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Owner: Brian C.
Source: 47 Labs Flatfish, Kondo KSL-DAC
Preamp: Kondo KSL-M77
Amp: Kondo Neiro
Speakers: Carfrae Little Big Horns
Cables: All Kondo Silver including DIY Kondo Silver Power Cords
Stands: DIY Rack
Accessories: Pure Power Battery Power Supply for Flatfish, Shun Mook Diamond Resonators under amp/preamp/ DAC, Symposium Svelte Shelf under Flatfish, Herbie's HAL-Os
Tweaks: All CDs (over 500) copied to Black CD-Rs (see below)
Room size: 18' w x 20' d x 9' h
Listener: Michael Lavorgna

Listening in the Garden State
This will be the first in a planned mini-series of home audio visitations. With gasoline approaching $3.00 per gallon, you may very well wonder why I would want to drive around NJ to listen to other people's gear? The answer is simple - this is the end result of all this thinking, writing, talking, listening, haggling and haranguing over audio. How people actually live with their systems; how this becomes a personal experience once this stuff leaves the dealer or manufacturer (or previous owner). Whether or not I care for the sound is of very little relevance to the subject at hand. The fact that the people I'll meet have put together a system they want to share is what counts. And what does this actually mean to them? How does owning and enjoying a Hi-Fi fit into their lives?


Through the kindness and generosity of a 6moons reader, Chris K., I was introduced to a few NJ listeners and in turn invited into their homes to share in their enjoyment.

Exit 1: Brian's System
My first stop on the Garden State tour is in Somerset/NJ, home of Brian C. and his 47 Labs, Kondo and Carfrae rig. The listening room chez Brian's is just that - an x-family room (14 x 19 w/10ft ceilings, long wall setup) now dedicated to audio. No plasma, no surround, no fish nor fowl. This room was made for listenin'. And that's just what we'll do. One of these days ... well, you get the idea. Is it at all relevant to mention that we're in a bachelor pad? You probably figured that out already since I didn't mention going down into a basement or up into an attic. And let's face it. To have a real listening room of uncompromised dimensions -- i.e. not a spare bedroom that's really a walk-in closet; not a windowless room in a basement or eaves-dropping attic -- you need to be single, financially above the mean or kinda fortunate in your choice of home and/or spouse.


This is Brian's third system. His previous ones included the Fi Super X, the Fi preamp, Avantgarde Unos then Duos and the 47Labs Flatfish/Progression combo all wired up with the 47 Labs OTA cable. Prior to that was a Jack Elliano preamp and 300B mono blocks driving Nelson Audio 10.02 speakers. The resident rig's newest entry is the Kondo KSL-DAC. Brian has also had his fair share of equipment in-house to demo, coming from other enthusiasts as well as dealers and distributors looking to trigger an upgrade. This manufacturer list includes Audio Note, Wavelength, Emotive Audio, Zanden, Audiopax, Welborne Labs, Atmosphere, Art Audio, 47Labs and Simon Yorke (yes, vinyl made a brief appearance). Brian and his friend Mike have also done some traveling to people's homes to hear speakers including Lamhorn, Beauhorn (which Mike owns), Horning, Edgarhorn, Coincident, Merlin, Wilson and Kharma. And believe me, this is the short list.


47 Labs Flatfish
The Flatfish transport is one of my favorite designs from 47Labs. And 47Labs designs are some favorites in audio, period. Unconventional and just cool, all the 47Labs gear looks like it was machined into simple geometric forms from the same huge chunk of solid black aluminum, for the sole purpose of making music in a very distinct way. If you check out the cylinder under the Flatfish on Brian's rack, that ain't no Humpty. Brian and his friend Mike H. have in fact developed a Flatfish tweak that has turned into a small DIY venture; the Pure Power battery power supply, replacing -- or knocking if you will -- the endearingly named Humpty off the shelf. While we didn't have enough time to A/B Pure Power vs. Humpty, Brian swears by this change and has a reported 100% customer satisfaction rate. Removing AC from the transport on an ultra-revealing system makes sense to my way of thinking but I leave it to the Flatfishers out there to decide.

On the other hand, sometimes stock does in fact fly best as Brian found out with the Flatfish feet. Material changes, shape changes, more taper, less taper, brass, aluminum ... Brian machined any number of variations in his basement shop. But nothing sounded better than those stock flat-footed feet sitting on top of a Symposium Svelte shelf. On top of the rack that Brian built. Yes that's right, machined in his basement. The setup down there includes a chroming tank that Brian made, a heat treating oven, miller machine, lathe, tool post grinder, table saw, radial arm saw and the other stuff you can usually find in a suburban garage or basement. This gear is put to use to make aluminum bicycle parts to replace poorly designed and overweight stock stuff; exotic hardwood CD racks; custom boat engines; and much much more. The stand for his audio equipment came out of that basement shop and if it doesn't come across in the pictures, that thing is beautifully made. The brass caps are powder-coated so they won't tarnish. "If I'm going to do something, I'm going to do it right."


Kondo
Mondo. What can I say except that Kondo is obviously a living audio legend of the first order. While marketing and price may interfere with accomplishment at times, this isn't a review so I can just gaze at these beautiful boxes filled with copper, tubes, hand-made silver coupling caps and those famous Kondo trannies and reflect on the history and knowledge contained within. The Neiro uses parallel 2A3s to produce 8 watts. The M77 full-function preamp occupies the middle of the KSL-line and the KSL-DAC is a 24-bit, tubed copper-clad converter.


Carfrae Little Big Horns
Since the Carfrae Little Big Horns are somewhat scarce and no longer in production, some information seems appropriate. The LBHs use the Lowther DX4 driver and an integrated 12" paper cone powered sub in a forward-firing 2M Tractrix contour horn-loaded cabinet. I confirmed the use of the DX4 driver with John Geisen of Wellington Audio, the former US Carfrae importer since there was conflicting information on the web (believe it or not). "The LBH was designed to be used with the DX4."


Claimed frequency response, sans sub, is 50kHz to 20kHz. The powered subs gets you down to about 20Hz. Sensitivity is a reported 105dB and the package weighs in at 180lbs a piece. I will say that the integration of the Carfrae's sub is about as seamless as I've heard in the single-driver-with-active-sub camp. I did not detect any distracting lag, flab or muddiness. From the Carfrae web site which is still available (hinting at a return to production perhaps?): "The internal volume of the cylinder that the drive unit is mounted in is also critical. It is designed to keep higher frequencies out of the horn. The cavity acts as a low-pass filter with an upper cut-off frequency of 200Hz. Also, the upper cut-off is set at a frequency where the horn's length equals an odd multiple of the wavelength (because the horn is loaded from the back of the driver, 180 degrees out of phase). This avoids a canceling of the frequencies around the upper cut-off."


As is obvious from its description and profile, the Carfraes are all curves. Form following function, a sweet spot for my tastes, the Little Big Horns are indeed a handsome speaker, masterfully constructed from a combination of high-density fiberboard and solid bird's eye maple. Brian examined the plans for the LBHs and verified their strict adherence to the expanding Tractrix contour with a micrometer (albeit expanding in only two of the originally designed three dimensions). Jim Carfrae [right] ceased production of both Carfrae models due to rising material, production and import costs. Carfrae was based in England and the LBHs retailed in the US for $17,500. According to John Geisen, approximately eight pairs of the LBHs were sold in the US. The larger Big Horn never "made it across the pond." For anyone interested in locating a pair of LBHs, John keeps a finger on the whereabouts of most pairs. He can be reached at [email protected].


Brian found his LBHs on Audiogon. The only problem? They were in Japan. After a few exchanges and some careful background checking, a check was sent. A few emails and a few weeks later, the Little Big Horns arrived in NJ in perfect shape. (It's taken longer for me get a CD from Amazon) I am continually amazed at this kind of international personal trade. I am not saying throw caution to the wind but reporting some good news is fun for a change.


Since I am relishing the role of listener, I will let Art Dudley say a few critical words on the Carfrae's LBHs. From a review in Listener September/October 2002: "These are immense speakers of immense subtlety and musical soul. They reproduce music with more color, drama, verve, and sheer scale than anything I've had in this house. And whether or not you think you could ever afford them, I encourage you to beat down any doors necessary to hear what they can do."


Thankfully all I needed to do was call Brian up from his front doorstep. I did try knocking and ringing the bell but Brian was "warming up the system", rendering the measly chime of a door bell inaudible.


Tweaks

You'll notice the Shun Mook Diamond Resonators and/or Mpingo discs under all the Kondo gear and porcelain cable stands under all cable that would otherwise touch the carpeted floor. The Symposium Svelte shelf takes up pride of place as high-tech cutting board for the Flatfish. Herbie's HAL-O tube dampers "those things are well made, cheap and they work' reside on the small signal and driver tubes. The Sovtek 2A3s (which come stock with the Kondo Neiro) get to
hang out sans hula microphonic vibration damping hoops. The only nod to power treatment/conditioning is having all receptacles tied to an earth ground (grounding stake is out in the back yard). If you're thinking to yourself, I wonder if he tried the X shelf or Y tweak, I'd venture to say the answer would be a resounding yes. Things are the way they are because they've been tested, compared, measured, moved, modded and finally felt to be "done right".


The Brian & Mike H. mods
Think all-silver Kondo wire and a few well-chosen hard-wired connections; Flatfish to DAC and Neiro to the Lowther DX4. "Every time I remove a connection, the sound gets better." Let's face it, not everyone feels comfortable taking a soldering iron to their gear, especially when it costs more than most people spend on their automobiles. Sacrilege? Heresy? My feeling is whatever consenting adults choose to do in their bedrooms and listening rooms is their business. Period. Personally, I prefer to leave well enough alone. Call me a chicken.


There's method to all this modding and nearly every change Brian performs to his system is A/B'd against the same equipment in its unmodded state. Brian's friend Mike H. has owned the Flatfish transport, Kondo Neiro and M77. Mike will bring his gear over the Brian's and they'll take the time to listen. As with the Flatfish feet, some mods don't fly so they revert. When they hit upon a winner, both units end up similarly tweaked.


When Brian owned the Avantgarde Duos, he built custom stands from 1.5" diameter solid brass rods. The completed stands weigh in at over 180lbs a piece. "But you have to have this rigidity with those speakers, you have to".


Going the distance
How far are you willing to go for "the experience", the experience being engagement with the music played through your HiFi? As we've seen, Brian is ready and willing to go the distance and then some. Let's look at the source; the CD. A while back, Brian burned a CD onto a blue CD-R. And he heard a distinct improvement in the sound. Sharing this phenomenon with Mike H, Mike told Brian about an article he read claiming black disks sounded best. And to Mike & Brian's ears, they did. But that's not the end of this tweak. As the story goes, in order to get the best transfer to a black disk, you need a dedicated laptop with an external CD burner. And during the burning process, the laptop runs off its battery. Did I mention that there's no other software on the laptop? And the burn process allows for a two CD max copy before the laptop battery needs a recharge? For Brian's CD collection of over 500 recordings, we're talking months. Fastidiousness feeding good sound.


Our own Marja & Henk reported on the sonic effects of the black CD in their excellent article on Exact Audio Copy. "Soon music lovers started to use black CD-Rs and next to the notably improved musicality of expertly ripped and burned CDs, it appeared that black blanks added even further performance gains though a bit-by-bit comparison does not show any differences. There is something special about this kind of CD-R. What

though? One plausible theory claims that the black polycarbonate substrate has better translucency and creates improved dye absorption for a pit that's better defined. A better-defined pit means less jitter and more music!" I left a few CDs with Brian to get the full back-in-black treatment.


The end of the race
The listening room at Brian's has heavy drapery covering all windows and even the glass doors leading into the step-down room. Floors are carpeted wall-to-wall and there's one couch on a side wall and a sole comfy chair, smack dab in the sweet spot. Ottoman optional. The remote-controlled lights are dimmed preferably to off when the music's playing. The only light visible is the beautiful orange glow of Kondo's paralleled 2A3s.


Did I mention that Brian is a road cyclist, clocking over 100 miles on any given weekend? He also races motocross, cars, boats - you get the idea. Speed. In 1998, Brian built and raced what turned out to be the fastest model boat in the world, at that time reaching 102.27 mph. If I were to tell you that Brian's system is the antithesis of a laid-back loping sound, would you be surprised? Well, don't be .Those familiar with the Lowthers M.O. know their propensity for speed. And after work, cycling and racing, especially during the colder winter months, Brian ends up most nights right in that sweat spot, digging tunes. In this room, time recedes.


We listened to a variety of music; Ray Brown, the excellent soundtrack to Unforgivable Blackness; The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Pass, the wonderful Entre Amigos disk, Willie Nelson and others. In Brian's listening room, the sound is eerily present. The sonic stage is set and vocalists in particular are physically embodied, hanging out there in the room for you to listen in. And listen we did, for a few hours without much talking. None in fact when the music was playing. Only after we'd finished, largely due to the time and my inability to stay up much past 11:30pm these days (let alone 1:00am) did we take some time to talk. Brian appreciates the "genius" to be found in workmanship, sound and music. And Brian truly enjoys having people in to listen to his system. Especially some of the younger guys from work who've never given much thought to Hi-Fi. Invariably, they leave after more hours than they realize, with a new-found appreciation for the genius that exists in their music.

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