Brilliant Corners #1: Auditorium 23, EMIA, Murasakino, and Sound Tradition Live! phono step-ups

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. Pasha (that's what I'll call him) lived in one of them. A friend of my father's, he turned out to be a wiry character in his early 40s with a toothy smile and the darting eyes of a collector. He led us through his sparsely furnished, rundown one-bedroom apartment; in the kitchen, his wife Marina (that's what I'll call her) sat with their toddler in her lap, watching a tiny black-and-white TV stacked on top of the refrigerator. She didn't say hello. Like every one of Pasha's wives and girlfriends, she would leave him. I realized why Marina and the baby were spending their weekend in the kitchen when Pasha took out a key to unlock the living room door. He had decided to protect his family and hi-fi gear from each other, but unlike most new fathers, he did this by putting a lock on the living room and keeping his family out.

The awfulness of that detail was still winding through my brain when we stepped inside. Unlike the rest of the apartment, the room was spacious and reverently tidy, the walls lined with records. Pasha told us proudly that he owned a first pressing of every Elvis Presley LP and took a few out to show us. He had inscribed his initials in small, neat handwriting on the labels, as if to make sure that if the records were stolen or ran away from home, they could be reunited. A pair of ancient Austrian speaker cabinets—each taller than us and loaded with a Tannoy Monitor Black 15" coaxial driver—dominated the room. Some mid-1950s McIntosh electronics and a Michell GyroDec occupied the stand between them, connected with fat, industrial-looking cable that Pasha said he'd sourced from an acquaintance who worked at a top-secret military installation.

My mouth must have made an O when the music began. Elvis loomed above us, singing "Fever" from the reverberant air of the studio, accompanied only by finger snaps, a stand-up bass, and drum shivers. The experience was so vivid that I felt like I could smell the drummer's cigarette smoke. Then Ella Fitzgerald, standing just as tall, belted "How High the Moon," her phrasing as agile as a deer. (Pasha followed this with a solo Jimmy Page record about which the less said the better.) Though I'd heard the real Ella at Carnegie Hall, I never heard her like this: Her performance didn't sound live, but rather like a diorama at a natural history museum in which every detail and texture was magnified, illuminated, and splayed out for examination. Watching a great performer in concert is a rare, communal event, but a hi-fi like Pasha's allowed a performer to materialize in one's home, at a time of one's choosing, in private, for what amounted to a one-on-one encounter. It also bent space and time, reproducing events happening continents and decades away. Like flush toilets and Novocain, the hi-fi now ranked for me as one of the really matterful innovations of the modern era.

More importantly, I was beginning to understand that listening to a hi-fi wasn't casual. It was not about information: The college I attended back in Ohio shared a campus with a conservatory, and my roommate—a classical pianist with perfect pitch—gleaned all the information he needed by listening to Van Cliburn and André Watts on a portable cassette player. No, this experience was about transcendence: creating a protected space to immerse oneself as fully as possible in the most universal artform available to the species.

Pasha's listening room signified even more. It existed in a country where finding a decent-fitting shirt or sturdy suitcase often turned into a months-long ordeal, and where the very act of obtaining audio gear and records—often from diplomats and the few others with foreign-travel privileges—was a serious crime. What Pasha had built in his living room—an illicit temple to the West and its popular music—was not only a form of cultural appreciation but an act of political protest. No wonder he was willing to forgo a happy home life and badly needed orthodontia to maintain it and spread its gospel to other music obsessives. In how many Soviet homes could you find such a thing?

This first exposure to audiophilia left an outsized imprint on my life. It has shown up in my love of jazz and interest in vintage gear—I continue to find the sound of many current designs to appeal to the mind at the expense of the body. I went on to write a book about one of Elvis's songwriters (footnote 1) and another about the Soviet Union (footnote 2). And I've come to believe firmly that listening to a hi-fi can elevate the quality of one's life. For me, on good days, it becomes a ritual in which the listener plays as vital a role as the performer. Like my morning meditation, it's an intentional stepping away from the fragmented push-and-pull of the daily routine, a setting aside of time and space where I can forget myself in the act of experiencing beauty and meaning. I believe that regular listening makes me more patient and receptive to others, and makes the inevitable upsets and ordeals easier to bear.


I thought about this recently while visiting an art installation at Lisson Gallery in New York. An artist named Devon Turnbull had created a listening room in the gallery where he was demonstrating a hi-fi of his own design. It consisted of hulking horn speakers built around Altec drivers, tube electronics (including an amplifier freshly built from a design by Stereophile columnist Herb Reichert), a turntable, and a reel-to-reel tape machine. I was lucky to be there when jazz historian and record collector Matthew Rivera played a stash of 78rpm records—I'd never heard Sidney Bechet, Chano Pozo, or Sonny Rollins reproduced with so little dynamic compression and so much wallop. Turnbull asked us to remain quiet during playback and lit several sticks of incense in a holder built into the same casework as the electronics, indicating that it was an essential part of the system. Incense is used in nearly every spiritual tradition to signal a transition from ordinary life into sanctified space, and judging by the hushed audience in the gallery, it was having the desired effect.

Later, Turnbull sent me a 'zine he'd published in which he described what he wanted from an ideal listening session. It captured my own goals so eloquently that I'll share some of it here: "The experience I'm after is the antithesis of analytical. I want to melt into my chair. I want my breathing to slow and my heart rate to drop. When the needle gets into the infinity groove I want to listen to it for a while, while I slowly return to a state where I can stand up from my seat."

Because we arrive at adulthood shaped by vastly different experiences, the things that move and excite us vary for every listener. That is why no single component or design approach can be the best for everyone. Despite all the time we spend shouting at one another online, that is one of the real joys of this pastime. And I'd like to believe that anyone who has undertaken the considerable expense and research of assembling a perfectionist hi-fi must be after more than cavernous soundstages and abdomen-compressing bass. I'd like to believe that they know that listening can enlarge the small personal worlds where we spend our days—that with enough exposure, great art will change your life. Otherwise, we're just obsessing over expensive boxes, and you may as well put that time into matchbook collecting, motherboard customization, Shetland pony husbandry, or bedazzling the back of your jean jacket with the likeness of Tom Petty's face.


Brilliant corners and nooks
There's a shelf next to my hi-fi where I keep about 100 records that I listen to most often. It always includes a slightly scratchy 1976 Japanese pressing of Brilliant Corners, my favorite recording by my favorite jazz pianist, Thelonious Monk, whose music I've loved since I was a teenager. As it happened, we attended the same public high school in Manhattan. Seeing his name on a list of famous alumni someone had tacked up in the hallway, next to the athletic trophies, encouraged me to borrow some Monk records from the library. They made an impression. On Brilliant Corners, the lurching tempos and splintered chords of the title track required 25 takes to get down on record and reportedly prompted the otherwise mild-mannered bass player, Oscar Pettiford, to take a swing at Monk. This is difficult music that still polarizes listeners, but to me, the 1957 session stands as an essential work of modernism, no less impressive than the strange, machine-like buildings Le Corbusier was designing at around the same time. Unlike a lot of modern architecture, though, Brilliant Corners is also antic, funny, and an absolute delight to experience. So when Jim Austin proposed a bimonthly column exploring the weird warrens and byways of this hobby that don't get enough coverage in Stereophile's reviews and asked what I'd like it to be called, I had my answer.

Footnote 1: Lonely Avenue: The Unlikely Life and Times of Doc Pomus.

Footnote 2: Young Heroes of the Soviet Union.


volvic's picture

I’ve read this article three time so far and still can’t get enough of it. Makes me want to start experimenting with SUT’s.

PeterPani's picture

Several years ago, I compared my Ortofon Jubile MC via Auditorium 23 with my pure tubed solution for prepreamplifing the signal up to MM (Solo2 YS-audio with a vintage WE396 tube). The WE396 delivered (after replacing some electrical components and cables of this small device) more punch and even nicer music colours. The Auditorium was much more silent (no background hum al all). But 3 meters away I am not that sensitive to hum during listening sessions (on Tannoy D700's).
Anyway, I would prefer the 23 compared to a solid state solution anytime. Solid state never convinced me as first component after a cartridge.
But the first step-up of MC depends on a lot of influencing factors from all components involved. And endless ways of trial-and-error.

Jack L's picture


So why keep on spending money & time in such "endless ways of trial-and-error" game becaues of using MC cartridges ???

Because nearly every hi-end audiophiles use MC cartridges, decent music can't go without using MC cartridges ?? Sorry, I don't think so!

Likewsie, nearly every grown up human being drinks coffee, we can't live without coffee ??? Sorry I don't think so !

I don't drink coffee because I can't tolorate the bitter burnt coffee bean taste even with double milk & sugar !

Likewise, my triode-spoiled ears are not that happy with the unique hair-splitting tonal coloration of a MC cartridge, which does not sound like live music texture !!! So I prefer MM cartridges which sounds more natural, closer to live performance.

With MM cartridges, gone is the headache of such "endless way of trial & error" in acquiring the right signal step-up devices.

Listening is believing

Jack L

PS: My 2nd DD TT+ s-shaped black carbon-fibre SME arm is installed with a MC catridge (made-in-Japan) with factory matched headamp. But so what ???

PeterPani's picture

I tried a lot of MM's: Shure V15, Denon DL103, Wooden Grado Reference, London Decca Gold. They all do not extract that much information than an MC. Yes, they can play well and have a fuller sound. But they miss the sensible parts in the instrumental and vocal heights.
As said, I play my schellack (78) - Ortofon CG78 (Output 1,5mV), my mono EMT MC and my Jubilee Stereo all prepreamplified by that single tube. And I am really very happy with this solution. I always try other ways (out of audiophile curiosity), but since 20 years always come back to the WE396.
By the way: this is the beauty of reel-to-reel.The tone head (exchange all 7 years?) cost $ 170 and beats $ 10000 MC's.
The best analog system would be analog Laserdisc. There we would have no hassle at all. Sadly, they let this perfect analog carrier die instead to develop it further by applying a higher frequency carrier. But to surpass the audio quality of master tape might have been a no go.

volvic's picture

I am sure it's an MC, as is the London Decca Gold. I agree with you, even though I have been using the Shure V15 MK V MR for many years. I have four of them. The only reason is that they track very well, and after 500 hours (the recommended wear period for most line contact styli, as per JICO and others), I can easily replace them. I have an Audio Technica AT-OC9XSL, but I don't think that is any better than the Shure.
I would love to try the DS Audio cartridges, as those who have heard them tell me they are a revelation. But again, the cost per play is much higher than what I get with the MM cartridges. Also, no one is ever willing to tell me the lifespan of these cartridges, and if they all wear out by 700 hours, that's a lot of money for a play.

Jack L's picture


MC + the RIGHT matching signal boosters (SUT/headamps) is a money burning & brain wrecking 'game'. Who NEEDS it ??????

So for genuine love of music, MM is for me as I've compared MM vs MC/factory matching headamp. I am soooo gratifying. No headache & saving a bundle for life enjoying off shore cruising vacations, my favourite outting with my wife

Listening to MM is believing

Jack L

volvic's picture

So, I decided to change some of the MC settings on my Cyrus Phono preamp with matching PS. The beauty of the Cyrus is that I can modify all the MC setting via remote, how cool. I thought the MC setting were fine, but last week, I recapped and swapped my thirty plus year old Linn Kan II woofers and tweeters. The result is a cleaner, evenly matched stereo image, and that got me to thinking, maybe I should experiment with the MC settings. Boy, what a difference a few changes to these settings can do. Suddenly, after 100 hours on the AT MC cartridge with new settings, it sounds better than my trusty Shure V15 MK V. Does MM make more sense dollar wise? Yes, this is why I have kept the Shures around for so long and nothing can beat them for under $1000. But don’t let anyone tell you that MM is better sounding than MC cartridges north of $1000. I think it’s time to splurge on a Hana.

Jack L's picture

Hi PeterPani

This is exactly what I pointed out repeatedly before, the "sensible parts in the instrument & vocal HEIGHTS" are the enhanced brilliance colouration unique to MC.

My question: do you hear the same pronounced brilliance 6in a live performance ??? I don't & therefore I don't go for MC let alone its excessive costs & headache involved.

A lot of audiophiles go for MC assuming the high cost of MC & affliated gears SHOULD offer better sound, driven by vendors marketeering & own superiority complex.

FYI, my MM (made-in-Japan) tracks my 1,000+ classical stereo LPs flying colours. With MM, I can hear distinct hi-pitched voice characterics between well-known opera sopranos, say Joan Sutherland & Maria Callas of the same era. Vocals from MM sound more human than MC without the latter's over articulation.

I will cover "the beauty of reel-and-reel" you also raised above.
I agree to it !

Listening to MM is believing

Jack L

Jack L's picture


Burning incense ??? It sounded like some voodoo show or what ?

Acoustically, the massive bundle of audios placed in between the front loudspeakers & the listening couch is not a voodoo blessing at all, IMO.

Ideally, NOTHING should be placed between the loudspeakers & the listening couch to allow the loudspeaker music soundwaves arriving the ears without any blocking/deflection/reflection. This is acoustic physics !!!

So it looked like some woodoo-aided audio equipment show more than music show, my friend.

Listening is believing

Jack L

PS: I don't think the author of the "zine" given to A.H. knew enough the
acoustic ABC let alone "ideal listening session", IMO.

Jack L's picture


YES, silver oxide, an impurity got into the metal during its CASTNG process, does less sonic harm to the music than copper oxide inside copper. I don't know silver sounds better than copper due to their oxides electrical conductivity or not !

"the silver boundaries are less damaging (easier to navigate) than the copper ones" qtd J.A.

The only way to get rid of the crystal boundareis of a metal is the apply Single Crystal casting process. Inside a Single crystal metal, all the molecules are lined up orderly WITHOUT any crystal boundaries. Therefore better sound.

Putting it in perspective, silver & copper are the best & second best electrical conductors on this planet. The electrical resisitivity (p) of pure silver is 1.59 & of copper 1.67. P of Single crytal silver is 1.49 & of copper 1.52. Only some 5% difference in resistivity, my skeptical ears do hear the sonic superiority of pure silver conductor over pure copper.

That's is the very reason I design/built ALL the audio interconnects & power cords with 99.99% pure silver conductors for my rig & for my silver-loveng audiophile friends.

Silver is very unreactive metal & will NOT be oxidized at room temperatures. But it tanishes very quickly when exposed to sulpur & sulphur gases, like hydrogen sulphite in the air, and ozone!

Like the most expensive Tara Lab pure silver interconnects which are sealed out any atmosphere air by vacuuming, my silver cables are completely air-tight to prevent the pure silver conduectors inside the cables from sulphur-tanishing. No need complex vacuuming for my silver cables.

It works like a chime as my silver cables sound consistently good since day one for many years now. No sign of sonic deterioration at all.

To the skeptical ears of yours truly & my silver audiophile friends, silver sounds soooo much better that pure copper - in terms of transient response, transparency & sonic ELEGANCY !!!

Listening to pure silver is believing

Jack L

MontyM's picture

I thoroughly enjoyed this column. I look forward to reading your next entry. Thanks.