18 August 2009

Hunt for hifi VI: The final showdown – before the bell

Later today I will sit down and compare the Focal Diablo Utopia with the MBL 121 speakers side by side. I won't purchase the winner today, and if I didn't have such a rich history of financial recklessness I'd say I may never buy them. But having bought into my own justification pitch, I realize I might pull the trigger eventually. Age has at least taught me to take a few deep breaths before I take the plunge. This will probably be the final comparison between the two, as I doubt there are more insights to be had with additional listening beyond this point. It's decision time.

I'm both excited and worried about the outcome, however.

I'm excited because according to my google-fu there is no documentation of any comparison between these two, which is somewhat surprising considering that these are two of the finest standmounted speakers on the planet. Surely this shoot-out should have happened by now? I'm also excited because they both have very unique and distinguishing treble elements; Focal has their beryllium tweeter, now larger and with greater spectral range than ever, and MBL have their proprietary Radialstrahler thingamajig. I'm also excited because while their trebles might steal the show, they have both proven to have extremely tight and well controlled bass (see my notes on playing Autechre's "Surripere" in part IV of this series). A clear winner in that category had made the race uneven and thus removed any reason for excitement.

My worries, on the other hand, are more about the long-term relationship with the speaker I end up choosing. If I go with Focal, will I miss the stereo precision and eerie stage depth of the MBL's? After all, I listen to Steve Roach more than any other artist and his Immersion : One lived up to its name more over ze Germans than with the Diablo's. But then on the other hand, Focal has a very slight but not insignificant advantage in terms of resolution and they give the sounds a little extra meat on the sonic bones (both speakers totally outclass my current ones in this regard, though). But is that fleshy Focal sound true? And what about the overwhelmingly impressive 3D scenery from the MBL's – is it a gimmicky effect that is superfluous when applied to my main diet of electronic music? I guess what I'm really afraid of is to not have a clear winner, to desire the best of both worlds. If I buy speakers in this price range I shouldn't have to long for greener pastures.

I'm bracing myself for what may well be a rather depressing part VII of this series.

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10 August 2009

Hunt for hifi V: Justification

I stole this image somewhere in an attempt to illustrate what is generally an accepted costly hobby. This really is over the top though.

While it's easy to point out when audiophile excess has entered the land of absurdity, it's a bit more interesting to look at the conditions where purchasing high-end components makes sense. Since all of my recent hifi posts are basically just flow-of-consciousness ramblings, here's a list off the top of my head:

If you can hear the difference, it's there. Anyone can hear the difference between a €5.000 and a €10.000 speaker, and even between two of the same price class. This goes for CD players and amps too, and even, albeit to a lesser extent, interconnects and speaker cables. While increased budgets give diminishing returns (the last percent of any audio parameter is infinitely expensive to attain), you do generally get better sound for more money. Some people are just not as focused on Return On Investment and thus are willing to pay a lot more money for a little more hifi.

Different sound is not necessarily better sound, but if you prefer hearing what comes out of one speaker over another, then it's better to you. If the sound is grating, lifeless, muffled, unpleasantly coloured or whatever, then you might want something else. If that something else happens to be more expensive, then that's just the way it is.

Finer equipment should ideally let you hear more of your music (in terms of detail, texture, and so on) with less sound volume, less distortion and less unwanted side effects. This in turn means that a good system will save you from ear fatigue and let you listen for longer sessions. Hence the cost broken time per hour of use might not be so much worse with a pricey system.

Some argue that the recording equipment is much cheaper than what the record is played back on, indicating that this invalidates the whole point of a high-end system. But this is a retarded argument; Even with a poor recording there is no point in making the signal even shittier.

An hour a day for 10 years on a €15.000 system means over €4 per day. That's not a super cheap habit, but smoking a pack a day probably qualifies as a worse investment. Spending €30 in a bar each weekend, which is not exactly unheard of, would amount to around the same thing. It would also be roughly equivalent of buying one or two new console games each month. And really, if you hardly ever watch TV (honestly!), don't have a car, boat, summer home or cocaine & prostitute habit, then what's so bad about spending that sports bike money (or equivalent) on what you're really passionate about?

If you work 12-hour days and then hit the gym and after that watch TV for three hours every day, there's just no time to listen to music. And an expensive system can't really be justified unless you actually listen to it. Unfortunately I find that personally I seldom sit down and just listen any more. It's like I have to do something else at the same time, which in effect relegates music to play the role of background noise. Now the million dollar question is whether this is because listening through my system doesn't excite me enough these days, or because I have some sort of ADD. It's probably a little of both, but I tell myself that if I buy the Focal or MBL speakers I'll change – I'll sit peacefully on the couch for hours on end, right in the sweet spot of course, reading fancy intellectual books while every now and then skippity-hopping around our vast music library using the Squeezebox remote, all while immersed in the highest of audio fidelity. This, of course, is the most delusional and self-betraying form of purchase justification. Damn it.

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05 August 2009

Hunt for hifi I: High-end fever

As a music aficionado I am concerned about sound quality, in the sense that I want to experience the music at its fullest potential, be it ultra minimalist ambient, goa trance, black metal or wall noise. Spending a fortune on hi-fi equipment will leave nothing for records, and to me it's clearly better to listen to a huge selection of great music on mediocre equipment than to listen to just a handful of records on great equipment. But there is a balance, of course – if the sound is too shitty you'll miss half of what's on the record no matter how many times you listen.

I willingly admit that a lot of my music may not be up to audiophile standards, and while my current setup has served me amazingly well over the past 8 or so years, I have reached a point where the experience of listening to music is burdened by thoughts of what might be – better bass, smoother high-ends, greater resolution, deeper soundstage and so on – in such a way that I find myself making exuses for the sound. "This has such beautiful shimmering highs" I tell myself, while well aware that my speakers are telling a different story. Simply put, the focus of my music listening has slowly but surely shifted towards what is not there.

In my many and long walks around the suburbs with my girlfriend, we often point out the most fantastic houses and mansions, jovially fantisizing about owning such a house. This daydreaming mindset is what I also slip into when reading reviews of absurdly esoteric hi-fi equipment, as well as when I visited the Stockholm high-end fair earlier this year. It's exciting hearing the worlds finest audio equipment, but I have accepted that anything within my budget would just leave me wanting more, so I'm not even envious as there's no point.

This year I was rather underwhelmed by what I heard. I was happy with this, because it made me feel content about my current equipment. There's no point in upgrading if there's no improvement to be had, right? When I reached a rig with a total cost of something like €100.000 that sounded downright bad, my audiophile pity was at an all time high. The very next room, however, shattered all illusions of my systems performance in the most brutal, heartbraking and mindboggling way concievable.

On display was the top-of-the-line CD transport, upsampler, DAC and master clock from British ultra-high-end company dCS. This system is prepostrously expensive, but it was not by any means the star of the room. Nor was the ASR Emitter II amplifier or the laughably expensive cables. What the room was about, and what outshone everything I've ever heard, were the Focal Diablo Utopia speakers:

I'm aware that you can't listen to a single component in a full system, but there is no DAC rig or amplifier in the cosmos that can make an average speaker do this.

I was nowhere near sweet-spot when listening; in fact, I was standing up, and in the back corner of all places. Yet the sound was just mindbogglingly good. Effectively showing how ridiculous the idea of a €20.000 CD transport is, while the dCS representative was still in the room, the demo was made with a Macbook Pro playing over USB to the DAC. The music was, as expected, nothing I care for. Yet I was completely spellbound by what I heard. Without spewing too much audiophile jargon, I can just say that anything they played, sounded like it was live in the room. For example, anything with voices sounded as though the singer(s) were RIGHT THERE, with realism much much greater than what I've heard speakers 15 times more expensive be capable of. The bass was impossibly tight and potent for the size of the speakers, but there was no sub-woofer in sight. I could go on, but this is long enough already.

Since that day, I have though about, abnd probably even spoken of, these speakers every single day. They are clearly out of my budget (€8.000 without the dedicated stands, which are €1.500 extra) – Saving up for them or doing a downpayment plan would take two years, at least. And it's not like they would blossom to their full potential with my old electronics, either. They were apparently in the same league as an €80.000 CD/DAC rig, so even if settling for a tenth of that the full system would be €20.000. So even if I'd bite the bullet and get the speakers, they'd be a bugatti with a moped engine for at least two years.

Suddenly sound better than I could even fantisize about is almost attainable – but just almost. So how the hell do I solve this? At the time of writing this, I don't know. I will be writing more about my thoughts on hifi and on how I try to find the cheapest possible path to sonic contentment, to hopefully entertain and/or inspire others. It might end with bankrupcy or with me selling all my records to go live in a cave. Or both. Stay tuned!

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