A Visit to Mikey's and the Glamorous Side of Publishing
Last Friday was an interesting day in the office. No one was here, but Ariel. Robert Baird was whooping it up at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, and John Atkinson and I would soon be on the road. It was the first day of spring, and snow was falling like mad.
At a little past 9am, JA would be climbing into the Land Cruiser, heading out from Bay Ridge, across Staten Island, over the Kill van Kull, all along 440, and into Jersey City, where I would be waiting for him. The drive from JA's place to mine would take a little over half an hour. Not bad at all. Amazing, really. While waiting, I would watch the snow fall, read a bit of Murakami, listen to a side of The Wild, the Innocent, & the E Street Shuffle, and enjoy a tall cup of coffee. And even earlier, I would make a stop at the coffee shop on Grove, where the construction workers and delivery men would be ordering their usual breakfasts. Taylor ham, egg and cheese on a roll. Coffee, regular. I would remember what it was like to work at the factory. I would, for a moment, envy these men. I could use a few more mornings like this.
At approximately a quarter to ten, I hop aboard the Land Cruiser and we set out north on the New Jersey Turnpike. "Crazy about the snow, huh?"
Just as we cross into Bergen County, the cloudy skies clear to reveal a pure, icy blue. We are on our way to Michael Fremer's home, in blissful Wyckoff, NJ, where tall trees beckon at every turn. "Any chance Mikey would have moved the amp himself?"
He hadn't. But, to be fair, it would have taken three Mikeys to move the enormous Musical Fidelity Titan. It's a two-chassis affair, rated to deliver 1000W into 8ohms. That's Herculean power, and it takes a Hercules to lift the damn thing. Which is why I am here. But before any heavy lifting, John will run a set of in-room measurements on the similarly enormous Wilson Audio Specialties Wilson MAXX 3 loudspeakers. While JA sets up his mikes and runs his cables, Mikey gives me a little tour of his listening space.
The place is a beautiful mess. There are rows and rows of vinyl LPs and more are stuffed into every corner and more are stacked up against the walls and more are kept in a separate closet and yet more are just waiting to be discovered. Music posters on the walls and box sets on the shelves and an overgrown orchard of cables and a single chair set in the center of it all, just a few feet from the massive speakers. There is the darTZeel NHB-18NS preamp, and there is the Sooloos music server, and there is the SME 20/12 turntable, and there: There is the Continuum Caliburn. "The best thing I ever bought," Mikey tells me. "You wanna hear something?"
I sit in the listening chair.
Okay, first we'll listen to something without the demagnetization and then we'll listen again, and you tell me if I'm crazy. Here, here. This is a brand new album, never played before, and it's a female vocal which, as we all know, the audiophiles love. This Diana Krall live thing, unwrapping it now for the very first time. Let's see how it sounds.
Okay, not bad, now let's put it on the deMag and see what happens.
It takes just a couple of moments. In the meantime, Mikey is back and forth from his stacks to the turntable, preparing to show me other things. JA is in a backroom, tending to his connections.
The red light on the Furutech deMag goes silent, indicating the process is complete. Mikey returns the LP to the Caliburn and we listen again.
There is a difference and it is obvious and it is immediate. The applause at the very beginning of the LP sounds more like real applause, more like pairs of human hands coming together to make sound, and less like Styrofoam or static. JA walks into the room and announces, "There's more bass, too!" I'm not sure that JA's even aware of what we've changed. It sounds as though we've listened to two different pressings of the same album.
Next, Mikey plays a few older pressings side-by-side against their audiophile reissue counterparts. And each timeinvariably, unambiguouslythe original pressing sounds better, sounds more natural, sound more human and more listenable.
"That's kinda depressing," I say.
"It is! Pun intended! It's all about the pressing," Mikey laughs.
Mikey is like this: Quick and full of laughter and vibrating with enthusiasm. Hmm, what can I show you next?
I join Mikey at his wall of vinyl and we begin going through the stacks. As we peruse the wall, JA walks behind us, adjusting the position of his mike stand. Every few moments, the Wilson issues a loud and wonderful sound which blossoms and erupts and then vanishes. This is a "chirp" signal. A cute name for a cute sound. But it's not like the noise made by a small bird. It's much more like a pebble being sucked into a pool, but amplified a million times over. John is capturing the Wilson MAXX 3's in-room response. While JA's usual speaker-measuring setup uses DRA Labs' MLSSA (say it like the sweet girl's name) tied to a desktop PC, here, at Mikey's home, JA is using SMUG Software's Fuzzmeasure program on his Mac laptop. For more info on this process, see John's measurements of the Cabasse La Sphere.
Back and forth, John goes, from the speakers to his laptop. Aaaawhoooooooooop!
Mikey points to some LPs that are lying flat atop a packed row. He has set aside several LPs as reminders to himself. These are the ones I want to listen to again, he whispers. There are just too many. I can't listen to everything. It's impossible, impossible. Back in the '90s, I couldn't get a thing from anyone. Now, I get more than I could ever listen to. It's amazing, it's really amazing. What else can I show you?
He selects an LP, seemingly at random, and he tells me a bit about its significanceboth personal, and in terms of its place in the music world. I am reminded of the "long, bloviated take" on record-collecting in Mikey's new DVD, It's A Vinyl World, After All. It was my favorite part of the program, and I'm now getting to experience it live, in person. Mikey shows me a special Queen album. Inside the jacket there is a handwritten letter to Mikey from Brian May. Then there are several rare pressings; albums with the most amazing cover art; albums with cover art that has been censored or revised for silly reasons; spoken word albums; educational albums; and on and on. I could look through all these albums forever. But JA has completed his measurements and it's time to lift the Titan.
John will perform a set of test measurements on the two-chassis Titan amplifier in his home lab. First, we clear a path from the Titan to the Land Cruiser, which is parked in Mikey's driveway. We'll have to walk down the vinyl-lined hall, around a short bend, and through the cluttered garage. Once the path is clear, we begin disconnecting cables. Once the amp is free from all connections, we prepare to lift. John takes one side, and I take the other. One, two, three, up!
At first, the amp does not want to budge. It's as if the damn thing is glued to the floor. But, finally, we manage. We've got the amp up and we are walking, slowly, towards the Land Cruiser. We are cursing now, calling the amp all sorts of mean names, telling the amp it should have never been born. We are breathing heavy. Our arms are trembling. It's not so bad. "It's much easier than lifting the Klipsch [Palladium P-39F loudspeaker (review to come)]."
John and I have been lifting stupidly heavy components all week, it seems. This is one aspect of magazine editing that our readers rarely get to experience. We refer to it as "the glamorous side of publishing." If it sounds as though I'm complaining, I'm not. I actually enjoy these moments outside of the office. It's not often enough that I get off my ass and use my muscles. My muscles, however, think differently.
John has removed the backseats from the Land Cruiser, so that the entire rear compartment is basically a flatbed, ready to receive the gear. Once we've made it outside, we set the first Titan chassis onto the Land Cruiser's floor and then carefully roll it over until it's situated directly behind the driver's seat. We repeat the entire process with the second chassis, which feels about 50 lbs heavier. Once this is complete, we return the Musical Fidelity kW monoblocks to Mikey's system. "Thanks men!"
We are huffing and cursing and stretching and reaching for our asthma inhalers. We are ready to collapse.
But before we leave, we listen to a few more tracks. It would be easy to spend an entire day with Mikey, just listening to records. But we've got to go, and Mikey's got an analog seminar to give at Stereo Exchange. "It's been awesome just to spend some time with you, Mikey."
"Aw, get out of here!"
Much later in the evening, John and I are back in the Land Cruiser, approaching the New York skyline. The snow is a distant memory. The city is strung with diamonds. "How are we gonna get that amp down the stairs and into my listening room?"
Again, just as at Mikey's place, the damn amp is glued to the floor. It refuses to be lifted. John pushes from one end, while I pull from the other. I feel my right forearm begging to burst, but, again, we manage. It's a couple of steps up into JA's home, after which we must set the amp on the floor. From there, it's several steps down to the test lab, which is actually little more than a large closet. Because the short stairway is so cramped and because the Titan is so heavy, we decide to gently slide each chassis down the staircase. We set a blanket upon the stairs and the Titan upon the blanket and we go down one step at a time. Finally, at the bottom of the steps, we set the Titan on its side and coerce the thing against a short wall. Here, John should be able to conduct his measurements. "Ah," we breathe heavily, "the glamorous side of publishing."
We laugh and now we're done. We go up to the kitchen and heat up a couple slices of pizza. There's a small television sitting in one corner of the room. Jaws is on. It's the scene where Hooper, Brody, and Quint discuss their previous encounters with sharks, they share their bad memories and battle scars. It's such a great movie.