Garrett HongoWhenever I travel, I try to drop in on manufacturers, distributors, or dealers and check out what they have to offer, not only in terms of equipment, but also for their approach to audio. This past October, in New York City for a week of literary events of my own, I peeled off a couple afternoons to visit Jeffrey Catalano, owner of High Water Sound, and Wes Bender, of Wes Bender Studio NYC. Both are amiable acquaintances I’d met in demo rooms at the annual Rocky Mountain Audio Fest over the years, and I’d been increasingly curious about the lines they represent and their overall takes on our pastime.

High Water Sound is a distributor of very special audio gear, mainly imports from Europe: from Germany, the TW-Acustic 10.5 tonearm and line of turntables, Cessaro Horn Acoustics speakers, Thöress Systems electronics, and WSS-Kabel wires; from England, Aspara Acoustics speakers and Tron Electric electronics; from Denmark, Hørning Hybrid System speakers and electronics; and the Thales tonearms from Switzerland. High Water’s domestic brands include Audience, Tri-Planar, Graham Engineering, Silent Running Audio, and Purist Audio Design. Jeffrey Catalano’s specialty is analog, analog, analog -- and then some more analog. His demo rooms at RMAF feature sensitive speakers, superb tube electronics, and some of the most eye-catching turntables and tonearms around. I’d briefly visited him in New York just a month before. This time around I wanted a longer session.

Catalano lives and demonstrates audio gear in a spacious second-story loft at the lower end of Manhattan, at the foot of Brooklyn Bridge and near the edge of Chinatown. He’s basically furnished it with LPs and audio gear; the rest of the common space is quite Spartan, containing only a dining table, a few lamps, and some chairs -- perfect for an audio freak. He regularly rotates speakers, amps, and preamps; when I visited, the system he had up consisted of Hørning Eufrodite Zigma Plus speakers (99dB/8 ohm, $22,000 USD per pair), a Hørning Sati 520B integrated amplifier (22Wpc, $24,000), a Hørning Sati phono stage ($12,000), a TW-Acustic Black Knight turntable ($52,000) with TW-A Raven 10.5 tonearm ($5500) and Ortofon Windfeld MC cartridge ($3900), Audience and WSS-Kabel speaker wires and interconnects, and Stealth and WSS power cords.

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We listened to a lot of jazz, some rock, and a couple of classical and opera LPs. The system was fast, detailed, and highly resolving, with rich harmonics. "Toni," from Herb Ellis’s Softly but with That Feeling (LP, Japanese Verve), featured ringing, resonant vibraphones and a buttery, liquid electric guitar. There were nice timbral differences among the guitar, vibes, and double bass, the last sounding very tight. It was much the same with a recent reissue of the Gerry Mulligan Quartet’s What Is There to Say? (LP, Columbia/ORG). The stand-up bass was exceptionally tight and clear in the title track, as were Mulligan’s baritone sax and Art Farmer’s trumpet. Dave Bailey’s brushed snare rasped, whispered, and shimmered in accompaniment. Not being a horn aficionado, I listened carefully for harmonic richness, depth of soundstage, impact, and microdetails, and found them all in spades.

Very impressive, too, was the sound of Tony Bennett’s voice on The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album, produced by Orrin Keepnews (LP, Fantasy). As usual, there was a pliant depth to Bennett’s voice, but this time I heard sonorous melisma like never before. And Evans’s piano had crystalline highs with rich harmonics, and great depth and impact on attacks. The watchword in all this listening was clarity -- and even more so with Eric Clapton’s Just One Night (LP, PolyGram/Nautilus Superdisc), with electric guitar bite, punchy toms, an organ with tremendous air, and speed speed speed in one blues number. In all, it was a terrific demo that ended only when we got hungry and Catalano invited me out for vegetarian dim sum, something I’d never experienced -- or even heard of -- till that day.

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Over dishes of faux shrimp dumplings, tempeh pot stickers, and taro hom bau -- all delicious -- Catalano told me of his own audio odyssey. He’d begun as a hobbyist in the early 1980s, buying Levinson and Bryston electronics and Magnepan speakers -- all of which he sold to put a down payment on his loft space, which he then renovated into a combination show space and living quarters. Starting over, he wanted tubes, as that’s what he remembered liking in his childhood -- Eico, Harman/Kardon, Marantz -- and began working as a volunteer assistant to Vladimir Lamm. Catalano did setup and demos, transport, and whatever Lamm needed done, and bought two Lamm ML-1 monoblock amps, which he used to drive a pair of Verity speakers. Then he built some speakers of his own, using Lowther drivers that lacked dynamic range and other audio trappings, but whose sound made him very happy: "The Beatles sounded like the Beatles." Eventually he found other like-minded people, and opened High Water Sound in 2003.

"9/11 had a lot to do with my opening the business," Catalano said. "There was no power for weeks, and that made audio very frivolous, but also very precious at the same time." It was a place to go, he told me, a bliss place where his body could be in repose, away from all the tumult and fear and sadness. He began importing gear like mad after that, first bringing in Hørning speakers, then dallying with Lamm and Kondo electronics for a couple of years, and finally finding Tron Electric in 2005 and making quick friends with its owner and designer, Graham Tricker. "Tron was just what I was looking for."

Back at his loft, we took up listening again. Catalano put on Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, performed by the Minnesota Symphony Orchestra conducted by Eiji Oue (LP, Reference). Once more, in the oboe introduction, there was that supreme clarity I’d come to expect, then good bass with gravitas, and fast violins without glare. When the ballet picked up its pace, there was tremendous drive from the flutes and bass, speedy drum impacts with long decays, and a quality I couldn’t quite put my finger on -- a kind of spaciousness. I went up to the Hørning Eufrodites and walked around them, noting the array of four in-line 8" bass drivers at the back, the 5" Lowther midrange and open-cone Hørning tweeter on the narrow front baffle. The speakers are deep (just over 25"), their wood cabinets gorgeous, but present such a narrow face (about 8.5") that I could hardly believe they were producing such an expanse of sound.

"That’s horns for you," Catalano said. "I mean, horns made the right way."

A few days later I visited Wes Bender, a professional photographer and audio enthusiast, who has set up an interesting new business he calls Wes Bender Studio NYC. He picked me up where I was staying in nearby Prospect Heights, and drove me to his second-floor walk-up near downtown Brooklyn. Along the way, he told a story about a friend of his, a Wall Street analyst. The analyst declared that the traditional business model for audio retailers was dead, that the Internet had made it obsolete: Prospective buyers listen for hours at a dealer’s, then just buy online!

When we arrived at Bender’s studio, I saw that the 18’L x 15’W x 10’H space was crammed with not only audio equipment, but, filling the length of one entire wall, an expansive five-shelf by five-shelf Ikea Expedit bookcase stuffed with over 2000 LPs.  Atop the Expedit and another bookshelf were numerous Nikon, Leica, and Voigtländer cameras, and a couple Rolleiflexes. Unframed paintings hung from the walls. A light sculpture decorated the space between two large windows. Bender felt that, as the Internet has taken over, traditional bricks-and-mortar dealers have been increasingly squeezed out -- yet retail customers still crave hearing in person the quality equipment they read about in magazines.

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After working some years as national sales manager for Hansen Audio, Bender created what he calls a "manufacturer’s listening room." It’s not an audio dealership per se -- he doesn’t sell anything. Instead, Bender offers customers long listening sessions, by appointment only, with select high-end gear. Maintaining exclusive representation in each audio category, Bender carries only one piece of equipment for each purpose. Manufacturers like Hansen (speakers), Jorma Cable, Viola Audio Labs (solid-state electronics), Redpoint Audio Design (turntables), Lindemann (digital electronics), and Wavestream Kinetics (tube electronics) pay him a monthly fee. If the customer is interested in a product from any of these companies, Bender can steer him or her to a dealer or website. Bender owns each of his demo components.

And what might that customer hear at Wes Bender Studio NYC? A pair of Hansen Prince V2 three-way speakers (87dB/6 ohm; $39,000/pair); a Wavestream Deluxe phono stage ($7995); the four-box, dual-mono Viola Solo preamplifier ($39,000); a Viola Symphony stereo amp (200Wpc, $20,000); a Lindeman 802S CD player ($2300); a Redpoint Audio Design MG turntable with facet option ($54,000); an Ikeda IT-407 12" gold-plated tonearm ($7200); and a Dynavector XV 1T cartridge ($9250). Sitting on the sidelines were a Wavestream Deluxe line stage ($8495) and a Viva Linea F full-function preamp ($24,800). Very exclusive gear indeed!

Bender began our session with Buddy Guy playing acoustic guitar. There was a rich midrange and natural tone to Guy’s voice, and a satisfying bite to the plucked strings. After one cut, he switched to Elvis Presley singing the gospel tune "There Will Be Peace in the Valley," performed with a small male choir, piano, and stand-up bass. The choir sounded smooth and airy, the tenors and basses distinct in separate lines, and Elvis’s voice organic and just slightly percussive. Whatever Bender put on the Redpoint ’table, the sound was spacious and gorgeous, highly resolved. He even banged and knocked on the Redpoint, trying to get the tonearm to jump, the needle to skip the groove -- but the ’table held rock steady through all his thumpings. "Yulunga (Spirit Dancer)," from Dead Can Dance’s Into the Labyrinth (LP, 4AD/Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab), sounded like an Arabian lament -- haunting, full of depth and remarkable spatial cues. The beat-dominated music went through variations with maracas, organ, congas, flute, and synth strings, slowly building into a kind of trance track, with the synth and Lisa Gerrard’s voice doubling on the theme.

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"It’s a system I call ‘on the lean side of neutral’," Bender declared.

It seemed capable of stunning resolution to me, but I wanted nothing more in the midrange or from the bass. The proprietary drivers in Hansen’s Prince V2 speakers were certainly doing their job, and the "composite matrix" cabinet material made them look like the wing pods of a Stealth fighter stood on end. Said to be acoustically inert and thus adding no cabinet colorations, the synthetic polymer-like material was even "cloaked" from within with yet another proprietary material that made up a fourth layer of construction. Way high-tech.

As a special treat, Bender pulled out a rare lacquer from ORG and handed it to me. "Feel it," he said. It felt cold and metallic. "You get only four or five plays total, but I want you to hear something unique."

It blew me away -- Mars: Bringer of War, from Gustav Holst’s The Planets, in a London/Decca recording I thought I knew well: Zubin Mehta’s, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I have both the JVC XRCD and the Speakers Corner 180gm LP editions. I first noticed the good snap and clean trebles of the ORG lacquer, then the wonderful horns, with terrific separation and timbral definition. With the system turned up loud, the highs were breathtakingly clear and detailed.

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We closed the session with a kind of contemporary standard: Diana Krall singing Tom Waits’s "Temptation," from The Girl in the Other Room (LP, Verve). Krall sang like a leopard dancing with a cobra, her voice full of sinuous coos and minimalist scats, pliant and agile. She sang breathily like Julie London, a precursor in this cool, semi-torch style, then wiry in the highs and nasal with a bite, finally landing, sweetly and lubriciously, on the fundamental. Her piano accompaniment was the dance floor for her light-footed ballroom voice. Way tactile and organic, I thought -- I could hear the stick of lipstick on her lips. What a groove!

If you’re a dedicated audiophile in the market for some new high-end gear and you live near or plan to visit New York City, I urge you to give Jeffrey Catalano and/or Wes Bender a call. See if you can arrange a visit. You’ll learn something, and meet a couple of terrific guys who love music, know what they’re doing, and who each has his own unique approach to reproducing sound. Their gear is superb, their hospitality charming, and their expertise second to none. I enjoyed my time with both of them, and guarantee you will too.

. . . Garrett Hongo