|Why don't we kick off with a passage from Kurt Vonnegut's Sirens of Titan'?
Let's momentarily leave the harmoniums to nourishing themselves happily on raw sounds and get back on planet Earth, specifically to the Audiomeca Mephisto II. I'm another one of those guys who confesses to a general dissatisfaction with the CD. Vinyl is my medium of choice. Still, for the last year or so, I've begun looking at the higher end of CD reproduction, in the hopes of bridging the gap. I've been lucky enough to hear players generally reckoned to be close to or actually "state of the art". The top Metronome and Audio Aero Capitole MkII in particular come to mind. One day and by chance, I heard the Audiomeca Mephisto II, an extremely rare creature in this corner of England.
This occurred in the home of an industry professional who takes his digital very serious indeed. This isn't just because he doesn't use vinyl. It's because he's been in the game for over twenty years. Over that period, it's become his second nature to explore the continuously advancing state of digital. He regularly -- off-puttingly predictable for his competitors in fact -- garners "Best Sound of Show" accolades from the top UK audio mags. I guess that proves he's hearing what the rest of us are hearing.
On the day in question, we listened to three machines, one of them my original Cary 303 for reference. The last one to play was the Audiomeca. He put on some music. Within the first few bars I thought, "this is pretty special, very interesting". Right off the bat -- and I mean within seconds -- I heard the machine's acoustic signature, how it interpreted the audio landscape: It portrayed notes with greater density than I'd heard digital do before.
There was greater energy emanating from the vibration at the centre of each note - the harmonic envelope was more tightly packed towards the core. That quality is one cherished and clearly superior trait of my vinyl setup. Needless to say, my curiosity grew a vivid aquamarine. I also noted an immediate penalty: The associated harmonics were marginally less airy (more on this later). That posed a conundrum, a finger in the dyke of preconceptions. You see, I had always assumed that airy upper harmonics were key to recreating the recorded acoustic and therefore the associated sense of "liveness" or presence in the room. Despite less obvious harmonic high-frequency dither, the sense of presence from enhanced tonal density was actually greater. Hmm. Another mercurial mystery.
I must have looked suitably impressed since my friend, without prompting, quipped "That's probably the best single-box player around". Another surprise. This guy's no bushy-tailed enthusiast. His jaded vocabulary stretches from "OK" to "Good" to the very rare "Bloody good". I'd never heard him use crude epithets like "Best" before. Alarmed, I noted his tone - completely matter-of-fact. I also detected a slightly rueful intonation of potential remorse as well. Had he just committed himself to another machine, a like-priced competitor to what he already owned?
Leaving controversial words like "best" to the garbage bin where they belong, my problem simply was that I'd degraded to the point where the silver disc wasn't getting much use. My listening had turned 90+% vinyl. That's not a good thing. Once your system dictates what kind of music you listen to, something has gone haywire. There's simply too much good music that's not available on vinyl. How to afford that kind of snobbish attitude if you love music?
|To illustrate the very devious cunning whereby goat-hoof'd Mephistophiles undermined my detrimental vinyl focus, (I bought it and sold the Cary) cut to this morning. Breakfast. I opened a packet of cereal. My son looked at me pouting "Shreddies?" with disdainful disapproval. He does have pretty strong opinions on the cereal front. I retorted "Shreddies!" denoting deliberate approval, even mild enthusiasm. Same two syllables, two completely different meanings. How so?
Intonation - in particular the way it affects the first vowel. If you emphasize the leading edge of the first vowel at the same pitch, you get disdain. If you emphasize the same leading edge at a lower pitch, you get greater doubt mixed into this disdain. If you just emphasize the whole of the first vowel instead, you arrive at approval.
|The subtext of questioning is communicated by a subtle lift in pitch at the end of the first vowel, a slight trailing off at the end of the second. Tiny shifts in intonation create meaning through emotive pronunciation. "Shreddies" flat-neutral sounds deliberate and intentional. I've attempted to mix slight doubt into this neutral statement, as though I wasn't entirely certain that Shreddies were the right and only present cereal choice. But I still can't identify how the exact vocal trick translates into a clear-cut technical description. In any case, I'm sure that these effects are measurable. My point? Humans are acutely sensitive to very subtle shifts in intonation. They contain the essence of what we communicate, how we interact with more honesty -- albeit often subconsciously -- through underlying feelings that might profoundly alter the dictionary meaning of a word.
|It's a broad territory of minute deflections of pitch, tone, intensity and vibrational content. Some reviewers use the blanket term 'dynamic contrast'. Others default to 'microdynamics'. When we probe into these familiar yet largely untouched regions of sound, we'll probably discover a host of complex yet interrelated factors at work.
What I look for in equipment is astute awareness on this level of subtext. Otherwise, the result could be the kind of robotically equalized sound you get from a machine-generated telephone greeting; the flat lifeless sound of someone seriously depressed. This between-the-lines information makes a very pronounced difference. Discrimination about a component's prowess in this regard isn't about optional extras but a fundamental cornerstone of audio reproduction. Granted, no one likes a wavering soundstage or lack of bass welly. Still, if our systems become tone-deaf at this level of suggestiveness, we might as well regroup on square one. Start over again.
Into this pastel context of shades and hues lands Audiomeca's Mephisto II. The player is a single box, with transport and DAC housed in a common chassis. The power supply is delegated to its own small stainless steel box, connected to the player via a computer cable. The chassis itself rides on a metacrylate/perspex plinth which has been covered in some kind of vibration-absorbing material. Constructed of stainless steel, the main structure sits on the plinth with a large cutout from which the metacrylate transport subchassis is suspended with four adjustable springs to guarantee perfect perpendicularity via the in-built bubble level. The transport of course is Pierre Lurné's own top-loading model 1. Another unusual feature? A tracking dial which doesn't affect sound quality but allows the player to read difficult or slightly damaged discs.