Made up

"For me 2022 must start with a revised website and new email because what I have became a nightmare. That's why I inform you of my plans now. In 2021 my most interesting development was the big system of Silver Single Mono amplifiers, Silver Control DAC/pre and Vintage Ribbon loudspeaker. To me it was groundbreaking not just sonically but conceptually. It sums up 25 years of Ancient Audio. So it was shocking that its sound was viewed completely different by beginners and experienced listeners alike. Friends of our Kraków Sonic Society were disappointed. Janusz closed his ears moaning 'tragedy'. Meanwhile the second group listened to every record with open jaws and eyes close. Here is their opinion. I never experienced reactions this opposing. I talked with Pitor Ryka about it. He's editor of HifiPhilosophy. He's not just an experienced audiophile and reviewer but philosophy professor. Chatting with him is always lively. I think the two of you should meet. Piotr summed it all up with "high-end is like squeezing bread from a tube. Everything is smooth, predictable and effortless".

"In his opinion my system isn't high-end. It shows real live music so also plays loud harsh noise. But only truth moves his soul. I tried to condense my impressions and recall that at 14, I wanted to see all women naked. So in Berlin I went to the nude beach. There I saw the truth of the human body but had to admit that I prefer a mature elegantly dressed woman with good makeup. High-end is like that."

That was Jarek Waszczyszyn of Poland's Ancient Audio and Fram brands. His anecdote is a live spark to charge up commentators everywhere. Light match. Then wait.

"High-end sound typically isn't the sound of amplified live music. It's more polished. Its clients usually don't pursue raw and intensely direct either. They might prefer the mid-hall or balcony-row perspective. That's probably also because the only people who can afford the extreme high-end stuff are older. Not a lot of 30-year old buyers have the requisite expendable income. They're still invested in home and family and getting kids through school and university. The tastes of older men mellow, their adrenaline and sperm count lowers, their listening habits reflect that. It's normal. There aren't so many old punk rockers with decent hearing. Most blew out their ears in the arenas. PA sound and raunchy live music is more the domain of younger folks who recognize themselves in JBL, Klipsch and Zu speakers."

My off-the-cuff reply to Jarek already touched upon a keynote. The music we listen to and SPL we dial up have a direct bearing on what we expect from our systems. I remember a James Carter concert in Lausanne's casino. It was painfully loud. I couldn't grasp the apparent audience indifference to such sound pressures. They stayed, we fled. Ibrahim Maalouf on Lac Leman too got loud but not obnoxiously so. Andreas Vollenweider's band at the Montreux Jazz Festival never eclipsed 93dB peaks in the row behind the control booth whose SPL meter I tracked. Jai Uttal at Berkeley's Yoshi's was just right as was Dhafer Youssef in Vevey, Lila Downs in Geneva and Natasha Atlas at an outdoor festival in a tent. The many unplugged Indian performances we heard in various Bay Area churches and later around Lausanne for the annual Diwali Festival were all high-end approved.

Growing up around classical music while practicing clarinet from the age of six all the way up to the conservatory, my own playback proclivities are predominantly acoustic, with an innate emphasis on instrumentals over vocals. To this day I've not learnt to embrace the shrill screech of an overdrive e-guitar, the abstractions of advanced Jazz or the screaming noise of heavy metal. Where such music connects others to treasured childhood or adolescent memories, my earlier memories and experiences link to exclusively classical chamber and symphonic music. I only discovered popular music in my early 30s, then instantly gravitated to contemporary World Music. It's easy to see how being shaped by those musical forms through the lens of rigorous classical training formulates hifi goals that must diverge from someone who grew up around Rock, Punk, Metal, Psychedelia and Rap then builds a system to resurrect such memories.

As long as high-end sound remains philosophically tied to Harry Pearson's Abso!ute Sound—of unamplified classical concert sound—people whose live experiences instead collected in arenas and clubs won't feel catered to. That's John Darko's problem and why he writes for a different audience. There is no absolute sound. It's a faulty concept. From tonal balance to bass textures to image size to overall density, PA-delivered and unplugged sound express contrary gestalts, dynamic range and SPL. Chosen venue and seat within it are secondary qualifiers. Narrower listening tastes will tune a system accordingly. Nearly invariably 'forbidden' music or unusual SPL reveal shortcomings. Someone who proceeds from opera to Heavy Metal back to the Kronos Quartet then Marcus Miller funk in a single session needs a system that really does it all.

How many can? Why should they in the first place? If we don't hit the drag strip, a safe and comfortable car is far more appropriate to our needs. If we go off-road, a Jeep might be the thing.

Problems only crop up when our language carries judgment because truth splinters into fragments we mistake for the whole. A live string quartet is as true and real as a Judas Priest concert. They just don't have much in common sonically or in their audiences. If a JP lover calls the string quartet bread squeezed through a tube, it's no less judgmental than when the Beethoven lover insists that Judas Priest isn't music but ugly noise. The same goes for Diana Krall vs. The Rolling Stones. Claiming to be in possession of the truth which excludes anything can't be truth, the whole truth and nothing but, can it? Having preferences and limits on personal taste is normal. Once recognized and articulated, we can simply stop imposing them on others.

Now the absolute sound becomes my ideal sound and the automatic next question is: what's yours? 

Glad to meet ya?

Even if we're really not, wouldn't it be more mature and balanced to just say "that's actually not for me" rather than "that's wrong" or "you're not even playing real music"?

Adds Jarek, "high dynamics, impact and big SPL are usually the domain of rock concerts with big PA systems. However, for me the biggest dynamics are in pure acoustic music, not just symphonic. You like world music so are familiar with the Tzadik label. Their Circle Maker album consists of a string trio with violin, cello and double bass. It was the most impressive record over my system. Attack, tempo changes, colors, immediacy of moving from darkness to brilliance were well beyond any rock albums. Before guitars were amplified, small bands consisted of guitar, violin, double bass, piano and drums to which a hundred people danced. How were they dancing? Did they touch the floor with just their toes? Acoustic music has unlimited dynamics. Regarding our sonic society, after their article a happy owner of my Vintage Ribbon asked whether we we still friends. Of course we are. Sometimes our opinions diverge but that's normal. Our first reported meeting was in 2004. In the local Nautilus dealership we auditioned my then last child, a Lektor Grand CD player against a Wadia 850. Wojtek recorded our comments with a hidden tape recorder. When this became known, Janusz got furious. He shouted secret police investigation. Wojtek defended himself, explaining that he wanted real uncensored reactions. Then we all laughed. We're adults. We can speak our truths straight. That became the formula for our society meetings: to publish honest even uncomfortable opinions. Only some vulgarity gets edited out. Our society this time was disappointed by my system. It's hard to be angry with them. I'm more curious why. Age actually didn't matter. Piotr Ryka and many others were even older than Ryszard, our oldest member."

Here we remember that peak SPL and recorded dynamic range are very different. One of my Tonian Labs CD of plain 16/44.1 not 'hi-rez' fare packs +50dB (!) of recorded dynamic range between just two drummers. Much Pop productions flicker between 6-10dB. It creates their signature wall-of-sound constant loudness. Good acoustic recordings à la ECM often hit 30dB of recorded dynamic range. So going maximally loud and discerning the finest gradations between our quietest and loudest passages stresses different system parameters. Obviously an acoustic string trio can't go as loud as an 80-headed orchestra which is easily topped by stadium PA installations. Jarek meanwhile pointed us at the delta of dynamic difference. Here a masterful string trio recorded without dynamic compression can indeed show the rockers a very high set of heels. It ain't braggin' if it's true. Catwalk time!

Dual-mono CD transport with I²S outputs on quads of individual sockets.

"I'm now imagining the old orchestra director. His assistant supports him at all times. Sometimes he helps put the conductor's oxygen mask in the right place. The orchestra plays fortissimo at a 120dB backed by 100 musicians. Sometimes a choir adds itself. Suddenly the conductor stop, points at the second oboe in the far row and whispers—he cannot shout—" you're always ahead of my beat  Go to the toilet before attending my rehearsals!" Why is amplified music worse for our hearing? Must it be played louder just to compensate for its squashed dynamics? Here in Poland we recently had the big pleasure to watch the Chopin piano competition. We could hear the best young pianists on the best instruments like a Fazioli. What was different? They all played the very same notes of the mazurkas on the same few select pianos. How did the young masters distinguish themselves from the others when notes and instrumental timbres were the same? With slight changes in tempo and how they actuated the keys. Hello phrasing, hello dynamics. One performance put me to sleep, another had me dance around my room.

Single-ended 300B amps with switch-mode power supplies.

"When I was a child, I was forced to do gymnastics to strengthen and straighten my back. During our exercises a nice mature lady played the piano, mostly Scott Joplin rag time. It was impossible not to keep up the rhythm. All twenty of us kids moved in sync like a perfect German army parade. Energy definitely is a feature of live music. Diluting it with a bad PA or high-end home system undermines the music and isn't kind to our hearing. I'm very happy that we met first through your reviews of my gear, then your visit to Krakow. I always ask whether my sound is correct or the rest of the world is. In your articles I see that we all share the pleasure of listening to our favorite music in our very own ways. So I move forward with mine. Thank you."

Considering that Jarek already sold two of his big systems—one to Switzerland, one to South Africa—clearly his sonic vision is shared by others!