My earliest recollection of ‘hi-fi’ was kneeling in front of my father’s stereo as a three year old in 1989. I had of course no understanding of stereo imaging at that time, but I would be perched close to one of his Goodmans Magnum SL loudspeakers, which dwarfed me then, utterly spellbound by the sounds projecting from it. I would kneel there for hours - to the point that my joints would seize - much to the dismay of my physiotherapist who was trying her best to promote good posture!
Music was a mainstay in our house and played a key role in my growing up by providing a comforting form of escapism that I struggled to obtain from other activities. I often turned to dad’s stereo to unwind after a chaotic day at school, on which I would master the art of ‘the mix-tape’. As a child with cerebral palsy, handling vinyl was a challenge, so mix-tapes were the perfect way to liberate content whilst preserving the condition of the family’s LP collection. It was also a brilliant education and proved pivotal in nurturing what would become a lifelong obsession with audio. Determined to perfect the procedure, I started taking more care in cleaning the vinyl before playback, convinced my dad to spend money on a higher quality pickup, and identified the optimal recording levels and biases for the tape formulations I was using. These were upgraded over time too; I soon shunned basic ferrics in favour of chromes, which in turn suffered the same fate once I discovered metals - all textbook symptoms of the fledgling audiophile!
Old enough to be trusted with a system of my own, a brief and ill-educated flirt with the lower-end of contemporary hi-fi in the late nineties left me disappointed and uninspired. Nothing captivated me in the way my father’s system did. This nonfulfillment ignited what grew to be an unhealthy infatuation with vintage gear; a romance that would endure for the next fifteen years and - thanks to the timely proliferation of online marketplaces - see no fewer than fifteen sources, twenty amplifiers and fifty pairs of loudspeakers enter the family home as I climbed the rungs of the audiophile ladder.
Those marketplaces provided me with a fantastic platform to go back in time and sample delights from what many consider to be the ‘golden age’ of hi-fi. Regretfully I largely bypassed the British audio movement of the swinging sixties. I was instead seduced by the lavish Japanese ‘statement builds’ of the seventies, and in particular the silver-faced receivers clad in oiled walnut veneer with their softly and almost menacingly glowing tuner dials. With a big and characterful sound to boot, it was all very exciting and the complete antithesis of the insipid nineties gear I made do with prior to this. My eyes and ears had now been opened to what was possible on a modest budget (though of course these gargantuans were far from affordable when new!). Quality pieces could be had at bargain prices used - perfect for someone just starting out in his exploration of vintage gear - and I certainly made the most of the opportunity. This phase of my audio journey culminated in my landing the Pioneer SX-1250 - the poster-boy of the ‘Monster Receiver era’. (My SX-1250 is alive and well, and still evokes a boyish grin when I glance over and marvel at how ridiculously conspicuous and overbuilt it is and recall the struggle my dad had carrying all thirty-five kilos of it up three flights of stairs!).
I think I must have been one of the earliest adopters of computer audio when I ripped my most frequently played CDs to iTunes on my then G4 Mac in 2001. Despite the obvious limitations of MP3 and the noisy onboard 3.5mm analogue output, I saw the huge potential to ergonomically transform my listening experience. When I upgraded to a G5 Mac with larger hard drive and Toslink digital audio output, I ripped my entire CD collection in lossless format and got a true insight into just how close computer audio could get to standalone CD playback and at a fraction of the outlay. This was a game changer and from that moment onwards I did not look back. My music library currently resides on an external FireWire drive that is replayed through Audirvana Plus on a Mac Mini. I presently have the facility with my Schiit Uber Bifrost asynchronous USB DAC to enjoy the gamut of PCM resolutions from 16/44 through 24/192 natively with no sample rate conversion, and I also have native DSD capability courtesy of my Schiit Loki asynchronous USB DAC. This configuration allows me to access and enjoy all of my content at the touch of a (few) button(s).
As I continue to embrace the advantages of easier, trouble-free and more ergonomic living, my current system unashamedly mixes vintage with modern; a combination I feel has fantastic synergy. I find myself at peace with my system now more than ever before - especially since finally getting round to acoustically treating my listening space (coincidence?) my upgraditus has all but been cured.-Whereas previously my auditory senses would often be unduly dismissive and dwell on the negatives that made a system present as a poor facsimile, I have now trained myself to acknowledge, enjoy and reward the positive attributes a set-up possesses; which is rather important in the context of being entrusted with penning a critical review! This newly discovered Zen-like state is rather disconcerting, thus I secretly hope my joining The Ear will restart my chase for the unobtainable.
As you will see from my system (below), I still have a soft spot for all things big and silver, but my priority has consciously shifted towards transparency and neutrality. I find that my Schiit and Yamaha hardware do all of the above with understated aplomb. I’d also like to think that I have gone some way to addressing my previous neglect of the classic British audio movement. I take pride in the knowledge that my current loudspeaker collection is all British-designed and made, none more so than my Tannoy Monitor Golds. How I would love to hear them on the end of a pair of Quad II Monoblocks one day...
My passion remains the pursuit of audio fidelity, and my present philosophy is to choose upstream components that are sufficiently transparent, resolving and tonally neutral, and then rely on the transducers to add whatever character I may desire. Greater in importance than the transparency and resolution of the playback system is of course - and always will be - the artistic quality of the original performance and fidelity of its recording and mastering. The latter of which is the very reason I go to painstaking lengths to source the best-sounding mastering of any given title. This often means an early issue or an ‘audiophile-friendly’ reissue that is free from destructive modern mastering techniques such as dynamic range limiting - the bane of many popular releases of the last twenty years. When I listen to music, I want to be completely immersed in the experience and - for those few moments - have my belief suspended just like when I was a child. I am fortunate to now have access to content and a system which facilitates this more often than not, and for me there is no greater reward.
Digital: Mac Mini running Audirvana Plus
Vinyl: Denon DP-45F turntable, Audio Technica AT150MLX cartridge, Arkless-modded Cambridge Audio 640P phono stage
Tape: TEAC A-3440 15ips. reel-to-reel
D/A Converters: Schiit Bifrost 4490, Schiit Loki DSD, Apogee Duet (FireWire)
Yamaha Natural Sound CR-1000, Yamaha Natural Sound A-S2000, Pioneer SX-1250, Quad 909
Tannoy Monitor Gold 15 with Tannoy ST-100 supertweeters, Tannoy Autograph Mini, Quad ESL63, Celestion DItton 66, IMF Reference Standard Pro Monitor IV
Schiit Valhalla, Sennheiser HD600
Cables & room treatment
Interconnects: Van Damme SP-OFC XKE instrument cable with REAN plugs
Loudspeaker cable: Van Damme Studio Blue UP-OFC 2x2.5mm
Room Treatments: GIK Tri-Traps and GIK 244 broadband absorption panels Custom EPS diffuser tiles
AC/DC, Al Stewart, Alan Parsons Project, America, Andrea Bocelli, Andrew Gold, Bad Company, Beatles, Bee Gees, Billy Idol, Bonnie Raitt, Boston, Boz Scaggs, Bread, Brooks & Dunn, Bruce Hornsby, Bruce Springsteen, Bryan Adams, Buddy Holly, Byrds, Carlos Santana, Chicago, Christopher Cross, Coldplay, Colin Hay, Counting Crows, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Crosby Stills & Nash, Crowded House, Dan Seals, Daryl Hall & John Oates, Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds, Del Amitri, Dire Straits, Don Henley, Donald Fagen, Doobie Brothers, Eagles, Elton John, England Dan & John Ford Coley, Eric Clapton, Eugene Ruffolo, Five For Fighting, Fleetwood Mac, Foreigner, Frank Sinatra, Gary Moore, Gerry Rafferty, Hans Zimmer, Heart, Hiromi Uehara, Iiro Rantala String Trio, J.D. Souther, Jackson Browne, James Newton Howard, James Taylor, Joan Osborne, Joe Bonamassa, Joe Egan, John Coltrane, Journey, Jose Carreras, Kansas, Keb’ Mo’, Linda Ronstadt, Luciano Pavarotti, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Marc Cohn, Mark Knopfler, Marvin Gaye, Michael McDonald, Mike Oldfield, Miles Davis, Moody Blues, Nat King Cole, Newton Faulkner, Nickel Creek, Nils Lofgren, Orleans, Ottmar Liebert, Paul Carrack, Phil Collins, Pink Floyd, Placido Domingo, Police, Quincy Jones, Ray Charles, Richard Marx, Richard Page, Robert Cray Band, Rolling Stones, Scorpions, Seals & Crofts, Smokie, Steely Dan, Steve Lukather, Steve Miller Band, Steve Winwood, Stevie Wonder, Sting, Telefon Tel Aviv, Terry Reid, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Toto, Tracy Chapman, Traveling Wilburys, Travis, Who.