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Weekend at Harry's

When I was in college in the 70s, I worked part time at a hi-fi shop in Atlanta. While I never made much money, what I did find proved to be far more valuable over time. It was through that association I met a number of people who became good friends and mentors to this young audio enthusiast. John Cooledge (former TAS writer JWC) would periodically come by the shop and invite the guys over to his house to sample his latest audio goodies. It was then and there I developed my fondness for electrostats with his Dayton-Wrights. It is also where I met Harry Pearson. Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to visit Sea Cliff numerous times and just got back from a long weekend there.

These visits have always been learning experiences along with providing aural, visual and culinary delights. Every time serves to recalibrate my perspective of what audio and video systems can do and each time I marvel at what is available today. I’ve been to a number of audio shows, but they really do not provide an ideal environment to get the full measure of what the best systems can do. I wish others could share in my fortune and experience the same exposure to a world that I would otherwise not really know. From the outset, what you will find is that all three of his systems are phenomenally transparent. I do not use that adjective lightly. Play any piece of music that you know intimately and you will hear detail that you’ve never heard before. You find yourself rediscovering your old friends. While the exact make up of his systems constantly change, what remains constant is the level of quality. I’m not suggesting that he alone has found the “best”, but whatever you do find delivers spectacular performance. In 1980, the IRS system defined for me the concept of “authority”. The 2000 Nola Grand Reference system was the first system I heard that truly made the walls disappear. The current Scaena system adds better coherency - especially at the bottom where the four “depth charge” subs offer no excuses for any subterranean content you care to throw at them.

What triggered this post was some observations over at planar about the new Magnepan 3.7s. He has a pair in room 2 and I spent a lot of time listening to them both with HP and Mike Hobson (of Classic Records and HRT fame) and by myself. One of my challenges has always been to understand the capabilities of his systems. To that end, I always bring a collection of CDRs to help calibrate my ears to exactly what I’m hearing. It was also in that room that I spent a lot of time evaluating the 20.1s a number of years ago. So, how good are the 3.7s? Exceptionally so. I confess to having a particular passion (fanaticism?) about coherency which is why I like full range electrostats. Magneplanar ribbon tweeters have always offered extended response and “sweetness”, but have sometimes come across to me as belonging to a different speaker than the rest of the “quasi” ribbon drivers. The 3.7s impress me as closing that gap between earlier Maggies and single driver based systems. Here you find a speaker that is exceptionally coherent throughout its range. I should mention that hearing tri-amped Tympani IIIs in 1974 was a turning point in my audio awareness. At the time, they brought me closer to realizing my perspective of how a speaker should disappear and sound like live music. 3.7 shortcomings? They are few and expected given the physical constraints of the design: the bottom octave hasn’t fully reported for duty and image height (not depth) is slightly limited as compared with what floor to ceiling line sources can do. And I found the system just a bit bright for my tastes. I will be quick to admit that I don’t find systems which are measurably flat on top to sound truly natural to me. Wendell put 1.2 ohm attenuators on the tweeters. I might opt for a slightly different value. Let me also suggest that you consider using high quality fuses. I use Hi-Fi Tuning fuses in the backplates of my Sound Labs and HP was using Furutechs in the Maggies. I think they are a must to maintain the transparency of high performance speakers of all flavors. Other than that, the speakers offer no excuses. Which - in a sense creates a bit of a quandary and illustrates a realization that I have come to understand in the past couple of years. I find that I am arguing with myself. My mentors drilled into me the concept of starting with and building a system around the very best speaker you could find that fits your set of compromises. Source and electronics are important, but it is the speaker that rules. As of late, I find that I have turned closer to becoming a “Linnie” understanding that the source is what really determines the quality of everything that follows. These speakers assert that position. What I heard was an $85k analog and digital front end driving them to an exceptionally high level of transparency. Unfortunately, my guess is that many happy buyers of them will never fully appreciate their full potential. The big Scaenas offer more scale and bass power, but speak no more faithfully to the musical truth. That is saying something for the comparatively modest price they command. They can show you all the magic that is the EMM Labs XDS1 player or a VPI Classic with a Benz using the Veloce electronics playing one of Mike’s best recordings. I heard one of those incredibly realistic sounding recordings that you’ll read about in part II of HP’s assessment of the speakers. While I wasn’t able to directly compare them to the 20.1s (which I did hear in the MC/HT system), my take is they give up only some scale and a bit of first octave bass. Bottom line is that I could find myself quite happy with a pair.

As a videophile as well, no visit would be without sampling the HT system. This is a projection system using a three gun Sony unit on a 100 odd inch screen using a very nice audio system sourced by a Krell processor, Oppo player, Edge electronics, and a mix of Magneplanar 20.1s for the front, the latest CCRs (?) for center and 3.6s in the rear supplemented with three Nola Thunderbolt subs. Picture quality and color saturation is beyond belief. What struck me most, however, was the sound. Here are two instances. One night, I played Twister with Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton and I heard something that I’ve never heard before and hope I never hear live. Have you ever been to Disney and ridden the “Tower of Terror”? If you have, you know that there is a time when your car falls without warning. While you can intellectualize that you are on a completely safe ride, there is a split second during the “fall” when your primal instincts kick in and you find yourself in true fear. I felt a similar reaction viewing the movie on the Maggie system. There were two instances where you could hear truly unsettling sounds from the shrieks and growls of extreme wind found near a tornado. The instinctual feeling of fight-or-flight kicked in for an instant and I wanted to get the hell out of there! I had never before heard those exact sounds nor felt that sensation before then. And I never want to again for real. On another night, I was channel surfing on Dish Network and found Avatar in 5.1 HD. Say what you will about the story line, but the effects and the spectacular alien landscape are worth the viewing. Later in the film, there is a scene where Jake is riding Toruk (as “Toruk Makto”) with other Ikran flying about. I have seen the film countless times in IMAX 3D, other theatres and at home and have never heard the sound of the wings beating in the air sounding so realistic and utterly natural. Truly amazing.

Finally, I always enjoy sampling the Sea Cliff area Japanese restaurants for sushi. If you enjoy such and are ever in that area, I heartily recommend going to kiraku. The salmon sake sashimi melts in your mouth and I was introduced to a new treat – thinly sliced scallop sashimi. That was positively wonderful in its delicacy. High definition sushi nicely complemented the other sensual delights.


edit: For any of you who would like to be an audio reviewer, its a lot of work. Harry has a two car garage and for at least thirty years it has housed audio boxes, not his car. A French made CD player needed to be returned and he asked if I could re-box the unit. No problemo. First of all, the player had the weight of a sumo. I got the huge box and wondered why the box itself weighed so much. The answer is that inside was a metal suitcase with fitted inserts for the player and accessories. That made packing the suitcase pretty easy. It didn't, however, reduce the task of putting the combined bulk into the outer carton. It came with a clever T-handled rope and plastic sled that fit underneath the unit to assist with the hoisting. You could then pick up everything with four handles. Ideally, however, with two guys. It was then I remembered an old audio store trick and decided it would be easier to put the box on the player than doing it the other way around. Also, I moved a phono preamp from room #2 into room #3. So how much can a phono preamp weigh? When it comes in two pieces and looks like and has the heft of monoblock amplifiers, the answer is a bunch. You'll have to wait to hear about this unit.

Edits: 02/28/11

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Topic - Weekend at Harry's - E-Stat 18:30:03 02/28/11 (129)


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