Apollo 17, come in, please - we've lost all contact
Remind yourself that none of Walter's drivers point at the listener. None. They propagate into the room -- directly upwards via the towers, downwards via the floor on the massive woofers -- as horizontal and spherical energy racing across the expanse of air like a rock dropped into a lake spreads lateral ripples. These sound waves then hit the ceiling and wall boundaries, to reflect for that important millisecond delay of ambient spaciousness inherent in such schemes. To avoid reflections that occur inside the small window in which our hearing mechanism sums time delays into one -- smudged -- signal mandates, of course, a sufficiently large environment. You can now appreciate why Walter's approach includes the room and in fact was purpose-designed for this rig.
Think about it - you're listening to reflections only. This is conceptually similar -- but far more extreme in execution -- to perhaps certain Shahinian speakers of yore. Or Dick Olsher's smaller Samadhi Acoustics efforts, which retained a direct-radiating tweeter for image specificity to augment the upfiring "ambient" mid/woofer.
How did all this translate into my perception, of sound chez Walter's? Frankly, it utterly pulled the rug out from under me at first. I was flat-assed grounded. There was no sense of directionality. Nada. Subliminal cues of sound produced by pistonic action firing at you? Fuggedabboudid! On some deeper and more primitive but frighteningly sharp layer of my bio computer, this directionality always registers - as a reminder of "created" aural events versus those that arise naturally in free space.
And so, the immediate and operative term here became space - the final frontier. Walter's system blasted me into deep space. In the hippie days, they'd have called it "trippy, man - far-out". The surprising aspect? The unwavering precision whereby images stayed firmly anchored within a curved plane far behind the speakers. Unlike conventional designs, they didn't bother with the kind of sharp-edged holography that's entirely artificial and simply doesn't occur in real life - though it is prized highly by certain audiophile schools.
No, the performers in this room were very much there, eerily even - but their appearance was far closer to what I hear in a mid- to far-field position in a hall or club. Not a ghosting disembodied transparency, but also not the acute image density of certain low-power triode amps. Something in-between. Real. No etching, no effortful muscularity, no sense of speakers at all. Source-less sound that made the sensation of just there even more acute and spooky.
Within minutes, my perceptional organism had adapted, the first sense of disorientation replaced by a powerful internal rush to merge into the music with both head and heart. Believe me, this is one lame soggy description of what really happened. Let's just say that I entered into a very expanded state very rapidly, simply standing behind N. who -- lady's first! -- was enjoying the hot seat with some of her personal recordings. The unusual subwoofer placement was undetectable even moving rather close. The quality of the bass was equally effortless and immediate, precise yet natural. And - it clearly lacked that athletic-punchy, I'm-here-take-note sense my sealed-box quadruple 10-inch Avantgardes produce, in a far smaller space. My Duos extend lower, with a more overt deep-bass presence. Walter's bass was - less obvious. But boy was it ever seamlessly integrated. More real, probably. And -- as a brief second visit enroute to the airport demonstrated -- clearly and measurably capable of >100dB Taiko drum peaks in that giant space of his.
Houston, there's a tiny fly on our window
When N.'s parking ticket in the sweet spot expired, I dropped my two cents into the slot machine. From Walter's positively, excessively, compulsively well-stocked library, I requested a spin 'round the block of a non-familiar version of Holst's The Planets. I cued up the ethereal final movement first, then the wellknown Martian bombast. As a former orchestral musician, large-scale classical music provides me the quickest insight into a system's possible limitations.
"Uranus" was bloody transcendental - far-out get-lost stuff. The large orchestra was laid out in front of my closed-eyes inner vision without any tacit reminders of reproduction, miniaturization or artifice. 'Twas one of those spooky you're-there encounters that are like meeting an alien in the flesh. However, cantankerous and brutish "Mars" didn't fare quite as well. As soon as events got dense and violent, things turned a bit swimmy - echo-y. I stopped dead in the track.
What happened? I'm not sure. As I said, it was an unfamiliar album, of a piece I know well. However, I'm reasonably certain the recording wasn't the culprit. Teldec usually pays attention. Rather, I think that Walter's carefully hatched scheme of speaker/sub/chair placement within this big space still retains innate limitations - of occasional but uncontrolled narrow-band resonances, of literally clashing sound waves. When excited, they produce the equivalent of stirred-up mud turning crystalline water a bit murky.
Once my left brain half had kicked into gear to assimilate and conceptualize this turn of events, I couldn't help wondering. Was the towers' transition from their midrange drivers into free air -- via the rectangular sharp-edged "rim ports" -- susceptible to frequency- or amplitude-specific turbulences?
On subsequent tracks, I could occasionally detect the same reverb thickening. Subtle, yes, and previously not noted on any material. But now that my inner police dog had been set on the scent, discernible here and there like a faint echo of the Holst event.
After reading this article in its final published form, Walter dispatched an explanatory e-mail. Standing off-center during the evening described, he did not hear the resonance problem on the side lines. However, he did measure output levels at our listening-chair distance. According to his dB meter, we peaked at 107dB during the momentous crescendos of the "Mars" movement. That's rather in excess of his repeated row 10-to-20 concert hall measurements in Minneapolis/St. Paul. Those never eclipse 95dB, meaning they're perceived half as intense. The reason we unwittingly listened to volumes in excess of realism? The absence of the usual suspects - distortion and dynamic compression. When they're not present, it creates the illusion of less loudness than is actually the case. No pain, more gain.
Walter did duplicate our conditions in the central seat after we left. At similar peak levels with the same programme, he too managed to get the room to overload, i.e. to set off its resonant frequency. His reasonable correction? Turn the bloody volume down. Being louder than real is the questionable province of PA rigs, not certifiable High-End systems.
The poetry of flies
Walking away from this experience without further time on it than a few too-brief hours, I'll simply say this: What the system does spectacularly well, is in fact clearly optimized for -- the portrayal of space as music's senior active ingredient -- is something of a miracle. It takes some adjusting to. It's as though everything else you've heard before and familiarized yourself with as "the way things are" was wrong. You have to recalibrate your bearings - which in my case happened automatically in a matter of minutes. After that, I couldn't step out and revisit my initial state of disorientation. This quality of spaciousness utterly changed the very gestalt of the presentation. Sonic events and space were no longer twain -- as in "this arises in space, over there" -- but space and sounds were united as one. The same entity. I became aware that the whole room was the activity of sound. This went far beyond anything I'd ever encountered before. Words here truly fail me. It triggered a very powerful, truly blissful, nearly hallucinatory response (hey, with 6 planets in Aquarius, I'm hardwired to be a diehard natural-born space traveler).
Back in the real world, this system, somehow, somewhere, still didn't seem perfect. What is, eh? Some kind of resonance issue, no matter how rare in appearance, remains to be solved (based on Walter's response above, this now only holds true for the hard-of-hearing, permanently deaf - in other words, reviewers and their entourages). Eliminate that (being a deaf reviewer) -- or simply avoid music that sets it off -- and I'd take out season tickets to Walter's. When it's right -- as it was during 99% of this evening -- it's mystifyingly magical. Very other.
Let's now invoke the first law of audiophilia: For every gain in audio, there's always a taking-away elsewhere. A subtle shift of emphasis. The extent to which Walter has shifted his system is truly awe-inspiring. It incarnates a very rare quality of an ambient-rich naturalness that can't simply be explained in terms of a linear progression from precedents. It's a more fundamental rethinking of what reproduced music should sound like - like slipping into a parallel dimensions identical to this, except the lighting is different - say slightly purple. Everything looks the same, yet very different. This must be experienced to be appreciated. In short, this is an example of Xtreme audio, by an intense master artist not afraid to think outside the box. Frankly, something this off-the-beaten-track can only come from, yes, a technically sufficiently cogent designer whose far greater investment, however is in the endless poetry of trial-and-error, of endless experimentation, of the kind of dedication mystical martial artists are legendary for (going into the forest, disappearing, then reemerging 10 years later having perfected some new and esoteric method of self-defense). So I predict that Walter's system is an endless process of incremental refinements and perfections, a laboratory to invoke an alternate musical reality.
Gizmo, what are you doing out here?
The moral of the story? The late Harvey Rosenberg had it right. He postulated that assembling a superior audio system is a creative act of similar magnitude as painting a painting or designing a house. Our systems reveal how we hear, what we listen for. By extension, they give insight into the specific triggers that catapult our unique body-minds into a suspension of disbelief from whence free participation in sound-as-music arises spontaneously.
Put differently, your personal success depends on identifying designers who are triggered by similar aspects, whose equipment is voiced/tuned to highlight those rather than others. There's no quicker way to find out than listening to their personal reference systems ... and yes, I said quick, not practical. Which now prompts me to publicly express my gratitude to Walter for allowing me to enter his personal shrine on such short notice, and truly, as a total stranger. Gracias, amigo, I won't forget this rush anytime soon!
Now flip the page to accompany me back to the airport while Walter shares a very exciting upcoming project with me that could rewrite the way we tap into global news.