I'm writing this mid-December as I've just returned from 11 days in Europe, primarily visiting Austria and Switzerland. While the weather was horrible, with the worst snow storm in Europe in December for 45 years, the holiday cheer and concerts well made up for it. We arrived in Frankfurt one day after a major blizzard that had closed most of the European airports, and luckily only had to wait 8 hours for our takeoff to Austria, as most flights were canceled. We arrived in Graz, Austria to horrible icy streets, a hotel on top of a mountain with a rental car with a stick shift, after driving an automatic for 20 years. Oh Boy! Was that fun, especially in a country where half the residents think they are Formula 1 drivers, and the streets even in the large cities sometimes resemble cow paths.
The European culture has changed significantly since my medical school days 35 years ago, as back then the Graz Opera House, where Karl Bohm got his start, was open 5 nights a week with productions from Wagner, Mozart, etc., and there were at least one orchestral and several chamber concerts per week. This time, the Opera House had two performances per week, and during the two weeks I was there, they only had a production of "Singing in the Rain." What a fall from grace. Seems some European culture has been downgraded to an American level.
Anyway, that night we did attend a superb chamber concert in the Stephaniensaal in Graz of the Gallardo Widmann Akasaka String Trio with piano. Unheard of in the United States, they have been giving concerts throughout Europe, and the cellist was even given the honor of performing a premiere of a new cello sonata. While not inexpensive at about $40 for a ticket, we were dead center in the first row of the first balcony and the sound and playing were exquisite. The hall was built in a winter palace for a Viennese Prince in the 18th century, is rectangular in shape with about 1000 seats and is made with solid wood floors, and plaster and wood walls and ceilings. Sitting about 100 feet from the stage the sound of the trio with piano was almost intimate, amazing compared to many recently built concert halls using computer guided building principles.
Afterward we went to a local café for some food, and in walked the performers. I went over to congratulate them on their playing and it turned out the violinist had studied at New England Conservatory of Music, and had even visited my town in New Hampshire during her tenure in America. What a small world!
We spent a few days in Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland, where we planned on seeing the Eiger, Schilthorn and Matterhorn Mountains, but every day it either snowed, rained or was foggy. They even cancelled the one folk concert we were going to attend. Some vacation! Then we spent two days in Salzburg, Austria, where the weather was beautiful. Their Christ Kindle Markt (Christmas Market) covering half of their downtown was open with almost continuous outdoor concerts by local folk and brass groups, and, unlike Graz, there were several concerts a night. We attended two, a folk concert with brass choir, multiple singers and a group playing guitar, zither, and organ doing Austrian Folk songs of Christmas, and the other, several students from the local music conservatory, two sopranos and a violinist with piano accompaniment. Just these two concerts made the trip worthwhile. Unhappily, the Salzburg Festspielhaus which hosts the orchestral concerts only had concerts on the weekend, and no tickets were available for any of those performances.
To somewhat dampen my exuberance for their wonderful music culture, my wife made me go on a musical tour of the city. In Salzburg that means "The Sound of Music" Tour, where they visit the sights used in the movie, and along the way, sing to a tape of the music. "The Horror." Four hours cooped up in a mini-van with 8 other Americans (the Austrians still consider the family to be traitors and even boycotted the movie when it came out) singing "Do Re Mi" out of tune. At least the scenery was superb, and at one of the small town outdoor markets I picked up an antique valveless brass horn which will look great in my media room, and will be great for reminding the misses of this torture by waking her with it in the morning.
Finally, we returned to Graz, where I met one of my gynecology teachers from 40 years ago, and spent the afternoon repairing his stereo system which I had bought for him from Clark Johnsen when he had his music studio in Boston about 15 years ago. It consists of a Merrill turntable with Ortofon moving coil cartridge, Vendetta Research phono stage, Vacuum State preamp and a Class A solid state amp with VMPS Super Tower IIaR speakers. All were running off of a 2 KVA isolation-220-120 voltage transformer. My teacher's son had discombobulated it three years ago, and the poor guy couldn't figure out how to set it up properly. Three hours of work did the trick, and the system sounded great in its 16x18 foot solid plaster room with 12 foot ceilings. There's something about old plaster on wood backing walls that improves sound. Interestingly I couldn't detect the electric gremlins so prevalent in US electricity.
So much for my vacation. When I returned, I had received an email from a reader, who had purchased an APC S-15 ac isolation unit on my recommendation from a column from several years ago. As the magazine no longer publishes letters from readers and the gentleman had some problems with the unit I thought I'd use it as an example of where we can go wrong in high end experimentation and reviewing.
Steven R. Rochlin, our illustrious (or infamous) editor had informed me about a month ago that he had purchased one of these units from Van's, a very large audio-video store which I believe is based on the west coast for an insanely low price of $250. Considering its original list price north of $1500, this was one of the deals of the century. I had purchased two after my review and used them for two years on my main system, before I found other units which worked better. I still have one protecting a computer system in my house. (Editor Steven says, "My system had no flattening, so perhaps try using different filtering banks as they do make a difference. Also of note is that i have very clean power to begin with a dedicated power lines).
Richard brings up three points.
First, break-in. This is especially important in high end audio. Components have to be run for sometimes quite a while before they reach their best sound reproduction. Now I know that there are persons out there who dispute this finding, saying that it's either in our heads or it's actually our ears becoming accustomed to the sound of the unit. But everything from wire to tubes to transistors to condensers all have to settle down both their metal and dielectric insulation. Solid state amps and preamps sometimes need to be left on as they can change their sound as they warm up. I actually had a pair of amps years ago that took more than two days of constant playing to sound their best, and had to be left in standby all the time. You should have seen my electric bills back then.
Thus, one shouldn't put a piece of equipment into one's system and after ten minutes of listening form an opinion as to its sound. It may take weeks for a complicated piece to sound its best.
Second, since no piece of audio equipment is perfect, each, no matter how expensive it is, may or may not mesh with the other equipment in your system. Thus, you need to take anything said in a review with a grain of salt, as the reviewer is evaluating it with his equipment, and from his point of view as to what something should sound like.
Third, how a power conditioner works in your system will be dependant not only on how it interacts with your equipment, but what sort of problems there are with your electricity. There can be many types of distortion of a perfect 60 Hz. 120 volt sine wave that can be produced anywhere from the generator to the transmission lines to the transformer outside on your pole to other appliances in your house These can be anything from recurrent spikes due to appliances turning on and off anywhere in the area to radio frequency waves carried by the largest antenna in the world, the electric lines, to clipping of the wave due to insufficient voltage or amperage giving ultrasonic noise to very low to very high frequency waves riding on it to any number of unknown variables. It may be that high end stereo systems with the human ear are the best discriminators of electrical distortions that we don't even know about yet.
Thus, my reply:
Blu-ray Concert Discs
One of the reasons for this is that while stereo does give us an approximation of the soundstage in front of us, it cannot duplicate what we hear in the concert hall. A live musical performance is giving us information not only directly from the musicians but also through reflections from the surrounding hall, which, depending on where you are sitting may represent anywhere for 10% to 95% of the information being received. Also, a live performance consists of not only audio, but also visual information.
I doubt any of you go to a concert, cup your ears so that you cannot hear the hall's reflections, and close your eyes during the entire performance to block out a view of the players. On the other hand we do shut off the lights in our listening rooms while listening to stereo as it seems to sound better. The reason is that with only a stereo image, we are hearing only the front half of the concert hall, we are seeing our room and not the concert hall, and therefore the brain has to work harder to try to put us into the concert venue. So why not try to emulate the "in the concert hall" audio and video experience rather than the "look through the window" effect of stereo.
While I can understand the reluctance of audiophiles to jump on the bandwagon of audio-video media considering their poor audio quality in the past, there can be no excuse now with high definition audio and video on Blu-ray discs. They have the ability to store several hours of 1080 P 2D and 3D video with 7.1 channels of 24/96 audio. With the proper camera and microphone placement, one can now be in the best seat in the concert hall listening and watching the best concert performances available in audio fidelity that is only available on SACD and DVD-Audio.
Unhappily, most audiophiles haven't caught on to this yet, holding on to their two channel, audio only systems, and poo-poo'ing, and possibly denigrating any use of surround and video. While I can understand their reluctance to update to this new paradigm of music reproduction due to the expense of doing it properly, and having to adjust to the higher fidelity of the reproduction, they are missing out on the ability to truly be immersed in a concert experience in the home. The same phenomenon occurred back in the late 50's when stereo took over from mono with exactly the same arguments. I cannot understand their reluctance to at least see and hear a truly high end audio-video system perform. Perhaps they're afraid of not being able to resist the upgrades required to have such an experience in their own home.
Anyway, as far as I'm concerned, there is no going back for me. While I still love two track vinyl and my master tape reproductions, and think that SACD and DVD-Audio discs, and now my 24/88 and 96 downloads to my computer sound superb, I've been hooked by the ability of Blu-Ray discs to transport me to the concert, possibly to be able to hear and see in a far superior manner than I could in the best seat in the hall.
It is too bad though that American recording companies have not joined the bandwagon, and started producing Blu-Ray concert discs. Like the Luddite audiophiles who stick to the old paradigms, they still put out 20th century 16/44, or even worse low bit rate mpeg recordings, and regular DVDs, possibly because there's more profit in the masses who don't understand what real live unamplified music sounds like. Thus we have to go with European companies and their distributors.
So where can you at least find the discs and discover what's available. I've found three sites: Amazon.com, Arkiv Music and HBdirect. All three carry about the same catalog, and vary on what they charge for the discs. As far as producers of Blu-Ray concert discs, there are two that have consistently produced excellent recordings.
Euroarts International is an independent producer of audio-visual classical music programs for TV and DVD, and they have been making concert films for European television for many years, having an affiliation with the Berlin Philharmonic and Lucerne Festival, among others. They have produced several Blu-rays with Claudio Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra doing the Mahler Symphonies number 1, 2, 4, and 6 which have very good sound, far superior to what's been available on regular DVD and as good as SACD, and a superb recording of the Mahler Symphony # 2 with Pierre Boulez with the Staatskapelle Berlin which has one of the best performances and sound that I've heard on my system. Unhappily it's on a now extinct HD-DVD and there don't seem to be any plans to redo it on Blu-ray. If you have the ability to play HD-DVD's, I highly recommend that you get a copy before they disappear.
Another European label that is putting out superb discs is Arthaus Musik. Also located in Germany, they have been producing regular DVD's for many years and have recently shifted to Blu-Ray. One of their first is the most realistic audio and video recordings I've heard; Verdi's La Traviata from La Scala with Lorin Maazel, Angela Gheorghiu and Ramon Vargas. From the overture to the final death scene, you'll be drawn in like no other opera disc I've listened to. Right now in early January, Amazon.com is having a sale on the disc for $9.99 rather than the $40 I had to pay for it at Amazon.com.
If you're a lover of opera, this is one you need in your collection.