Born and raised in rural Lancashire, I went on to train as an architect in Manchester in the mid 1960s. My childhood was steeped in recorded and live music, mainly classical, played at home on piano by members of my family, or on a wind-up gramophone.
For a music enthusiast the best aspects of living in Manchester during the 1960s were the Twisted Wheel club and Free Trade Hall with its resident Hallé Orchestra, which was then conducted by legendary Sir John Barbirolli. The Twisted Wheel promoted a music genre that would later become known as ‘Northern Soul’ with gigs by R&B / blues stars Ike & Tina Turner, John Lee Hooker, Jr. Walker & The All Stars, local bands Georgie Fame & The Blue Flames and John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers (before and after Eric Clapton joined them). There were other performances by Mancunian and Liverpudlian groups such as Big Three, who in my view were altogether better than the Beatles, yet sank without trace after making a handful of recordings. The Hollies performed regularly at Twisted Wheel and band member Graham Nash later went on to start a new life in USA as part of Crosby, Stills and Nash.
At Free Trade Hall I embarked on a lifelong addiction to jazz listening to the likes of Jimmy Smith, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Modern Jazz Quartet, Wes Montgomery and other giants. But what touched me most was a performance of the Elgar Cello Concerto played by Jacqueline du Pré and conducted by Barbirolli – a match made in heaven and a truly mesmerising performance that I have never forgotten.
If that wasn’t enough, numerous universities and colleges in Manchester had tens of thousands of students and were able to attract national and international rock stars such as The Animals and Jimi Hendrix to perform at weekly gigs in the student union: these were attended by seriously attractive female students, which simply added icing to a musical cake.
I lived in a shared flat and listened to a small collection of LPs on a Dansette but yearned for something less weedy. Despite being an impoverished student I managed by dint of working weekends to raise enough cash to audition and buy my first real grown-up music system – a Goldring Lenco GL69 turntable equipped with a Shure M3D cartridge, a Nikko amplifier and self-build Wharfedale No. 3 ‘speaker kit. I was always a pretty adept woodworker and building my own ‘speaker cabinets ignited a taste for DIY hi-fi that has stayed with me for life. To my relatively untutored ears this first ‘real’ system sounded astonishingly good. It was 1966, I was well on my way, and record collecting started to take off.
After completing the architecture course I moved to London in 1971 at a time when life was good, jobs were plentiful and everything seemed possible. Living in Central London dealers KJ Leisuresound (still trading as KJ West One), and long-defunct Telesonic in Tottenham Court Road were on my doorstep. There were no acoustically-isolated demo rooms in those days so anyone wanting to audition equipment had to stand at the back of the showroom and ask staff to manipulate a comparator to change from one ‘speaker to another at the flick of a switch – an amazing device I thought at the time, and still do in many ways.
Over subsequent years an eclectic mix of equipment stimulated my ears, possibly reflecting aural tastes of each era, but more likely related to how much I could afford to spend at any given stage. Some choices were influenced by dealers but mostly evolved by a process of trial and error, which has finally led to a steady state after a 45-year journey. In chronological order these are systems used decade by decade:
Early – mid 1970s: Connoisseur BD1 turntable on DIY plinth, Grace tonearm, Shure M44E cartridge, Ferrograph F-307 amplifier and DIY wardrobe-sized ‘speakers with 12-inch Goodman Triaxiom drivers, owned by my wife and eventually ended up at her family’s holiday house in south west France.
Mid – end 1970s: Dual 504 turntable with OEM (Ortofon) MM cartridge, Armstrong 621 amplifier, Akai 4000 reel-to-reel tape recorder and Acoustic Research AR4x ‘speakers.
Early 1980s – late1990s: Linn LP12, Ittok LVII, a range of cartridges (Grado, Ortofon and Denon), Quad 44 / 405-2 and 34 / 306, and Rogers LS6 and LS3/5a ‘speakers. In mid 1990s an EAR 834P valve phono stage, a second-hand Audio Innovations Series 800-3 EL34 power amplifier and L1 line single-valve preamplifier were chucked into the mix for the hell of it, which produced very positive results until the power amp died permanently with a loud bang and puff of smoke a few years later. By this stage I had moved on from bell wire ‘speaker cable and standard-issue interconnects and bought a fistful of Furukawa cables – brilliant, still used, but sadly no longer available.
Until the early part of the 21st century I lived and worked full time in London during the week but spent every weekend in a rural cottage in Sussex where a second system was badly needed, and that’s where car boot sales came in handy. Within a relatively short period, I acquired a mint Garrard 401 chassis (£25), a near-mint Leak Stereo 20 (£80), a Leak Stereo Troughline tuner (£5) and then bought a high-quality but reasonably priced DIY ‘speaker kit from David Berriman of DBA. While fabricating and veneering ‘speaker cabinets and plinth for the Garrard chassis both Leaks were despatched to Graham Tricker of GT Audio, who did an excellent restoration job. They are still in daily use – a testament to their sheer quality of design and build.
Once these bits were back together in one place I splashed out and bought a new SME 309 tonearm, primarily because having a removable headshell eases the pain of changing cartridges, and a Sumiko Blue Point Special cartridge to go with it.
By pure chance this ad-hoc combination produced a truly atmospheric sound that suited my musical tastes to a tee. All I now needed was a dedicated listening room to do it justice, but the cottage was far too small to accommodate one.
One evening about 15 years ago, in particularly expansive mood after dinner, washed down with a couple of bottles of fine wine, my wife suggested we should build an extension where I could play music of my choice away from our living quarters. She meanwhile could indulge her own musical tastes in other parts of the house on equipment, including LP12, Quad 34 / 306 and Rogers LS3/5a’s, taken from the London flat.
I set to work on a design knowing it was not going to be just any old extension but one in which internal room proportions would, as far as possible, be based on a Golden Section – a geometric device that essentially follows a Fibonacci sequence in which two preceding numbers are added together to form a subsequent number. Moving higher up the sequence and dividing any number by the preceding one results in a ratio closely aligned to a Golden Section, whose more precise value is 1:1.6180339887…
Other ratios might have performed equally well but, being an architect, I was aware of proportional systems used by Renaissance architects and painters so this seemed a more promising line of enquiry. Jotting down some basic calculations confirmed that in a room based on Golden Section proportions, resonant modes for height, length and width would be indivisible and thus cancel out each other rather than resonating at sympathetic frequencies and muddying the sound. It is no coincidence that some of the world’s best concert halls are shoebox-shaped and roughly accord with Golden Section proportions.
As with most things in life, inevitable compromises had to be made: the building plot was relatively narrow; the local planning authority imposed constraints on what could be built and where; and I always had to keep an eagle eye on budget. Despite these limitations I was able to create a room with internal dimensions of 4.85 metres (L) by 3 metres (W) by 2.45 metres (H) having a total internal volume of roughly 37 cubic metres. Part of the ceiling is flat and part sloping, which helps deflect vertical reflected sounds. A double-door anteroom creates a sound lock between the music room and rest of the house to avoid distracting my wife, and also increases the volume of the space if one door is left open – useful for listening to large-scale orchestral or choral works.
More often than not I listen these days to solo acoustic piano (the best test of any system?) or small-scale classical and jazz ensembles and tend to prefer a ‘live’ sound. Thus all internal surfaces are relatively hard, with a solid concrete floor finished in fully bonded reclaimed oak woodblocks to avoid vibrations and resonances associated with suspended timber floors. Shelves packed with LPs and books / files on rear and sidewalls provide sufficient absorption to damp and disperse reflected sound. The resulting acoustic characteristics of this room are to my ears superb and fully justify the cost of building a new extension.
I have reached a stage in life where I concentrate on music, not equipment, though over the last couple of years there have been a few changes that have markedly improved the sound of my system. This process was sparked off when the vulnerable stylus of the naked body Sumiko Blue Point Special snapped off during routine cleaning and was traded in and replaced by a Sumiko Blackbird, which seems immune to vinyl surface noise and has raised performance to a whole new level.
The second move was to replace the DBA ‘speakers with a pair of ex-BBC Harbeth Monitor 20s which I was given in barter for helping an old friend. Excellent though they are, the Harbeth’s reach down to only 75hz so I added a pair of DIY passive sub-bass units, similar to Harbeth’s own Xtender but using ELAC 8” drivers taken from the David Berriman kit, which double up as 80 cm high stands and have added roughly an octave to bass response.
The most recent and significant development was to replace the Leak Stereo 20, which sounded wonderful at low volume but struggled manfully to drive low impedance Harbeths, even on a 4 ohm transformer tap, with a DIY Hypex UCD180 Class D power amplifier (see the David’s piece on this amp here).
The resulting system remains eclectic but suits my musical tastes and I believe it will see me out:
Garrard 401 in substantial DIY plinth, SME 309, Sumiko Blackbird
EAR 834P valve phono stage
Audio Innovations L1 line pre-amplifier (modified)
DIY Hypex UCD180 dual mono power amplifier
Leak Stereo Troughline tuner (with GT Audio decoder)
Cambridge Audio Discmagic 1 CD transport and Isomagic DAC
Harbeth Monitor 20 ‘speakers with DIY passive sub-bass
Cable and interconnects: some Furukawa but largely home made using aerospace-grade Teflon-sheathed silver-plated cables fitted with high-grade connectors
The entire system, including restoration of the Leak Stereo 20 and Troughline tuner but excluding time spent on DIY, cost less than £3,000. I have heard better set-ups in my time but not at this price.
Artists – jazz
Biréli Lagrène & Sylvain Luc, Renaud Garcia-Fons, Bill Evans, Brad Mehldau, Antonio Forcione, Miles Davis, Magic Malik, Cannonball Adderley, Keith Jarrett, Wynton Marsalis, Chet Baker, Carla Bley
Artists – classical
· Dinu Lipatti (piano)
· Glenn Gould (piano)
· Rosalyn Tureck (piano)
· Martha Argerich (piano)
· Jascha Heifitz (violin)
Composers – classical
· Johann Sebastian Bach
· Sergei Rachmaninov
· Sergei Prokoviev
· Igor Stravinsky
· Franz Schubert
· Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart