"house call" by The Sun's Perfect Pitch on
Wednesday May 28, 1997
Zeni Wan travels
to Penang for a little native audiophilic and gastronomic experience.
OF HOUSE CALL brought me to Penang, a land far, far away
from the carbon monoxide, traffic- and alien-fertile Klang Valley.
And an island where I was accidentally born. It is a charming and
friendly place spiraled by time-worn building gleaming with character
(but slowly eaten away by the blitz of commerce) and where the pace
of life is still, for a city, comparatively slow (the 5 kph trishaws
will be sitting ducks for the KL's road bullies).
though, people here seem to be in a perpetual state of hunger. You
can observe food stalls and restaurants on almost every street and
corner. And much like KL, night time sees the coming of to life
of more eating establishments, sometimes at the most bewildering
of spots. It comes as no surprise then that the island claims to
offer the best in local cuisine, if not football team.
I myself had
the opportunity to savour what is reportedly the best ice kacang
in Penang, twice, courtesy of my extremely gracious host who was
bent on filling every vacuum in my belly with solids and liquid
at every opportunity.
Now, on to the more mundane hi-fi business. The system
in question this time around belongs to Sean Connery. Obviously
not his real name, Sean, whose impeccable composure mirrors James
Bond himself earns a living working with one of the island's many
multinational companies. A man who clearly loves music, his humble
inception into hi-fi was, as he related, through a radio hooked
to a home-made mono amplifier, in addition to fooling around with
a Garrard automatic turntable.
window to stereo was with a Nikko amplifier. Admittedly, that was
the period when his buying decision was corrupted by the amount
of lights paraded by a component. Slowly and inevitably, he graduated
to the likes of such established makes as JVC and NAD.
The Audio Research
Classic 30 marked his entry into the world of "serious" audio. I
assume that venture also mobilised his upgrade virus, to the extent
that he now insists to have lost count on the amount of upgrades
he has gone through.
Looking at the
equipment he is using at present, he certainly has come a long way
since his Nikko days. His system now combines such famed items as
the CAT SL-1 preamp, gargantuan Conrad-Johnson Premier Five monoblocks
and terrestrial-looking Sonus Faber Extremas.
frolic with his collection of LPs is the stunning Oracle Delphi
IV turntable. What made me dare not try my hand at spinning some
LPs (even with the humble owner's supervision) was the delightfully
lethal and delicate combination of RM 10,000 Airtangent 2B linear
tracking air-bearing arm and RM5,000 vdH Grasshopper III cartridge.
A minor slip and swoosh goes my annual salary. Plus I don't trust
my fingers, they can't even open a packet of Twisties properly.
somewhere at the bottom is the Holfi Pre MC1 non-feedback MC step-up.
Arguably the least expensive component of the RM 100,000 lot, it
provides an additional stage of amplification for the Grasshopper's
very low output. Being in the company of such luminaries, the Holfi's
selection communicates its worth and merit.
His CDs meanwhile
have the honour of being spun and read by the not-very-cheap Meta-Research
Laser 1 transport, using in association with the equally extravagant
Goldmund Mimesis 12 DAC. How much are the two really? Let me just
say that you can buy a dozen Marantz CD-67s with them.
THE DIGITAL TRACK
With such a
lofty digital playback combo, what relevance does the just-as-lofty
analogue pot-pourri have, you may ask? Well, let me tell you a little
story. In the late 80s, Sean consummately gave-up analogue, having
jumped the overwhelming digital bandwagon which was elbowing its
way in the audio scene. And immersed he was in the digital trail,
falling in love and owning sophisticated digital proposals from
the likes of Meridian and Micromega, before settling on the present
But a chance
rendezvous with his time-honoured Rega Planar 3 turntable proved
to be a shocking revelation. Compared to even the Meta-Research
and Goldmund, he found that music reproduced by his Rega was actually
"better" and closer to his heart's desire. Not surprisingly, with
his interest in analogue rekindled, this lead to his present stupendous
analogue set-up. The fantastic Airtangent arm has been crowned his
favourite component, which should see it survive a final turntable
upgrade. Maybe a Basis, he thinks.
So, the once
chaste transport and DAC, despite their honoured pedigree, are now
relegated to "concubine" status. But I believe Sean is a fair and
virtuous man, not abandoning the illicit service of the duo in totality.
This is evident with the multitude of CDs, some quite current releases,
nesting in his wall-hugging CD shelves. And I should add what a
wonderful and tasteful collection of CDs he has, bringing in union
such audiophile-alien artistes like Nazareth, Led Zeppelin, Loggins
& Messina, Jethro Tull, Deep Purple, Emmylou Harris and Sheila
Majid, just to name a few.
I've been told
by a conscientious source that the Premier Five is "the power amp
to get." Its monstrous and bloody 200-watt capability aside, Sean
claims them to be user-friendly. He even changes the tubes himself.
The limitations felt with a pair of Sonus Faber Minima Amators meanwhile
led him to his current speakers from the same Italian firm. Together
with his other components, the wood-abundant Extrema is said to
gel marvelously, delivering the "natural and realistic" sonic goal
he seeks. According to Sean, the aim for a lifelike presentation
means some audiophile aspirations, such as expansive soundstaging,
which doesn't really fit into his music scheme, are made secondary.
Two items of
note set this house call apart from the rest. First, the hi-fi system
does not actually colonise the owner's regular residence. It resides
in an apartment, a few blocks away from the Hi-Fi Lord's home, which
has been transformed into a kind of weekend retreat. And a swell
hangout apartment it was, having been decored very tastefully, granting
it an atmosphere not unlike a show-suite. So spotless it was, even
a bacteria would blush. I forced myself to move about the apartment
in a mantis-like manner, so as not to leave any visible clues of
the place is not restricted to adults. While dad's busy cuddling
his prized audio toys, the children can entertain themselves in
comfort with "filem sesuai untuk tontonan umum" (films fit for general
viewing) through a modest AV set-up in the lounge. I confess to
have forgotten to ask about mom's preferred activity though.
was the most dimensionally-defying listening room I've ever encountered.
Admittedly, the urge to ridicule the room size and hi-fi arrangement
is great, until you realise the fact that the whole thing was remarkably
meditated and intentional.
music reproduced was delicious, with the startling absence of boom.
This was confounded by the fact that there were no room treating
contraptions employed and the Extrema is not exactly pea-sized,
measuring 46 x 27 x 55 cm HWD.
There, I got
the chance to hear Joni Mitchell's supreme Blue on vinyl and am
sad to report how cold the album can sound on CD. There was perhaps
a lack of bottom end, but the fat-free, highly animated presentation
is one that is highly infectious. Bear in mind that the set up has
been personalised. It is certainly preferable to that which deceives
with unwieldy and bloated bass. One can only leave the room having
heard the music (which never threatened to sting the ear) with a
concluding applause, if not in tears.
COOL, DRY PLACE
It is also interesting
to note that much care has been taken for vinyl sanitary and health.
Each LP boasts its own protective plastic sleeve, while to prevent
fungal infections, relative humidity is kept in check (to around
40%) by a Samsung dehumidifier and monitored by an expensive electronic
gauge. Anything not available, be it LP or equipment, Sean will
try to source himself, to the extent of importing them personally.
quite a luxurious system, he apparently does not belong to any particular
audiophile clique. "It can get too political," remarked Sean, who
recalled his short-lived unison with a particular Mini Cooper community,
which indeed became too 'political'. Not associated with any hi-fi
legion, he is able to hand-pick components without getting clouded
by too many opinions, except from trusted dealers and friends.
the upgrading has to stop somewhere inevitably, he claims to be
now at peace with his system, having put his upgrade virus in deep
coma. Furthermore, says Sean, at the present level, to upgrade would
be expensive. To yield even a marginal improvement, you might have
to spend a hell lot of money.
hi-fi mysteries No. 34
CAN'T WORK! YET IT DOES. I don't
often get a chance to tag along on House Calls, let
alone comment, but this one is well worth noting.
impressions of Sean's room tell you it is physically imposible.
The Extremas for one, have been known to work far less optimally
in larger rooms. Yet, here they were, smack bang in the
middle of Sean's approximately 10 x 9 x 8ft LWH space, not
only not booming, but displaying a distinct lack of bass!
you get over the initial shock of the room, you immediately
notice that music is reproduced in a very clear, immediate
and open fashion, devoid of smear, insidious warmth or bloat.
And, with the exception of the Holfi MC Step-up, this was
a pure valve and vinyl system. (Sean offered to play the
CD player but none of us was too keen after the analogue
I would place the turntable away from the speaker, but apart
from that, Sean's room and set-up truly defy conventional
explanation. You'll notice the double bass of Rebecca Pidgeon's
Spanish Harlem less deep and extended, but her voice
graced the room with such sheer presence which overrode
regular hi-fi parameters.
we played Sam McLain and it wiped out my digital comparisons
I've heard. The music was again, immediate, yet relaxed,
the most noticeable for me being the strings on the acoustic
guitar which sounded so much less tight and strained; this
system is way way dynamic in the midband.
perhaps mention I have held a long fondness and secret desire
to own the CAT, but the Premier Five monoblocks are worth
another mention; these are one of the greatest C-J, if not
classic, modern tube amps; clear, fluid and authoritative.
We're talking eight EL-34 output tubes per side.
for Extremas, my regard for this RM20,000 squat pit-bull
terrier of a speaker grows by the day. They are undeniably
very revealing, clean, dynamic and capable of near full-range
performance. But as Zeni notes, they are deep, if not plain
big. Imagine lying a half-meter tall bookshelf speaker on
its back on stands and you'll get the picture.
was strongly dissuaded by his dealer from upgrading to the
Extremas, given his space. How they even work, let alone
perform wonderfully in this room, we may never know. A case
for further investigation?
Editor - PERFECT PITCH