The main question (for all of us) that I’d like to try to answer up front here, if only for our collective self-respect, is: Why do we or why should we care about investing fairly serious money in something that the great majority of the world consider at best a curious luxury and at worst a wasteful silliness? The comparison most often made by critics is to model railroaders, who spend enormous amounts of time, effort, and a surprising amount of money on assembling (and playing with) a miniature reproduction of railroads. Having dabbled in their hobby as a youngster, in some limited way I get what they’re about. And it’s mainly about something other than a love of 100 ton locomotives. Just as audio, for a great many audiophiles, is about something other than or at least in addition to the fine art of music. What both groups seem to share at the extreme is a passionate quest for ever greater degrees of verisimilitude and lovingly rendered detail.
The fact is we don’t need a high-end audio system to understand music better. After all, many composers get more (and more accurate) thrills from reading a score to themselves than being distracted by an approximation or interpretation of it by musicians. But some of us audiophiles are not extreme, compulsive miniaturists or hobbyists but still love high-end audio. What are we about? We are a subset of music lovers who are unable to separate the sound of music from music itself: from melody, harmony, counterpoint, rhythm. Unlike many purer music lovers who get sufficient pleasure from their FM radios because they hear through or around the quality of the sound to the notes. Many professional musicians are in this category. They will tell they don’t need sonic verisimilitude in their sound systems to get the music: they already know what instruments sound like: even very accurate reproductions bring them no especial pleasure. But we sort are different. The sound of the instruments is a huge part of music for us. The timbre of instruments (and voices) excites us. We crave that magic compound of ease, warmth, and clarity of texture that is the sound of ‘live’ music. Our sense of hearing is an emotional organ that seems to connect directly to our very being.
Are we nuts? No, we are simply highly tuned, to be pretentious about it, to the incarnation of music into the physical bodies of instruments. We get significantly less pleasure from badly reproduced music. We try to be thrilled by recordings of extraordinary performances made back when recording technology was in its infancy, and sometimes we can almost make it. But more often than not, we fail. We can’t bear listening to music through a closed door. Our ears and minds are not just on the music, they are on the sound. The medium is essential to us. We can sometimes even find mediochre music pleasing when it is reproduced accurately.
I don’t want to dignify us more than we deserve, just to defend us from both the purists and the boors. And I want to defend the existence of Amherst Audio as more than a business, which in a financial sense it barely is anyway! Amherst Audio is one man’s indulgence, on his own behalf and that of his friends and customers, many of whom are the same, in the love of the sound of music.
Live music, as we know, has clarity, body, and sometimes, but not always, beauty. Audio equipment, it appears, cannot get all of these qualities in natural proportion and so even the very best designs must ‘cheat’ in one direction in another to achieve a balance that pleases the designer. It is either just a bit warm, thick, solicitous, liquid, etc.; or it is a bit lean, cool, tactile. Among the best designs, the choice among kinds and degrees of these kinds of cheats is purely a matter of taste.
As an audiophile and as Amherst Audio, I have found my way to some extremely satisfying equipment that cheats tastefully and persuasively one way or the other. I have now found three approaches that work for me. The three are not radically different from one another, just quite distinct places on a long continuum whose extremes are far from either.
If you value beauty most, especially the kind of beauty associated with analogue, you need to hear Audio Note equipment: you need to hear an entire Audio Note system. A musical performance coming through an Audio Note system seems less spread out and delineated than through more monitor-like systems. Audio Note is the perfection of the British sound (Quad, Spendor, Harbeth, etc.), which was the predecessor of and is the successor to the New England sound (Acoustic Research, KLH, Advent).
If you value robustness, physicality, immediacy, fullness, savoriness, emotion, and a pleasing touch of natural warmth, you need to hear Jean Marie Reynaud speakers fed by Blue Circle electronics. Now that Blue Circle has closed you’ll have to track down their gear used but it’s worth it. JM Reynaud loudspeakers in conjunction with the latest Blue Circle electronics do the best job I’ve heard at getting the warmth, weight, fullness, physical density, and emotional expressiveness of a live musical performance with the least loss of clarity. But I’ve also been told Naim gear and some of the more transparent tube amps served Reynauds well. No system I know of can combine warmth and clarity as effectively, yielding a kind of uncolored beauty we immediately recognize as the real thing. Blue Circle electronics contribute mightily to this success, providing a touch of humanity and exciting backbone. Where AN dacs tend to pull our focus in, fitting and blending everything together, Blue Circle dacs spread the music out before us, aiming for total music information retrieval. The new Resolution Audio Cantata 3.0 goes even further. It has become my reference digital front end.
Recently I’ve discovered a another remarkable alternative, Crimson, from the UK, who make fine all solid state electronics and cable. Both electronics and cable offer a natural but fast, wonderfully clear presentation — without the least hint of brightness or over-assertiveness. It is less rich and full sounding than Blue Circle, less harmonically rich but as refined as Audio Note. It is as well balanced overall as either. Combined with the Resolution Audio Cantata one-box CD player and paired with Tocaro speakers, Crimson offers great clarity and immediacy. Tocaros are crossover-less speakers that aspire to bring out great clarity and immediacy with Crimson electronics. We have heard the model 40 and model 42 so far and are mightily impressed.
I have listened to a lot of gear out there and have lived with and enjoyed, for short but ultimately unsatisfying periods of time, a lot that is more solicitous, staid, lush, punchy, and alas – duller or more overbearing than Audio Note, Blue Circle/JMR, and Crimson/Tocaro. These approaches, as different as they can be from one other, are the only ones I can recommend with a clear conscience and an enthusiastic heart. None is objectively better than the others, each with its distinct personality gets a great deal of what its designer feels are the most important aspects of the sound of music. If none of these approaches as I describe them strikes you as ‘right’, pass by with my best wishes. But if they sound compelling, read on.