Our audiophile this month loves interacting with the designers within high-end audio companies. He needs to know what drives them to create. He needs to feel respect for that drive. If he likes the company’s credo, then he likes the company.
Tom Waters: Do you have a first memory, a first unforgettable musical experience that left an impression?
Peter Smith: There were certain experiences that attracted me to the idea of buying a high-end system. When I was a child, music was always played in the house.
There were so many recordings from the
50s and 60s that I really loved… Ella, Louis, Belafonte, Sarah Vaughan, the Platters, etc. I had always intended to one day get a really good system, but having the means to do so took a bit of time.
It was 1992 when I started looking to buy a good system. Through the Audio
Note dealer in Melbourne (there were only Japanese Audio Note amplifiers at that time), I was offered the chance to meet Peter Qvortrup. Peter met me and took me to his home (in England). Of course, his gear was all Audio Note (the speakers were Audio Note UK prototypes).
It was the first time I had heard the Audio Note Kassai amplifier. He played me records for about three hours. It was the time of CD, but he vigorously defended vinyl — he greatly disliked CD at that time. Peter said that Audio Note would eventually make a DAC that would be better than any other DAC available, but they were in no rush to do so. I came away from that experience with the realisation of how good high-end sound could be, as well as some ideas of how I wanted to go about achieving this goal.
TW: And did that start you on the hi-fi journey or did something else start you on the audio equipment quest?
PS: Yes, that experience with Peter certainly enticed me to start my journey. As part of this process, I decided very early that I was going to approach this in as ‘scientific’ a way as possible.
I have been very lucky to meet and chat with other people who have helped me develop my system. When I hear someone else’s system, I listen for the standout attributes of that system, and what I really like about that person’s system. If it’s something I’d really like to have, then I think of what I’d have to do to get that sound.
Initially I swapped my gear around a fair bit, just trying to get the sound I wanted. Eventually I realised that I’d have to go the way I have today — which is to go active, meaning having multiple speakers and multiple amplifiers with a unique tailorable crossover such that I could dial-in the precise sound I wanted. Now I have eight drivers per channel, with six channels of amplification per side [ more on this later].
Another experience in my quest was meeting Mike Lavigne (in Seattle) and hearing his system. He is always very generous with his time and very particular in addressing all aspects of his set-up. His system and room is an all-out ‘cost no object’ effort to achieve his audio nirvana. He is also very articulate in discussing his choices on the forums. It certainly is the best room and room setup that I have seen and heard.
I also heard the huge Acapella speakers at Dr Murali’s home years ago (I think the model was the Spharon Excalibur). It was the model with that plasma tweeter. It had this massive bass column and a huge horn driver. Murali’s room and Mike’s room taught me just how good bass can be. You could feel the bass before you heard it. Before those experiences I had two woofers per side. After that, I expanded that to four woofers per side!
Yet another experience was meeting Siegfried Linkwitz. I initially bought the Orion loudspeaker and subsequently the LX521. My woofer cabinets are essentially the woofer cabinets from the LX521, except that there are two boxes per side. I was very fortunate to get to know Dr Frank Brenner, the person who sells turn-key LX521 systems as well as the kits, and get him to make me an LX521 from Panzerholz.
I guess it was Siegfried Linkwitz and his Orions that convinced me about the beauty of dipole sound to the extent that I now cannot go back to a box speaker, especially for bass.
TW: Where do you think your system is going, or has it arrived?
PS: My system is close to what I want, except for maybe a further extension of the open baffle bass concept.
But it has taken so many changes to get to where I am today. I bought a lot of equipment from the late Joe Riediger at Audio Connection. We were good friends; he’d call me up to chat if I didn’t turn up at his store at least once every 3 to 4 weeks! He greatly facilitated my experimentation with my setup. I had the Pass Labs 30.5s, then the 60.5s, then the 160.8s in succession, but they didn’t quite fulfil my requirements. So I then traded the 160.8s in for the Gryphon Antileon EVO. I use a Burmester multi-channel amp for all the bass channels.
I can say with some conviction that I think my system is ‘ close’ to arriving! What I haven’t tried, but really want to try, is servo-controlled open baffle bass. I already have the drivers and the amplifier for it, but I still need the panels (cabinets). My sons are making a CNC cutting machine to create these for me! They will be made out of MDF as Panzerholz is just way too expensive and too difficult to cut. Once I’ve tried that, I’ll have tried everything that I’ve wanted to try. I think that I can then say my system has ‘arrived’. (Unless and until I think of something else!) [ continued overleaf...]
TW: What’s your favourite piece of equipment at the moment, something that you wouldn’t sell?
PS: I absolutely wouldn’t sell my Pass Labs crossovers, they are the heart of the system. They are no longer made, and would be extremely difficult to replace.
If someone were to ask me where they should start when building a superlative high-end system, then I’d have to say the Mola Mola Makua. It is simply a brilliant preamp and DAC. I’ve had no desire to look for anything better — it’s just so transparent. I have a phono-stage in it as well which I’ve been told is spectacularly good, but I’ve never used it!
But to answer your question, I think the components that truly ‘make’ my system would be the Raven 3.1 tweeters. They are so good, so pure and refined. Given they sold for $5,500 the pair they’d better be good! They are no longer made either but fortunately changing their ribbons is a relatively simple procedure.
TW: What do you see as your next hi-fi purchase or upgrade?
PS: I think we both know the answer to that… servo-controlled open baffle bass! And if it works well, I likely wouldn’t have baffles custom made out of p\ Panzerholz. It would be just prohibitively expensive, not to mention the shipping costs from Germany.
TW: What’s the most memorable pair of speakers (or system as a whole) you’ve ever heard?
PS: The bass of the Acapella speakers was just amazing. And Mike Lavigne’s system was overall just amazing too. I once heard a system in a recording studio that was very good as well.
TW: Is there any component you’ve owned and sold that you now regret selling?
PS: I rarely sell anything. I did sell a Meitner DAC once because I knew I’d never use it again. I still have that early Denon DPS1 CD player that looks like a space-ship — the top opens up. It was so beautifully made.
Speaking of collecting equipment, a friend and I visited a gentleman in Japan named Dr Mikami. He has the most impressive collection of iconic audio gear, ranging from vintage to SOTA, that I have ever seen. He was very generous with his time in sharing his passion with us. After that visit I did not feel too bad about keeping most of my older equipment!
TW: Do you use the same music for comparing components as you do for listening pleasure?
PS: Yes, I do. It’s just that I know the music so well, so it makes it great for comparisons. But it’s music that I love so I listen to it all the time.
TW: What genre of music do you listen to mostly and who are some of your favourite artists?
PS: I love jazz and classical, I guess they’d be the two main ones — they take up 70 per cent of my listening time. But I also listen to a lot of older pop, by that I mean the70s and early 80s. I absolutely love music from the 60s and 50s that was done well. I love Ella, Louis, Sarah Vaughan, Belafonte, the Platters, Sonny Rollins, and Coltrane. But I also love Cat Stevens, Carole King, Neil Diamond, and the Beatles. If the music takes my fancy, if it’s tuneful, then I can listen to anything. When it comes to pop-rock then I think I’m a bit stuck in the older stuff, mainly from the 60s and 70s.
However, I listen mostly to jazz and classical. The jazz I like is mostly instrumental from the 60s and early 70s.
TW: What would be your ‘desert island’ music albums if you could only choose, say, three works?
PS: Dave Brubeck’s ‘Time Out’. And I particularly like cellist Truls Mork and his Rachmaninoff disc with Thibaudet. Rachmaninoff would have to be my favorite classical composer. Another disc is Shostakovich Piano Concertos 1 & 2 played by Elisabeth Leonskaja.
My absolute favourite must-have music would have to be Harry Belafonte at Carnegie Hall. I probably have 15 copies in various forms of this. I even have a 1S pressing (a record that was pressed from the first original master) from 1959! It’s very rare. This is IMHO the finest live recording if not the finest recording of them all. Couldn’t keep it to only three… sorry!
TW: How would you describe the sound you’re getting from your current system?
PS: I’d say clear, detailed and atmospherically realistic. I don’t want to say ‘natural’ for example, because who would create a sound that isn’t natural to their ears? I think it’s tonally balanced, and very spacious.
TW: In what way does music affect your life, your emotions and the way you feel?
PS: My job is very stressful and challenging. So coming home to listen to music is like an oasis, a sanctuary. Music allows me to relax and reset my mind. It creates a time-capsule for me. For example, when I listen to Belafonte’s Hole in the Bucket it takes me back to when I was a four year old. For other people, it’s photos or videos that take them back to their past — for me, it’s music.
TW: Where do you see the high-end audio industry going in the future?
PS: I think the uber high-end is in big trouble, because it’s being taken over by business people, rather than those who really love what they’re creating.
As an example, I used to subscribe to Stereophile and The Absolute Sound.
But I have stopped because I feel I am reading business-driven content — you can tell that they aren’t telling the truth, they aren’t telling you what they really think. The other thing that is very irksome is this drive to make thing more and more expensive. Are they trying to appeal to oil barons or drug dealers — people with an overflow of money? $US700,000 speakers? $US2,800 for an audiophile fuse? Really? And the mentioned magazines pander to this because it brings in the advertising dollars. I have lost respect for them, and for many of their reviewers. The high-end magazines are doomed with their current leaders.
Another few examples… often you see a new product on the market that is great and is reasonably priced. It’s selling well.
The business people realise they have a winner, and they then double or triple the price. There are quite a few examples in this regard that I would rather not name as it would offend the representatives and the owners of those products.
So, whilst I feel despondent about the high end, there is some lower-priced gear that looks very promising. For example, equipment from Denafrips and Holo Audio. I just hope they don’t get sucked into the ionosphere by their marketers.
TW: Where would you like the audio industry to go or to evolve to?
PS: I think we need to get back to when people with a passion for audio equipment were the people actually designing and building that equipment.
I greatly appreciate the people who have the credentials to create something, to design and build, and actually see that through to completion. Bruno Putzeys and Andreas Koch come to mind. And Jim Winey with his Magnepans, Flemming Rasmussen of Gryphon, Dieter Burmester, Nelson Pass, and the late A.J. Conti of Basis Audio. These are the people who built the high-end as we know it. They create… they leave the promotion and marketing to others. I like it when they are the ‘face’ of the company. When I like their credo, then I like their product. The high-end industry needs more people like this. Without that, everything becomes commoditised, cheapened, and less desirable.
I would also like to see a rebirth of older established companies like Denon, Marantz and Luxman, etc. They all make excellent affordable products, but have lost some lustre due to the less glitzy ‘face’ they present to the buying public. They could do so much better with better representation.
Lastly, I would like to see more lowerpriced gear that is high-end quality to get younger people interested in the wonderful variety of music already in existence. Whenever I go to a Hi-Fi show I invariably see older people there. It would be nice to see more young audiophiles. Of course, they likely don’t have the cash flow for uber highend gear, so lower priced excellent quality gear would be a big attraction.