A Tale of Two Systems Page 4

Yet there was something lacking. I can best categorize it as the "sense of scale," the feeling of unlimited dynamics possessed by something like the Infinity IRS V or Wilson WAMMs. Like the vista unfolding before our aerial voyeur, the image may be apparently unlimited in terms of resolution, but it is perfection in miniature. You are looking through the wrong end of a telescope.

We went out to dinner: Beijing Duck. Excellent.

The next evening I went to pay my respects to Ricardo Franassovici and his wife Francoise. Ricardo, a friend for nearly 10 years and who, like me, came to audiophilia from the music business, runs an import company called Absolute Sounds (no relation) that distributes Apogee, Krell, Koetsu, Magnepan, PS Audio, Kinergetics, Goldmund, Air Tangent, Jadis, Sonus Faber, and Audio Research in the UK. (Can you believe that list? Where are the dogs?) Yet his current system was as strange—no, idiosyncratic—as Martin's. Ricardo owns a Goldmund Reference—enough said! An aged Koetsu, however, was amplified via the phono stage of a Jadis JP-30 preamplifier—"rather a fat-potato sound," said Ricardo—which in turn fed a Counterpoint SA-9 line controller. Power amplification was a pair of Jadis JA-80 monoblocks; loudspeakers were Sonus Faber Amators (the least expensive in this Italian manufacturer's range).

The only consistent items from my last visit were the Goldmund and the Sonus Fabers. Last time the amplification had been a PS 4.5 driving a Counterpoint SA-12—an impressive sound. This time, the sound was even more impressive. On went a Chess blues collection: rare Muddy Waters; vintage Howling Wolf. We toyed with more recent recordings, but then on went early Nina Simone: her reading of Bricusse and Newley's "Feelin' Good." I mentioned that I had used the Traffic version in my recent review of the SL700s. That went on the Goldmund next. Record effortlessly led to record, association to experience.

The sound from the tiny Sonus Fabers was big. A wide, stable soundstage; fullthroated low frequencies; highs that were ragged compared with the SL700s; but, overall, while almost as different as could be from Martin's, this sound was equally as intensely musical. As untidy as the other was pristine, it did make an attempt at presenting the scale of the music. It made you forget what limitations the speakers had; it made you forget the equipment. This is hardly surprising: when I asked Ricardo what he felt to be essential to a system's performance, he replied that "Fluidity, the flow of the music, is most important to me."

We went out to dinner: Beijing Duck. Excellent. (And a superb Fumé Blanc.)

The third night, I drove down to Canterbury to see Ken Kessler. Ken has a new listening room, part of a small industrial complex and one of the most suitable environments for critical listening I have ever seen. I say "seen" rather than "heard," because unfortunately Ken's system was down when I visited, his two regular loudspeakers, Apogee Divas and Wilson WATTs, being temporarily joined by Infinity IRS Betas—none were set up! Joined by Infinity's Arnie Nudell and Rotel's Tony Mills—Rotel UK being the new Infinity distributors—we went out to dinner: Beijing Duck. Excellent.

I was reminded about the contrast between Martin's and Ricardo's systems upon my return to New Mexico when I read Gary Gay's discussion about the apparent division of our writers into those who write about hardware and those who are tied to just records (see "Letters"). "Sometimes," writes Mr. Gay, "I wonder if us technocrats get too analytical—so much that we can never 'pass the goosebump test'!"

Analysis and goosebumps: that's what this game is all about. The ultimate high-end system would have both the intense disclosure of detail and nuance of Martin's sound and the bighearted sweep of Ricardo's. Both systems were true to the music, but each needed the other to be whole. That synthesis is what the goal of the high end should be, not a set of restrictions defining what is and what isn't acceptable. As Keith Yates says in his article on "audio verite" in this issue, "If the appellation 'high end' describes a musical result, not a code of behavior, then we won't be abandoning the high end, we'll be elevating it."