Srajan Ebaen
Financial interests: click here
Sources: 27" iMac with 5K Retina display, 4GHz quad-core engine with 4.4GHz turbo boost, 3TB Fusion Drive, 16GB SDRAM, OSX Yosemite, PureMusic 3.01, Tidal & Qobuz lossless streaming, COS Engineering D1 & H1, AURALiC Vega, Aqua Hifi Formula, Fore Audio DAISy 1, Apple iPod Classic 160GB (AIFF), Astell& Kern AK100 modified by Red Wine Audio, Cambridge Audio iD100, Pro-Ject Dock Box S Digital, Pure i20, Questyle QP1R]
Preamplifier: Nagra Jazz, Vinnie Rossi LIO (AVC module), COS Engineering D1, Wyred4Sound STP-SE Stage II
Power & integrated amplifiers: Pass Labs XA30.8; FirstWatt SIT1, F5, F6, F7; Crayon Audio CFA-1.2; Goldmund Job 225; Aura Note Premier; Wyred4Sound mINT; Nord Acoustics One SE Up NC500MB monos; Linnenberg Allego monos
Loudspeakers: Albedo Audio Aptica; EnigmAcoustics Mythology 1; soundkaos Wave 40; Boenicke Audio W5se; Zu Audio Druid V & Submission; German Physiks HRS-120; Eversound Essence
Cables: Complete loom of Zu Event; Ocellia OCC loom: KingRex uArt, Zu and LightHarmonic LightSpeed double-header USB cables; Tombo Trøn S/PDIF; van den Hul AES/EBU; AudioQuest Diamond glass-fibre Toslink; Black Cat Cable redlevel Lupo
Power delivery: Vibex Granada/Alhambra and Three 11R
Equipment rack: Artesania Audio Exoteryc double-wide 3-tier with optional glass shelves, Exoteryc Krion and glass amp stands [on loan]
Sundry accessories: Acoustic System resonators
Room: Rectangular 5.5 x 15m open floor plan with two-storey gabled ceiling, wood-sleeved steel trusses and stone-over-concrete flooring

The emailer was Tony Minassian. He's not of TV's fictitious Ray Donovan clan—patriarch at right—hence very much alive. He is of the very real Tonian Labs on the left coast in California's Burbank [info @ tonianlabs.com]. "We finally released our first CD. On it play two of the best most well-known drummers of LA who also perform for Sheffield Labs. Here's the link to one of the tracks. Also, there are some comments on Audiogon. Here's the link for that. I'd like to send you a copy but don't think I have your address." He didn't but that was quickly sorted.

Now, purist recordings can be thrilling sonic spectaculars even where artistically, they don't attain commensurate calibre. Think of mediocre meals served up by a white-gloved butler. He uses the rarest china with solid silver cutlery and crystal glass ware. What's on the plate even looks terrific. It's once you dig in that things don't add up. To my ears, Waterlily Acoustics and M.A. Recordings are routinely guilty of it. Their efforts can lack that vital musical chemistry with the very serious musical calories despite unassailable recording quality. Those would be incidents where audiophile focus on sound dominates a music lover's fine sensibility about true artistic substance. Here Tony's Audiogon comments promised superlative sonics. But the show demo cut made me wonder about the meal itself. As always, the proof would be in the eating. Comp copy ahoy.

Plated up: service! The title Drums & Bells with the "comparing sticks" subtitle maps out the boundaries of today's playground. It's sixty-four minutes of solo or twinned percussive workouts. Save for experienced drummers, the rest of us outsiders will still wonder about certain timbres and what created them, track titles be damned. After all, what's a glass vase sound like in your imagination? Whilst the track titles are pointers, there's a lot more going on. With up to 50dB (!) of dynamic range, Tony's album which he recorded and mixed live is the antithesis of compressed sadness. Call it dynamically liberated joy, with stuff happening 60dB below the 0 surface. Decays can't help but go on forever. And with transient fidelity the currency in which percussion trades, here it trades at a premium. Naturally, just how much instantaneous finesse gets harvested depends on your system. How confused is its impulse response, how shifted its phase? Our discrete R2R converter, 1MHz amps with single Mosfets per phase and widebanders augmented by premium compression tweeters excel where speed is king and the steepest rise times resolve the most immediacy. Ditto HifiMan's Susvara headphone run off Bakoon's AMP-12R. What could be more immediate than immediate, you ask? Spin up Drums & Bells and find out.

Obviously there's no real melody here nor are there typical harmonies. Still, ever since Africa's pitch-shifting talking drums, many listeners have become comfortable with purely percussive exploits, be those by trance drummers from Ghana, djembe quartets from Anatolia or polyrhythmic fireworks from Indian maestros like Alla Rakha or Zakir Hussain. Where Dutz/Wabich go beyond is in the sheer breadth of their timbres as tickled with those deliberate stick changes. Eskimos and Saami are said to have twenty different words for snow. Here our ears are being trained that drum sticks and hittable objects come in far more shapes, sizes and colours than we suspected. Thankfully we're not expected to expand our verbal vocabulary accordingly. Otherwise we'd be hard pressed to describe it all and draw up twenty words each for rattling, jangling, buzzing and so forth. That'll be my excuse, too. Phew.

Back to primitive audiophile lingo (of lifted veils, dropped jaws and other stuff sounding broken by contrast), pile it on. Only blind faith in the hi-rez movement should be shocked that a plain 16/44.1 CD could give it such a stiff middle finger. But really, it's not the format or bandwidth-burning sample rate. It's all in the care of execution. Here that's very high. That means unusually specific image sizing, cracks and snaps with life-like startle factor, visibly bouncing, running and spattering marbles and much more. Foremost, it's the dissolution of the 'barrier' which usually remains between music and listener when it's playback and not live in a good seat in a good venue. Will you end up listening to it primarily for the effectiveness of its unplugged sound effects or the musical story telling they're in service of? I wouldn't know. Here it doesn't really seem to matter. You can enjoy Drums & Bells as a reference recording to show off your personal hardware; or go walkabout in twenty different rhythmic panoramas which are filled with talking sounds beyond just drums...

Tonian Labs website