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December 2008
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
On The Road (In San Francisco)
Article By Jules Coleman
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  Please forgive me: I couldn't resist the title - especially since my destination was San Francisco. Berkeley, actually, but I am sure Jack Kerouac had a warm spot for Bezerkeley as well as for the city by the bay - or as natives are inclined to say, The City. Both Berkeley and the City hold a special place in my heart and memory. I began my teaching career (haltingly it turned out) at the University of California - Berkeley as a Lecturer (my Philosophy dissertation underway but unfinished) responsible for an undergraduate introductory course on ethics and political philosophy and a graduate course in epistemology. At the ripe age of 23 and with no prior teaching experience, I was prepared - emotionally and intellectually - for neither. The undergraduate class was a modest disaster I am sure; the seminar very likely an academic disgrace. Nevertheless, both had their highlights, dramatic if not intellectual...

I returned to Berkeley several years later this time to teach as the first philosopher in the Jurisprudence and Social Policy Program, a novel PhD granting program within the Boalt Law School. The program was founded by two academic giants: the sociologist, Philip Selznick and the then Dean of Boalt Hall, the criminal theorist, Sandy Kadish... I was headed to Berkeley to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the JSP program and to honor Philip Selznick, who, it happens had just published a new book summarizing his life's work at the ripe age of 90!

I received from a friend, Matt, an e-mail from Jonathan Halpern of Tone Imports. After exchanging a few e-mails, Matt and I planned to spend much of Monday afternoon together unhurriedly listening to music in his new space. I had not heard directly from anyone who had been to Matt's place but the word I got indirectly was that it was a wonderful space and everything sounded really good in it. 

Like most reviewers and audiophiles, I have listened to a lot of people's systems in situ, and I am often puzzled and sometimes dismayed by what I have heard. Still, it never fails to please me to hear how excited people are about their systems and to see first hand the joy their systems bring to them.

But I had a special reason for going to Matt's beyond the opportunity to visit with him and to compare the sound in his new venue with that in his loft I have been thinking a lot recently about what is most musically important to me in reproduction in the home. I have been formulating tentative conclusions about contemporary speaker design. And my reference system had every component in an all Shindo reference system, save one, the Latour loudspeaker. I owned the full Shindo Garrard analog set-up, a Catherine preamp (which falls below both the Giscours and the Petrus, but which is nevertheless one that is said to mate well with my amplifier), the 300B Ltd monoblocks, Shindo interconnects (among others) and Auditorium 23 speaker cables (again among others).

I have owned and listened to a number of wonderful speakers in my system - well actually not that many wonderful ones. Most recently I have had the Aspara Reference in for review and it was the first speaker I have had in that allowed me to hear what my electronics and front end were about: I mean to really hear. But that experience only whetted my appetite to hear what a full Shindo system with Latours would sound like. I have given up hope of owning a pair myself, not just because the cost is beyond my reach at this point, but also because I am aware that the time is not too far in the future when I will be moving out of the big house in which my wife and I raised our family to a smaller home that is more suitable to our current needs and lifestyle. So I had an itch that was longing to be scratched and the opportunity to scratch it was right in front of me. Seemed like a reasonable thing to do.

I had heard the Latour loudspeaker a couple of times before and was very impressed, but my listening was limited and one of the rooms in which I heard it was too small for it. At Matt's previous place, we listened more to the SoloVox than to the Latour. In fact, I am not sure we listened to the Latour at all - and if we did, it was only briefly. So I was ready, and I had no strong priors. I was open for anything, but to be honest, I would have been surprised had it not sounded good.

But my real interest was to see Matt, have him show me around his set-up, listen to music and see if what I heard confirmed my current thinking about audio. 

Let me begin then by getting one point out of the way quickly so that it does not become the focus of this essay. After listening to Matt's system - much of which is very similar to my own - I came away wishing that I could own the Latour: wishing that I were ten years younger or a little richer. The story is that Ken Shindo only thought to build a speaker so he could display what his electronics are capable of. If so, then his electronics are even more extraordinary than I have always taken them to be. No speaker is perfect, and neither is the Latour, but after listening for half an afternoon, the last thing on my mind was to see if I could identify what was less than ideal about it. That's all I'll say here about the Latour itself. I urge anyone who is serious about spending a considerable sum of money on an audio system to find a way to listen to the speaker at Matt Rotunda's where it is optimally set up. It is not a speaker for everyone, and it is a speaker than needs a big room, but what it does is unlike what any other speaker in my experience does, and that is this: it allows you to be completely at one with the musical experience. You do not find yourself listening passively or critically. You are completely immersed and transposed - not to some faraway recording venue, but to an immediate musical experience. Along with the rest of the system, the Latour made it impossible for me to adopt a point of view or perspective outside the musical event. There was no opportunity to comment on it, talk about it, listen to it, gain distance from it or the like. It was emotional, cognitive, physical immersion: not being engulfed in a soundstage - but being immersed in an experience.

Part of the sound is owed to Matt's ability to set up systems, and the entire Pitch Perfect Salon is a testament to Matt's artistic sensibility, his musical acumen, his years of experience in audio sales and to his temperament, his comfort with people and his generous spirit.

When I arrived Matt met me after I got off the elevator at the second floor. We walked into a very large room with very high ceilings. The dimensions are roughly. There were audio racks on one wall, display racks on the opposite wall, bookcases housing over a thousand LPs, modest wall treatments and art (Matt's paintings) on the walls, an office nook, all wool carpeting and plywood under the speakers nailed into the hardwood floor below.

The most interesting feature on display was the four turntables, all of which can be used. In addition to the latest offering from Alan Perkins of Immedia, the Spiral Groove, Matt could spin records from a Garrard 401 with Shindo bearing and platter upgrades, fitted with the new EMT banana arm on which he mounts the EMT mono cartridge; a Garrard 301 with Keith Aschenbrenner's plinth, and a full Shindo 301 set up which is the same as I have. Matt has all manner of amplifiers and preamps available for critical listening, though left to his own devices he is likely to play the Shindo 300B Ltd wired to employ the input transformer. Mine is not. Digital is provided by a Mac iBook feeding any of three of Gordon Rankin's excellent Wavelength DACs including the second iteration of the Brick, the third and all new version of the Cosecant and the copper wired version of the reference Crimson.

Pitch Perfect represents a number of speaker companies including DeVore Fidelity, a long time favorite of mine as I reviewed and own the Silverback Reference; Verity, whose Parsifal line has always been among the speakers I most admire; and until they lost their North American distributor, Living Voice, a favorite with many UK audiophiles, in addition to the SoloVox from Auditorium 23 and the full line of Shindo speakers including the Latour.

You don't go to Pitch Perfect if you are looking for a solid state system, and to be very honest, you wouldn't be the right customer for Pitch Perfect if your tastes in speaker systems runs from Wilson to B&W to Avalon to Rockport and all points in between. That covers a lot of audio ground. In short, the vast majority of folks interested in audio are not potential customers for Matt, and that is OK with him and Ok with the world. You go to listen at Pitch Perfect because you are drawn to what you take to be the promise and possibilities of mating tube amplifiers with very sensitive loudspeakers. You go because even if most of your listening is from digital sources, you cannot imagine music without thinking of analog playback - whether magnetic tape masters or turntables. You go to Pitch Perfect if you think that even if the older designs (from the WE speakers to the Altec 604e to the Siemens Klangfilms to the JBL Hartsfields and beyond) were not ideally implemented, the principles at work in them were abandoned too soon and that music playback has gone backwards and sideways more often than it has gone forward since. You go, in other words, because you think there may well have been something truer to the music in those earlier designs and you want to hear what designers and manufacturers who agree with you have done in implementing those principles.

And if it weren't for the unpleasantness of having to waste a lot of time with tire-kickers, you would go because you are open minded and curious and want to learn about other approaches beyond the conventional to creating enduringly satisfying musical experiences in one's home. If my experience at Pitch Perfect is any indication, if you go, for whatever reason, you will not be disappointed. Your eyes and ears will be opened up - for some for the first time perhaps - and the way you think about music reproduction may never be the same again. How good is that?

Let me just mention a few things I picked up during my time at Pitch Perfect, and hopefully they will resonate with some of you. Others may think me nuts or beyond salvation. This is my experience, however, and I want to report it as fully and accurately as I can.

Before visiting Pitch Perfect, I had begun to entertain seriously the idea that the majority of audio commentators - especially those who repeat as if it were a mantra - that the gap between digital and analog is closing - are reporting what they hear, but that what they hear is an artifact of the systems they are listening to. It's not that they are listening to bad analog and very good digital, though that may be true in a few cases. Rather, almost everyone is listening through speakers that while they do not edit the sound or impose colorations in the way they once did or to the extent they once did, nevertheless impose homogeneity on the sound. I grant that modern speakers are less colored than their forbearers. I grant that there have been improvements in some respects in driver design and that cabinets are deader than ever and thus less likely to create unwanted vibrations.

What I won't grant is that modern speakers are for those reasons better, more accurate or more musical. What they are almost without exception is roadblocks between the source and the listener. Most modern speakers, the best of which we can agree are uncolored and open, nevertheless make the music sound like it is constipated: it's a fight to get the damn shit out. This is a very different complaint than saying the sound is boxy. Some speakers make the box itself disappear, but even as they do that they cannot eliminate the effect of the music fighting like crazy to make its way through and out of the box. And just about every tool that has to work so hard to help get the music out ends up sounding more alike than different. This is especially true of tubes and solid state amps. What you hear more than anything else is strain. Everything sounds to me the way my guitar playing sounds to me. When I play guitar the music sounds like I've been working so hard to make it you never get to hear the artist's intention. You hear the effort and not the art, which in my case, anyway, is all there is.

And the situation is worse because most designers of modern equipment design their products and listen to them through exactly these kind of homogenizing designs. So they end up making amplifiers that sound alike and turntables that sound more like CD players (if not mp3 players). A true tube amplifier does not naturally sound similar to a solid state one; but one consequence of modern speaker design is that such amps sound more alike than different. A second consequence of such speakers is that designers who use them to design around are likely to produce amps that sound more alike than different - whether tube or solid state.

Matt and I listened to a lot of mono recordings, some dating back to 1947. The sound was so superior to most modern recordings, it was more depressing than revelatory. I had some previous experience with EMT tone-arms and this is the second time I heard the new one being used with a mono cartridge, and on both occasions the sound was simply glorious. Judging from his review, Art Dudley has had the same experience with the EMT tracking a mono cartridge. If your turntable can accommodate a second arm, I would encourage you to consider the EMT banana arm and especially a mono cartridge for it. You will be shocked at how great mono recordings can sound. (I won't even get into 78s at this point, but mono is just the tip of the iceberg of what you can discover.)

We listened to stereo as well as mono: Lightning Hopkins to Heifitz. I couldn't move from my seat. Didn't want to. At one point we switched to digital, and the digital set up we were using was terrifically good. I had reviewed the Wavelength Cosecant before and had happily owned one for a time. The new version is significantly better. We listened through the better still Wavelength Crimson. Digital was excellent, but it was in general so much less musically persuasive than vinyl. It's largely a matter of the software. In the first place, we had to turn the volume up considerably to bring the music to life. The sound collapsed and shrank by comparison. It was all of a sudden possible to detach from the experience. The experience was very good mind you, but it was not consuming. Frankly, I was happy to return to analog.

I am more convinced now than ever that the best audio systems immerse the listener in the experience. The key to the illusion of music reproduction is a sense of presence. The further the remove, the less palpable and believable the illusion. But if it is to be an illusion of a musical experience the system must get tonal shadings and the timbre of voices and instruments right. I heard that over and over again at Pitch Perfect, and the afternoon with Matt made the trip a success from the outset.

There are several different kinds of excellent proprietors of audio salons. Some have very broad selections of equipment and have a real skill at mixing and matching and finding combinations that suit particular customer's needs. They stock a wide array of possibilities and they give their clients many options that will work for them. This is a real skill whose value should never be diminished. I know a few dealers like that and I admire them and the work they do for their clients. Hell, an honest dealer with a lot of experience with a broad range of equipment is a much better source of information for someone looking to put together a system than is any reviewer I know - especially me.

On the other hand, I have a penchant for a system approach. The sound you get in your home is the sound of a system, not the sound of component parts. In my experience, if you find a designer whose voicing speaks to you and touches you, then why not try to put together as much of a system as you can from that designer. Who cares if not every one of his products gets a Class A ranking or something equally ludicrous. The parts go together to sing in one voice and if that is the voice that moves you, why wouldn't you pursue that approach rather than an aimless pairing of 'ranked' components? I know a few dealers who emphasize a system approach and by and large they represent manufacturers whose approach and voicing appeals to them. These dealers represent the opposite extreme, but their approach is equally valid and worth experiencing.

Matt Rotunda of Pitch Perfect is one such dealer. They system he put together as his reference is as musically compelling as any I have ever heard. There are other ways to go. Matt wouldn't deny that; neither would I. But there is something very exciting about hearing what a system can do when all its parts are optimally connecting with one another. It is a special experience, and I am grateful to Matt for providing me with the opportunity to hear that system - one that I can only approach but never I fear fully achieve.

By the way, the celebration for Philip Selznick and the JSP Program at Berkeley were worth the trip as well. Audio is great and I have nothing but tremendous admiration for the creative minds at work throughout the industry. But finding a person who has devoted his life to people, ideas and ideals - a person who has lived his life consistent with those ideals - is so rare in the academy that being in their presence - even if you disagree about both method and substance, as I have with Philip Selznick for thirty years - and being asked to help celebrate their lives and careers, that is a rare treat: rarer, in fact, than even a great audio experience. On the road in San Francisco/Berkeley, I had the great good fortune to experience both.

 

Jules Coleman

P.S. I travel a lot - too much in fact - not just in the States but especially in Europe. If you are a dealer with a unique approach and have any interest in having me come by when I am in town, please feel free to email me at Enjoy the Music.com, as I would be happy to have a listen (and to learn what you can teach me) 

 

 

 

 

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