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Size Matters
3 watts can knock your music-loving socks off given the right context. Is that such a difficult pill to swallow? Given the right context. Apparently for some people it's a deal breaker when it comes to thinking about hifi. For some, thinking about system building is an annoyance. It distracts from the perfect component quest. It runs counter to the finding the best piece of gear for my buck mentality. Lots of thinking instead of lots of listening. After all, you cannot listen to just a speaker or an amplifier or a CD player. Yet, many a hifi hunter hunts in exactly this kind of piecemeal fashion; pulling off that amazing feat of hearing just the component under potential purchase scrutiny while the supporting characters fade into the background; moving different prospects in and out of a mental picture of a dream system like little soldiers in a private war against less than perfect sound.

While I hate to break bubbles, listening to music involves a cast of characters and even the seemingly insignificant player --and I've come to understand through that vast educational system that is the internet forum how this can include cables, amplifiers, preamplifiers and front ends -- contribute to what you hear. Sure, some more, some less but my point is, think system. And while we're thinking about hifi, let's put our thoughts in their proper proprietary order - music, budget, room, system. It strikes me that a lot of people go about this process ass backwards. What's worse, they break that last piece down into smaller pieces and spend months thinking about individual components with no regard for system building or upstream priorities. Moreover, the type of system you decide to buy comes with its own history, its own lineage and logic. This story can have extra audio meaning. For me, this history and story which revolves around people (gasp) adds an essential element to the hifi experience. It also helps to explain why there is no such thing as a best when we're talking about hifi components.

Music Crazy
At the risk of repeating someone else, here's Herb Reichert's comment on Komuro's amplifiers: "His design goals are always clean, clear, wide-band, low dynamic distortion, direct coupled, stable, durable, and oh yeah, did I mention clean and clear? Totally unflappable. Not wet, not dry, not warm, not cool, not big or small, not front or back ... like clean, clear, running water!" - Herb Reichert

Komuro's amps -- I've now heard two with plans to hear more in the future including his push/pull 845 monoblocks -- are "clean, clear, running water". In fact, from the first track we listened to on Marc Ribot's Y Los Cubanos Postizos to the last from RL Burnside's Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down and every one in-between, the only thing I heard was music. Clean, clear and as loud as we cared to listen to, which was well shy of this system's loudness limits. From the gnashing overtones of Casper Brotzmann's over-driven guitar to the angry painful beauty of Nina Simone hanging on while falling in "Strange Fruit", musical emotion and energy was delivered directly to whatever internal mechanisms get involved when things get truly involving.

There are a lot of things I don't know but that doesn't stop me. High efficiency loudspeakers with benign impedance loads like the Altec Valencia for example coupled with tube amplifiers seem supremely capable of getting and delivering subtlety. Subtle shifts in tone and timing that imbue music with meaning. The stuff that's there waiting for us when we're ready to listen in, when we pay attention to just the music and start breathing along, thinking along its lines. The fix, the addiction lies in this connection. And it has nothing to do with anything purely rational. Nothing scientific. Getting into music means getting out of ourselves so some might very well suggest this makes us crazy. And I've found that the music-loving buzz can last long after the actual listening has ended. I say that's more than all right by me. Let's get crazy. Music crazy.

Even though I have no proof, no scientific evidence to base these assumptions on, I'm fairly certain I'm on target. Part of this certainty is based on the fact that I am coming very late to this high efficiency, benign impedance, tube power party. I can still remember reading Art Dudley's review in his Listener magazine of the Fi 2A3 monoblocks in 1997 and the Fi X in 1998 and thinking, knowing that's for me. I can recall reading Herb Reichert's review of the Komuro push-pull 845 amps also in Listener in the Winter 2000 issue and thinking yes, that sounds right.

At the risk of repeating someone else again, here's a quote from the French writer Jean-Marie Piel which I referenced in the very first review I ever wrote: "The essence of an interpretation lies in working on the infinitely small -- be it an attack on a note held back for a fraction of a second (perceptible if the preceding note is reproduced neither too short nor too long), or be it a note that develops in itself; or, on a larger level, a crescendo or diminuendo encompassing several notes -- all of which gives music a sense of direction, its palpable dynamics, its quivering life, and all of which, in the end, lies in the nuances.

"Which explains, by the way, why certain old loudspeakers with a very high sensitivity and thus a very high precision in the rendition of dynamics, especially of very small signals --just like certain tube amplifiers with very simple circuits -- and despite more or less obvious colorations and the omission of an octave or two, manage to reproduce with disturbing fidelity all the emotional intensity of an interpretation. Which should give our designers something to think about, and convince them that the musically more important kind of dynamics is that which loses itself in silence, not the kind that turns into noise."

This quote appears in Markus Sauer's essay for Stereophile "God is in the Nuances" which is one of the most thought-provoking pieces of writing on hifi I've ever read and I thank Jonathan Halpern who was the person who originally pointed me to it. And while I'm giving credit where due, I want to mention that without Listener Magazine and Sound Practices, I wouldn't have known who Don Garber or Komuro or JC Morrison or Herb Reichert were (and its very likely neither would you). And I never would have met Komuro or JC Morrison without the help of John DeVore.

Today's system resembles the one described by Jean-Marie Piel and I have to say, it managed to "reproduce with disturbing fidelity all the emotional intensity of an interpretation". Now I am not suggesting this high-efficiency speaker, tube power approach is the only way. I am suggesting it is one way. And there's something about this way that appeals to me on many levels; rational, irrational, emotional, human, historical and above all else, musical. As Stephen pointed out after our listening session during a dinner on the beach just off Bedford Ave, the silences between notes, the pauses, the wait for what's next is where so much emotion and energy live within music. And this relatively simple system imbued our musical moments with all their power. Turns out Komuro was right. We left his home crazy. Music crazy.