ULTRA AUDIO -- Archived Article

August 1, 2007

Bob Mods

Allow me to introduce myself. My earliest electric memory was plugging tweezers into a wall outlet. The sparks made Mrs. Graham, my babysitter, jump into action, before all the lights went out and I flew across the floor.

Later, in college, I built myself a dual turntable with built-in preamps for deejaying record hops. My first gig was in the service area of a motorcycle shop. On that night of discovery I plugged into an outlet that they must have used for welding -- when the electrical fire began inside my DJ setup, the shop’s circuit breaker didn’t trip. There were pops and zaps and my old friends, sparks. Later, the fire marshal shut us down -- not for anything I’d done, but for something to do with containers of gasoline and a crowd of people.

My name is Bob Wood. It was through "doing" sound and getting more and more equipment that I eventually became less dangerous to others and more interested in audio. Add to that a stint at a college radio station and my brief life as an electrical engineering major. (The school psychologist said I shouldn’t be an electrical engineer. My grades confirmed his feelings, but by then I was hooked.)

I made weekly visits to local hi-fi stores and lusted for some real gear, far beyond the little KLH rig I’d talked my parents into, then out of (so I could have it in my room). After the fire at the motorcycle shop, my PA rig was pretty awesome for its day -- all tube, good quality. I’d serve as a hop deejay till the local radio-station personality showed up, then again after he’d left. Sometimes he had five hops a day -- my associate and I would hopscotch from venue to venue. It was the late 1960s.

We worked a system with the Turtles: the stage was atop a frozen-custard stand at a theme park. Once up, we couldn’t get down, so we enjoyed the Turtles up close. Once I found myself sitting behind my rack of gear on stage, right next to Sly Stone, who was at his Hammond B3 beside me. I was no more than an arm’s length away while he performed. That was a wowser.

When I graduated from college, I found myself with a wife and less time to do dances, especially since I was now working in radio, trying to climb my way up the ladder and moving a lot. I sold all my gear to my former partner. After my divorce, I bought Bose speakers, god help me -- 901s -- and a ten-band Soundcraftsman equalizer. I don’t think I ever sat through a whole song: up and down, up and down, trying to get the sound right. It can’t be done. I sold the Boses to a woman who didn’t even have an amp. Don’t know what she was thinking. What I thought was Good riddance.

Catching up to the past

In the mid to late ’70s, with a friend, I visited many high-end stores -- we’d wait for the best demo room to clear, then take over, trying everything with Supertramp LPs. Usually, a sour-looking salesman would come running in like a dog handler at a show, arm outstretched and fingers curled in turn-that-knob-down position.

When I read an ad or brochure that explained the science behind some innovation, I fell for it. No, I hadn’t learned my Bose lesson. ESS speakers were supposed to be a leap forward -- the Heil Air Motion Transformer would squeeze the air faster than a cone could accelerate it. That’s what I need. In a transmission-line enclosure. Oh yeah.

At about that time, a TV station owed me a lot of "trade" for voice work I’d done for them, and because in my head I was still Mister Sound Guy, I jumped at the chance to get a pair of Crown DC300A amps and a DL-2 digital preamp -- a match made in Elkhart. Let’s fast-forward through the a/d/s/ CD-1, the JBL 4311s, the Large Advents, the Mark Levinson ML-11, the VTL Tiny Triodes, the Klipsch Choruses, the Wilson WATT/Puppy 5.1s, the headaches.

I’m still intrigued by the promise of something better and better. I’m also trying to get the best sound, so I can enjoy music as if right from the source. Less jitter? Gotta have it. Better conductivity? Gimme. A sweeter tube? Yes! Mods? Like crack.

I’ve been cheating fate for some time now. So far, the risk has paid off. I’ve sent my 62-pound Sony SCD-1 SACD/CD player to two modders of invention (I hate myself -- more than usual -- for that one) no fewer than seven times. The fate I cheat is the risk of shipping this beast across country again and again. I pad. I double-box. The outer box by now has so much tape on it, it looks like it’s made of plastic. And it’s nicely dirty -- who’d ever suspect that inside that box is a box that contains a slab of electronics now pushing $10,000 in value? The final package weighs 82 pounds. Over time, the corners have become rounded as the box has been smooshed by cross-country mishandling by man and machine. I read somewhere that putting FRAGILE stickers all over a carton gives the knuckle-draggers added incentive for "accidents." This is a cartonful of incognito.

After every mod, I think, Ah . . . so this is as good as it gets. My holy grail is the bending of space and time to bring John Fogerty or Delbert McClinton, Donald Fagen or Dire Straits, into the room with me. While they haven’t exactly appeared, they’re coming closer. Unsuspecting souls have been given demonstrations of my system: out-of-body experiences without chemical stimuli. Others claimed flashbacks and later were seen wearing tie-dyed clothes for the first time in decades.

Time travel

My Space and Time Machine: modded Sony SCD-1 player; Audio Research LS5 Mk.III preamp modded to reference level by Great Northern Sound and sporting an Upscale Audio upgrade to 6H23EB tubes; NuForce 9SE amps; a PS Audio P300 feeding the preamp at multiwave setting P-2; all on dedicated circuits with a PS Audio High Current Ultimate Outlet, PS Power Ports, or Porter ports. All interconnects are balanced Audience Au24, as are the speaker cables. Power cords are from Electraglide, PS Audio, Shunyata, and a really serious home brew by a boutique amp builder-brewer. There are Aurios footers under the SCD-1 and preamp that shake like Jello. BDR cones and Myrtle wood blocks make for experiments under or on the amps. ERS cloth sits on the amps. Every plug has been treated with Walker Extreme SST silver goo. The room was designed by Rives Audio. It’s about 20’ x 22’ with few parallel surfaces. The ceiling rises from 9’ to 11’, and is covered in fabric with a large grid of opposing-angled, 1"-thick wooden slats on fiberglass underneath. My gear sits on a Salamander rack inset into the wall and covered by wood and Plexiglas. The rear opens into a closet. Speakers are Wilson Audio WATT/Puppy 7s, positioned by Casey Mckee of Ne Plus Ultra Audio.

My modding began when I was a Theta owner. I had a DSPro Basic III and invested sequentially in several of their transports. I had the III bumped up to a IIIa, then fitted with their Laser Linque AT&T glass-fiber signal carrier. Each time, there was a difference -- not necessarily an improvement. It all comes down to taste. Your reality might not be mine. One of the variations took me backward. All others were nice.

There have been a few epiphanies along the way. Among the big ones: Tube-rolling my original (single-tube) Audio Research LS2B Mk.II; changing preamps to the LS5 Mk.III. Changing houses. Switching from the ARC VT100 Mk.I to Mk.II and then to the NuForce 9s, then 9SEs (soon to be V2s). An addiction to change or to the quest? Ask a billionaire with a trophy third wife. Me, I don’t know.

When I was programming radio stations, it wasn’t uncommon to have up-and-comers enter my office and perform acoustically just across the desk. This was an incredible opportunity to calibrate my sense of sound. As a voiceover talent, I’ve been in hundreds of studios over the years, and have that experience behind my judgment too. I don’t claim to be "The Ear." I do claim to have an opinion.

Stepping up

Every digital step forward has had the same results, to some degree: better, more articulate bass (tighter, not lower); cleaner highs; and a greater sense of reality to the mids. I listen to rock and classic rock, pop (new and old), jazz, blues, country, blue-eyed soul, old-school R’n’B, and some hard-to-categorize music. There are good CDs and bad CDs. So far, I haven’t been able to clean up a bad one, but over on the good side, it’s amazing how much better "better" can be.

Here’s what I mean: Let’s say it’s an amplified guitar played solo and well recorded. As you get better playback, that recording of a guitar played through an amp begins to sound as if your speakers are the guitar amp. Can I have a Hallelujah?

With every digital step forward, I was convinced -- na´vely -- that it was the last step. I’d blame digititis, or the CD medium, or bad production for any faults I’d hear. I’ve heard music in recording studios "as it happened," and some of it was pretty darn impressive -- again, more obsession ammo to keep me dissatisfied with what’s playing in my listening room.

On a good digital recording you can hear a snare drum with some air around it (and producers will gate these, so it’s rare in the first place). Strings sound beautiful, especially in the lower registers. There’s no steely or glassy screech or glare. The better it gets, the more singularity you hear within massed strings.

I’ll be reviewing equipment for Ultra Audio and am really looking forward to it. However, in the spirit of full disclosure, here’s one thing that places me at the kids’ table: I own just two classical discs. My tests will involve music more mainstream than that played by the high and mighty Lords of Review. Let’s get to it.

...Bob Wood

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