Jon’s Musings

A Little Side Trip Into Esoterica

Someone to whom I was describing my “experiments” in, and resulting preference for, “wireless” digital audio suggested it would make a good topic for a Musing.  I don’t know about that, but here it is in any case.


One of the many things that has made vinyl music playback so polarizing among music lovers is that it is rife with variables.  Forget the scores of them on the manufacturing and maintenance of software side.  I’m really only talking about the hardware, once you have a reasonably good turntable/tonearm/cartridge combination and phono preamp.


The cartridge and tonearm can be adjusted for the equivalents of an airplane’s pitch, roll, and yaw relative the the record groove as well as tracking force and anti-skating force.  Then, if the cartridge is a moving coil, the resistive loading presented by the phono preamp, and if a moving magnet, the capacitive can be optimized.  And of course all of this assumes that the cartridge and tonearm are a happy pairing in the first place, and that the turntable has been set up correctly with respect to any suspension adjustments and the like, and that it is level and optimized with regards to mechanical and acoustical isolation in the room.  Oh, and let’s not even bring up the fact that some elements of the setup, e.g. airplane “pitch” or VTA/SRA, should be changed record by record.


Thankfully, even when the machinery is not obsessively dialed in, records played on a really good turntable have a sound-making capability that renders many of us mesmerized by the music that comes out of them, but you can certainly see why the very thought of jumping seriously into vinyl sends some rushing for the refuge of digital audio.  At least it’s “pure, perfect sound – forever,” right?


Well, not entirely.  We know by now that the early advertising slogan for the Compact Digital Disc I quote didn’t exactly pan out.  Also, for a lot of, particularly younger, people today, the CD represents an impossibly high standard of audio performance in a world increasingly dominated by low resolution downloads and streaming.  I won’t go into (right now anyway) what I think the unlimited availability of low fi music is doing to the art form.  Instead, my purpose here is to suggest to those of you interested in getting the best out of digital audio what I have observed about the negative repercussions of connecting a fine audio system to your home network with wire.


If the technically knowledgeable folks on the vinyl side appear equal parts artist/artisan and  engineer, the same can certainly not be said for most of those on the digital side.  When I look around in that world, I see one predominantly populated by computer and IT people, usually with little to no checking in with ears to make sure that tenets and precepts are bearing out in the listening.


A lot of beliefs result from this, held to with absolute resolve, which don’t seem to comport with my own empirical observations.  From the downright silly sort of things, like “MP3s are a perfectly good way for an enthusiast to collect and listen to music” to the seemingly reasonable “lossless can’t sound different from/less good than the full file format,” I find myself in disagreement with conventional wisdom in case after case.


Another one of the IT-based assertions that is widely held to apply to digital audio is that “wired is better than wireless.”  Time and again, from my earliest explorations with Sonos to my current endeavors in state of the art servers, I have found the opposite to be true- that an audio system with any metal (wired) connection to a network will sound less good than the same system with that wired connection removed.  As so often happens with me, it seems, my most memorable verification of this was an accident.   It wasn’t my earliest discovery, but rather an unintentional cementing of my feelings based on a trap I set for myself.


At the time, my best digital music source was a Mac mini feeding my DAC, and Dave Gordon from Audio Research had sent me a custom-built isolation base, made by someone he knew, for my mini that was supposed to improve its sound quality (another concept most digital engineers would find implausible).  I spent a good 45 minutes going back and forth between the base from Dave and my existing, more rudimentary, method of isolation.  I remember I was using a high res download of the Bruno Walter Mahler Symphony No.9.  I figured, if it’s this hard to hear an improvement, I’m not going to spend money on an upgrade.  But I also remember thinking, as I seem to when my music-listening-brain is disappointed, that the sound of my system in general was reminiscent of….Wait!  Was my Mac mini plugged into my network switch??!!


Sure enough.  A few months earlier I had needed to move a lot of music files from one drive to another on the network and I had plugged my mini in for increased speed.  Here, of course, is where the computer/IT people are right- wired is FASTER, and, sixty days ago, that was also my temporary definition of better.  But now, long done with the big data transplant and having forgotten about my wired hookup, I was hobbled, not helped, by it.


I pulled the Ethernet cable from my mini (no music traveled through my network to the Mac when I was listening anyway- just control signals from my iPad for which Wi-Fi is more than plenty fast) and BLAMMO!  I had the New York Phil in my room!  Row upon row of musicians in visible in my mind’s eye chairs suddenly appeared and the hall sound was cascading off the walls of my room.  Like my beloved Stravinsky conducts Stravinsky recordings, Columbia wasn’t shy in their microphone allotment, but still, these masterings reveal a reasonably three-dimensional capturing of an orchestra anyway.


I was moved, very nearly to tears and those at least partly in frustration for the sonic experiences I had robbed myself of for the previous two months.  And now the isolation base Dave had sent way more than proved its merit, as all the things that had been unleashed sonically by setting my system free from the ills borne in on the Ethernet connection were way more evident with it in place than my old method of isolation.


Since and prior, I have had numerous occasions to demonstrate this phenomenon to friends, customers and industry people, including some who sell digital music servers and were not hearing their own products’ true potential until they heard them unplugged.  It has never failed.  I have even devised a way to make my Aurender server (which trounces my Mac mini, by the way- more about that soon) wireless.  In short, I’m a believer.


For those of you who must have an Ethernet connection, I will investigate optical isolation of an Ethernet network, something I have discussed with some knowledgable folks, but not tried at this time.  For now, however, I’m sticking with wireless.  And my music listening is the happier for it.



One Thing Leads to Another – Part II

Edison is an easy, if somewhat fraught, choice for a name for a product to do with electricity. The famous namesake tried for many years to horse through his cylinder recording system over the superior disc system of Emile Berliner and, as I spin the multi-Berliner-formatted set of Ryan Adams live at Carnegie Hall on my turntable, I think back to the last time I sat in my darkened listening room beholding the magic of verisimilitude emanating from my Edison cylinder player. My goodness, it must have been during the (Teddy) Roosevelt administration. But T. Alva does get credit for the light bulb. And a good many other things, his or others’ appropriated by him. And now he lends his name again in the world of sound reproduction to an electrical outlet that is actually a hifi component. Who would have thought?

The changes wrought in my listening pleasure by Sunday and Monday’s labor installing the Edison in my wall are definable largely as making the reproducing equipment disappear even more in the process of bringing recordings to life. Small bits and shouts are more vivid and arresting. That latter is no small feat. I am used to these peripheral changes digging more details and echo trails out of performances, but letting Ryan shout instead of feeling as if the stereo were shouting at me is really satisfying in a way that I did not expect would follow my installation of a new “outlet.”


I saw Jason Isbell last night, speaking of living American male talented singer songwriters who at one time may have flirted or more with and may still adopt from time to time country music themes. Man, he’s a yeller at times. In the most best Alabama way that we Up Here could probably use a lot more of. By “yeller” I mean he can sing damn loud, absolutely perfectly and clear as a bell on pitch, even if just for a moment of emphasis, but it came across last night as really a special quality. He can belt. And belting is cool, especially used judiciously as he does. And my stereo now lets him belt in my house in a way that didn’t happen before Edison.

And Stravinsky belts too, now. And Archie Shepp. And Ani Difranco. And when they get small, they all get really small. Way down in the dust region. There is stuff happening there I have never heard before. And it all lights me on fire in a way that is worth WAY more than $150. Plus labor.

One Thing Leads to Another…

Funny thing about deadlines.  With me anyway.  I’ve spent the last couple weeks with some really special new things in my system at home, trying to decide which one to muse about first.  So yesterday I tore my whole system apart instead.  I had ordered an AudioQuest NRG Edison wall outlet, the simplest part of Garth Powell’s new lineup of AC power enhancement components.  I also realized I had been having so much fun with these other new things, about which more in the next Musings, that I had totally forgotten the part this is work- the writing down of observations for publication as a Musing.  So, instead of staying up late Sunday and cramming for today’s post, why not take every single part of my somewhat complex audio system out and make way for a new electrical socket?

Odd as it sounds, I was way overdue for a system tear down and cleaning, and looking at the packaged Edison across the room was starting to bug me.  So I began.  As I disassembled my system, I found numerous things buried behind the racks that had fallen into the abyss during the intervening century and a half since the last expedition. Since my system is also my “listening lab,” things get put in and out of it a lot, and I felt like an archeologist unearthing the timeline of my own past civilization.  I also discovered that the one thing you can’t do with the stereo on, at least for background entertainment, is tear apart the stereo, so I blasted the kitchen speakers into the listening room sending the cats to the nether reaches of the second floor.

Step one in any project involving electricity is turning off the power to the outlet one is working on.  My electrical box is labeled, but not by me and, as it turns out, highly inaccurate. It’s almost as though someone drew the room names and other descriptive details out of a hat by random.  Yesterday, I finally found the breaker for my stereo system by turning off, I kid you not, the very last one.  Who needs a Stairmaster when you have an electrical project?

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From there, the installation of Edison went smoothly.  The “electrician” who installed the previous outlet had reversed hot and neutral, so I remedied that while I was at it.  I also installed the Edison “upside down” so as to remind myself that it was special.  I then made a nice big margarita and some Rick Bayless chicken tacos and gave myself the rest of the night off.

Today, I spent the morning and most of the afternoon reassembling the system and have just half an hour ago fired it all back up.  And?  Well, the system has that “making friends all over again” sound of many new connections reforming, but there are some wonderful things happening already in some interesting areas, so tune in Wednesday for the second part of this adventure where I report on my listening results.


Timing’s Everything…

Different musing going on tonight from what I had assigned myself, but isn’t that sort of inherent in the definition of musing?  What I’m thinking about now is that sound, and therefore the greater understanding and appreciation of music, is about time.  Or, I suppose to make it more musical, timing.


Because of my fascination of late with, and affection for, AudioQuest NightHawk headphones, I have signed up for, and spent bits of time on, a headphone oriented forum online.  It’s a foreign place for me, filled, very nearly universally, with evaluations and reviews of headphones in terms of “bass, mid-range and treble” performance.  To me this is as odd, and I have to say unhelpful, as reading restaurant reviews that talk only about relative levels of sweet, sour, salt, bitter and umami, (and, perhaps, fat, which, like Pluto, may come and go) in a series of plates of food eaten at each establishment.  Such reviews, it would seem, entirely miss the point of dining.

Reviews, I think, should be stories of experiences, the more intimate the better, which attempt to convey, through entertaining prose, the extent to which the reviewed thing excited, pleased, emotionally moved the reviewer.  A good reviewer of a headphone, or any audio component, skips quickly to telling to what degree the thing made him or her understand, and experience, music more deeply and in new ways than he or she had before.  Or, failed to.

I call talking about bass, midrange, and treble a “fifth level” way of talking about sound, let alone music.  It’s a bit of hyperbole because I don’t carry around a strict definition of what second, third and fourth are, but first, if you can’t speak directly to how you are feeling emotionally and what you are discovering, is timing.

I talked to Richard Vandersteen for a while last week and at least a half hour was about time as it relates to audio and listening to music.  Time is a thing that is right in Richard’s wheelhouse.  In fact, I think it is his North Star.  Mine, too.  And he seems to feel as if it may be getting discovered by others, may be the “next big thing” and then some.

What it means is the order in which things happen, down to a “molecular” or nano-second level of granularity, in sound, and therefore music.  We think it is far more important in the realm of human perception, that we notice it and respond to it much more significantly, than tonal linearity (“bass, midrange and treble” to oversimplify a fifth level parameter).

I’m noticing an interesting trend lately on this headphone forum in the NightHawk section.  The naysayers about NightHawk are critiquing its bass, midrange and treble.  But the fans, and they tend to be raving and somewhat exclusionary now, are having a somewhat harder time talking about why they are so wild about this headphone, but they are talking about music, emotion, even addiction to this one headphone in stead of being “collectors” of numerous ‘phones prior.  In fact, some of them seem to have left the forum altogether, which I take as a really good thing.   Why talk about NightHawks on line if you could be listening to music on them?  And, whether they know it or not, what they are liking about them is all to do with timing.

Everything Matters

I am listening to Music From Big Pink by The Band today because David Bowie died.  The connection is not as convoluted as it might seem.  David Bowie’s musical language is not one I understand.  There is just too much great music in the world for the amount of time we have and his doesn’t connect with me.  But I have a very close friend who is mourning the loss of one of his favorite musicians today and so, in sympathy for him, that connects me directly with similar loss in my musical world.

The Band consisted of five members, three of whom sang, and, man, did they sing!  Those three are dead. The other two are alive.  I mourned each passing, first Manuel, the shocker, in 1986; then Danko in late 1999, which I heard on the radio as I was driving my new minivan to a job site in the early years of Ultra Fidelis.  And, finally, Levon in 2012, mere weeks after my girlfriend and I had seen him perform at Northern Lights, obviously running on empty, but still pouring out emotion, both with his drum kit and his faltering voice.  We knew seeing him that it was a matter of time, and not much at that, and we felt we got to go out gently with him in a way.  But it still hurt a lot as the last great voice of this group was gone.

Saturday I parted with my personal AudioQuest Diamond USB cable for a customer who wanted one on the spot.  I brought home a demo Carbon, lesser, version to hold me over until my replacement arrives tomorrow.  But I also brought home the demo 3 meter Diamond “just in case.”  Turns out that was a good move because I need it.  Today, I need to get really close to the music, and voices, of The Band.  And Carbon doesn’t cut it.  As good as it is, and as easy as it is for many to be skeptical about what the contribution of a USB cable could possibly be to the emotional impact of music, it doesn’t work today.

Some may say this makes me an audio snob, a HI-FI geek, one who misses the forest for the trees.  I think it’s exactly the opposite.  This is what makes great music reproduction systems a necessity, not a luxury, for many of us.  Doing everything we can to make the equipment disappear and the music makers reappear in our rooms, our heads, lets every stinging or joyful moment unfold in full measure and immeasurably enriches the experience.

I need everything Diamond elicits from these recordings that are so meaningful to me.  I am listening to The Band, but, even more, I am communing with my friend who misses David Bowie as I miss The Band, and I must have every last drop of their expression.  Today, when it comes to music in my home, everything matters.


Musing Moves to a More Merry Mission

Let’s say, as I can about myself, that you’ve just realized how close we have suddenly gotten to Christmas (I’m blaming it on unseasonable weather throwing off my innate sense of calendar).  And let’s further say there is a music lover in your life.  I am here to selflessly save you from empty handed embarrassment come the morning of by suggesting some ideal gifts that you can procure right here at Ultra Fidelis.  We will progress up the ladder of cost from the downright affordable, near stocking-stuffer class, to the heady but worth it for that very deserving audiophile on your list.

How can you argue with the fact that the AudioQuest JitterBug was voted Accessory Component of the Year by the two major American audiophile review publications?  You can’t, but you can get two, the recommended optimum, for anyone doing computer audio or Sonos with an NAS or computer hard drive, for less than $100.  $49 each and selling like hotcakes.


Your music lover is a vinyl junkie?  The LAST (Liquid Archival Sound Treatment) record and stylus care chemicals are indispensable.  I’ve been selling and using them since they came on the scene 35 years ago and my record listening is much the better for it.  Ranging from $25 to $50 each for their stylus cleaner, stylus treatment, record cleaner and record preservative, LPs will sound much better and last a lot longer when LAST is part of the regimen.LAST

Have a need to satisfy someone returning to a long stored record collection now that the whole world has discovered how cool vinyl is?  The Pro-ject Debut Carbon Esprit SB is a killer value in turntables at $599, even more so this month at $50 off.


And while we are in the vinyl vein, the combination of the Harmonic Resolution Systems ADL record damper ($220) and the Funk Firm Achromat ($115) unlocks the gateway to the third dimension in records in astounding fashion on virtually any turntable, from those costing roughly what these two devices together do to those at $50,000.  A not at all subtle upgrade, in fact a knockout, to make your recipient’s world change forever.

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Of course, if your music lover is just starting the journey, there are several options, from the Sonos speakers (Play 1, Play 3 and the incredible, all-new Play 5 just out this month) ranging from $199 to $499 each of which simply connects to your network with a Bridge or Boost and starts making music, to our smashing entry level component system with the Cambridge AM 10 integrated amp with KEF Q100s and your choice of any source- phono (Pro-ject Debut Carbon DC turntable), CD (Cambridge CD-10), or Sonos (Connect and Bridge) for under $1500.  In fact, well under thanks to a sale on the KEF speakers running through the end of the month.  Add a REL T-Zero subwoofer and you have a very serious audio rig for your person or apartment dweller to enjoy for a lifetime.


What if he or she is on the go and needs a way to take a fantastic audio experience mobile?  We have been going nuts this past half of 2015 over the combination of the AudioQuest NightHawk headphones ($599) and the Questyle QP1-R portable digital audio player ($899).  Both of these products have so completely redefined performance value in their categories that it makes one question why a roving listener would spend more.  Even though both categories have several products at whole number price multiples of these two, we have yet to hear their equals, let alone superiors.  You can now give the world’s finest portable music combo for $1500, a steal.


Up about where even the well-heeled would top out in the gift giving scale, we have one for each camp.  The digital music lover who is tired of messing with a computer to get a superior audio experience, or who is ready to rip and hear an existing CD library, or Tidal full res streaming, beyond their wildest expectations of sound quality will flip when they hear the Aurender N100H music server.  I have been doing a series of in-home demos of these gorgeous pieces and the average time to commitment to purchase seems to be around 8 seconds.  Never have the auditions failed to produce that most telling of sound quality revelation reactions: uncontrolled laughter mixed with light profanity.  $2699 with 2 TB of storage, easy set up and operation, and sound normally reserved for the gods.  Still deliverable by Christmas.ir_attachment_863

Or, for the turntabler looking for a massive upgrade, we love the Funk Firm LSD (Little Super Deck) with F5 tonearm ($2499) which sounds as though it was born waiting to be set up with the London Decca Super Gold cartridge ($1600).  The turntable design benefits from Arthur’s work with Pink Triangle while the cartridge harkens back to, well its own long lineage of unique design and direct, disarming sound.  The $4000 wedding produces an experience not to be missed.FF LSD Blk-Blk no lid web


So there you have it, or at least a few suggestions.  Many more options exist, but don’t delay.  The goose is getting fat!


The Art of the Subwoofer

Subwoofers, with most music lovers, suffer an undeservedly bad rap.  Likely due to incompetent ones, misadjusted and overwrought, used in home theaters, the topic brings sneers and jeers from most music-oriented enthusiasts.  This is a real shame, as a properly designed and set up (it takes both) subwoofer is an indispensable boon to virtually all music systems.

This point was brought home again this past Thanksgiving Eve as I delivered and set up a REL T7 to invisibly bury inside Matt’s beautifully home-built, and properly vented, corner stereo cabinet.  First, I performed a MASTERS set on his Vandersteen VLR Woods, then further employed the SUMIKO school to dial the subwoofer to the speakers. This brought immeasurable improvements to literally every element of the music.  Of course, bass extension and dynamics get monstrously better, but the dramatic increase in tonal color palette, textural definition and sheer speakers-disappearing, jaw-dropping space and imaging are completely unexpected benefits that appear immediately and enchant forever.


Upon completion of my dial-in, we invited Matt’s neighbor, also a music lover, up to join us to hear the fruits of the new addition and, although I had finished my setup by 6:30, it was suddenly 11:30 before I remembered I had responsibilities the next day!  I took my leave, but I have no idea when the others called it quits.  A great time was had by all.


Vandersteen and REL subs are the two brands that can deliver this level of magic.  You really ought to hear them.  Your sneer will quickly become a smile!


Change your view on portable music…

Ya gotta love when you get feedback like this from loyal customers. This week in Jon’s Musings, we bring you a more alliterated version – Mark’s Musing!

I stopped down at Ultra Fidelis one afternoon and found Jon giddy about a new toy.

It was a Questyle QP 1R portable digital player. For me personally, I don’t expect much from portable music and was (more or less) satisfied with my iPod. However I recently purchased a pair of Audioquest Nighthawk headphones and was starting to change my view of what portable music could be.

So Jon, with a huge smile on his face, hands me a pair of Nighthawks connected to the new player and plays a piece I know very well. It was immediately obvious I was hearing something special. I couldn’t believe how much music the QP 1R was extracting from a standard digital capture of a CD.

The depth, resolution, color and texture flat out shocked me. The player dug way down deep and grabbed all the music and presented it at the right tempo and with the right tonal and spacial presentation. The song was suddenly completely new to me. This was more than just the stellar Nighthawks doing what they do so well. This combo takes you to that place where you’re helplessly and completely lost in the music.

There is one problem however. I used to listen to music at work. That is now impossible. I find myself so totally consumed by the music there is no consciousness left to do work. Nothing gets done for embarrassingly long periods of time. But my, do I have a big smile on my face.

This combination is one serious stereo system and it’s at a price where everyone who listens to portable music would be cheating themselves if they didn’t check it out. Let me correct that, “everyone who listens to music”, not just portable music.

That Old Devil Break-In

In the photo, Gloria is observing, “These two headphones appear to be identical, down to the aroma.  How can they sound SO different?”  I wondered the same thing until I remembered “break-in.”


You may have read my long piece about my journey of discovery with AudioQuest NightHawk headphones.  In it, I wonder how much of my change of opinion (to the absurdly positive) was due to the headphones changing and how much to my own change, that being in my expectations of what a headphone is supposed to do, supposed to sound like.

This past Saturday, FedEx delivered my own pair, purchased via the AQ salesman accommodation program, to my house.  Finally, my opportunity to compare a brand new pair to a well-oiled pair.  Wow!  The new pair sounds like a strong reminder of why I, we, didn’t initially like NightHawk.  The old pair is addictively difficult to remove from my head.

I know what’s going on, but I tend to require reminders from time to time of just how significant it can be.  It’s called either “break-in” or “burn-in,” the latter more appropriate for devices with no moving parts save electrons.

Everything in audio, and even video, needs time-in-use to come around to its true state of glory.  Since Saturday, I have been playing my new ‘phones continuously.  This morning, 60 hours later, I again compared my new pair to the well used one on Ken Peplowski’s gorgeous “Memories Of You” CD ripped to my NAS and played via modified Sonos Connect and AQ cables into the wonderful new Questyle CMA 800i DAC/Headphone Amp.  The salient feature of the 800i here is two 1/4″ headphone jacks so I can have both NightHawks plugged in simultaneously and simply move one off and the other on.

Two things I notice.  One, my new ones are a good deal improved by their 60 hour bath.  But, two, Ken’s beautiful reed intonation and touch on the keys are way more real sounding and present on the old pair.  And the rest of the quartet on this recording of very trad jazz is bigger, more 3D and more properly liquid, in both tonality and interplay.  Quite a bit, actually.

So the lesson, once again, is don’t judge a book by the first chapter.  In fact, to bust the analogy, here you have the ability to skip the first few chapters.  If you are weak of character and resolve, try to let new gear break, or burn, in without engaging with it too much.  NightHawk now comes with a card saying to allow 150 hours.  I’ll wager I was at least there a few months ago on the pair I finally fell in love with.  And it needn’t be spent with them on your head making you wonder if you erred.

Also, remember this applies to everything from cables to televisions.  Audio Research recommends, in writing, 600 hours on everything they make.  The Moon gear is acknowledged to take hundreds.  Oddly, a recent exception has been the Questyle, whose stuff seems to be all revved up the same day I turn it on for the first time.  Makes me wonder if the people building it might like it enough that they take each one home for a while before they ship it, just for their own pleasure.

The Vandersteen Adventure

I flew to Portland (The West) to set up a wonderful system this past weekend.  Vandersteen 5A Carbons (newly updated) and a bunch of Audio Research and Audioquest paired with a nice VPI turntable.  The unusual part is this system had recently come home to the U.S. from China where it had spent its life so far.

We had shipped what I know to be the first pair of Vandersteen 5A’s to China over a decade ago for a Wisconsinite who moved there for business  He is making long term plans to come back to the U.S. permanently as opposed to occasionally, so it now makes sense to have the music gear back here.  The interesting part for me was that, rather than ship all his electronics back to their manufacturers for “U.S.-ification,” he had an electrician wire his listening room for 240 volt operation.  And here, it’s even balanced as opposed to what he got in China.
Hearing the sense of dynamic ease and grip made me wonder why we don’t all do that.  Oh, I know there are reasons (120 volts is safer, it’s what Edison’s orginal light bulbs drank, and it’s what we are served here, so many manufacturers won’t sell anything but 120 volt gear here), but if it sounds better, I say damn the torpedoes!  It’s got me scheming.