Brilliant Corners

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Alex Halberstadt  |  May 22, 2024  |  5 comments
Photo by Michael Stephens

Last May, during a visit to High End Munich, I was ushered into an exhibitor's room with much ceremony. Other showgoers had been shooed out so that I, a reviewer at an important magazine, could listen to the hi-fi undisturbed. The room featured obelisk-shaped "statement" speakers, monoblocks with enough tubes to light a cafeteria, and a wedding cake–sized turntable, all connected with python-thick cables. All of it cost as much as a starter house in coastal Connecticut.

The room's proprietor asked me to choose from a small stack of LPs. I went for Cannonball Adderley's Somethin' Else, a wonderful Miles Davis record in all but name. I know it as well as any other piece of recorded music. When the system began to play, it was doing all the audiophile things expected of an expensive hi-fi. But while I recognized the notes, I struggled to recognize the music. Something was clearly, obviously amiss. The rhythmic emphases and stresses that convey music's meaning and emotion were landing in the wrong places.

Alex Halberstadt  |  Apr 22, 2024  |  14 comments
I've always been a city dweller and can't lay claim to having owned boats, riding mowers, shotguns, basement refrigerators, golf clubs, or even patio furniture. When I moved to a loft from an apartment with a tiny backyard some 13 years ago, I even had to give up my Weber grill. This geographical fact has kept my possessions streamlined. My favorites include a handful of old waxed cotton coats, a couple dozen leather boots and shoes, a few mechanical watches, my Garrard 301 turntable, a roomful of books, and rather a lot of art, much of it made by friends. But without a doubt my fondest possessions are my records. At last count they numbered around 3500. Of course they are beautiful, both as objects and as conduits for music. But what I enjoy even more is the fact that I'm not really their owner, merely a custodian: Most of the records belonged to others before I bought them, and after I'm gone they'll find new owners who'll hopefully appreciate them as much as I do. So I feel I owe it to all of us to keep them in decent condition.
Alex Halberstadt  |  Mar 28, 2024  |  8 comments
Ever notice that the language we use to talk about sound can be pretty aggressive? Reviewers often write about amplifiers "taking control" of a speaker, possibly "ironfisted control," especially if the amplifier in question happens to be a "juggernaut." In this particular linguistic trash fire, we also find "razor-sharp transients," "hair-raising dynamics," and that ickiest of descriptors, "bass slam." If words could smell like hair gel and drugstore cologne, these might.

All this verbiage is describing brute force, which we might use to push open a heavy door. But there's another kind of force that we encounter in the world, and consequently in audio, captured in the expression "life force." It denotes a sense of vitality and presence that isn't readily perceived by the senses—something lingering just out of reach of our rational minds. This force can be experienced in the terse saxophone solos of the young Sonny Rollins, the eerie abstract paintings of Mark Rothko and Pat Steir, and the deceptively quiet poems of Elizabeth Bishop. If you've ever been drawn in by one of the squat, gouged, lopsided jars made by a traditional Japanese potter, you know what I'm talking about.

Alex Halberstadt  |  Feb 21, 2024  |  31 comments
In 1976, a Soviet fighter pilot named Viktor Belenko made an emergency landing in Hokkaido, Japan. He was flying a MiG-25 supersonic interceptor jet and, upon touching down, requested political asylum. This proved to be a stroke of brilliant luck for the Americans. The MiG-25 remains one of the fastest and highest-flying aircraft ever produced, and Belenko's defection allowed them to have a tantalizing look at the technology inside.

Among the top-secret loot found inside the Soviet jet was a large, heavy triode vacuum tube used as a regulator in the power supply of the MiG's radio. It was known as the 6C33C. (The enormous electromagnetic pulse caused by a nuclear explosion would fry a transistor. Tubes were used in military equipment with such an eventuality in mind.)

Alex Halberstadt  |  Feb 06, 2024  |  1 comments
I said to Hank Williams, how lonely does it get?
Hank Williams hasn't answered yet
But I hear him coughing all night long
Oh, a hundred floors above me in the tower of song

          —Leonard Cohen, "Tower of Song"

When I was a child growing up in Moscow in the 1970s, our pop-musical landscape was dominated by the so-called bards. They were Soviet counterparts to singer-songwriters from the West, and they sang literate, knowing lyrics while accompanying themselves on acoustic guitars. Even the word used to describe them—bard'i—was adapted from English. And because they sometimes sang about aspects of day-to-day life that were off limits in public, their music rarely appeared on records and was circulated mostly on fuzzy-sounding homemade tapes.

The best known among the bards were a Georgian-Armenian poet named Bulat Okudjava—who sang sentimental ballads about (chaste) romantic love, childhood friends, and The Great Patriotic War—and an altogether more daring performer named Vladimir Vysotsky.

Alex Halberstadt  |  Dec 21, 2023  |  3 comments
"The phonograph record is an art form itself," Lester Koenig wrote in March 1959, "and one of its advantages is the performance that exists uniquely of, by and for the record." Remarkably, when Koenig included this pronouncement in his liner notes to Sonny Rollins and the Contemporary Leaders, the 12" long-play record had been the dominant carrier of recorded music for less than a decade, and stereo discs had been mass-produced for just over a year.

For Koenig, this issue wasn't merely academic. Before making his name as head of Contemporary Records in Los Angeles, he had attended Yale Law School, worked as a screenwriter and producer at Paramount, and gotten blacklisted by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. At Contemporary, he set out to become a leading practitioner of the art of phonography.

Alex Halberstadt  |  Nov 27, 2023  |  19 comments
To misquote Morrissey, some knobs are better than others. The Manley Neo-Classic 300B amplifiers that I've been listening to, for example, have a knob marked "feedback" that goes from 0 to 10. I've learned so much from using it that I've come to believe that if your amp doesn't have such a knob, it should. You see, the higher you set this control, the better the amp will measure. Applying more global negative feedback to these amps lowers their nonlinear distortion and noisefloor, increases their bandwidth, renders them less sensitive to the speaker's impedance variations and otherwise makes them more stable and efficient. In fact, by applying lots of feedback to an amplifier, it's possible to reduce distortion to barely measurable levels.

So what's the problem? Well, a few turns of the knob suggest that negative feedback isn't as useful as it appears on paper.

Alex Halberstadt  |  Oct 24, 2023  |  9 comments
In a scene from The Silence of the Lambs—a film that for all of its camp happens to be nearly perfect—FBI cadet Clarice Starling asks caged psychopath Hannibal Lecter for help in figuring out a serial killer's motives. "Do we seek out things to covet?" Lecter responds, following Starling with his eyes as though she were his next meal. "No," he continues, "we begin by coveting what we see every day." Lecter's astute observation applies equally well to audiophilia. Much of this hobby consists of coveting: before we own a component, we usually spend a long while imagining all the ways it will improve our lives.
Alex Halberstadt  |  Sep 27, 2023  |  8 comments
Writing a regular column can be a funny thing; the repetition it requires brings up questions that grow increasingly urgent. Chief among them: What are we doing here, and what is this for? For all the handwringing about story-telling and prose style, what we're up to in the equipment-review section of this magazine is writing about metal boxes filled with wire, capacitors, circuit boards, and other bits of hardware. Life is difficult and goes by in a flash, love and satisfaction are fleeting at best—so why should we care? Well, because some of these boxes manage to connect us to beauty and meaning in a way that can enhance and gradually change our lives. (And yes, both have to be in the mix: Beauty without meaning is anodyne and lacks whupass.)
Alex Halberstadt  |  Aug 23, 2023  |  7 comments
Alex Halberstadt (front) listens to the BAACH-SP Adio system at High End Munich. (Photo: Jason Victor Serinus)

If you're going to Germany to immerse yourself in big-city excitement—churning dance clubs, matterful contemporary art, visitors and food from around the world, and street life that goes on all night—you'll probably find it in Berlin. Though rents have been climbing and there's no shortage of dirty sidewalks and petty crime, the German capital remains one of the most youthful and vibrant cities in Europe, an art and culture center with large expatriate communities and endless things to do. For urban thrills on a smaller scale, you can make a case for Cologne and even Leipzig.

Just maybe don't go to Munich. As soon as you leave the airport, you know you've reached the epicenter of German burgherdom—a place where manicured lawns, public safety, tidy storefronts, and respectful revelers in Tyrolean costumes are the norm.

Alex Halberstadt  |  Jul 06, 2023  |  8 comments
"New York is an ugly city, a dirty city," John Steinbeck wrote in 1953. "But there is one thing about it—once you have lived in New York and it has become your home, no place else is good enough." Decades later, the novelist's insight about this appalling, incomparable city still feels true. New Yorkers love to complain about the summers, with their wafting miasma of hot garbage and urine; about the superannuated subway system, which only sometimes resembles a psilocybin trip gone really wrong; about the purgatorial agony of finding an apartment; about the affronts of existing shoulder-to-shoulder with the stupendously rich. . .

What I'm getting around to saying is that easily the best part of living here is the people. One of them is Jeffrey Catalano, who has been a drummer, painter, DJ, and construction worker and today runs a hi-fi business, High Water Sound, from a loft in a former sail-making factory on Water Street in Manhattan's financial district.

Alex Halberstadt  |  May 03, 2023  |  9 comments
It turns out that PVC, or polyvinyl chloride—the stuff used to make Starbucks gift cards, imitation leather wallets, inflatable pool unicorns, the pipes under your sink, and Billy Idol's pants—is also the main ingredient in phonograph records. And today we're living in the silver age of PVC. Not the golden age, since records are no longer the dominant medium for recorded music, but these days we're lucky to again have access to a remarkable amount of music stamped on top-quality hot plastic.

Better still, as listeners have become more knowledgeable and demanding, vinyl releases have become more scrupulously sourced, pressed, annotated, and packaged. Many of today's records show an unprecedented level of care and transparency about their production—and sound terrific to boot.

Alex Halberstadt  |  Mar 02, 2023  |  13 comments
The Amtrak Empire service snakes north along the Hudson River before reaching Albany, where it pitches sharply to the west, eventually winding up in Niagara Falls. In November I rode it—the Amtrak Empire service, not Niagara Falls—from New York City to the town of Hudson, New York. On my left, the sun beat down on the river's expanse while an occasional sailboat flashed by. Above the water, the undulating domes of the Catskills, with their fading yellow and red streaks, looked like the work of an unsuccessful colorist at a busy hair salon.

I was traveling upstate to visit Rob Kalin, a founder and former CEO of the online craft marketplace Etsy and proprietor of a newish speaker company called A for Ara.

Alex Halberstadt  |  Dec 27, 2022  |  10 comments
The other day it occurred to me that the main difference between audiophiles and more reasonable adults isn't our gear. Plenty of people have impressive hi-fis simply because they can afford them and are running out of things to buy. No, what makes someone an audiophile is the willingness to sit down in front of a pair of speakers (or with a pair of headphones clamped over their ears) and focus the entirety of their attention on listening.
Alex Halberstadt  |  Oct 25, 2022  |  11 comments
The first audiophile I met lived near a sewage treatment plant on the outskirts of Moscow. It was a few months after the Soviet Union collapsed, in 1992, when I was a college senior, and I recall walking with my father to his home past block after block of the identical dingy white tenements that encircle most Eastern European cities.