Listening #190: Experience Music Page 2

Electronics were all by Experience Music: a single-ended amp using French R120 indirectly heated triode tubes as output devices; an LCR phono stage; and a passive autoformer volume control. The source was a Saskia idler-drive turntable from Win Tinnon Audio, of Alabama, with a Thomas Schick tonearm and a newish Ortofon G-style SPU pickup head.

Jeffrey put on an album by the late R.L. Burnside, a country-blues singer and guitarist. A repeated acoustic-guitar phrase appeared from the direction of the speakers—an up-tempo, rhythmically driving sound that seemed physically whole and real, yet was so disembodied from the gear that I stopped noticing the enormous horn in front of me. Then came Burnside's casually impassioned voice: "Poor black Mattie's got no change of clothes / poor black Mattie's got no change of clothes . . ."


A new-in-the-box Western Electric 555 with mesh back, signifying early production. Jackson: "I am rather certain this is the only NOS mesh 555 left on the planet—it belongs in a museum."

It was eerie, hypnotic stuff, creepy yet carnal and addictively relentless: a mix of nearly overwhelming sensations, and an experience almost anyone would pay for if they knew such a thing could be had for mere money. This was music playback at its best and most essential, and for the rest of the day, the list of attributes I'm paid to listen for was crumpled and discarded, as from the open window of a car headed somewhere better.

Then Jackson reminded me that there was an even bigger system to hear—but hadn't we better have lunch first? So off we went.


Jackson: "Dave Slagle's Capehart strain-gauge cartridge—evidence that very high-end strain-gauge cartridges were being made in the 1940s! The console that this belongs in has a Western 728B speaker, a Brook 2A3 amplifier, and a record changer that literally flips records."

Rejoined by Lisa, we exited the house through its enclosed back porch, which doubles as a woodworking shop, then paused so I could take in the accumulation of vintage audio gear in the Jacksons' garage, its overhead door now open. Had I ever before seen a domestic console hi-fi unit with an Altec 604A for a loudspeaker? Had I ever seen so many vintage transformers in one space?

We lunched in a very nice restaurant-bar that was equal parts antiquey and artsy. As we walked back to the car, Lisa pointed out the old-fashioned candy store that had long been a fixture of Rhinebeck's downtown, but folded when its owner passed on. Area resident Paul Rudd had bought it and put up the money to keep it going, just because it seemed a shame to lose such a thing.


Jeffrey's basement system (see text); the Ortofon SPU hadn't been installed when this photo was taken.

We spent longer than we should have just enjoying the day, but Lisa and I needed to get back to our respective desks. So she headed to work, and Jeffrey and I took separate cars down to Experience Music's warehouse, not far from Rhinebeck. When we got there, he discovered that a lock that had never before been locked—and to which neither he nor, as far as he knew, his landlord, had a key—had been locked, presumably by accident. We began looking around for a very large, wedge-shaped rock.

You know it's right
The story didn't end there. Before I set off for home, Jackson gained access to the space, and I had a tantalizingly brief listening session with a system built around Experience Music's Baffled Medium loudspeaker: a time-aligned system in which the larger of two horns—both hand-carved from solid walnut and beautifully finished—extends down to 80Hz. Below that, the system hands off to an 18" woofer, compression loaded in a manner that maintains directivity in the transition area between the lower and upper bass. Amplification was by a wall-mounted brass-and-walnut EM amp that combines German Aa directly heated triode driver tubes with copper-plate GM70 directly heated triode power tubes; the signal-path wiring is all silver, the amp's various Intact Audio transformers have nickel and nano-crystalline cores, and its rectifiers are mercury-vapor tubes, which Jackson describes as "fast and clean, much more so than even a Schottky solid-state rectifier." The source was a grease-bearing Garrard 301 turntable in a custom plinth with a Schick tonearm and an Ortofon SPU pickup head, driving an Emia Phono transformer.


The big system in Experience Music's warehouse space.

We listened to an LP by another blues singer and electric guitarist, Junior Kimbrough, accompanied by a drummer whose occasional uncertainties of tempo were offset by a really great, conspicuously live snare sound. Through this system, Kimbrough's singing was offhand, but it was the kind of offhand that had a little crazy behind it. His guitar sound was brash, like a singer hoarse from shouting, and his choice of notes was best described as dangerous. Far more than the average collection of playback gear, Jeffrey Jackson's system made it seem as though live, raucous, random, edge-of-my-seat music was happening right in front of me, sometimes in an unsettling way. If this had been a bar, I might have wanted to go home after a couple of numbers, if they'd let me—it was almost too much. But almost too much, rightly considered a positive attribute for this kind of music, is something one seldom hears from a record.


EM's direct-coupled GM-70 amplifier. Note the blue glow of the mercury-vapor rectifier tubes.

I requested something different, and Jackson put on Ornette Coleman's The Shape of Jazz to Come—a reissue LP, although I don't recall which label. The music sounded exactly as I think it should have: very challenging, but in a warmly human way—not an alien, biting, we-don't-care-if-you-like-this way, which is how it sounds on some systems.

In this setting, as in the basement in Rhinebeck, it seemed to me that Jackson's playback gear succeeded in finding the humans in the recordings, in a manner that rendered everything else less important, at least at that moment. A couple of months later, I wish I had a more precise recollection of the system's purely sonic attributes. Of its bass and treble extension, all I can say is: sufficient. But I remember how appropriately hard-hitting the drum sound was, and how believable and compelling Coleman's alto-sax tone was. That did it for me.


A vintage RCA multi-cellular horn below a breadboard version of the output stage of a 50W, class-A1, single-ended amplifier. Jackson says this stage alone weighs 400 lb.

As I mentioned above, most of Experience Music's work has been the making of custom systems—the warehouse listening space is often used to let customers come by and hear their purchases in various stages of development—yet Jeffrey Jackson says that a few of his creations have enjoyed enough word-of-mouth popularity that he's offered them as "standard" items—including the GM-70 stereo amplifier ($60,000 with copper wiring and transformers) and the Baffled Medium speaker ($120,000/pair).


Jackson: "These are prototype horns and field-coil drivers. This particular horn and driver have been in continual development for more than 10 years—the exact flare was what I used back in Memphis. On the right is an RCA theater amplifier."

As much as I like the idea of being able to afford the things that I like, and as grand as I think it would be for Jeffrey Jackson to design and build a Model T sort of product—something good and beautiful and attainable and easy enough to make that lots of people could get to hear one, even own one—I wonder if EM's systems sound so genuine because their business model, as it stands now, is itself so genuine. They're in this to make a living, yet the business world they inhabit isn't infected with the phony, trivial marketing wheeze that flows through so much of domestic audio, as when large companies start making up different series of products, not as a response to demand but to grow their markets and kill off their competitors.

By contrast, so much original work is going on at Experience Music, with such a distinctive combination of reverence for the past and radical techniques and thoughts untried, that the only things in danger of being killed off are complacency and boredom. And the occasional rusty lock.


dalethorn's picture

A major interest of mine, but unfortunately one that I haven't committed real money to, is analog sound. If I had a billion dollars (not 10 or 100 billion, just one), and I don't think 100 million would be enough to fund it, I'd like to sponsor a project to build a state-of-the-art cost-no-object mechanical-acoustical recording system, just to see how much fidelity could be captured without electronics but with the most advanced materials in 2018.

That aside, I think of analogies between photography and audio when it comes to the intrusion of digital processing. At the risk that my analogy might be too simple, I see many photographers shooting film today, only to scan their films digitally and print them digitally. Printing the films with analog 'enlargers' produces a different result, and I'd imagine what this article describes is somehow analogous to my photo example - bypassing digital processing altogether.

chuckles304's picture

You drove right by my house to get to Rhinebeck (I'm from Ghent in Columbia county).

If you ever feel the need for a chauffeur......

Just kidding.

John in Ghent

Mrubey's picture

Almost as much as I wish I had studied music from a young age. I would like to have developed Jackson and Slagle's skill set. As it is, these guys are the American Yirohasu Kondo. I'm just glad they are in the world.
Thank you Art

Herb Reichert's picture

am glad they are in the world.
Thank you Art

ChrisS's picture

...were reproduced very poorly in the printed mag! Fortunately, they are much better here.

herman's picture

Having known Jeffrey for over 20 years, listened to many of his concoctions in Memphis and owned several, sat with him in the front row to see Charles Lloyd, had him help me design my own 16 foot DIY bass horns, all I can say is with Jeffrey it is all about the music. As Art said, he has it to the point now where it is so real it is almost unsettling. An amazing accomplishment. He has gotten out of my price range, but when you consider others are getting upwards of a million dollars for speakers that can't approach how alive Jeffrey's are they are a bargain. Glad to see him get the accolades he (and Dave Slagle) deserve