"Nature abhors a moron."
H.L. Mencken
Blue Collar Caveat
After eight-plus years on the high end beat, I must confess that while I came in as something of a doubting Thomas, I am by now a dyed-in-the-wool audiophile - God help me. I comfort myself in this affliction with the knowledge that immersion in the experience of music remains my primary motivation. Which is why I view Brother Srajan, the Swami of 6moons, as something of a fellow traveler. However, while fascinated by all manner of high tech gear, I'm not as drawn to the more esoteric environs of the high-end audio theme park as Srajan. Don't get me wrong. It's not that I'm some sort of technological Luddite - nor do I lack for curiosity. Given my background as a writer and musician, and the nature of the gear I've been privileged to audition as a contributor to Stereophile (including a healthy proportion of integrated amps), I tend to gravitate towards equipment with a blue-collar pedigree and the highest degree of performance and value, irrespective of price.

Hey, I need that remote back!
Nevertheless, even as a consumer-by-proxy on the lookout for solid, high-value gear, it would be the height of insincerity to pretend that we're some kind of blue-collar saint cum working class hero, immune to the aural charms of high-end accoutrements. Over the years, if I've indulged myself in anything, it's to cabling, interconnects, AC cords and power-purifying solutions that enable me to achieve electron-microscopic levels of resolution with even the most humble components. In this way -- or so I rationalize things to myself -- I am able to adjudge gear at optimum performance levels, and thus pass along informed observations to fellow music lovers looking for reasons to audition new equipment and upgrade their own home audio rigs. The privilege of being able to reference such tweaks as long-term loaners enables me to do a better job of evaluating all manner of gear. The fringe benefit is that I'm able to maximize system resolution to such a profound degree, that the music-listening experience has never been more fulfilling.

NY skyline as seen from ferry that circumnavigates Manhattan

Still, the privilege of enjoying conjugal visits with cool gear should never be confused with a sense of entitlement. As a consumer by proxy, I always try and remember whom it is I'm writing for, and that "we" have real world limitations in terms of living space vs. listening space, budgetary constraints and spousal approval levels. Nor should my characterization of "blue collar pedigree" be taken to imply fealty to anything less that devout high-end standards. Leave us conclude that forall of the spiritual tumescence I derive from expensive tweaks, my focus on gear retains a more or less practical bent.

Practicality Be Damned

Having said all that, when Srajan Ebaen sounded me out about my interest in visiting retailer Bob Visintainer's new Avantgarde Music & Cinema showroom to do a review of his new Avantgarde Trio/Basshorns setup, I was intrigued. I wasn't interested in doing an extended exegesis on the technology of horn speakers. I felt my practical experience of Horns, Planars, Electrostats and the like (mainly derived from HiFi shows and visits with friends' systems) was far too limited to speak with authority on anything more than a gut level musical response - and that my own tastes in loudspeakers tended more towards variations on traditional designs.

Where there's a will there's a way...
Fortunately, my emotional response to this esoteric and relatively unfamiliar technology was precisely what Srajan was after. He wanted, if not a virgin's experience, then an aural pilgrim's emotional response to a series of intense listening evaluations -not some sort of conclusive sermon on the mount as to the relative merits and/or superiority of this unique approach to sound reproduction. That made me feel a lot more comfortable about taking on the responsibility of appraising a $70,000 loudspeaker system, when at the moment, my own reference points are the two-way, front-ported, stand-mounted Joseph Audio RM7si Signature MKII mini-monitors, Stereophile's 2002 joint loudspeaker of the year (a small, dynamic box-speaker that retails for all of $1799).

More significantly, Srajan urged me to coordinate things with Brother Visintainer so that I could audition the Trio/Basshorn system with any combination of gear I chose. If it made me more comfortable, and facilitated my evaluations, I should feel free to employ my own reference amps or pre-amps, rather than those Bob was selling with his setup. We'd coordinate transport to and from my Washington Heights home to Bob's West 24th Street showroom. Other than that, I was left to my own devices. After speaking by phone with Visintainer and US importer and horn guru Jim Smith down in Atlanta, Georgia, I decided to go cold turkey and schedule an initial foray into the Avantgarde Trio/Basshorn experience, with two subsequent follow-ups wherein I might deploy some of my own reference gear with an ear towards leveling the playing field. This would enable me to compare and contrast my own home listening experiences with those I encountered in this brave new world of sound - and practicality be damned.

Joseph Audio RM7si

Larger Than Life

The Avantgarde showroom has a very homey feel that encourages pilgrims to set a spell and listen. That's just how Bob Visintainer wants it. His enthusiasm for the Avantgarde loudspeaker systems, and the associated gear that goes with it -- primarily single-ended triode amplification in his case --knows no bounds. A Silicon Valley expatriate, like so many others drawn to high end audio, the element of fun is every bit as important to Bob as the notion of commerce, although let's not put to fine a point on that. Like any other retail establishment, pie in the sky is no substitute for birds in the nest. Still, Bob is a true believer, and as such, an ideal ambassador to represent this technology as the sole dealer in the Manhattan marketplace.

Avantgarde Music & Cinema main room

Normally, while I'm not put off by larger-than-life experiences of recorded sound, I'm not exactly enamored by it, either. I remember hearing a MartinLogan-VTL-Wadia reference system at the 1998 Stereophile Hi-Fi/Home Theater expo in Los Angeles, with three sets of 1250-watt Wotan tube rigs. Even in a capacious hotel ballroom, atmospheric conditions were quite toasty. As a result, those parties staging the event had to employ the kind of huge fans you might normally expect to see on the set of a vintage-Hollywood epoch about life in the South Pacific, where Jon Hall and Dorothy Lamour's idyllic island existence is threatened by hurricane winds and tidal waves -Tondolleah, save me! Needless to say, once the doors were closed, with the system switched on and the fans shut off, the waves of heat were sufficient to render this pilgrim unconscious. Fortunately, Stereophile webmaster Jon Iverson was considerate enough to elbow me in the ribs every now and again as I began to snore - like, hypnotic, man!

Was the sound impressive? You bet. But after a while, I felt as though in the thrall of aural Viagra. A Big Sound is one thing, but this was positively - silly. As in, welcome to The Attack of the Fifty Foot Elvis. Would I want to live in a world inhabited by ten-foot tall snare drums, gigantic guitars and acoustic trios as loud as a power trio? I think not.

Likewise, I recently had the pleasure of a Telarc-sponsored demo at Lyric HiFi's Upper East Side showroom. They introduced their SACD surround-sound re-masterings of some classic PentaTone recordings from the dawn of quadraphonic technology, as well as some excellent new audiophile-surround recordings of classical music done with DSD hardware. The system, employing a set of Magneplanar 3.6 loudspeakers as the main transducers in a five-channel rig (minus subwoofers), was most impressive and effortlessly musical. I was quite taken by their depth of resolution, detail and incredible transparency - they seemed ideally suited to chamber music. But somewhere in the back of my mind I recalled my caveat to a professional drummer friend some years back when he invested in a set of large used Maggies and solicited my opinion.
Lyric HiFi on Lexington

"Make sure you can audition them in your home for a couple of weeks. For the first few days, you're going to think you died and went to heaven - the midrange is so clear and open. It's magical. But after a while, given your love for Jazz and Pop and electric music with lots of transient energy, you're going to begin to notice things which might annoy you in terms of rhythm and pacing, low frequency extension and dynamics - like, where's the balls? Also, the Maggies' larger-than-life perspective takes some getting used to, and for all there is to love about them -- particularly their elemental purity -- in time you'll find yourself yearning after good old, missionary-position, dynamic loudspeakers."

He ended up returning them.