During my high school and college years, I was a bit of an audiophile. That came to an end when I moved out, because since that point on I was never in an environment where I could indulge in it: the apartments and condos I lived in all had lousy acoustics, and volumes had to be kept low; plus, I was often at odds with my living partners over preferences. When I embarked on my house project in 2014, however, I decided to return to my audiophile-ish roots, and so I immediately invested in a relatively modest higher-end rig. Little did I know that it would be over four long years before I could exercise the equipment.

Then, on Saturday, 22 December 2018, as I was nursing a bad back, I realized that I'd reached a point where I could pull my system out of storage and fire it up: the house was sealed, and it had electric service—that was all I really needed. So, I spent the afternoon transferring most of my music files (some 3,000 of them, give or take) to the digital music player. The next morning, I hauled all of the equipment down into the house, set it up in the entertainment center, and turned it on for the first time since I'd bought it what seems like a lifetime ago.

Here's the system:

  • Sony TA-A1ES integrated amplifier
  • Sony HAP-Z1ES high-res digital music player
  • KEF LS50 speakers
  • KEF Q400b subwoofer

The very first playlist was actually randomly chosen, save for the first track, which I've imagined being the first thing I'd play because the piece is so dynamic:

  • Sergei Rachmaninov, Piano Concerto No. 4
  • Ralph Vaughan Williams, Symphony No. 5, third movement (my very favorite musical work of all time)
  • Grateful Dead, "Estimated Prophet" (nice and punchy)
  • Billy Joel, "And So It Goes" (intimate piano test)
  • Sting, "The Last Ship" (masterful mixing/mastering)
  • Police, "Spirits In the Material World" (great bass line)

My initial reaction was relief that it all still worked perfectly. But as the first sounds emerged, I really wasn't fully prepared for what amounted to a religious experience. For starters, I was astonished by how much air two 5-inch drivers can move, and the results were eminently satisfying, which was especially good since I'd never heard them before, even in a listening test—I basically bought them on blind faith after reading literally hundreds of reviews. I raised the volume well above normal listening levels, and they continued to pump out tightly-controlled, undistorted sound*. I was truly startled when switching from Vaughan Williams to Grateful Dead, as the initial drum hit seemed more like a gunshot.

Additionally, I was delighted by the acoustics of the living room, especially since I hadn't taken acoustics into account while designing it; the sound stage seems larger than the compact system size suggests it should be, and everything feels well balanced. I think it all succeeds mostly because I worked hard to make the space symmetrical. (I may be in for a minor letdown when the sheetrock goes on, but we'll see.)

While I may appear to be asleep, I'm actually very intently focused on the music.

There were times during the worst of the long wait when I was tempted to sell the system—indeed, one day I'd even packed everything in my car to take to a used audio gear store. But when I got there, I chickened out, still clinging to the hope of being able to enjoy it... someday. So I sold off all of my photographic gear instead, which was roughly five times more valuable anyway, and I don't miss it (much). In retrospect, I'd made the right choices. Even if I never finish the house, I can still lose myself in magnificent music.

*There's a distinction to be made between loudness and power. Loudness for the sake of being loud usually results in little more than unpleasant noise. I chose components that would provide solid power, i.e. an uncompromised dynamic range: a Class A amplifier with loads of headroom, and near-field (think reference versus conventional monster tower) speakers with no evident coloration or distortion. It's kind of spooky how they seem to become transparent. Headphones? I have an excellent pair of Bose, but while they provide somewhat greater "intimacy" with the sound—which is a unique experience all its own—it's an unnatural listening condition that ultimately feels artificial (the center of the sound stage is the middle of your head!). There's really no substitute for freely occupying the same space as high-quality sound.

Also... please don't confuse me with some waaay-over-the-top über-audiophile who spends tens of thousands on tube amplifiers and 1,000-pound turntables. Personally, I think these folks have crossed the threshold into la‑la‑land. I suppose I'm Walmart-level compared to them—and that's perfectly fine by me.


Copyright © 2017-2019 by David K. Smith. All Rights Reserved.
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