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December 2002
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine

Extreme Hi-Fi
Ecumenical Style
Article by Jeff Rabin, The Ecumenical Audiophile


Does Hi-Fi Need To Be Like This?  -- Caravagio
Does Hi-Fi Need To Be Like This?  -- Caravagio


  Some readers expressed confusion at what I meant within my last column when I wrote:

And I also dismiss the, to me anyway, implausible idea of perfectly recreating a past acoustical event in the comfort of my lounge, though I still believe it is a goal worth aiming for even if it cannot be achieved.1 

This is not quite the bald contradiction it would appear. To explain what is meant, it is worthwhile to bring the existentialist Dane Soren Kierkegaard's (b. 1813, d. 1855) concept of the Knight of Infinite Faith to the table.

In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard retold the story of Abraham and Isaac. Also, incidentally, immortalized in Dylan's High Way 61:


Oh G-D said to Abraham "kill me a son" 
Abe said "man you must be puttin me on" 
G-D said "no", Abe said "what"
G-D say "you can do what you want Abe but
the next time you see me comin you better run"


In the Bible the sacrifice is not to take place on Highway 61, but in Moriah. The point of the story is that though G-D has ordered Abraham to commit the unthinkable, Abraham's faith in G-D is so great that Abraham passes G-D's test.

For the proponents of the concept of Extreme Hi-fi life is like this. Always trying to achieve the impossible: either the absolute faithful reproduction of a past acoustic event or the slightly more plausible possibility of forging a one to one emotional connection between yourself and the music and musicians through technology. And yet still, practitioners of Extreme Hi-fi keep the faith by believing that just around the corner, a cable or cartridge away, the project can be complete. The acoustic event can be recreated and we may be made one with the original performance. 

On a business trip to San Francisco, I had the good fortune to visit with a Knight of Infinite Hi-Fi by the name of Kerry Brown. An ecumenical audiophile if there ever was one, his two-channel, four-way horn system, is comprised of Klipschorn subwoofers in the corners; JBL 130A's on 100Hz Edgar straight bass horns; Vitavox S-2 pressure drivers on custom-built 500Hz, round, tractrix mid-horns; and E-V T-350 super tweeters, which kick in at 7kHz.

The source components are a vintage Nagra IV-S reel-tape deck, Sota/SME V/Grado/Acurus phono, and a cheap DVD/CD player. A Melos SHA-1 pre-amplifier, fitted with extra RCA outputs, feeds a solid-state active crossover filtering the subwoofer amps, and the passive line-level filters on the bass and H-F amplifiers. 

The Klipschorns are powered by Radio Craftsman C-500's, vintage push pull, triode-connected 6L6 amps. McIntosh MC-30's are on the 100Hz horns. An inexpensive SET amp, a 2A3-equipped AES SE-1, provides a whopping three watts per side to the mids and super tweeters. Single oil filled caps make up the super tweeter's high frequency filters.

Kerry tells me the single 2A3 amp will soon be replaced with custom-built one watt SE 45 amps, whereupon the AES will replace the Macs, thereby making the system all-triode. And all this in a room acoustically treated with that most blessed of acoustic treatments, shelf upon shelf of well loved vinyl.

(It may or may not be a coincidence that the Church of John Coltrane has its home in the Bay Area.)

The system comprised all that is great in Ecumenical, Extreme Hi-fi. Made up of new and old parts, chosen only for their sonic value and the synergy that they could confer on the total assembly, one could immediately sense that the project was a labor of love and not an exercise in checkbook audio or a desire to impress. Though impress it did. How did it sound? Bloody fantastic. My time was limited, but I could have spent many joyous hours in front of this system.

Now people take different routes to the land of Moriah. Some travel with their wallets. Others with their solder irons and jig saws. Still others trawl eBay for ever-elusive Globe 45s. I know how I would do it if time, money, and the rest were no object. I would have installed in the center of my lounge one of the Bösendorfer electronic playing pianos upon which John Atkinson recorded Robert Silverman playing all of Beethoven's Piano Sonatas. I would have the greatest living pianists, whatever they played, fly in and play it. If they would not budge, I would fly the piano out to them. And I would record every nuance of every note that they played on hard disk so that I could replay it back.


Bösendorfer Piano
Bösendorfer Piano


I would revisit their performances whenever and however I wanted. I might play them slower. I might play them faster. I might even mix and match performances. And if Glenn Gould, that mix master par excellence, should walk in, I might even record his humming on a separate microphone to play along side. But surely it would be cheaper and more fulfilling to visit Vienna every summer and go to actual live performances? It might be cheaper. It would certainly be fulfilling, in the way that sacher torte is. But it would be so in a very different way. For Extreme hi-fi is as much about process as it is end-result and the journey ought to be as valuable as the ultimate destination. But if the quest is unattainable, as suggested, are not the practitioners of Extreme hi-fi leading futile lives by dedicating their lives to its pursuit? I don't think so and in any event the hi-fi body count is low. Moreover, I feel certain hostilities to those who suggest hi-fi is futile.

Moreover, as nerdy as the activity of hi-fi is, I am still floored by the ignoramus comment that we are only listening to the equipment and care not a jot for the music-provided it sounds good. This is sometimes followed up by we should be spending money on concert tickets. What's worse, this cry is often heard from our own ranks. Glenn Gould, if you hadn't noticed, has left the building and no matter what I pay for a concert ticket will bring him back.

The theory and practice of hi-fi is an adventure that takes us down curious corridors, exposes to music we would not otherwise hear, introduces us to great personalities, and welcomes us into an out of the way community of like minded individuals. Hi-fi, Extreme and Ecumenical, also exercises the mind and increases our sensitivity to what is good and beautiful in the world. 

Some suggest that music is the most pure of all the art forms. They say so for it does not have any material content and once performed (or played back) does not leave a physical trace, except the emotional one imprinted on the psychic wax of the listener. Why should we disagree? But does not extreme hi-fi also not leave other valuable imprints upon our souls?

The theory and practice of hi-fi is not just about swapping cables wires, rolling tubes, or sweating it out with a 30 Watt iron, although it is all of that too. Rather, and this should not be underestimated, it is about going down that road with fellow audio travelers. Learning from them. Teaching them. Joining them in civilized discourse. We must even be tolerant of the intolerant, as hard as that may seem.


Alan Dower Blumlein
Alan Dower Blumlein
Source: Dora Music


How crazy must Blumlein have seemed when he not only introduced the concept but outlined in great detail the practice of stereo well before recording and playback apparatus was available that could realize his two-channel dream? Would Blumlein dismiss today's format wars as unhelpful, or suggest that two-channel was all that was required?

In summary, this month's column is a plea that we all just get along, and leave incivility to others less cultured than we are. Enjoy the Music. Enjoy Extreme hi-fi. We have no reason to be ashamed or to blast others who practice at a different church.


In other news, Jeff's corner horn ship finally came in. How to get the sixties Klipsch design corner horn with its Electrovoice tweeter and Vitavox 12" woofer into the house without his wife noticing remains to be seen.

1 Even if it was possible, would it be desirable? Would we want to reproduce the sound of musicians as if they were playing in our space, if they were recorded in their space? Or would we want to reproduce the very unnatural sound of music recorded in an anechoic chamber so as to leave their space behind and substitute our space in its place? And this is leaving to one side all recorded music that was never in fact, could not in fact be, performed live-music in which the studio is just as much an instrument as is the guitar.













































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