I really only have one review system, and that’s the big rig down in the basement. It’s LP-based, and I’ve never had a streamer, DAC, or CD player sending those filthy bits down its virginal, analog pathways.
Oh, there’s a second system on the main floor, and it’s no pushover. My Squeezebox Touch (don’t judge me!) feeds my Hegel Audio Systems H120 integrated amplifier-DAC, which in turn drives my magnificent Estelon YB speakers. It’s a superb-sounding system, and since it’s on the main floor it gets an absolute ton of use. That said, I’m rarely sitting in the sweet spot. The dog and my wife, Marcia, get the best stereo image, as they’re on the couch, and I sit like Archie Bunker (but more stylishly) in my Ekornes stressless chair, which is off to the side a bit. Still, no critical listening happens up here. We relax into the music that’s thrust forth from this system and enjoy it without really considering the sound quality.
This system is essentially static. The YBs should never, ever move. They look like they grow out of the floor and I love them. The Hegel and Squeezebox are sandwiched between two cabinets we decided to stack when we recently renovated our main floor, where they fit just perfectly. The top one now serves as our liquor cabinet (having our spirits at eye level has dramatically improved my quality of life).
But my recent appointment as senior editor of this here publication is raising some issues with my setup. In the reviewing world, it’s extremely inadvisable to change more than one component at a time. And, it would seem, there’s more gear in the pipeline than I can possibly accommodate in my main system.
The forthcoming influx of gear is daunting—a pair of YG Acoustics Ascent speakers and the Fezz Lybra 300B amplifier will need to be kept apart, like the herbivores and carnivores on Noah’s ark. There’s an inbound DAC from EMM Labs. Likely a turntable from AvidHiFi, possibly an amp from the upcoming Simaudio Moon North Collection series. Lord knows what else.
So I’m now looking askance at the space between the YBs. Can I shoehorn some sort of small cabinet between them, to one side of the fireplace? Well, anything’s possible, right? It’s hard to piss off Marcia, so long as everything’s kept neat and tidy. I can probably squeeze an amp on a stand in there, but really, how far can I push my hobby on my partner? Well, I didn’t want a dog but now we have one, and I have to walk it. So there’s some leverage. But I’ve been saving that token for a rainy day, and I’m not sure I want to use it just yet.
Jeff Fritz, our erstwhile editor in chief, had two systems. Doug Schneider has two systems. In both cases this was by necessity. Now I’m having to knuckle under and do the same.
I talked the two-systems idea over with Doug, and he reacted as if this was an obvious move. His reaction came through the phone with a sort of implied eye roll, as if I was stating the obvious. Then he shot me a follow-up text.
So now I’m supposed to jam more gear into another room? True, our bedroom is reasonably large, and I could probably set up a pair of compact floorstanders over by the window. And I could maybe resurrect my old Squeezebox Duet streamer as a digital source. Before I met Marcia, I did have a small system up in the bedroom, but it’s been gone so long the concept no longer has tenure. This is a negotiation I will have to enter when this column goes live and Marcia reads it.
There’s the problem of storage for the ever-increasing number of cardboard boxes and other shipping containers. We have a one-car garage and it’s close to jam-packed. I have two off-road motorcycles in there, plus a trailer for same that stands upright. We’ve got some cabinets we’re saving that we took out of our upstairs bathroom when we renovated it. The garbage and recycling bins. Two ginormous flight cases for the Estelon XB speakers that haven’t yet gone back. Pressure washer. Bicycles.
What with my two steel hips, I’m thinking that perhaps it’s time to sell the dirt bikes and the trailer. This is a daunting concept. There’s a saying I used to believe down to the tips of my toes—you don’t stop riding because you get old; you get old because you stop riding. I didn’t ride off-road last year, and I don’t think I’m going to do so this year either. Good lord, I feel old . . .
Boxes have spilled out into the basement. Right now, my Bryston 4B³ is on loan to my neighbor Ron, and in return he’s offered me nine square feet of space in his garage in which to build a tower of boxes as off-site storage. That’ll help. But the space in my garage that’s occupied by the dirt bikes would undoubtedly be well utilized.
Am I sounding whiny here? I hope not. I see this situation, the chance to headline SoundStage! Ultra, as a great opportunity. Right now, I’ve got some crazy-good gear in my system and it sounds absolutely magnificent. Over the past several months, I’ve had the opportunity to cover the High End show in Munich and then travel through Italy to visit three exciting manufacturers. I’m hoping to head west to Calgary soon to visit EMM Labs and talk DACs and optical cartridges with Ed Meitner. Then in October it’ll be time for the Warsaw Audio Video Show, which always just rocks.
And in return I have to shoehorn more systems into my house? And this is a problem why? I sure hope this doesn’t come across as humblebrag. I’m excited. I’m engaged. I think what I’m doing here is talking out loud, running through the logistics of it all.
Now to determine the order of operations. First, I have to figure out how to install a new amp on the main floor, with some consideration given to aesthetics. I’m guessing I’ll need a table beside the fireplace. I’m not big on lavish spending for some sort of audiophile solution—I’d rather find something that’s nearly as good, cheap, or found—but still stylish and cool.
I’ll need a DAC to use with whatever amp I’m going to use with the main-floor system, as the internal DAC on the Squeezebox is marginal at best. I have an AudioQuest DragonFly Red kicking around, but I don’t think it’s quite appropriate for an Ultra system.
I have plenty of speakers around. Perhaps too many speakers. My own Estelon YBs, my Aurelia Cerica XLs, and the old faithful Focus Audio FB60 BEs. Might I have to pare this grouping down? How could I do this when I love them all equally?
The YBs? I could never part with them. They are elegance incarnate, They’re full-size Erté sculptures poised there on either side of my fireplace. Neutral-sounding, with deep, effortless bass and a refined, slightly recessed top end that takes no effort to fall into. How could I live without them?
My Aurelias do imaging like nothing else I’ve experienced. They’re not quite full range, but near as dammit good enough. I know, I know, they’re plain, well-finished rectangles. Nothing overly dramatic to look at, these Cerica XLs, but the gloss-black lacquer is impeccably applied, and the pair of them disappear in the room even as they open up a portal into another dimension.
I’ve had the Focus Audio speakers since 2013. Their satin ebony veneer is quietly captivating, more like understated fine French furniture than a mundane stereo speaker. And like all of the Focus Audio speakers I’ve heard, the FB60 BEs sound like liquid honey. Neutral, sweet, and so, so easy to listen to. They just have to stay.
Rereading the three preceding paragraphs, I’m coming to the conclusion that I’m the crazy cat lady of speakers. The Estelon XB Mk IIs are still in residence in my main system, and no fucking way am I kicking them out. So for the time being, my Aurelias are down at my other neighbor’s place. There are nine townhouses in our little development, and I have gear spread out over three of them. As I said earlier, Ron has my Bryston, and another neighbor, Rob, has the Aurelias. He’s also temporarily storing my Focus Audios. Supply lines are getting longer and hard to maintain.
So there’s lots of work to do here in the Thorpe household. I need to acquire some gear—and maybe relinquish some. I have negotiations pending with the family, and an entire garage to reorganize.
More as it happens.
. . . Jason Thorpe