Rogier van Bakel
Three tableaux come to mind when I think of how I wandered into the world of high-end audio.
1. When I was in my mid-twenties, an older editor at the Dutch current-affairs magazine I worked for announced he wanted to write a piece about audiophiles (he had himself been bitten by the audio bug). Because I often wrote about rock and pop music, he asked if I had a quality hi-fi system. If so, he added, would I be willing to be interviewed? I should've demurred, but I owned some mid-fi components (a Nakamichi cassette deck, a Technics turntable, BNS 482 speakers) that I thought sounded fantastic together. In a fit of misplaced pride, I agreed to be quizzed about my system, for publication.
Thus, one evening, my colleague ascended the three narrow flights to my Amsterdam apartment. Still puffing, he entered the living room, where I watched him draw a sharp breath when he saw and heard my speakers.
To his credit, he was too polite to say anything, but I understood years later what had evidently flustered him. I'd placed the 482s where I had space, with zero thought to soundstage or imaging. One tower stood just right of the television 12 feet in front of me, while its twin was nestled in the cranny between my Lundia LP rack and the kitchen door — that is, some four feet behind my prime spot on the sofa. I could maintain that this was a well-considered early experiment in surround sound, but the fact is that I had no clue what I was doing.
Whether I, and my pitiable rig, made it into the article, I remember not. I do know that after I belatedly realized my grim faux pas, I aimed to learn and do better.
2. About a dozen years later, after I'd moved to the U.S. and begun writing for Wired, an editor at Rolling Stone asked me to do a feature article on high-end hi-fi. I'd been loosely following the audio press for a couple of years and found it all immensely interesting but also, well, a little wacko. $30,000 tube amps? $50,000 speakers? Mpingo disks to tame wayward frequencies? Painting the edges of CDs with a special green marker to improve the soundstage? I confess I set out to write a moderately snarky article.
But a strange thing happened as I met more and more audiophiles while reporting the story. I liked most of them. Endearingly enough, they were in love with music. No different from me, really, except maybe for a bit of extra obsessiveness, and a certain unflappability about spending sums of money that, in a vicarious way, made my wallet hurt.
One guy I interviewed for Rolling Stone was a certain Steven R. Rochlin (visitors of this site might recognize the name. Heh). Steve told me something I'd never considered, and have never forgotten. "Almost nobody scoffs at people who buy expensive art," he mused. "For me, a million-dollar painting... that's just one picture that you can look at only so often. But a high-end sound system reproduces all the sonic art you can throw at it." I choked down the snarkiness, because that made complete sense to me.
3. A few nights later, I visited the Long Island home of a mild-mannered audio enthusiast named Ernest. Ernest was a bit OCD when it came to sound, and here's how I knew. He'd hardwired his components together — that is, cut and crimped all his cables from outputs to inputs, obviating the need for connector plugs that might degrade the sound. He played only records, so, in pursuit of purity, he'd snipped the wires off his pricey preamp's selector switches (except the ones for the phono input). In an even bolder move, Ernest had taken a saw to his $20,000 Alon Phalanx speakers, and then mounted the parts that house the tweeters and midrange drivers on home-made, acoustically-decoupled stands.
I'd frankly been ready to write him off as a not-all-there eccentric. But then he fired up his system, and I was instantly cured of my supercilious skepticism. Electricity seemed to course across my skin. Within five seconds, my eyes watered. This was the best sound I'd ever heard (and I had earlier auditioned a couple of six-figure audio systems at Sound By Singer, a Manhattan high-end store). Ernest's equipment seemed almost to disappear, reproducing Muddy Waters and Elvis Presley without strain or effort. More than that, it sounded like they were there, in front of us. I realized that my host hadn't been on a quest for prettified sound. He'd been looking for something much grander: the soul of the music. And he'd found it, too. It was impossible to imagine ever getting tired of listening to great records on gear that good.
I never did learn to take the Mpingo snake-oilers seriously. But when the check from Rolling Stone arrived, I happily spent it on fancy speakers and an amp.
Writing about sound and technology for Wired, Music Maker, the New York Times, and Rolling Stone, as I did for years, was a blast. So was interviewing some of rock's outsized talents: Elvis Costello, XTC's Andy Partridge, Pete Townshend, Frank Zappa, Tom Waits, Nick Cave, and so on. I've slowly come to realize the obvious: that the two fields are not separable. Truly breathing life into great music means identifying, using, and appreciating exceptional high-fidelity equipment. I hope to keep doing both, and sharing what I learn, for years to come.
Rogier's Hi-Fi Equipment
MartinLogan Odyssey electrostatic speakers
Black Ice FX10 integrated tube amp
Electrocompaniet ECI6D integrated amplifier
Krell KAV250a/3 power amplifier
Krell Showcase preamp/processor
PS Audio Stellar Gain Cell Preamplifier and DAC
Bluesound Node 2i streamer / preamp
LG V30 smartphone / Hi-Res Audio music player with MQA
iPad Pro and Macbook Air, both running BluOS
Canton 12.3 subwoofer
Velodyne F-1200 subwoofer
Cables by Audioquest, Tara Labs, Monolith, and Miova
Audeze LCD-4 headphones
Schitt Audio Ragnarok amplifier
Schitt Audio Yggdrasil DAC
Apple TV 3rd generation for streaming Tidal and Qobuz over Airplay
Cables by Audioquest, Pangea, Toxic Cables
KEF LS50 Wireless powered speakers
isoAcoustic Aperta stands on Dyckswood blocks
iMac streaming Hi-Res Music Qobuz and Tidal plus local FLAC files through Audirvana
iFi Audio USB Purifier 3
Hsu VTF-2 Mk5 powered subwoofer
HiFiMAN HE-1000 headphones
Woo Audio Fireflies headphone amplifier
Schitt Bifrost Multibit DAC
Cables by Audioquest and SKW
Monolith M1060 headphones
Sennheiser HD600 headphones
Schitt Audio Magni headphone amplifier
Schitt Audio Modi DAC
Echo Studio powered speakers
Macbook Pro running Tidal desktop app
Apple TV 3rd generation for streaming Tidal and Qobuz over Airplay
Cables by Tara Labs and Monolith
Mobile / Travel Setup
NAD Vizo HP50 headphones
OPPO PM-3 headphones
Audioquest Dragonfly Red portable USB DAC with MQA
iPhone X streaming Tidal and Qobuz
Bose noise-canceling Quietcomfort 25 for airplane and airport use
FiilCanviis and Even H2 headphones (Bluetooth) for casual listening