22 June, 2011

Letter from NYC 2011 (18): NYC HiFi Tour

Letter from NYC 2011 (18): NYC HiFi Tour
Written in HK

This is an article that should have been written a long time ago. I thank Paul for making all this possible.

Recently, in NYC, by chance I made some new audiophile friends. It came by in the most unlikely way, via my mother! You see, mother exercises (tai chi) every morning in nearby parks, including the Queens Botanical Garden. One of her friends there was a younger woman whose husband turned out to be an audiophile. So one day I called up and finally got to meet the gentlemanly PH. As they say, the rest is history.

What does a clarinetist listen for?
Like all of them, PH is a little younger than I. Conservatory trained, before he came to the US, he was a clarinetist in the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra. As you might expect, PH demands very clean reproduction and tolerates no noise, nor fools!

Digital: Sonic Frontier SFCD
Preamp: Jadis JPS-2 (basically line version of JP80)
Amp: Sonic Frontier Power One
Speakers: JM Lab Diva Utopia Be

PH is actually relatively new to the hi-end, and both the Jadis and JM Lab were recent purchases. My visit was during the initial tuning period, yet the sound was commendably clean, musical and neutral, as one would expect from a musician. PH is considerate to his wife, who practices tai chi in the living room, and hence he has his setup against the long wall, thereby IMHO limiting its performance. Of course, I did my best to tell him to rotate the system 90 degrees. No wonder hifi friends are frequently frowned upon by the wife! Incidentally, I have yet to meet his wife, my mother's friend!

The Able Kane
At PH's place I met the soft-spoken Kane, originally from Shanghai, and soon we visited him. An avid tweaker and DIYer, Kane is the hifi guru amongst PH's select circle. At Kane's place, NOTHING is as it seems, since everything had been modified!

Digital: Electrocompaniet CDP used as transport; Theta DAC
Preamp: ARC SP-9 (DRASTICALLY modified)
Amp: VAC KT-88 monoblocks (modified to using E80C as input tube)
Speakers: Gerschman Avant Garde (modified X'over) + Subwoofer

Kane's large, carpeted and rectangular living room is ideal for hifi. Due to a side door, the speakers are place rather back, and unusually asymmetrically. If you examine the photo (pardon the quality) you shall notice details in room "treatment". The sound is difficult to fault, particularly impressive for its smoothness and ability to go loud. Although soundstage is not so deep, the sound is much bigger than usual for such small floorstanders, no doubt helped along by judicious use of the subwoofer. No, no one can hear any transition anomaly. Once again, this illustrates what I believe in, the bottom octave is essential for the proper rendition of classical music, actually dynamic music in general.

420 million years old
Next, PH introduced me to Simon, a more extrovert character and busy man! Currently, he runs his considerable system in what is too small a room in his basement, but that may change soon.

Digital: Audio Note CD2
Preamp: Jadis JP80
Amp: "Western Electric" 300B monoblocks
Speakers: Fischer & Fischer SL-1000

Most notable are these German speakers. This pair is the flagship. The cabinets are made of slate, said to be 420 million years in the making! The amplifiers are behemoths running many pairs of 300B in parallel push-pull. Although the large meter glaringly says "Western Electric" I can assure you these have nothing to do with the real thing, a modern amp that looks like what Canary Audio makes.

Despite my aversion to Canary Audio, and perhaps due to the benign influence of Jadis, the sound was quite refined and detailed, with excellent bass contour (a characteristic 300B trait). There is a reasonable soundstage and these big speakers did not exhibit untoward effect in the small room. Still, I'd like to hear them in a much bigger space!

From Queens to Brooklyn
Again, thanks to Paul I visited two more interesting setups in Brooklyn on one fine day. Too bad I forgot to bring along my camera! The area around Ocean Parkway was quite beautiful under the blue sky. I thank Simon for driving us around in his luxurious car.

First up was Jimmy. Jimmy's room is a wonderfully large, and tastefully furnished room in a house. The setup is quite extravagant:

Digital: Oracle as transport; MBL DAC
Preamp: Audiospace Reference
Amp: Big 300B monoblocks (Parallel-PP; using all WE 300B tubes, highly costly!!!)
Speakers: Tannoy Westminster

Jimmy had changed amps just recently and everyone said it was an improvement. I'd not mince words, it was likely the best overall performance I have ever heard from the Westminster! I wonder what would the system sound like if the Audio Space (not a brand I like) preamp is replaced...

Then we visited 阿闗 (Ah Kwan), an avid DIYer and, for a change, vinyl man. I don't remember the setup very clearly, but it consists of either a Garrard or Thorens 124 TT at the front, a complicated DIY (vintage RCA circuit) preamp using real WE274B, electronic crossover, driving horns that has Altec drivers.

The sound was quite reasonable. My companions probably don't know that it is not easy to achieve balance with electronic crossover and Altec. We played this famous RR recording to great effect.

Slippery as an Eel
Good sound in hifi, indeed even happiness, sometimes can be quite elusive if one is not watchful or careful, and can even slip away like an eel! My western readers probably don't much eat eel, but the Chinese love to.

PH took us for a meal based on the yellow eel at this local Brooklyn restaurant. The restaurant is humble in outlook. The food is simple, but robust and delicious. The bones of the eel were used in a simple soup (黃蟮骨豆腐滾湯); the meat cooked with rice in a casserole (黃蟮煲仔飯). The clams Simon brought were cooked with peppers (豉椒刀蜆). Downed together with a lamb stew (枝竹羊腩煲) and vegetables (椒絲腐乳通菜). Fantastic!

Long time no see! 久違了,陸叔!
All Chinese audiophiles in NYC know hifiavsupplies, run by the evergreen Uncle Luk. I haven't seen him in more than 10 years, and he looks younger! That is great evidence that hifi is a beneficial tonic!

After the delicious dinner, it was marvelous to see an old acquaintance. It is re-assuring that there is still a bricks and mortar hifi store around. I urge you to visit this shop, even if it is tucked far into the heart of Brooklyn. In many ways I think this is a more interesting shop than the more familiar Lyric, Innovative Audio or In Living Stereo. Mr Luk now is dealer for Audio Note UK and Jadis, as well as some other brands (click on the above website link). It is too bad he lost the Fischer and Fischer dealership. The shop is very comfortable and low-keyed, and there are always some interesting second-hand equipment. Visit him and you may find yourself a good deal!

The Resurrection x 2
In case you wonder what my NYC friends listen to, I am glad to report that they are very progressive in their attitude. Although tube users, this particular circle commendably aim for neutrality and musicality; no "vintage" or unbalanced sound for them. PH the clarinettist is logically the guiding spirit for classical music. One of his favorites is the Zubin Mehta Decca performance of Mahler's Resurrection, indeed a fine recording even in its CD format. For Chinese vocals, 李思思 (Li Si Si) is a virtual re-incarnation of the most popular Chinese female singer ever, 鄧麗君 (Teresa Tang), whose life was tragically cut short by an asthma attack.



  1. Hi, i heard the same Fischer & Fischer SL-1000 speakers at Mr Luk's store in lower Manhanttan like 7 or 8 years ago.
    I think Mr Luk has a highend store now in Brooklyn.
    The system was Canary Audio CA-339 300 B amps on the mids and tweeter.
    Canary CA-160 EL 34 tube amps on the woofers.
    They also used a Canary tube preamp.
    PS audio speaker cables, interconnect and Power cords.
    This system sound great. The drivers blended in perfectly.
    One thing about these speakers, they also use a passive sub with a 10 inch woofer connected to the speakers.
    This sub also blended in perfectly to the mids and tweeter.
    You didn't even realize the speakers had a separate sub, thats how good they integrated with the mids and tweeter.
    Here's a pic of the full Fischer and Fischer SL-1000 speakers with the separate sub.
    Just scroll down to near the bottom of the page to see the pic.

  2. I also heard the JM Lab Mezzo Utopia speakers at Mr Luk's store in 2002. I heard them on an impressive system. The system was Krell KAS Amps, Pass 01 Preamp, Jadis JS-1 Tube Dac, which has a 60 pound tubed power supply and the Jadis JS 1 Tube transport. This transport looked gorgeous and weighed 66 pounds. The speaker cables were Mit 850 with the matching Mit interconnects. The system was also using that PS Audio Power Plant. Let me sum it up like this. This system sounded unbelievable. The speakers sounded fast airy sweet and the bass was tight and upbeat. It was definitely one of the best sounding systems i ever heard.
    Mr Luk is the best at setting up a system. The system did use top of the line components. The Krell amps list for 32,000 dollars. That Jadis Dac and Transport list for 28,000.