104. I Am Not an Audiophile
Before the pandemic shut down the concert halls, I was a regular concertgoer. There was also, once a month, the lunchtime organ concert at Saint John the Baptist Church, just a five minute stroll up The Hayes. My friend Brian would meet me there in the second pew, facing the case containing the tallest pipes of the “Father” Henry Willis organ. This, too, has been stopped by the pandemic.
The organ at Saint John the Baptist Church, Cardiff
I love organ music. Karmann, one of my snailors (a pen pal, so to speak) whom I have never met in person, knows this. She hails from Texas and her instrument of choice is the flute, but she also plays the organ for her church. Instead of the usual ink on paper, she recently sent me an email so that she could attach a recording of herself at the organ’s console. The piece she performed was Gustave Holst’s “Thaxted”, a hymn of which I am particularly fond, the melody to be found buried in “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity”. The hymn is probably better known throughout the UK as "I Vow to Thee, My Country" and in Karmann’s church as “Te Deum”. This treat was a kind gift.
I know Thaxted, a tiny town in Essex. It is where my youngest brother-in-law lives. I try to visit him and his family at least once a year. They have another Saint John the Baptist Church there with an 1821 Lincoln organ I’ve not yet heard. In the heart of town is a house where the great man himself, Holst, lived from 1917 to 1925.
A number of snailors, those dear friends with whom I regularly correspond by post, and emailing friends as well, have been asking about my new audio system. They want to know the components on which I settled. I don’t know why, since I’m not an audiophile. I will not spend the price of an automobile for audio equipment.
I didn’t start out searching for a new high fidelity audio system because of the approaching pandemic, although with the pandemic near, I felt increasing urgency. So it was in January that I decided to wait no longer. In February, I gave myself permission to finally make the investment. I could see the pandemic was on its way.
It was the loudspeakers on which I focused my search and where I intended to make the largest investment. The best speakers I have ever heard were the ones I owned before leaving the US. These were Magnepan’s Magneplanar 1.5s. They were too big to carry to Wales, being five feet high, even though they were only an inch thick. I gave those Magneplanars to a precious friend who I knew would appreciate them. That was why I had been without the consolation of good audio equipment for the last five years, since living in Wales. I could no longer endure the absence of quality music in my home. What I sought was a convincing illusion of reality because perfect reproduction, to my thinking, cannot exist.
The instruments of Mozart’s time are not the same instruments found in contemporary orchestras. The viol family and small concert venues, chambers, gave way to the violin family and large concert halls. We do not hear his music exactly as Mozart heard it. The concert halls have different flavors, as does where you sit in them.
Every orchestra sounds different. There are varying levels of skills among performers. The instruments are of varying qualities. Conductors imprint their values onto the orchestra, calling for different speeds and volumes from the sections. The recording engineers also put their stamp on the pieces by determining which microphones to use and where to place them, then adjusting levels for the different instruments. Finally, the manufacturers of amplifiers and speakers adjust these components to what they feel is the most satisfying and the most convincing. All performances get interpreted and varied at each step of the way to becoming a recording, but that should not disappoint. Bach never wrote for the pianoforte, but he did write for the keyboard, and who is to say it doesn’t sound better now than when he heard it?
Setting out to buy speakers, I read the specs, but would purchase them based primarily on how they sounded. I thought a good pair of speakers would be wasted on my decaying ears, what with my hearing loss which comes with age and an incurable tinnitus. Surely good speakers would be a waste of money.
Listening to speakers costing several thousand pounds, I thought them little better than speakers costing £750. You need to apply the law of diminishing returns. I set my budget at £750.
The fellow who took care of me, the shop manager at Cardiff’s Richer Sounds, surprised me, understanding what it was I craved. Rock’n’roll wasn’t important. Such music was on electrified instruments. How can anyone be sure the sound you hear on electrified instruments is the same as intended by the performer? Preferring acoustic instruments, I had brought my own CDs: romantic Spanish guitar pieces, a violin concerto, and arias from my favorite singers. I used the term “realism” to describe what I was looking for. The manager told me the audiophile term to express these feelings was “soundstage presentation” or “soundstaging”.
After I listened to £750 speakers, he brought out other speakers for me to try. I was stunned by the difference. It felt significant. I had not been so astonished since the Magneplanars. While they were more than I intended to spend, they sounded better than speakers I had listened to at two or three times the price. This is why I bought the Focal Aria 926 speakers manufactured in France.
A Focal Aria 926 speaker
Next, I built everything else around them. It was simple enough. The manager had me sample several different amplifiers, all about the same price, until I found the one that best served my music and choice of speakers. It surprised me that amplifiers at the same price could make the speakers sound very different. So, for those who want to know, who want to gloat that their equipment is better or nitpick the faults of my decision, here is what I bought. The amplifier is the Cambridge Audio CXA81. To be confident the other components would integrate perfectly with the amplifier, I stayed with the same brand, the Cambridge Audio Network Server CXN V2, and their CD player, CXC. I am in awe of how music is a language that can appeal directly to our emotions without translation. Now all I need to do is retrieve my CD collection, which is on loan to my brother-in-law in Thaxted.