A "house call" by The Sun's Perfect Pitch on Wednesday May 28, 1997

Fantasy Island
Zeni Wan travels to Penang for a little native audiophilic and gastronomic experience.

THIS INSTALMENT 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).


Curiously 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.

His initial 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.

Assigned to 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.

Sitting quietly 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.



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 combination.

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 my presence.

Encouragingly, 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.

Second, this 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.

Moreover, the 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.



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.

Though having 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.

Realising that 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.


Great hi-fi mysteries No. 34

IT 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.

First 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! Most peculiar.

Once 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 experience.)

Personally, 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.

Then 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.

I should 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.

As 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.

Sean 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?

Jeffrey Tan



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