Monday 25 November 2013

Learning to Listen

There was a time - and this may surprise you - when a Hi-Fi reviewer’s job was to install whatever he was reviewing on his lab bench and measure the bejesus out of it. When I first got into Hi-Fi, in England back in the 1970’s, one of the senior reviewers in the vibrant Hi-Fi magazine scene was Gordon J. King. Gordon lived close by and I got to meet him. Gordon would never dream of connecting an amplifier to a pair of speakers and playing music through it. He would measure power output, distortion, frequency response, anything he could put a number to. But he would never let it near his sound system (which was pretty weird, and which he never did let me listen to).

When Naim released the radical 250 Power Amplifier, Julian Vereker didn’t pause to think before sending one out to Gordon for review. Now, the first 250’s had a tendency to oscillate in the ultrasonic without an inductive load. In fact, the user manual went to great lengths to specify the type of speaker cable which was necessary to avoid this problem in practice. Not a person to pay any attention to matters as mundane as loudspeaker cables, Gordon immediately installed the 250 on his lab bench and connected a rheostat across its output terminals, which, for the duration of his test, was all he would ever connect to it. Needless to say, it measured terribly, right up until he blew out its output stage measuring its power delivery capability. It was sent back to a horrified Julian Vereker, who repaired it and sent it back. It blew up for a second time. Gordon gave the Naim 250 a terrible review.

At one point, after he had retired, Gordon gave me a high-end Denon receiver, a product he considered one of the best amplifiers he had ever reviewed. That Denon sounded absolutely appalling when I hooked it up. I gave it back. As life would have it, I replaced the Denon with … a Naim 250. It was absolutely superb sounding.

A few years earlier, “Hi-Fi Answers” was one of the many UK Hi-Fi magazines sold in the high street newsagents. It was not particularly notable, but its hook was an expanded Q&A section where readers could write in for advice. In about 1980, Keith Howard took over as Editor, and soon Hi-Fi Answers had a radical editorial makeover. Word got around that every single question that was posed on their Q&A pages was answered with instructions to purchase a Linn Sondek turntable, Linn speakers, and Naim amplification. It didn’t seem to matter what the question was, the answer was always “Linn/Naim”. Additionally, Hi-Fi equipment was now reviewed solely by listening to it, with not a single measurement playing any role in the evaluation process. It really was quite a radical departure, back in those days, to talk about how an **amplifier** sounded! Let alone a turntable, or a tonearm. Finally, they propounded a radical new philosophy of “source first”, where the most important component in a Hi-Fi system was the turntable, followed, in order, by the tonearm, cartridge, preamp, power amp, and loudspeakers. All this was almost a total inversion of the perceived wisdom of the day. This radical approach interested a young me, as I had by that time gone through many stages of incremental system upgrades. Each time the system indubitably sounded better after the upgrade, but after the new car smell wore off I was left with the uneasy feeling that nothing much of substance had actually changed. I could hear apparently higher fidelity, but the new system never really rocked my boat any more than than did the previous incarnation. Meanwhile, Hi-Fi Answers promised audio nirvana if only I would buy a Linn Sondek. It was time I found out what all the fuss was about.

I found myself in London one weekday afternoon, so I figured I could spend some time in one of the city’s Linn dealers and I wouldn’t be getting in anybody’s way. I can’t remember its name, but I had read that Hi-Fi Answers’ Jimmy Hughes, the leading light of the new “just listen to it” school of equipment reviewing, used to work there. One of the sales staff duly introduced himself and inquired what I was looking for. I explained. He installed me in one of their many private (single-speaker) listening rooms and spent about two hours giving me a one-on-one lesson in listening to Hi-Fi. It went like this. I happened to have a couple of albums that I had just bought. One of them was a Sibelius Violin Concerto, although I don’t remember who the violinist was. He started off by asking why I had bought that record. This was an immediate problem, since I had only bought it because it was in a clearance bin and seemed worth a punt. But, surrounded by equipment I could never afford, and a smoothly urbane salesman I didn’t want to offend, I really didn’t want to say that. So I offered some appropriate-sounding platitudes. The salesman wouldn’t give up on it, though - he wanted to play it for me on a popular low-end turntable, and we duly listened for a while. At the end, he interrogated me on my thoughts regarding the soloist’s performance. Bless him, the salesman listened patiently to my clearly clueless response. I had no real opinion regarding the soloist’s performance, and I'm sure the salesman knew it. Now we switched the record to a Linn Sondek turntable, fitted with a Linn Ittok arm and a Linn Asak cartridge. I was asked to listen again, and answer the same question.

During those first 10 minutes of exposure to the Linn, I got it. It was a jaw-dropping experience. All of a sudden, everything made made sense. Like being struck by Cupid’s arrow, I immediately knew that the “source first” concept was the real deal, and that the Linn was for me. The salesman took me through many more albums, each one carefully chosen to illustrate a point he wanted to make. We listened to Sondeks with different arms and cartridges. Each point he wanted to make was a lesson I needed to absorb.

What I learned in that store that afternoon has been the basis of my approach to Hi-Fi ever since, and I don’t feel it has ever let me down. And I have no intention of trying to set it out in print here, because words alone can’t and don’t fully capture it. Only the experience does. Only the experience can, and preferably with the assistance of a really good teacher. But if I could distill the essence of it, it would be this: Does the performance **communicate** with you? The value of music cannot lie solely within the notes and words, but must derive from the performers’ interpretation of them. Sure, it takes technical chops to perform the piece, but what makes it worth listening to in the first place should be the same as what makes it worth committing to tape in a studio in the first place. The performer must surely have something to say, so is he **communicating** that to you as you listen?

I ended up confessing to the salesman that I could not remotely afford a Linn Sondek, and he was cool with that. But I did start saving, and in a little over a year I bought a Rega Planar 3 turntable, and a little over a year after that, replaced it with a Linn Sondek. My journey, which had begun about eight years earlier, only now started to make real forward progress. It was shortly after taking possession of the Sondek that Gordon J. King gave me the Denon Receiver. And it was after I gave it back to him that I wrangled a Naim Preamp and a 250 on long-term loan. I finally had that “Linn/Naim” system. Eventually, the Linn and Naim were both replaced, but now each upgrade came with a concomitant and lasting improvement in the pleasure to be had from the system.

Back then, the Hi-Fi world was different to what it is now. There were a very small number of manufacturers offering equipment with truly high-end performance, and a large majority whose products fell seriously, seriously short. It was a market in which the “Linn/Naim” message could - and did - resonate. Today, the picture is very different. You have to go a long way to find a truly bad product, and the choice of seriously, seriously good equipment can be almost bewildering. You know, as I write this, it occurs to me that maybe life was indeed much simpler when all you needed to know was “Linn/Naim”, “Linn/Naim”, and “Linn/Naim”. Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.