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You can never get silence anywhere nowadays, have you noticed?
- Bryan Ferry
It would appear that Scotland is the perfect environment for the cultivation of a slightly obsessional interest in music and hifi. The slate gray skies and early nights can on occasion seem to positively scream 'get inside!'

Growing up in Glasgow there was usually music in the house. I had two brothers who were always appearing with a fresh bunch of vinyl under their arms. The fact that both of them were more than ten years my senior meant that my listening habits soon advanced beyond my tender years. I think the period from the mid teens to early twenties (I’ve just turned 40 so we’re talking 1985-1993) plays a major part in shaping one’s musical tastes. So my ears were in their hands. For me that meant no Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin or Genesis but instead lots of Talking Heads, Kraftwerk, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and Steely Dan (some of the covers of my favorite records from this formative period follow). And today even the briefest glance at my own burgeoning library shows that most of it can be traced through a lineage that stretches back to these nascent listening sessions.

Over the years of course my own personal favorites have emerged—neither brother shares my passion for classical and jazz guitar or fondness of Beck for example—but the three of us still manage to get together about once a month clutching our latest CD purchases and listen way too loud and way too late into the night. And I didn’t know back then that one of my brothers, Craig, would go on to be a composer of quite some repute, famous for his movie soundtracks. I’ve spent some really memorable days with him as he recorded his scores in studios like Abbey Road, Air and Metropolis. Standing next to an orchestra as it bursts into full Technicolor life never fails to make the heart beat a little faster.

In fact I’ve always felt very at ease in the cosseted ambience of the recording studio. Indeed my earliest ambition was to be a sound engineer. The ‘sound’ of a recording captivated me almost as much as the music itself. Teenage heroes included producers such as Trevor Horn and recording engineers such as Roger Nichols and Bruce Swedien. So aged seventeen I tried to escape school one year early and landed myself a summer job at Park Lane recording studios on the city’s south side. It was straight in at the deep end. Week one I found myself helping Texas record their very first demo. I even played some guitar on it. Other bands that came to the studio that summer will ring some bells with anyone who kept tabs on the Scottish scene in the late eighties - Del Amitri, Hue and Cry and Love and Money to name a few. Since then I’ve flitted in and out of the recording world but sound engineering requires inordinate amounts of patience, a virtue I’ll admit I’m just a little short on.

Aged 21 I took a change of direction and ended up at Strathclyde University studying English and History. It was here that I learned how writing could be both fun and rewarding. More importantly however my very first university grant allowed me to buy my very first proper hifi! Yes the bug had already bitten. I used to particularly love the magazine Audiophile—especially appreciating Alvin Gold’s monthly musings—and it never bothered me that most of the gear was impossibly beyond my means. Indeed if anything that made the hobby seem all the more exotic and enticing. Audiophiles have struck me in the main as being an unusually articulate and thoughtful bunch—Renaissance men if you like—and it was fascinating to see how the best publications seamlessly combined three of my main passions – music, writing and photography.

My first experience of a proper hifi shop also proved to be a landmark occasion. I recall nervously approaching the building. In fact I brought a pal along to provide emotional support in the event my membership application to this special club wasn’t approved. After getting through the doors however things were fine. I was advised by the busy assistant to 'just have a wander about'. And what I wandered towards was the sound of some vintage Motown emanating like Siren song from a doorway down the corridor. As I entered the room I sharply stopped on my heels afraid I think of physically bumping into Diana Ross and possibly knocking her over. There was an almost hyper realism to the sound and certainly it possessed a degree of sheer palpability I’d never come close to hearing before. I still remember the system - a Linn Sondek with Ekos arm & Troika cartridge, Naim’s top-line pre and power amplification and a very small pair of standmount speakers from a German brand now not available in the UK, Sehring.

I guess the combination of Linn and Naim is the classic gateway drug for most UK audiophiles (especially Glaswegian ones - Linn is based very nearby). I know many never felt the need to step out of this magic circle but for me the experience ended up a little bitter sweet. There was absolutely no way I could afford any part of this system so I ended up buying the entry-level Linn gear of the time, an Intek amplifier with Index speakers.

I wish I could say that the sales staff stitched me up—because I didn’t even particularly like the sound of it in the store—but the truth was I wanted to get on the Linn ladder. I’d been blinded by the LP12’s halo. The power of branding had found yet another willing victim.

A mere two weeks later it was all gone again. Much to my relief another store agreed to swap it for an Audiolab 8000A and a pair of Tannoy D300 speakers. Linked up with my Arcam Alpha CD player this was so much better. I suppose it was a valuable lesson to learn. Although I never did gravitate back to Linn (or for that matter Naim) I’m still thankful to both companies for providing me my first truly memorable hifi experience.  

In a circuitous act of fate, more than ten years later I entered the arcane universe of hifi retailing myself, working for the man who had supplied the Audiolab all those years earlier - Jack Lawson. A stalwart of the UK high-end scene since the late seventies, he was the person who handed me the keys to this magic kingdom. Suddenly the truly esoteric gear (Gryphon, VAC, Simon Yorke, Revel etc.) that still lurked leagues beneath the depths of my pockets surfaced right there in front of me. I tried (and most probably failed) to act cool. Seriously though it never did stop feeling like a privilege to be able to hear my favorite music through equipment of this rarefied level.

Most the people I got to know on both sides of the retail fence proved to be pleasant and highly enthusiastic but of course there were some awkward customers too again on both sides of the fence! It wasn’t just exciting awaiting the delivery of the latest kit from the brands we were stockists for. Often we’d be surprised by the second-hand equipment coming in as well. I recall one chap totally out of the blue turning up with a full Kondo Audio Note system in countless wooden crates for us to sell for on his behalf. And yes it sounded pretty nice!

As you might imagine working in a high-end store proved to be the ideal location for learning about various manufacturers’ sonic signatures. However the main insight I gained concerned the importance of system synergy. We all know that a well matched and caringly set up budget system will deliver far more involvement than any number of ultra-expensive high-end pieces which have just been thrown together. So it always surprised me that customers looking for complete set-ups were actually pretty rare. It was more likely they’d change one piece of the jigsaw at a time or see a bargain on eBay and throw that into the mixer too. It makes more economic sense in the long run to buy the whole shebang at the same time —stands, cables, power conditioner, the lot—if funds permit. But of course I’m also well aware that a big part of our hobby is the itching impulse to seek out that next elusive tweak.

Many parts of both the hifi and wider music industries have been in a greater state of flux than usual over the last few years and of course this impacts on our pastime. I enjoy my iPod as much as the next guy (in fact I just bought a pair of Grado GR10s to use with mine) but its growing ubiquity at the expense of any other avenue of listening troubles me. As the tide inexorably moves towards a download (and most probably wireless) future it’s not a loss of sound quality that worries me or an end to owning actual physical media. It's the fundamental shift in peoples’ relationship with music, a change being wrought by our modern peripatetic culture.

I’ve shared my passion for hifi with many friends over the years. It’s become increasingly apparent that ownership of a ‘proper’ system was a priority very few of them shared with me. Eventually I think I’ve tied down the reason behind this. I don’t believe it’s caused by a shortage of funds or the perceived expense involved. It’s not due to the inconvenience of having ‘big black boxes’ in the living room. It’s not a lack of space. And it’s not because they couldn’t be persuaded that sonically an iPod is a little low-rent. Instead many people appear to find it increasingly difficult to be still with music, to sit down, take a breath and consciously open their minds to the sound.

It’s somewhat ironic too because music is being consumed in far greater quantity than ever before. But in isolation it can appear to lack a clear USP. Its value in and of itself is seemingly no longer sufficient to satisfy our appetites. Increasingly music has to be piggy-backed on some other vehicle—a movie or video game—to get into our homes. Only then can we rest assured that our scarce free time is being filled with ample entertainment. And the folks who bustle through our urban cityscapes with their ear buds constantly jammed in aren’t listening to music. They’re canceling out noise. Big difference.

Okay, I know I’m preaching to the converted. But one of the many reasons I’m very grateful to have been given the opportunity of reviewing for 6moons is my hope that together we can evangelise (just a little bit) and reach out beyond the limits of our own tribe. Even the short-term health of the hifi industry is dependent on this. Wonderful music can evoke so many different emotions and issue such involving intellectual challenges that we should always be extremely proud of our hobby and seek to share wherever possible the lessons it’s taught us and the joys we have experienced.

Finally I also hope my experience with 6moons turns out to be good old-fashioned fun. I do take this stuff seriously but I’m also aware that’s it’s easy to get bogged down in issues which ultimately lead us to spend less time listening to music and having a good time. There’s always been a risk with this hobby concerning not seeing the forest for the trees but for me Srajan and his team get the balance just right between informing and entertaining. My sincerest hope is not to do anything that might affect this delicate equilibrium!