I had my glasses down at the end of my nose and my severely myopic eyes were about an inch from the screen of my Nikon D5300 as I attempted a Rafe Arnott-esque extreme close-up on a Boulder 2110 preamp. Suddenly the needle dropped and I was startled by what sounded like a rifle shot fired from just behind the Rockport Cygnus loudspeakers.
I staggered back a few feet as a pulsing accordion joined in, followed by a driving bass that seemed to be singing its own subterranean language. Then there was that drum again. Crack. Crack. Crack. The impact was palpable and the decay of each strike seemed to hang in the air for seconds.
The track was Paul Simon’s “Boy in the Bubble” from his classic South African “township jive” collaboration Graceland, and the formidable rhythm section was Vusi Khumalo on those thundering drums and Bakithi Kumalso on bass.
As Simon began singing his tale of despair and hope, I realized I’d heard this song many times on a variety of systems, but I’d never encountered anything like this. It went beyond simulating what you’d experience from a great seat at a concert. It was more like standing on the stage with the band.
I was at the Soundings Fine Audio & Video installation at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. This exhibit wasn’t on my assigned list, but during the first two days of the show I kept hearing so many unsolicited raves about the room that I had to check it out.
Just walking in, the system was visibly impressive, with a sizable rack of top-notch gear, flanked by the pair of gleaming, piano-black Rockport Technologies transducers ($62,500). Those floor-standers were backed up by a pair of REL 212/SE subwoofers ($3,995 each).
The system also included a Boulder 2160 amplifier ($53,000), the 2110 preamp ($55,000) and a 2120 DAC ($65,000). The turntable was a Dr. Feickert Woodpecker with Jelco tonearm and Acoustical Systems Arche headshell ($8,000), outfitted with an Ortofon Cadenza Bronze cartridge ($2,300). The phono stage was a Boulder 1008 ($13,000).
Wire and accessories included Analysis Plus Solo Crystal Oval speaker cables ($2,750), Solo Crystal Oval interconnects ($1,225), Audio Physic Mk.4 magnetic sound optimizers ($995), IsoTek EVO3 Sigmas ($4,495), IsoTek VO3 Titan ($4,995) and Harmonic Resolution Systems SPX Series isolation stands ($33,000).
After the Simon cut, a Soundings associate followed with underrated Canadian singer-songwriter and political activist Bruce Cockburn’s “Wondering Where the Lions Are.” The rig captured the jaunty, ebullient rhythm of this song, with Cockburn’s voice clear and textured and his acoustic guitars crisp and prominent.
I remarked on the exceptional resolution to Soundings sales associate Mark Krekeler. He cited the equipment being used, but said the real magic in the sound went far beyond that.
“We work very hard on set-up,” he said. “Not everybody puts a lot of time into this, but we believe it’s not the money that gets you good sound, it’s how the components are set up.”
Krekeler said Soundings doesn’t use mechanical measurements. Instead, the installer uses his or her ears and a method called Master Set (see the related page on the store’s website).
“The only tool we use is a level,” he said.
Denver-based Soundings believes that buying a system and not getting it installed and dialed-in properly is like having a piano delivered and not bothering to have it tuned.
Whatever the reasons, the rig was easily one of the standouts of the show, and it makes my list for among the best I’ve heard all year.