This review page is supported in part by the sponsors whose ad banners are displayed below

Moving house brings many changes and even more if you move twice in a year as we did. Part of settling into a new environment is getting acquainted with new neighbors - in our case new audio neighbors. Because we moved to a completely different part of Holland, the audio landscape changed with the scenery. From Manhattan-like high rises to a national park with forests, heaths, bog pools and wet meadows close to the Rhine river, gone are the large shopping malls where audio dealers share customers with furniture outlets and such. No, this area is sparsely populated with dedicated audio stores.

One of those is located in Buren. From our new homestead we crossed the Rhine river by ferry and drove down meandering roads through apple, pear and plum orchards towards Buren. There nicely hidden in a light industrial area resides Audio Life and its associated X-Fi. Audio Life started in 2005 as an enthusiast’s initiative which by 2007 occupied two rooms in Caspar Bunge’s house. His sitting room was sacrificed and transformed into an audition area. Fellow enthusiasts and customers were invited to listen to audio gear that matches Audio Life’s motto. In long hand this motto goes something like this:

... "live music often lacks transparency, has no 3D soundstaging or razor-sharp projection and fine details are overall less pronounced. Yet even with these limitations its sounds ‘live’, more realistic, natural and beautiful than a ‘perfect’ audio system. Maybe there are more important features than those which hifi refers to? Our only goal is to create a system we can enjoy music with because it channels the reality of a live performance. We are not looking for impressive sound. We want to be touched by the musical performance. For us it is not the constant bass and the sparkling highs. We want to be surprised whenever a new note is played. Real beauty is subtle. We want that palpable feeling of having the musicians in the room rather than on a virtual soundstage…"

It appears the motto has grown roots. In 2011 Audio Life has taken up residence in a former stone factory. Besides freeing up Caspar’s home, he also relinquished his former day job and now works full time at Audio Life. Of course he needs help. For that he relies on Remko van der Zwaag. 27-year old Remko has a background as marketing teacher and met Caspar at the then distributor of 47Labs, a brand both share a great passion for.

Audio Life also has a distribution branch called X-Fi. Within X-Fi they have acquired the Dutch and/or Benelux distribution rights for Furutech, 47Labs, Audio Note, JM Reynaud, Sun Audio/Tamura, Goto, Garrard/Loricraft and Audio Consulting. Very recently AMR joined this group. Our reason for visiting Audio Life was not only to satisfy our curiosity what Caspar was up to nowadays—we’ve met him and his merry posse of young audio friends at various shows—but to also check out their Avantgarde Acoustic/Audio Note demonstration. Ready for audition would be an Uno with Meishu setup and another with a Duo Omega/Jinro combination.

Above the audio shop’s entrance one finds the word Stonefactory engraved in glass. Funny how we were off to audition Avantgarde Acoustic speakers which themselves are headquartered in Lautertal, Germany in a former stone factory. Audio Life has augmented their existing industrial interior with its grated steel stairs, bare steel beams and—what else—hard stone floors with elements from the pro audio world. Stage lights are mounted on zinc-coated scaffolding tubing. The same tubing is used to frame huge fabrics or wooden panels from the walls to create listening rooms. There are four listening rooms altogether.

Caspar believes that the wall between high-end audio and pro audio ought to be demolished. There are many similarities between both worlds and where would consumer audio be without the pro world providing the software? He is willing to bring the hardware of both sectors closer together as well. Downstairs is listening room number one which sports a raised podium occupied during our visit by a pair of red Avantgarde Unos at either side of the equipment table. On said table sat a 47Labs Shigaraki CD transport with its matching integrated amplifier and the comparatively massive Audio Note Meishu with Phono integrated amp. Cabling was Stratos by 47Labs.

On the fence-like walls graffiti combined with abandoned guitars and racks with various Manley Labs models on display. A large comfortable couch and coffee table made the room complete. Its décor reminded us a bit of a cleaned up ‘70’s youth club where you would go to meet people and listen to bands.

We were invited to take seats, have a nice strong espresso and listen to what the system on demo was capable of. Our first impression was that it all sounded a bit thin - thinner than expected and what we as owners of Avantgarde Duo Omegas and a Meishu are accustomed to. After a few tracks it became clear that we weren’t listening to the Meishu in fact but the Shigaraki chip amp. A quick cable change switched the mood completely for a bigger, warmer and tonally more coherent sound. This is what these German horns in combination with a DHSET are all about. By putting the Uno speakers on the 10cm high podium the tweeter horn was raised which created enhanced soundstage definition from the listening couch just as does correct toe in. These horns are quite priggish in their setup but once you find the right combination of distance, angle, height and woofer settings they give you so much in return.

After more listening and accompanying espressos from the bar—yes there is a bar—we were ushered to the first floor where in room two sits the second Avantgarde/Audio Note system. On the landing several other products in Audio Life’s assortment begged for attention. A pair of WLM Divas and various Musical Affairs PHY-based loudspeakers were examples of the materialized form of the shop’s motto.

The large listening room upstairs just like the smaller one downstairs was built from scaffolding tubing for framed walls to create a room within a room. Again an array of pro stage lights on a truss handled all illumination needs. The two Avantgarde Acoustic Duo Omega horns in new 2G guise with tweeter horn integrated with the woofer cabinet sat on a large slab of plywood. This new construction makes them shorter than our own older model which consists of three separate modules. As source we had an Audio Note CDT Four followed by a DAC 4.1. The integrated amplifier on duty was the Jinro also known as baby Ongaku. The analogue part of the system was not yet operational. Additional acoustic treatment of the room came from carpeting and wooden shingles on the front and one side wall.

In the back of the room behind another comfortable couch was the  handicraft of Cees Pel on display. Pel Audio amplifiers as a make not well known outside a small circle of aficionados formed a nice alternative for bigger brands like Audio Note. Speaking of the latter, a little bit away at the side of the room they had an Ongaku on the floor. It’s always nice to have a little spare amp on hand.

Installed on the couch it was listening time again. From the start the system made clear that it wasn’t happy with the placement in the room or itself. There was nothing really wrong with the room or any part of the system. Coherence and team work weren’t optimal yet. This is the same thing we observe at any audio show on the first day. Things have just been transported and set up and there is little time to get everything right. At shows a lot of work is done overnight to prepare for the next day and many iterations occur until things snap into focus. Lesson learned at shows always create more promising rooms for the next day.

Here the Duos begged for more precise adjustments to get them in the right spot within the room and set up with just the correct toe in. Avantgardes use a harness to feed either the midrange from the woofer binding posts or visa versa and that makes a difference. The active woofer modules also have many fine-tuning possibilities on their crossovers. It’s great care and attention that get such a system to sing.

When we returned to the shop on another day, room number two had morphed into a completely different affair. Now the Duos were nicely aligned with the correct amount of toe in. Different cable routing lowered the emphasis on the upper highs. The room and the system were no longer fighting each other and together they disappeared to leave just the music.

Our audio hobby seems tailored to dinosaurs of course. The average age of hobbyist and retailers alike is quite high. It is therefore really heartwarming to see a bunch of younger guys pick up the slack with a fresh outlook on things. Even with a declining—some say dying—market they see opportunities. While working from home backed by a daytime job, Caspar created a customer base that he became friends with under the shared passion for audio reproduction. While we visited Audio Life a steady stream of comings, listenings and goings was underway We planned to stay just a few hours yet it was dark already when we finally left. Listening to music and talking about music becomes downright addictive in such a relaxed environment.

It is quite unique that a distributor also runs a retail shop. This often is criticized by other retailers. There's wailing on over the fact that they get distributor and dealer discounts to make better margins and unfairly compete with their dealers at below dealer pricing. Both are theoretically true for Audio Life and X-Fi. But why piss off dealers one adds to the roster only to poach on their turfs? By separating both companies the rules here are straightforward. Audio Life buys in their brands at dealer price from X-Fi and sells them at regular pricing to the customer as all their dealers do – simple and fair.

Talking about sales, the demo weekend we covered here culminated in the sale of two pairs of Avantgarde Uno speakers one of which went to Belgium. Audio Life is a dealership for the already mentioned brands of X-Fi plus Accuphase, Avantgarde of course, Grado, Harbeth, Leben, Luxman, Manley, Marantz, Michell, Musical Affairs, Pel Audio, Synthesis, Tannoy, Wadia. Weiss and WLM. It’s quite a handful of brands but the common denominator is clear enough – high quality combined with idiosyncratic characters.

Besides their new headquarters annex with its shop exposure for hifi, further things about the fine audio life are shared over the new social media Twitter, Facebook and a blog on the shop’s website. This helps to effectively interact with customers and other interested parties. It also saves a lot of marketing costs when older traditional media are bypassed for promotion. Another exposure method the Buren boys employ is being present at side shows to bigger audio events. This sometimes leads to cross fertilization from the main shows. This happens everywhere in the world where financial pressures lead to the organization of side shows. The bottom line simply is that there now is more exposure for our hobby. That’s a good thing. The rest is… well, the rest.

In 2011 Audio Life and X-Fi will be present at certain Dutch shows and for the first time also at the upcoming May Munich HighEnd show with a room of their own. Just recently X-Fi acquired distribution rights for another two brands and those will be introduced during the show and new dealers invited. As a result from visiting CES 2011, X-Fi has added DeVore Fidelity and Ocean Way Audio to their catalogue. Moving house wasn’t such a bad deal after all. Discovering these enthusiast audio guys nearby has made it all the more pleasant.

Our new digs with Avantgarde Duo Omegas

Audio Life website