This month, Australian Hi Fi contributor Peter Xeni interviews Peter Allen, a Melbourne Audio Club member and the Editor of the club’s magazine.
This month, Peter Xeni interviews Peter Allen, who’s not only a member of the Melbourne Audio Club, but also the editor of the club’s monthly magazine.
Audio veteran Peter Allen is a keen believer in the art of mixing and matching hi-fi components for optimum results. His leafy outersuburban home has an upstairs loft filled with everything from legendary solid-state amplifiers to old classics such as Quad57 speakers and Stax F-81 electrostatic headphones—plus lots of new gizmos. Despite his extended audio collection, his Quad 63s and Yamaha NS-1000s still hold pride of place in his living room.
‘I tweak what I have, and keep it together for a long time,’ he says. ‘I have come slowly to realise that there isn’t an ultimate, and I’m basically a satisfied, moderate audiophile. I suffer the occasional audiophile niggle and ask myself: ‘What if I just make one improvement, maybe buy something new yet again? Might it sound better and give me more eargasms?’
He leans back in his sweet-spot chair and says in all earnestness: ‘I’m wiser now and no longer chase the audiophile benchmark of what is possible. I listen to these wildly expensive systems, but at home I don’t feel like starting over again. I have recently vacillated between ‘delicate and dynamic’; between the Stax/ Quad 63s versus the Yamahas. Horns done right might please me, but ‘done right’ is rare. Soon I’ll set up a System 2 upstairs, the Quads with my VTLs. Am I an audio schizophrenic? Who knows? I will no doubt change things around again eventually!
Peter says that Melbourne Audio Club founder Alec Encel’s belief that a good synergy between components will get the best out of your system still holds true.
‘Getting it right takes time. Even in computer audio everything matters’, he says. Whatever the trend, he still returns to his older electronics. ‘They’re like old friends; by knowing their strengths and limitations you can relax from hi-fi anxiety and make your music listening more enjoyable.’
PX: What were your earliest experiences with audio and the Melbourne Audio Club?
PA: I joined the club in late 1974, but first became interested in audio in the sixties. Who else of the elders remembers Alec Encel’s weekly column in the Green Guide to radio and TV? He was the inspiration for the club and we learnt a lot from him—such as system matching. The set-up is very important, he’d say and he’d take a personal interest in the matching of his customer’s gear at their homes. ‘You can’t just put boxes together,’ he’d tell me. Since then, I have optimised what I’ve purchased based on his philosophy. As for joining the club, perhaps it was at a hi-fi show with that big model loudspeaker on show and meeting MAC’s early convenor, Graham Cobb who finally hooked me in. I am so glad I joined—for the music, for the gear, and for the camaraderie amongst ‘consenting adults.’ PX: What music is your genre of choice? PA: Complex music. As Duke Ellington said: ‘There are only two types of music— good music and bad music.’ My father loved his symphonic concerts. I learned about music from his LPs which he trusted me to handle and play. We enjoyed music that had distinct rhythms or harmonies—or both, such as Sibelius 2, Caesar Franck (Mercury) on his Leak Stereo-20 and his Lowthers. The Encel’s shop chose well there in getting him the right gear. As a young man, I performed in a choir and my lifetime highlight was singing Vivaldi’s Gloria— it’s something I have never forgotten.
PX: If you were short of cash would you sell your CD collection, your vinyl, or your DVDs?
PA: Easy. First would be all the CDs. They are replaceable. I’ve ripped thousands of them at full resolution, plus backups. As for my LPs, I can only offer a heresy warning. I must confess I’m fully satisfied by the sound of my CDs. Not having played an LP for years I can’t believe they would be any better. Now I have retired I can set up the turntable again, and perhaps I’ll rejoin the disciples. I have a Linn and an old wood Koetsu in the loft in readiness.
PX: What is your earliest memory of music and audio that inspired you?
PA: My earliest musical memory is I think my dad playing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue with E. Power Biggs on organ, but it could have been Richard Strauss’ A Hero’s Life. The screamer trumpet dissonance bit I absolutely love. My big moment in audio came when a school friend took me home to listen to some music, and his hi-fi made me go: ‘Hey mate, I want that sound, never mind the music.’ That was a major epiphany for me. ‘Way back some cheap Pioneer headphones infected me with that enthusiasm. Etymotic in-ears are great, affordable. One day I’ll be satisfied. Do we audiophiles ever believe that?
PX: Did that lead to the purchase of your first LP and what was it?
PA: As an impoverished student, I could only ever afford to buy second-hand LPs, which I did at Batman Records and Clements. I think my first purchase was ‘Blowout at Mardi Gras’ and it has been a ‘desert island’ disc of mine ever since. It’s a live performance in a New Orleans club in 1955, recorded in beautiful mono on Smithsonian. Sonically it’s a bit rough, but it has a ‘life-force’. More recently, many of my musical passions have begun thanks to meetings of the Melbourne Audio Club— Egberto Gismonti, Astor Piazzolla, Oregon and especially Jessica Williams, unknown but up there with Jarrett and Evans. As the saying goes: ‘Art—in all its forms—is the subtle deviation from the expected.’ MAC is so much about the music. Now I have two thousand CDs on NAS I have heaven at my fingertips, I can have a jazz disco fever party for one.
PX: How would you change your hi-fi life if you started again… or would you?
PA: It is a journey; there is no final destination. But I would spend a lot more time and money on acoustics and getting the room right… and a lot less money on expensive interconnects. I have continued
to accumulate gear and I have enjoyed it all, though I have often thought, ‘this’ll see me out,’ starting with the Quad-57s (one initially), Staxes—from SRD5, ESL, through to my Sixties Lambdas. Looking back, electrostatics have been a constant theme. But I’d spend less on interconnects, much more on acoustic treatments. With my same system, in different houses, it’s apples and pears. PX: What jazz bands have you seen live? PA: I have seen Brubeck at Festival Hall… Paul Desmond’s a star. Monday nights in New York was big band night, and I saw the Thad Jones Mel Lewis Big Band. That was heaven. At interval I spoke to the trombone player, who said to me, ‘Say hello to Jimmie [Morrison] back in Aussie.’ That was an experience.
PX: What were some other musical moments in your life?
PA: My wife Rosemary and I were married at St Paul’s London, with the grand organ playing. She started down the aisle to the sound of Widor’s Toccata. Nothing in my life could top that… I mist up whenever I play it… and it’s why a subwoofer is essential.
PX: Computer audio is new, but some are tentative at diving in. What would you say? PA: Like all of hi-fi and computers it’s a learning thing. I began by reading right through AudioQuest’s ‘Computer Audio Demystified’ and everything published at computeraudiophile.com PX: What is your most prized piece of audio equipment? PA: My Yamaha NS-1000s. I love them so much I rescued a spare set just because I could. To me they are still the best value in hi-fi. My Spectral amps—when re-installed—will keep me up late. PX: What are the qualities of the NS1000s that appeal to you most? PA: Just as with wine, women and song, sound quality must be balanced. We need tone, dynamics and presence. My Yammies have all three right. They drive the room. I can listen realistically with sound pressure levels in the mid90s. I call it ‘Jump Factor.’ I always sit in a nearfield equilateral triangle and shut my eyes and the players are there right in front of me, and they sit within a foot of the back wall and angled within a centimetre or so. Exactly where one sits matters as much—and even more than you’d think—particularly in order to get the deep bass right. Swedish radio stations use Yamaha NS-1000s as monitors: I use them for the love of music.
‘Now I have retired I can set up the turntable again, and perhaps I’ll rejoin the disciples. I have a Linn and an old wood Koetsu in the loft in readiness.’
‘Looking back, electrostatics have been a constant theme. But I’d spend less on interconnects, much more on acoustic treatments.’