The Pursuit of Audio Excellence

At the time of my August 2011 "As We See It," I was using a Wilson-McIntosh system. That system is still with me and still gets quite a bit of use. Its location, however, has changed. In its place is a system that I can't see switching out or needing to replace: Wilson Alexandria XLF speakers with VTL Siegfried Series II Reference monoblock power amps, TL-7.5 Series III Reference preamplifier, and TP-6.5 Signature phono stage. It might take a small army of people to move it, but beyond that, I think I'm good to go.

This system has taken my listening sessions to an entirely different level. Over the many hours I have spent sitting in front of it, I have been trying to articulate what that means.

I think that when one climbs to the more rarified air of the audiophile environment, the reasons for that ascent become more varied, intense, sincere, and sometimes ridiculous. Only those who remain ignorant of hi-fi's power would contest the fact that a certain pair of speakers, the right cables, or stylus can bring a listener closer to the Playback Promised Land. All you can do is pity their box-wine-grade appreciation skills and move on.

Like many music fanatics, I have had a stereo system of some kind from a very early age. It wasn't until I got a bit older, heard better systems, found myself on both sides of a PA, and started spending incredible amounts of time in recording, mixing, and mastering studios, that I understood that the more optimal the playback, the more of the source tape and its intent would be revealed to me. This is what started a fairly obsessive journey, seconded only by my fascination, curiosity, and love of music itself.

Perhaps the single thing that inspired me to switch out gear and upgrade was listening to multitrack mixes through reference monitors during recording sessions—followed several months later by the frustration of getting the eventual LP of the sessions, playing it, and being so incredibly underwhelmed by what was coming out of the speakers. It's not as if you can snap your fingers and suddenly be in an acoustically tuned room cranking a mix from the 2" master tape, sharing what you heard with someone else. It was this dependable sonic bummer that was the catalyst for me to improve my listening environment whenever possible.

As a far more astute audiophile than I could ever hope to be, the average Stereophile reader can appreciate the following: My evaluation of playback has been influenced by the audio systems of my youth. No matter what setup I am experiencing, I am listening for the same things every time: clarity and complete realization of the lows, mids, and highs, and the ability to hear the full sonic bouquet of the source, without having to turn the system up loud to get there. If loud is the only way you listen, you often miss out on some of the best aspects of the music. Basically, since my 20s, I have been seeking the perfect blend of warm, listener-oriented enjoyment and nothing-but-the-facts-ma'am reference values for an immersive, persuasive, yet somewhat forensic listening experience. I want to be swept away by the overall sound, but still be able to hear the edits and punch-ins.

You're perhaps thinking I could save myself a lot of time and effort by merely hanging a pair of Altecs from the ceiling and calling it a day. Many years ago, I actually considered that.

My first pair of "real" speakers were handmade for me by Dave Levine, of the now-legendary Rat Sound, in 1986. They were two large boxes with 12" woofers on their bottoms, a mid and a tweeter on their fronts. He made them out of parts he had around the shop. It was all I could afford. I gave them away only a few years ago, and would have kept them if I'd had the room—they were great, and I got a lot of use out of them in the hovels I was living in around the Los Angeles area. A few years later I upgraded, and have been doing my best to ascend ever since.

This pursuit of sonic excellence was due not only to my time spent in the studio and live-music environments, but also to the rapidly expanding diameter of my appreciation for music. I found that systems that "rocked" didn't necessarily treat acoustic recordings very well. As my affection for jazz went from strength to strength, the frustration I felt at my system's relative boneheadedness became a distraction.

Initially, when acquainting myself with my new setup, I listened to records I was very familiar with, to allow my brain to make contextual evaluations of the sounds. Led Zeppelin albums were perfect for this. Like some of you, perhaps, I have spent literally well over half my life listening to those records. A deeper emotional connection with them I could not have imagined. The new system not only makes this possible but fairly inescapable. The attention to detail, the energy and depth that the Wilsons and VTLs never shy away from, provide a listening experience that is so completely immersive, you can forget your life before the record begins to play. There is nothing between me and the music. It is simply that damn good. This system blows my mind on a regular basis.

A man was at the house earlier today, making a repair in the kitchen. He looked at the Alexandrias and asked me, "What are these?!"

"Robots," I replied.

It is this that I have been after for decades: to have the music become part of my DNA, to lock in to music as I have while onstage, where there is nothing else on earth happening but that moment.

Music has not lost any of its awesome power. I used to sit transfixed in the small apartment bedrooms of my childhood, listening to records over and over again. Friday is still my favorite day, a holdover from high school. After classes were over, I would have two days of no teachers, no uniform, and nothing to keep me from listening to music for hours undisturbed. As I get older, the place that listening to music holds in my life only gets larger and more intense. Most of the people I speak to on a regular basis are music fanatics, and we talk of little else.

I would hope that, in part, your pursuit of audio excellence is an attempt to get closer and closer to the music, not to merely accumulate items to impress others. Music should be at least one place where we can suspend our cynicism. The many audiophiles I have spoken to, their unguarded joy when they describe what they have been listening to, how it moves them, and the excitement rendered by the technology meeting the perfect humanity of music, is quite heartening.

I think it's necessary to have at least one thing in your life that leads you to say: "This is what it's all about." For me, that's music. I think we should all feel quite lucky that we found it. Listening to the jams, whatever they may be, is the most perfect use of time I know.

Henry Rollins is a singer, a songwriter, a radio DJ, and an author. His new book, Before the Chop, is available now.

Axiom05's picture

While I am happy that you can afford a stereo system that costs more than most people's homes, many of us cannot afford much more than "boxed-wines" even though we appreciate the benefits that better quality audio products bring. Being out of work for over 2.5 years (a direct result of the recession of the late 2000's), I must enjoy my music the best I can on the lowly components that I am still able to afford. I find that it is actually more economical to attend live performances than try to find the cash to purchase high end audio products that are priced in the realm of lunacy. I find your tone offensive and your attitude condescending. Many would find it obscene that you can pay $200,000 for a pair of speakers while many in this country are unable to find work or cannot afford health insurance. It is great that you are able to have such a system, and I am not saying that you should not own it if you can afford it, but there is no need to "rub it in our faces," just go enjoy it quietly.

Music_Guy's picture

...but his tone was all about his passion for music and its related reproduction and the joy that it can bring to an individual.  Dude, this is the Stereophile site.   It is all about what is possible at the high end.  This is not where we come to remember a world that doesn't have passion for music and its faithful reproduction...a world where mass- produced squawk boxes pervade the audio landscape.  A world of audio mediocrity.

I am sympathetic with your economic plight.  Hey, I can't afford that kind of gear either.  But, at the same time, I wonder whether you are projecting some negatives on Mr R. that may not be deserved.  From what little I know about him, he earned every watt, every kHz, every note.  He is one crazy, creative, multi-talented, prolific MoFo.  Lunch room madness...Adv. Bio Team Captain...come on....  And, I think his current socio-political-economic views are more in synch with the plight of everyman than you give him credit for.

I really enjoy getting a glimpse audio-wise of how the "other half" lives.  Or, should I more politically correctly say; "the other 1 percent."

Relax, enjoy what you do have. Keep on pushing for that job. I wish you good health so you won't need any damned health insurance.

Glotz's picture

Hank the Crank... Man, he just rules.  

I'm so far behind on his books, I'll never catch up to the new one... dang.  

Wish he was still rockin live...  got other stuff to do.  Glad I caught his last tour.

Hey, what about the Rega gear?  Still running that too? 

Punk does sound better through a great system.  I still think Weight is an audiophile recording. 

Allen Fant's picture

I really enjoy reading HR contributions to Stereophile. The magazine should let him write quarterly, at the very least. Very nice selection of loudspeakers and pre/power amps. I would like to hear about the cables/cords/conditioning used, as well as, sources (TT, CD/SACD/DVD or Server).

volvic's picture

Sorry about your plight dude, been there done that, it is hard being in that spot. However the man is writing about the pure joy of music that I hope all of us here experience.  I can't wait to go home, kiss my newborn then fire up the turntable and share a Bach fugue or Billy Bragg with the lad.  It is not about the gear, it is about the music and following that line of notes that makes the music.  As Music_Guy said we should relax forget all the negativity and enjoy the music coming out of our modest systems.  Because as HR said it is all about the music.  

JIGF's picture

I think the point is quite clear. Enjoy the music. Be it through $200K speakers or a pair of Koss portaPros, as I am at the moment while listening to the Beethoven station on the new iTunes radio.

The title of the article is quite misleading.

dalethorn's picture

Great to read someone who builds on his life experience in music with a pursuit of better reproduction quality, as opposed to so many whose nostalgia is served up by a Bose lifestyle speaker. Led Zeppelin, Black Flag, Miles Davis - not so different really - it's all about life, and life can be expensive whether you invest in a high end audio system or owe the medical establishment a couple of kidneys because you can't afford the insurance when you get sick. There's a funny quote in Rock-n-Roll High School where the Ramones' manager says "This is the big time girlie - this is Rock and Roll". And indeed it is. You get one shot at life, short or long, so enjoy the heck out of it, and thanks HR for posting this.

remlab's picture

...Tony Alva, Shogo kubo, Wentzle Ruml and ritalin is alright by me! 

Starbucked's picture

Is Henry speaking the truth,

or is HE A LIAR ! ?

dalethorn's picture

Truth, obviously.

nunhgrader's picture

This is just great! Keep the HR pieces coming!

Axiom05 - I am sorry for your troubles but, I think his message is loud and clear - " the perfect humanity of music" regardless of costs! I think your comment is rude and reeks of jealousy to a man who has paid his dues and focuses on the root (not the material world - which most of us live in).

Good luck to your situation improving though!

Beans's picture

I'm kind of flummoxed by what Rollins wrote. Recently I was wondering if The Stooges "Raw Power" sounded as horrible on Rollins' Wilson/Macintosh system as it does through my Vandersteen/Audiolab system. Now I read that he gets bummed out listening to that system and needed to spend over $200,000 on a new system. Part of me is glad for Rollins that he's so close to that audio goal I picture in my head, and part of me thinks that this is exactly what is wrong with pursuing some elusive audio nirvana.

Nevertheless I enjoy Rollins' articles, appreciate his candor, and through any system "Raw Power" is still a great record (horribly recorded but hugely fun).

dalethorn's picture

I just got a copy of Raw Power from iTunes, and it's not that bad actually. The vocal is clear and the forward percussion/guitars are solid enough. The background instruments sound a little off, but there's no harshness or other distortion in this track that requires lowering the volume on a good system.

Beans's picture

It could be just the version I have then. I got it about 15 years ago and on the cover it says "remastered by Iggy Pop". In the liner notes Iggy says: "everything is still in the red". Thanks Iggy. "Your Pretty Face Is Going To Hell" in particular is tough to listen to.

I can appreciate that Rollins hears something in the studio and in his home the same thing sounds quite different but he seems to have a bad case of audio nervosa.

EDIT: I checked on iTunes and the 2010 version of Raw Power that looks like it was remixed by David Bowie sounds pretty good compared to the 1973 version which sounds a lot like what I have.

sudont's picture

Raw Power is gonna sound lousy no matter what you listen to it on, because the recording was botched. If you blow it at that point, there's really no saving it. It's a testament to the material and the performances that anyone listens to it at all. It's a shame because it should've been one of the greatest rock records, ever.
I don't know if they're still available, but Rhino did reissues of the first two Stooges albums, both of which were fine recordings to begin with, and nicely remastered and pressed. If you haven't heard those, you should really check 'em out.

elsewhere's picture

While Stereophile is all about equipment in its various forms and a lot of contributors have pretty exclusive systems I think the phrases about "rarified air" and pitying box-wine appreciation can come across as audio snobbism (and by Rollins´ criteria a lot of objectivists would be left out of this enlightened club as well but that might be a completely different subject) and that might be what axiom reacted to - I certainly did when I read it. I wouldn´t say his comment reeks of jelousy and while I wouldn´t turn down a nice hi fi if I could get one I don´t think spening your money on stereo is a more noble pusuit or less materialistic than spending it on something else.

DoggyDaddy's picture

One irony here: there are some pretty good wines being offered in boxes nowadays, as the wine industry experiments w/ alternative "delivery" m.o.'s.  You can cobble together a pretty damn good system for 2K w/ Rega components.  Is that a box wine?  Dunno, but it's a good one.  And actually I don't think the author would disagree.

Arnie217's picture

Thank you for another excellent article, Henry. You absolutely nailed the reason I am an audiophile when you said, “There is nothing between me and the music.” That is the Playback Promised Land, indeed. I had that in my living room for several years with Sound Lab Ultimate-1s, Wolcott P-400 amps, Balanced Audio Technology front end gear, and a Basis Ovation ‘table. I tinkered with the system for several years. One day I changed all the interconnects to Nordost Vaklyrja and I stopped tinkering. It was not a conscious decision; I simply didn’t feel the urge to change anything. I didn’t want anything to change. I listened to music. That’s it. Every time I cued up an album it was completely involving, invoking emotional reactions that were startling at times.
I’m glad you have found that level of satisfaction with your new system. I’m especially happy that you have been successful enough to enjoy this hobby at its highest level while maintaining your artistic integrity. Good for you! I’ve had some financial challenges the last couple of years and I no longer have my Sound Lab system. I started a new career at 50 last year and I’m very optimistic about it. Rather than lamenting my situation, I’m using my desire to own another mind-blowing system to motivate me to get up and work hard every day.
I’m looking forward to your next essay!

JadenKrosis's picture

Your column is perfect timing for what I`ve been up to myself, in pursuit of audio excellence. I`ve had plenty of stereos around here. I recently decided to rid myself of a very large pro-audio system that was taking up too much space in favor of something smaller yet musically satisfying.
Long story short, after much trial and error, a big discovery, and an awakening to music I hadnt imagined,  I`ve managed to put together a really great sounding system.
One which includes ridiculously expensive cables, and some other more expensive than average components.
I didnt do it because I`m rich, in fact I`d say my 40k a year is less than average, so my 20k system might be considered insane among my peers.
But as I put together this system and listened to it I heard music in ways I never had dreamed possible before.
My musical enjoyment was raised an entire level higher each time I upgraded cables or DAC, until I took it as far as this particular system can go.
It is audio excellence for me, and like musical heaven on earth every time I listen.

Once you experience a taste of real audio excellence and music becomes important to you like it did to me, its not a matter of what you can afford anymore. It becomes a matter of what you cannot afford to be without.