Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

Erich WetzelFirst, there was music. I grew up with music played around me from both radio and LPs, the standards of the day. I must have subliminally developed an affinity for the music -- I have no recollection of consciously deciding that I really liked having it there. I found my father’s all-in-one record changer, including speakers, fascinating -- it could play several album sides in succession, in a bizarre mechanical dance that levitated the on-deck records a few inches above the one being played. I always feared that the next disc would drop before the tonearm could move out of the way. My last view before going to bed would often be of my father wearing the headphones of the day: what appeared to be two bizarre, pea-green soup cans attached to a massive headband similar to what’s used today by professional football and Formula 1 teams. Think of today’s over-the-ear headphones, only larger and even more ghastly.

An undercurrent of music, too quiet, too loud, and just right, lingered in the house throughout my childhood. There were many of the rock standbys, traditional classical and baroque, and even some of the new electronica being pioneered by Kraftwerk and others. I would later come to understand that my father was near the cutting edge.

My first audio purchase was a Fisher all-in-one record changer, cassette deck, and tuner, encased in a stylish box of wood-grain vinyl. I quickly learned that the turntable’s tall spindle concealed a mechanical lever that kept the waiting stack of records from destroying tonearm, cartridge, and stylus. A school friend’s father reviewed recordings for a "high-end" magazine, and "read" records on That’s Incredible, the America’s Got Talent of the time. He gave me a primer in some of the name brands: Quad, McIntosh, Spectral, Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab. I never really got to listen to his system, as one knew better than to bother its owner when he was in his sound room.

One nugget of wisdom that came from this exposure was that loud was not synonymous with good. It took me many years to apply that concept to my own listening. Youth and inexperience led to a Harman/Kardon receiver nearly suffocating in its own heat in one bizarre college incident. Following another, a Yamaha amplifier was pronounced dead on removal from my system. Both situations involved high stress and high volume levels. The expense of recovering from those unfortunate events cured me of excess volume.

Other brands and gear came along the way with purchasing sanity still aided by my father: Harman/Kardon receiver and turntable; Advent speakers; low-gauge generic copper wire; Yamaha preamplifier, amplifier, and CD player; Mirage speakers; higher-gauge generic copper wire; a CD player from the now-defunct California Audio Labs (CAL); a preamp and power amp from the similarly deceased Counterpoint; AudioQuest, MIT, and Transparent Audio interconnects and cables; a CAL DAC; and volume purchases of CDs. Each step increased the sound quality and accuracy of what I heard. Much of this gear is currently in use by family and friends.

After graduating from college with a freshly bestowed degree in physics, I immediately began work in our family business, which is based on professional services and none of the math and science I studied in school. The work provided additional income that continued to make successes of our local audio sales professionals. Our local shop, also now gone, had a fabulous philosophy: that each of us needs to determine what our preferences are. They encouraged long listening sessions, and provided seemingly unending system changes to assist me in finding what I needed to fulfill my needs. More steps up in equipment included the B&W 801 Series 2 speakers, and the Audio Research Corporation CD player, tubed preamplifier, and solid-state amplifier that comprise my reference system today. Upgrades were made to some of the cables as well, with sonically noteworthy changes from Transparent: interconnects, and speaker cables as fat as high-quality garden hoses.

Erich Wetzel's listening room

Then it all came to a halt. Over the last 15 years I’ve made some changes in my life that have required significant reallocations of money. Marriage, home, children, automobiles, children’s education, and day-to-day expenses have led to only modest changes in available source materials, lapsed subscriptions to audio magazines, and no changes in my reference system.

Time led me up a gradual slope of increasing sound quality and expense to the plateau I have inhabited for 15 years now. I reached a high point, to be sure, but my next steps could be in many directions. The way forward is obscured by a lack of current knowledge; I fear an inadvertent downhill retreat. I return to this hobby with a mind open to the value of anything we do to try to make our recorded music sound as good as it can.

I still love listening to music, which is where it all began. The accuracy of reproduction of the source signal has improved exponentially in the ensuing years. As a technical person with a background in electronics, I find myself wondering if the number of electronic interfaces, with the potential losses associated with transferring the signal across them, can be reduced. The current state of digitized music and electronic development has brought us to a point where the next step in sound reproduction seems to be a contraction of the numbers of components we need, rather than the gradual expansion that brought us here.

Do we need a room full of hardware to enjoy our music? Benchmark Media Systems doesn’t seem to think so, and has combined, in one very small box, digital-to-analog conversion, source switching, and volume control. Neither does Hegel Music Systems, a Norwegian company relatively new to the North American market, which has combined a DAC, preamp, and power amp in a single piece of gear. In the next few months, reviews of equipment from both companies will appear here. Fifteen years ago, higher-grade non-integrated equipment cost huge sums. Today, we can spend a 1990s sum on a single piece of gear that accepts a signal from a digital source and cleanly outputs significant amounts of power to speakers.

I’m not opposed to the broad range of components that, 15 years ago, was required to assemble a high-quality stereo system. Mine still makes me very happy. However, I believe that with the options available today, we can simplify the hardware we use to make our music and still have a fabulous listening experience. My father, of course, will be expected to listen in on the next step in the process.

. . . Erich Wetzel