Media: Over 1,200 CDs; 200 LPs
Sources: Goldenote Bellavista Signature turntable with B-7 Titanium arm and Boboli Signature cartridge and Esoteric XO3-SE CD player
Integrated Valve Amplifier: Rethm Gaanam
Speakers: Rethm Saadhana horn-loaded
Rack: Silent Running Audio Craz
How do you describe a hardcore audiophile? A wee bit obsessive? Barking mad men (they tend to be men) with money and time to burn? Depends on where you’re looking from. They will admit themselves to being manic in their perpetual quest for ever purer sound.
Most enthusiasts, be it of sound, cars or watches, wind up falling in love with older technologies at some point. For the few who choose to convert that adoration into action, the decision is at least partly a reaction against the constant assault of marketers promising newer! bigger! better! They seek to opt out of the rat race, choosing instead something known and elegantly crafted. Often, too, their choice is a personal discovery after years of searching for a higher ideal, something that isn’t likely to disappear in weeks, months or even years.
Since the 1980s, Ferzaan Engineer, Jacob George and Premnath Rajagopalan have been collecting music and music equipment, upgrading every few years as they evolved beyond the limitations of earlier choices, spending more time, effort and money to hunt down the next setup that would satisfy their discerning ears.
Today, well into the third decade of their respective journeys, their choices — vinyl records, valve amplifiers, horn speakers — would, to most people, seem just plain obsolete.
Unless, that is, you were to get invited to their homes, sat in a special chair in the sweet spot between their speakers, and treated to their music. “Damn,” you’ll say, “Got to get myself one of those!”
Jacob George was an architecture student in New York back in the 1980s. Accustomed to the rather basic mass-produced audio systems available in India back then, he was impressed by the vastly better sound that he came across on even mid-level speaker brands in the USA. Unable to afford them on his student budget, he decided to make his own.
A friend suggested he build his first speaker using a driver from a British company called Lowther. These drivers, though niche and quaint, were regarded highly by some audiophiles. They could reproduce sounds across all but the lowest of frequencies the human ear could perceive, or “full range”; and they were meant to be mated to horns. After young George hand-assembled his first horn-loaded speaker using tools from a friend’s garage and textbooks about enclosure design and the physics of sound, he was a convert. “Though the sound was all wrong, I fell in love with the magical directness and liveness. I decided I had to pursue it further.”
After moving back to Kerala in the early 1990s, he began spending any free time left over from his day job (he is founder of architecture firm Design Combine) into refining Lowther’s drivers — “The Lowthers had a bad reputation in spite of being one of the first full range drivers and having been in production since the 1930s,” he says — and creating a horn-loaded speaker from the ground up.
“I took the Lowther and tried to modify it to create a better frequency response. I added another cone, damped it from the back, but even after seven years I couldn’t manage to get it below 40-45Hz. Finally I decided to mate it with a powered bass unit which would handle the lower frequencies.” After a decade of designing, learning, tweaks and money, George showcased his first horn-loaded speakers, the 2nd Rethm (after the Sanskrit word for harmony), at the Consumer Electronics Show technology tradeshow in 2000. Over the next few years, he followed it up with progressively better designs, with richer sounds.
Rethm’s flagship speaker today, the Saadhana, is a 40 kg horn-loaded speaker. The modified Lowthers still act as full range drivers, throwing out middle to high notes up front, and channelling the lower frequencies through a seven-foot-long labyrinth hidden inside the silk-draped cabinet. The very lowest frequencies are created by an independently powered bass unit. “I was at a lab in Taiwan recently and got the speakers’ frequency sweep measured. The technician couldn’t speak much English, he turned to me and said, ‘15Hz?!’ He couldn’t believe it himself!”
How good are they to a relative audio novice? Well, on a recent muggy Kerala afternoon, in a room filled with a bunch of under-development Rethm speakers, valve amplifiers and turntables, this writer was treated to the Saadhanas reproducing track after track from Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of The Moon with such an air of almost effortless, arrogant ease that their Rs. 3.7 lakh ($12,500 outside India) sticker price almost seemed a steal.
Media: Over 2,000 CDs
Source: North Star 192 CD Transport and DAC
Pre-amplifier: 6-BL-7 valve (under development) Integrated Amplifiers: DA&T pure class A amplifier 6C-33-C SET valve amplifier (under development)
Speakers: Saadhana v 2.0 horn-loaded
Premnath Rajagopalan, a director with a Hindi movie channel in Mumbai, has been an audiophile for close to 30 years now, and changes individual components every two to three years. In 2006, he made the retro technology dive. He owns horn-loaded speakers and a custom-designed valve amplifier made by Rethm.
“I am into old Hindi music and I listen almost every night. The thing with the Rethms is that even at low volumes you can hear every nuance and note.”
A CD fan until a few weeks ago, Rajagopalan made the decision to move into LP territory. He acquired an Italian turntable and has already begun the process of collecting good quality LPs across dealers in India, adding 200 LPs in a short time. “Which is better: LP or CD? For me, that depends on the medium in which the music was originally recorded. If it was recorded on analogue then it makes sense to listen to it on an analogue format like an LP. The same holds true for digital. Though I think LPs gives you a certain warmth that digital just doesn’t.”
When the power fails, his music continues to play; he’s built an independent, failsafe power supply dedicated to just his audio equipment. “If there’s noise in the power, it amplifies in the sound produced. It may not be audible but it corrupts the listening experience.”
The most expensive component in his setup is the equipment stand. It has a titanium exoskeleton covered by an outer frame of 15-year-old air-dried mahogany and maple wood, and shelves made of a special nano-material. It doesn’t have a single screw and costs $11,000.
Ferzaan Engineer is India CEO of a $2 billion pharmaceutical services company. His home, in a secluded, tree-lined partof Bangalore, is filled with antique furniture and old Leica cameras. It also houses his impressive, immaculately maintained collection of over a thousand LPs.
He started listening to music “seriously” — a word audiophiles like to use to describe an informed, involved, evolved devouring of music versus casual listening — over two decades ago. His parents had a fairly extensive LP collection, and he inherited their love of the record player. Hence, ignoring “advances” like cassette- and CD-players, the turntable has been the core around which all his music systems were put together.
Then in 2007, Engineer decided to play his LPs only through valve (also known as “vacuum tube” or “tube”) amplifiers. “I found their sound more natural and life-like. A tube amplifier requires more of you: More space to warm up, lower availability, harder to maintain.”
His collection leans heavily towards jazz. In his antique cabinets are 40- to 50-year-old LPs. Over 95 percent of them are “first label” records (the very first release of a particular recording), because he believes that with each subsequent recording, the music degrades slightly in quality. “First labels, as a general thumb rule, are superior and like a gold standard. They’re made with most care, the audio capture is very fresh, the way physical transfers are made is high quality. In a way it’s like collecting antiquarian, first edition books.”
His desire to find purer sources of music to listen to is a constant obsession. “I keep qualitatively refining my collection, which means sometimes having to wait many years for a good one. A truly near-perfect LP represents the best of everything: The cover art, colour saturation, no yellowing, plastic that is perfectly flat. But searching for that means, in many cases, coming to own multiple copies of the same LP. I have a stack of very expensive rejects, because sometimes buying rare LPs is like opening a bottle of wine and getting vinegar instead.”
In the past, he says, good condition LPs could be bought for single digit dollar prices, but now even mediocre ones cost that much. Well-maintained old records start at a few hundred dollars while brand new ones cost around $50.
Engineer may love music, but he doesn’t listen to much of it outside of his home; he’s set his standards so high, no other system can possibly match them. Even at home, when he listens, it is with full attention. “It’s insulting to a system like this to play it in the background, it’s like going to a concert hall and not giving the performance your full attention.”