly even though I was eleven and on another continent. And by the way, this is at low volume. Put it up and you walk away shattered. It will change your day for sure.
If you want to choose any particular audiophile criteria, you can tick all the boxes and anything else (with the exception of the M1000) will struggle to keep up. But as I write these words, I'm conscious that in doing so I'm completely missing the point. I can almost hear that box saying "please, that is not important. If you want to describe me, try again." The last time I was up at Definitive Audio, I was saying something and Kevin Scott suddenly said, "You've changed, Edward". Of course I sort of coughed and denied it in the way one does when caught off guard but inside something was saying "abso-bloodly-lutely I have". And so it is. In non-trivial ways. Music is an important part of my life and the way I experience it. By extension, the way I experience other aspects of life has changed too. What I've found with the M77 is that it quietly allows for, and encourages, a focussing of my inner energy much more deeply into the core of what the artist is trying to communicate. Each musical experience is far more profound and satisfying.
The only analogy I can think of right now goes back again to that essence of Japanese culture, the tea ceremony. In England we drink tons and tons of tea and usually just slurp it in our favorite cup and off we go. It's a perfectly sacred thing in its slash/bang secular way but think of the Japanese experience.
|Their tea ceremony involves a complex ritual and a spiritual process of unfolding. Each item is placed in a particular place that is proportionate to the others and both that relationship and the way in which its placed creates an energy field, a way of calming and focusing what is inside us. The off-center centrality of the bowl, the material and the way the bowl is made, its texture and touch all take on significance and trigger associations and memories. A deep sensual perception and Zen-like focus. It's no surprise that this ritual takes years to learn and is part of Zen Buddhism. The tea ceremony is an intentionally transformative practice. It has its own aesthetic which is characterized by "humility, restraint, simplicity, naturalism, profundity, imperfection, and emphasizes simple, unadorned objects and architectural space. In doing so it celebrates the mellow beauty that time and care impart to materials". It culminates in|
|ideas like "...when tea is made with water drawn from the depths of the mind whose bottom is beyond measure, then that is what is called the tea ceremony..." as Toyotomi Hideyoshi put it.
I can think of no better analogy for the way the M77 operates. It seems to allow some of those same spaces and inner energies to connect with the music and at the same time organizes the emotional flow of the musical experience so they seem to reach more deeply. How does it affect me? I've found I relax more deeply and bits of me I didn't even know existed are now coming out into the open and are ready to become an almost active participant in the musical experience as it is unfolding. It's something about being focused and at the same time relaxed into each note or phrase, almost as I imagine meditation could be. I hunger less and am paradoxically far more satisfied. The only reason I can imagine this is happening must be because the M77 is focusing the various energies in the musical piece in ways that somehow make more emotional sense and reach deeper inside me.
Truth be told, the KSL M77 hasn't just changed me, it seems to have altered the way I approach the study/listening room. I used to resent the slight hum of traffic and other city noises that can occasionally come through the window but now as I enter, I hear the room's silence in a different way. The noises seem to set off how the room itself has more peace than before. Its difficult to describe exactly but the room is certainly a more pleasant and intelligent place to be than it was previously. It's almost as though it's filled with the residue of a great sound.
At the time of my first visit to Living Voice, it was obvious that the conventional language reviewers use was going to be inadequate to communicate what I was hearing. I was worried about how to approach it. Soundstage, timbre and dynamics are still involved but they fail to get to the essence. Over time, however, what actually happened was that the M77 taught me to listen in a different way.
|It doesn't make sense to listen to a Kondo piece using the techniques we have all developed so far. Relax, listen to the musical performance and you begin to notice the way the energy fields in the music are the essence of each performer's art. You can almost see an abstract version of this as the energy of each instrument swells and falls in pulses flowing past us. To me, these energy fields are the essence of music itself. It's the difference between a musical performance full of expression and profound emotions as opposed to one copied or done by rote.
|Think about it - you won't capture the essence of what makes a great musical performance if you break it down into its audiophile components. But if one relaxes and brings to the center of spirit those energy fields, then we are able to become participants in the essence of the musical experience. Of course, if what you want is just to sit back and be absolutely blown away by the quality of sound, that is going to happen, too. Sonically the M77 is so good that you can appreciate is superlative qualities even if you're riding on an open bus in a force ten gale. But if you want more, if you want to get into the deepest part of what makes music so powerful and moving, then ultimately, that is what the M77 is all about.
By the way, my skipper friend and his mate? They were fine. Shoes and trousers torn off and just a few bruises....
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