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The Thomas Treasury

The Thomas Treasury

Down at this end of the audio food chain I don’t get to see a vast array of audio products flowing through the house. I have heard no cheap DACs and have a seriously uninformed and shamefully shallow view of the headphone market. My sense of detachment, that I really must address soon, is due to spending too many nights in studios with headphones baking my ears many moons ago. I have managed to avoid the glittering allure of Audio shows for years but, thanks to the editor’s tolerance, I still get my hands on components and systems that might be described as high-end in that they are invariably expensive. So I have been given special dispensation to avoid the brief here and write some words about stuff I like.  It’s a hard life, but I like to think I know a good sound when I hear it.

Every few years a really exceptional product or system arrives at my door.  Yes, I know the regularity with which some reviewers discover new reference products, but I guess I must have been unlucky in this respect.  My personal reality is that the changing of the guard happens at a more leisurely pace around here.  But, when it does, it tends to have a lasting musical value and impression. 

The dCS Vivaldi is one of those products, and it represents perhaps the first of a new breed of dCS products established after exhaustive work throughout the system and notably on the ring DAC and analogue output stage.  I am talking here of the two-box transport and DAC version, leaving the clock and upsampling boxes out of this equation.  It is expensive for sure, but it is beautifully built and finished: a real premium product, without the bling.

I love its performance with CD, and I usually convert at the transport to DSD. I have heard nothing so far, in the digital domain, that convincingly improves on it. But the caveat is that I haven’t heard everything! Play a disc, even one from the early days of the format, which were never known for their sound quality, and the Vivaldi does the business in a way that is far more sympathetic than the thin, squeezed, and disappointingly ‘small’ sounding efforts I have heard so many times. Its composure under fire is exemplary too, leaving the music intact, tonally balanced and flowing, yet superbly focused and as dynamic as I have heard from CD.  If you can possibly afford it, then adding the separate clock gives musical proceedings an even more locked-in feel, and the upsampler takes this even further into a rather creamy textural finish that is the cherry on top of a completely delicious recipe.

While I am on the hardware front, I really must mention the Naim Mu-So, which was one of those products that was a whole lot better than I was expecting.  It makes those other Bluetooth boom boxes I have heard sound over ripe and imprecise.  I am not looking for accuracy or indeed true hi-fi sound from such a device, but the audiophile in me took a bit of care where I sited it (it’s too big to regularly move around) and I also raised it an inch or so, kept it away from the rear wall and thought it was great. The Naim PR chap who delivered it told me that, if I used it in the same room as my system, I wouldn’t listen to the big boy as much. He was right. For Bluetooth playback or searching the world of Internet radio for new music, it’s the best I have heard.

Another product that has shown serious benefits recently has been the recently reviewed Stillpoints Apertures.  Having stripped my whole system down for a long overdue re-install, I took the room apart too, and over the course of a day, gave all the cabling a good clean, including the connectors and those on the equipment.  This whole, rather time consuming procedure involved a somewhat OCD dedication, but it gave me a chance to reinstate my Berning amplification and address the lunacy of the cables too.  I removed all the Apertures I had been using, and after the whole system had been reconnected and powered up it didn’t take too long to realise that the ridiculous amount of increased energy that the Bernings were pushing through the speakers had left the whole listening space in considerable trouble.  Without wishing for this to descend into a “Give Your Hi-Fi A Spring Clean” article, let me just say that things had quietened down 20 hours later, but only somewhat.  The speakers were moved about a bit, and then I started with a couple of Apertures behind them.  There are few miracles in audio, but this relatively painless addition made a huge difference.  Another single panel between the speakers, making 3 across the back wall, and things had taken a welcome upturn for the better, with no excessive energy sapping damping either. The message is, try a few Apertures if you can.  They are very interesting and the best acoustic panel I have tried. 

 

On the other side of the same coin is my latest musical instrument acquisition.  I love instruments of all types.  If I can strum, bow it, blow it, or whack it I will have a go and I have owned Martin acoustic guitars for many years, buying and selling them with unhealthy regularity. I do this purely as a selfish pleasure, of course.

Martin makes great acoustic guitars and in my opinion, the old ones are usually the best.  Something about the woods, the glue, and the years of use gives them a quality that, once you have heard or felt it, is just not there on newer instruments, fine though they are.  When you try a Martin from what has become known as their Golden Era (late 20’s to late 30’s) there is no stress in the instrument and no feeling that the thing is a taut composite of many individual pieces of wood glued together.  I travelled to the wilds of Kent to see a truly great collection of vintage Martins and ended up wanting them all.  But it came down to two, neither of which I could easily afford.  There was an 1888 model strung with silk and steel.  This was a crazily great instrument and something to be preserved and cherished. Men who fought in the American Civil War would have played this guitar, which was made exactly when Jack The Ripper was terrorising London’s east end.  Mind numbing stuff.  A beautiful but soft and gentle sound, full of under- and overtones, and a personally contemplative instrument for sure.  But then I was handed a true Golden Era model – a 1927 000-18 in very decent condition and with all the right credentials.  One of a mere handful built that year, it has the 12th fret neck join, the long scale, marvellous tonewoods of the type that are not available any more, a shellac finish, and an ebony fingerboard. All this glued together with boiled down bits of animals by someone most likely born in the late 1800s.  I think I played 3 or 4 chords on it before wanting it, badly.  Now it sits, perched on its stand opposite the sofa that I call home.  Apart from being a fantastic instrument, I do love it as an object.  Those round, sloping shoulders owe more to the early classical and Spanish guitars than to the later squared off look of the American flattop.  I like to say that I bought it because I couldn’t afford a high-end audio mains cable, a thought that lends some perspective perhaps.

Anyway, the cost is unimportant.  I have it now and I am not exaggerating when I say that all that I had read about guitars from this era has turned out to be true.  It has literally changed my life and most likely the way I listen to music. It is so light that the response from any input is amazing.  Change between a few chords and the interplay and tonal shading at harmonic level give it a voice that is incredibly complex but warm.  In fact, I say it has an expressive subtlety of character and a mojo of its own like so many of these true vintage instruments that I have never heard on any recording.  I know I am truly blessed to own it and I cherish our moments together.

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