by Darryl Lindberg
As Ralphie poignantly noted in A Christmas Story, “just when all seems right with the world” chaos inevitably lurks around the corner, ready to disrupt our reveries. Or, to put it another way, feces occurs. In the case of audio, this intrusion of chaos is especially jarring when the system’s been performing as it should for quite a while, spewing out musically compelling sounds without a hitch. And, if you’re in any way like I am, you tend to take the proper functioning of your system for granted, which makes performance anomalies that much more disturbing. You rev up your dearly-bought—and hopefully completely paid for—gear and expect to bask in musical bliss, like a hundred times before. And that’s when you notice that something’s not quite right. It could be of the sonic variety (left channel mysteriously missing) or the visual variety (left channel amp on fire) or a combination of the two. There’s a desire to shake your finger and say “how dare you—especially after all I’ve done for you!”
There’s another aspect of equipment failure—especially expensive equipment failure—that is daunting: the inevitable discussion with one’s significant other, assuming one still has a significant other. This tête-à-tête usually starts with some variation of “you spent that much and the [insert the guilty misbehaver] is already broken!” That, of course, is only the tip of the iceberg, because you know that if an almost immediate (hopefully zero cost) resuscitation isn’t in the cards the next sonic upgrade is likely to be an even harder sell than was this now potentially defunct turkey.
If your guilty party was purchased new, there’s something called a warranty that can come to the rescue; that is if the problem is covered by the warranty—and that the warranty is still in force. Here’s where honest, reliable dealers and distributors—the real heroes of this yarn—should enter the picture. One of the great virtues of our audio world is that most of its designers, manufacturers, and purveyors really want your experience with whatever they may manufacture/sell to be everything promised—even everything overpromised. These folks will generally do their best not to leave you completely out in the cold if something’s amiss, warranty or no warranty. My own experience is that, except in a very few instances, major issues, minor quibbles, or insipid questions have been satisfactorily resolved/answered. That’s because, despite the ever-increasing prices of hi-fi gear, I really don’t perceive that people are out to make money in the business, at least the kind of capital (ha!) M money that’s in successful high-tech, investment banking, or private equity ventures. I want to believe the filthy lucre is only a byproduct of the audio business’s primary goal, which is producing and selling gear that brings us closer to the real sonic thing. Do you really think anyone’s going to ascend to billionaire status with that kind of attitude? And please note that when I’m referring to the “business” I’m referring to the manufacturers, distributors, and sellers of the relatively low volume products that are known as high-end (not necessarily high-priced) audio.
The foregoing is by way of a prelude to my own tale and, yes, it’s about the disruption of my high fidelity reveries. The culprit was one of priciest items in my assemblage of analog paraphernalia, the Air Tight PC-1 Supreme. Since it’s a cartridge, a tiny, delicate piece of audio jewelry, you may well infer that I somehow ham-handedly ran the stylus aground or something equally catastrophic. But that wasn’t the case (thank goodness!). In fact, it wasn’t anything remotely as dramatic as a full-fledged demolition; just a gradual change that eventually caught my eye. In particular, one fine day I noticed that the body of my Air Tight PC-1 Supreme, the cartridge of my dreams, seemed to be much closer to the record surface than I thought it should be—or remembered it to be. Hmm . . . was entropy insinuating itself into the cloistered confines of my listening room? I’d been enchanted by this cartridge ever since I bolted it on the Rockport’s arm (see my review), but it now appeared that the cantilever had receded quite a bit into the cartridge body during playback.
My first reaction was to point the finger at myself: was I imagining this? I’ve had ample experience of my own fallibility to know that that possibility existed. However, I wasn’t about to take any chances if the Supreme, which cost me a significant hunk o’cash, was ailing. So I alerted Sam Arnold and Jason Marcum of The Elusive Disc (the guys who sold me the cartridge) that my Supreme was not, well, as supremely poised as it should be. They were appropriately concerned and asked that I send some photos of the Supreme in action. Not being even a marginal amateur photographer, I did the best I could (see below).
As you can probably guess from the photo, neither the folks at the Elusive Disc nor Axiss Audio, Air Tight’s distributor, could really make out what the heck I was talking about. Their considered opinion was to keep an eye on it. The Supreme still had quite a bit of time left on its warranty, so it wasn’t as if any actual problem couldn’t be satisfactorily addressed. Although I wasn’t totally convinced, I was relieved: after all, I’d off-loaded my concerns on to people who actually knew what they were doing! Even though the Supreme still sounded as good as ever, I continued to be worried that its “low rider” posture was an indication of a bigger problem—the footsteps of doom again—especially since it seemed be imperceptibly moving even lower. But I blithely went on spinning records. You only live once, right?
What really sent off the klaxon horn, though, was a close inspection of the Air Tight PC-1 Supreme used in the Apex Audio room (Blanca Peak, I believe) at last year’s Rocky Mountain Audio Festival. I couldn’t help but note that the cartridge body was much farther from the record surface than was the case with my cartridge. Further terror ensued when I got back home and played one of the many Fest records I snarfled up: I found that the Supreme’s body was now virtually touching the surface of the LP. Not good; in fact, EEK!
Although I’m sure not a phono cartridge engineer, it was now obvious that my Supreme needed immediate care. I made a telephonic beeline to the folks at the Elusive Disc, who once again got in touch with Arturo Manzano at Axiss Audio. Being the chump who dropped a significant amount of my hard-earned do-re-mi on twelve grams of what was now high anxiety, you can probably understand that I was more than a tad “concerned”—although I tried to remain relatively calm. While I can usually take disappointments in stride, this was a potential $11K disappointment, which is way beyond my threshold for boyish insouciance. I couldn’t help but think of good old Tom Paine; yup, these are the times that try men’s souls!
It turned out that I needn’t have worried. Jason forwarded Arturo’s e-mail response to their query, which said: “assure your customer we’ll take care of him.” That reaction was music to my ears because I really needed to be taken care of! I packed up the Supreme, kissed it goodbye, sent it off to Arturo, and waited to be taken care of. And so I was: about six weeks later I received the resurrected Supreme. Unfortunately, the Rockport II Sirius LE, the cartridge’s “home turntable,” was getting a platter gasket update, so reinstallation was delayed a bit. In addition, I’d been slaving over (and if you believe that, you’re far too credulous) the Lehmann Black Cube for this august e-zine.
In the meantime, I asked Jason if he could find out nature of problem, since I wanted to write this follow-up piece. Even if I might not understand the nuances of whatever was done to revive my cartridge, I thought it would be enlightening for at least some of our dear readers. But, alas, it turns out that the Supreme’s resurrection was yet another mystery of the universe: the importer told Jason that the Japanese don’t specify exactly what’s been done when a cartridge lands in the Air Tight emergency room. But, hey, who am I to quibble? Whatever triage they performed sure did the trick. My Supreme was back to merrily digging out the grooves of my LPs with plenty of room to spare between its body and the record surface.
So after the Supreme.2 was broken in, I played some LPs that I know to be real showcases of sonic splendor—and I wasn’t disappointed. One record that’s worth expending a few words on is Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s take on Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht and Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy (London CS-6552). Both these works are given excellent performances and are vividly, if not absolutely realistically, recorded (more on that below).
Verklärte Nacht started off as a string sextet in 1903 and was expanded into a work for string orchestra in 1907 and again in 1943, which is the version on my record. Considered from our perspective in the twenty-first century, it’s an almost poignant work: a wistful farewell to the Viennese symphonic tradition that was already dissolving—thanks to Schoenberg himself as well as Mahler, Richard Strauss and others—in the early 1900’s. The Supreme reproduced the density, sheen, and rosiny bite of the LA strings, as well as the atmosphere, stage depth, and layering that makes this LP such an interesting recording. In fact, if you’ve ever wondered what audiophiles are talking about when they use the term “layering”, this is the poster child disc.
I interrupt our regularly scheduled programming here to say a few words about “layering” as it relates to realistic sound reproduction. Cross my heart and hope to die, I’ve never heard layering in the audiophile sense at the live music events I attend—and I attend as many as I can. If the layering I hear from my home system (and others) is supposed to replicate a live phenomenon, it’s a phenomenon that’s never been evident in the seats I usually occupy. My own non-techno weenie explanation is that the layering that’s reproduced by an audio system is an artifact of how a recording’s made and, of course, the equipment in the playback chain. Does that make layering something undesirable in the confines of my listening room? My own answer is “no”. I mean let’s face it: listening to sound reproduction will never be the same as listening to sound at the moment of production in the literal sense, right? While layering is something I don’t hear at a live concert, it certainly can add sonic interest and maybe a dash of frisson, neither of which is in itself antithetical to the precepts enshrined in my sacred audio constitution. In a live situation you simply have so much more of what may be termed “trans-sonic” stimuli related to the actual musical event than what’s found in the cocooned confines of the listening room. And recordings that are prominently layered can be more interesting. However, as always, it’s the musical content that’s paramount: no amount of layering or other recording artifacts is sufficient to sustain my interest if there’s no substance in the content. So there.
Getting back to the other work covered by Zubie and the L. A. Phil, Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy, I’m here to say that it’s really a system-tester. The piece is scored for a large—make that humongous— orchestra, calling for an organ, quadruple woodwind, eight horns, five trumpets, and two harps in addition to the usual cast of musical characters that populate a late romantic sized group. If you’re a cynic, you might think that a more apt title for this work would be Poem of Excess-tacy, but it’s not as tastelessly bombastic as you might think, given the personnel requirements. I believe Henry Miller provided an excellent description of the Poem of Ecstasy in Nexus: “[It] has that far-off cosmic itch. Divinely fouled up. All fire and air. The first time I heard it I played it over and over. . . It was like a bath of ice, cocaine and rainbows.”
And Poem is just the kind of work that highlights the Supreme’s ability to capture that far-off cosmic itch—at least insofar as it’s able to be recreated by my system. My Avalon Eidolons are excellent speakers, downright ravishing in their reproduction of the disc’s abundant atmosphere and nuance; however, realistic reproduction of the ultimate bass foundation of this piece is simply beyond the capability of the Eidolons. I’d be willing to bet that the Supreme and this LP would really light up a pair of über-speakers, but that’s a sonic upgrade that will require significantly more discussion at Casa Lindberg.
And that’s my happy ending (so far) to an exceptionally happy beginning, thanks to the efforts of people who really care about what they’re doing. So here’s to the folks at The Elusive Disc and Axiss. I have no doubt that they’d be happy to sell me a lot more stuff, but I also know that they’re committed to ensuring that I’m happy with what I’ve already bought, which is actually more important to me. And they’re sure not alone: most of the audio people with whom I’ve dealt over the years have been pretty much god-like. Come to think of it, there are a number of my audio acquaintances who also deserve shout-outs. So here’s to Andy Payor of Rockport Technologies, who designed and manufactured my turntable and still patiently answers any questions nineteen years after I bought it—and you’d think I’d asked them all by this time. And to Patrick Calmettes of Jadis, who interceded with honesty and grace in a messy situation involving Jadis’ previous North American distributor and remains a valued e-mail pen pal. And to Vingh Vu, who spent a great deal of time with me to ensure that the design specs for my Rockport turntable cover and Cloud 10 equipment stands—not by any means a big bucks transaction—were exactly what they were supposed to be. And to all those that I don’t have the space to name who’ve helped me along with their expertise, advice, and welcome bonhomie when things went awry. Now I’ve met some snooty manufacturers and dealers (who hasn’t?), but they’re a miniscule subset of the really great folks who populate the business—and they deserve to be appreciated.