Musicians as Audiophiles: Jerome Sabbagh

Chances are, if you're a regular Stereophile reader, you're already a fan of tenor saxophonist Jerome Sabbagh. How so? Because our astute crew of writers, editors, and all-round trendsetters have their collective fingers on the pulse of music that matters. Stereophile Contributing Editor Fred Kaplan reviewed Sabbagh's 2015 vinyl release, The Turn, bringing his honed insight to bear on a recording he describes as "spectacular. Sabbagh's sax floats palpably between the speakers, Ted Poor's drumkit crashes and sizzles . . .Ben Monder's guitar sparkles or wails. . . and Joe Martin's bass plucks and thumps like an anchor. Everything is clear, in a wide, deep, seamless space."

On June 29, 2015 Editor, in "The Turn On Vinyl Worth Its Weight in Kickstarter Gold," Michael Fremer opined "This is a record you'll not quickly retire, both for the music and the transparent, three-dimensional instrumental presentation. All attempted to produce one 'the way records used to be made' and all succeeded."

I've followed Sabbagh's generous tenor tone and riveting compositions since his 2011 release, Plugged In (Bee Jazz BEE 049). Sabbagh is a Europe-to-New York transplant: born in France in 1973, relocating to the city in 1995, he's cleverly avoided the pitfalls of some over-eager jazz musicians looking to build a glossy reputation, instead recording a series of highly listenable, melodically memorable albums that adhere to his vision alone, carving out a rare musical space that goes from strength to strength.

Sabbagh's distinctive sound was never more apparent than when photographing him for this edition of Musicians As Audiophiles. As Sabbagh roamed the front room of his Brooklyn apartment, saxophone in hand, blowing big notes of billowy serenity, his cat, Cava, seemed annoyed, dancing away then moving closer. As Cava leapt from floor to piano, her head turning toward the wall, I was floored by Sabbagh's sound. Here was Ben Webster, Stan Getz, Joe Lovano, and Lester Young rolled into a single 5'8" French frame. Sabbagh's soulful solo notes echoed off the apartment's plastered walls, contrasting the harsh sunlight streaming through the windows with cleansing air, saturated tone and inexorable energy. There's hi-fi—and there's the real thing.

The Sound of Sabbagh
Jerome Sabbagh can be heard on his CDs, Flipside (Naxos Jazz 86013), Lean (Music Wizards (no catalog number)), North (Fresh Sound New Talent FSNT 203), Pogo (Sunnyside SSC1166), One Two Three (Bee Jazz BEE 028), I Will Follow You (Bee Jazz BEE 034), Plugged In (Bee Jazz BEE 049), and CD/LP, The Turn (Sunnyside SSC1385).

Does this singular musician own an equally singular hi-fi? Sabbagh's system, consisting almost entirely of vintage gear, is one of the best sounding smaller-scale systems I've ever heard. Shockingly good!

"For me good sound is about feeling like I'm in the room, feeling that it's realistic, feeling that the instrumental tone is natural," Sabbagh says. "All that draws me more into the music."

Sabbagh's stereo consists of a Garrard 401 Transcription Turntable outfitted with Magnepan Unitrac and SME 3009 tonearms. An Arcam FMJ 23 CD player and Wavelength Brick V3 DAC handle digital duties. Fisher X-100 V3 and Harman/Kardon Citation II integrated amplifiers alternately power a pair of '70s-era Rogers JR149 stand-mount loudspeakers. Interconnects and power cables are by VH Audio; Silversonic Q10 Signature speaker cables are by DH Labs. A Blue Circle Audio Powerline Conditioner filters the grunge emanating from the New York City power grid.

Why high-end audio?

"I got into audio to find something good enough to assess my own recordings when mixing and mastering and making audio [oriented] decisions," Sabbagh replies. "Then I realized how great things could sound. I had no idea it could sound like this, something that's closer to live music that drew me in that much more."

Prior to his audiophile baptism, Sabbagh's rig was the typical musician's hodgepodge of thrown-together gear purchased from big box retailers: Polk Audio speakers, Yamaha amplifier, Philips CD player.

"When I got the Rogers speakers I realized they were too good for the Yamaha, so I bought a Quad 34 preamplifier and a Quad 303 power amplifier," Sabbagh recalls. "I had those modified and they did sound good. But I wanted to try tubes so I got the Fisher X-100 V3 for $300 on eBay. It's more suited to my tastes. And it's been refurbished as well, by Dave Smith, a trumpet player. We changed capacitors and a bunch of resistors. The coupling caps and the power supply are also new. Bassist Chris Lightcap has a similar Fisher (a KX-100)."

Listening Space
Either by design or accident, Sabbagh's cozy listening den perfectly suits his components. Lucky to live in an apartment with double windows which help deaden exterior street noise, Sabbagh positioned his system based on Cardas Audio's Room Setup & Speaker Placement Guide.

"I looked at the Cardas formula, then tweaked from that," Sabbagh says. "I'm trying to avoid room nodes. I took the Cardas formula as a basis for near-field listening, then go by ear. It's hard to use the formula in this room as a have the windows on the wall, but I still think I'm using the Cardas measurements as a basis. I tweaked until I heard what sounds best."

Measuring 11' x 10' with 9'7" ceilings, the room is divided into virtual thirds, placing the Rogers JR149s well out and close to the listening position with the turntable, digital works and analog amplification stationed on the long wall. The back of the speakers stand 3' 7" from the back wall; the front of the speakers a mere 53" from the listening spot. Firing straight ahead with no toe-in, the JR149s fully energize the room.

Spinning the 1961 album by Nancy Wilson with Cannonball Adderley and his quintet, Nancy Wilson/ Cannonball Adderley (LP, Capitol T 1657), the sound was immediate, fast and lively. I was bowled over by the rig's clarity, tone, imaging and concentrated energy.

Modding the Garrard 401
Sabbagh's beautiful Garrard 401 turntable is the initial source of all this musical goodness.

"The Garrard 401 was fully refurbished by Steve Dobbins of XactAudio in Boise, Idaho," Sabbagh explains. "Steve went through the table and made sure everything was working optimally. He hand-built the custom plinth. He makes plinths for Garrard as well as other turntables. He also makes his own direct-drive turntables."

Dobbins calls the gleaming white finish of Sabbagh's plinth, "White Knight." As well as building the plinth, Dobbins brought the Garrard up to spec, making sure there were no loose joints or bushings, sometimes replacing the bushings and re-soaking them in oil. He also tightened all the linkages and trued the idler wheel so it would maintain correct speed. The White Knight plinth was manufactured from five different materials to address the different frequency resonances inherent to the Garrard 401.

"I had a Thorens TD150 before the Garrard," Sabbagh continues. "The speed stability is better on the Garrard and the sound is more detailed. Bass notes never sounded quite as tight as this. I'm using one of the same arms as I used with the Thorens. That's the Magnepan Unitrac/Shure V15-III with a JICO SAS stylus (now discontinued, there are newer models), and an SME 3009/ADC XLM MkII cartridge. I'm planning to turn the SME into a mono setup but I haven't done it yet. The Magnepan is a uni-pivot arm; it has a little bit of a cult following. I had a Linn Basik arm on the Thorens, but the Magnepan is miles better, hands down."

Why the old-world Shure V15?

"It's a good match with the Magnepan arm," he replies. "The arm is really light; it's a classic match. The cartridge is affordable and there's the really good JICO stylus for it. I was trying to do all this on a budget. My fanciest piece of gear is the Dobbins-modded Garrard turntable. I bought the Garrard for $500 on eBay then Steve and I worked out a price for refurbishments and the plinth. And it turns out he's a fan of my vinyl record."

Fisher or Harman/Kardon?
While the refurbished definitely Fisher caught my ears' attention, the Harman/Kardon Citation II sat on the floor, unattached. The Fisher made the system cook; what's up with the Citation?

"I'm not someone who's constantly changing equipment, whether it's my saxophone setup or my hi-fi," Sabbagh wrote via email. "I like to keep things consistent. With my stereo, I have a system I know well and can really trust to evaluate my own recordings. I've been really happy with the sound I'm getting overall. I've had the Rogers JR149s for about 12 years, the Fisher about 10 years, the Wavelength Brick V3 DAC for seven years. The Citation II amplifier has a bit of a cult following, as well, and it came for a good price so I couldn't resist.

"I modified the Citation using mods developed by Jim McShane, which made it even better," Sabbagh wrote. "Everything inside it is new. I used it with a Fidelity Research AS-1 passive preamp and that setup overall was more detailed and dynamic than the Fisher. I've since sold the Fidelity Research preamp, as it wasn't interacting well with the impedance of some of my other gear, and bought a Bent Audio AVC-1 transformer based preamp that I will try soon. I suspect things might sound even better with that setup."

Sabbagh placed Sonny Rollins' Way Out West (LP, Analogue Productions APJ 008, remastered by Doug Sax) on the Garrard 401. The galloping "I'm An Old Cowhand" charged the room like electric particles firing my ears. Shelly Manne's klip-klopping temple block rhythms never sounded so alive, so fast, so natural. Rollins' sax was all tooting gossamer finery, while Ray Brown's bass displayed tension and drive allied to warmth and weight. Whew! Wide open and free. Sabbagh's a tweaker, and you can definitely hear the fruit of his labors.

"I've spent a lot of time dialing things in," he explains. "I tried Herbie's Tube Dampers on every tube; tried them in and out, same with footers. And I tried many different tubes and tube positions. The tube dampers seem to make everything a little cleaner. I'm also using Herbie's Audio Lab's Isolation Feet. I use three of Herbie's black Iso-Cups with Gabon ebony balls under the Fisher (or the Citation II), Tenderfoot under the Wavelength DAC and myrtle wood blocks under the CD player. The Steve Dobbins plinth for the Garrard 401 comes with four Stillpoints feet as part of the design. The footers clearly make a difference."

Sabbagh's LPs for hi-fi evaluation include Rubenstein playing Mozart's Concerto No.24, Joseph Krips conducting (LP, RCA LSC-2461), Duke Ellington And His Orchestra's Masterpieces By Ellington (Columbia CL 825), his The Turn, and Joe Williams with Count Basie's Just the Blues (LP, Emus ESC-12008). On CD, Sabbagh likes Ray Charles & Betty Carter / Dedicated To You twofer (Rhino R2 75259, Doug Sax remastered version), and The Juilliard String Quartet plays Mozart (Sony Classical 88697884152).

I had to know more about the homely looking, stripped-down loudspeakers that produced such dynamic and natural sound, the Rogers JR149s.

JR Model JR149 Loudspeaker System
"Rogers invented this round aluminum enclosure which gets rid of reflections," Sabbagh says. "It has a little more bass and is a little different sounding than the LS3/5A. These image really well. And they're pretty natural sounding. When I bought them I had a run-of-the-mill stereo system. Then I plugged these in. The imaging was something I had never experienced before."

Designed by audio engineer Jim Rogers in the late 1970s, the JR149s were based on the popular LS3/5A, using the same drivers: a KEF B110 Bextrene-cone bass unit and matching T27 Mylar tweeter. The oblong enclosure is made of heavy gauge aluminum, with wooden end-caps (a round metal compartment attached to the lower end-cap houses the crossover). A bolt runs through the length of the speaker, top to bottom, attached to a fiber disc at each end. The cabinet is lined to further reduce internal sound reflections. The original speaker came with a rounded metal grille covered by wraparound fluted foam, most of which disintegrated many years ago. An easy-to-drive 89dB make this one winning small speaker.

"They're incredibly good speakers that not a lot of people are aware of," Sabbagh adds. "I paid $650 for them on eBay, shipped. They have a little of that studio monitor accuracy, but in a natural way. These are version 1 but I upgraded the crossover to the late Type 24 crossover. I found it to be an improvement at the time."

Does your audiophile listener inform your musician's brain?

"Being a saxophone player, I've spent hours and years working on my sound," Sabbagh replies. "That got me into caring about sound and recording which led to my being an audiophile. I got into learning about mics and making records. I wanted to be able to evaluate what I was hearing in the studio to make sure my recordings were sounding similar to how I'd recorded them. Then I realized, 'oh my god, this sounds great.' That got me into it. It's once step closer to live music in imaging and tonal accuracy. Those things are really important to me. They help create the illusion of live music."

Cracking the Vinyl Conundrum
Pressing vinyl is a hard nut to crack for most jazz musicians. But lured by Doug Sax's offer and his innate sense that The Turn would benefit from a vinyl edition, Sabbagh started a funding campaign and went all in.

"I pressed to vinyl because if done well it always sound better," Sabbagh acknowledges. "And Doug Sax wanted to master it to vinyl. That meant a lot to me. I love the records he worked on like Way Out West and some '70s orchestral recordings. Given that we were pressing from tape and Doug was involved I thought it would be worth it.

"We originally recorded the album live to tape and two-track at Sear Sound with engineer James Farber," he continues. "Because I was on a budget, we went to tape but backed it up with high-rez digital. Had I known I was going to press vinyl I would have gone analog all-the-way. So, a year later, the record is out, I started a Kickstarter campaign, and offered some free tracks, posted tracks and reviews. It's easier to ask people to fund something that already exists, as did the CD. I was asking for money specifically to press to vinyl. I ultimately raised 10k, which I used for overall vinyl costs. Vinyl mastering cost roughly $2000 for 4 sides; pressing double LP vinyl at Quality Record Pressings was about $5000; printing the covers was another $1000; then the labels, and shipping."

Sabbagh is excited about the new quartet he co-leads with guitarist Greg Tuohey, with bassist Joe Martin and drummer Kush Abadey, which recorded a new album this past December. Once again, Sabbagh recorded live to two-track tape, all analog, at Sear Sound with James Farber at the controls. He plans to cut vinyl directly from tape. And Kickstarter will again play a role in the vinyl funding. A veteran of the jazz-to-vinyl experience, Sabbagh shares his wisdom with other vinyl-intentioned jazz musicians.

"This was a labor of love," Sabbagh states. "I wouldn't advise anyone to do this unless they are willing to get really involved. The record touched a chord with audiophiles, which was great because it broadened my fan base. But I don't think it would have been successful if I hadn't been as careful as I was all the way. From using engineer James Farber to Doug Sax for mastering. With vinyl so many things can go wrong so you really have to be careful, and do the QC yourself and chase down every click and pop on the test pressings. You can't outsource that to anyone. But ultimately I knew this would sound really good on vinyl."

dalethorn's picture

I have a very narrow taste in music - not by artist or style, but by the track. I rarely sit through a whole album, and when I buy it'll be one out of 50-100 tracks, on average. Exceptions for symphonies and operas, etc. In the case of Jerome Sabbagh, I sampled his albums on iTunes and found much to enjoy. I do wish that other sites like HDTracks would switch to 90-second samples - or 60 seconds at the very least, so I'd need to go to iTunes less often.

ken mac's picture

Dale, I hope you enjoyed the piece, and thanks for digging Jerome's music. He's an excellent musician and composer, and has a great era, period.

dalethorn's picture

After a few more listens and digging through other articles, it seems what Jerome accomplished with his budget constraints was a near miracle. I know a few artists who've had good talent and a little money, but didn't have the gear or the vision to pursue the higher-fi sound. Maybe Jerome will inspire others similarly.

alexdias's picture

Based on a Stereophile suggestion, I purchased a copy of The Turn and it's a wonderful album. It sounds brilliant but the music is really what got me. I'm happy to say the love and care put on that recording and pressing have been thoroughly appreciated.

Ortofan's picture

... the JR149 speakers sound natural, then he should head over to Sound by Singer and take a listen to the Harbeth P3ESR.

dc_bruce's picture

I first heard these speakers at a shop in Charlottesville, VA in 1976 or 77. They imaged like bandits and had a very sweet sound. This is a nice article, and now maybe I should buy the record. Thanks to the author and the subject!

supamark's picture

and I really enjoy these looks into musicians' (often quirky) systems but one thing bothers me about this one - I'm always a little weirded out by people who don't decorate their walls and just leave them bare. Put up a few pictures or something.

stereophilereader's picture


supamark's picture

agree to disagree (different tastes and all that).

On a side note, a little acoustic felt/foam on the overhang on those speakers (and replacing the missing screw on the left woofer) would make 'em sound even better.

ken mac's picture

That's your takeaway? I spent two days in Jerome's apartment. The only thing I noticed beyond the great sound of his rig and his saxophone was Cava, the cat! Big personality. The walls? Not so much...

supamark's picture

1 - the very first thing I said was, "cool little system," because it is. I'm about to fully refurb a 25 to 30 year old system (except modern DAC) myself, so I have an interest in restored systems like his.

2 - just like some people can't stand the word "moist" I can't stand bare walls. People who don't decorate their walls weird me out a bit even when they're wonderful people.

bonus - I think thing 2 should have been an episode of Seinfeld.

ken mac's picture

We have an upcoming MAA featuring an entire refurbished system including an HH Scott preamplifier. Hope it is of use to you.

Moist, I like. Some don't like the word sumptuous. Fools.

"thing 2"? Agreed!

dalethorn's picture

Now that I have the Sennheiser/Apogee Ambeo binaural recorder, if I ever get to spend even an hour there I'd like to capture a bit of that for the Youtube channel.

Hank Bakker's picture

Mikey was right, this album is always near the front of the stack. Nice to get an insight into Jeromes passion for detail which certainly paid off in the playing, sign me up for the next kickstarter vinyl campaign.

unhold's picture

You should hear the magic of Dobbins "The Beat" TT with the Schroeder LT tonearm!