The Minds that Listen

For purists, the latest audio technology isnít necessarily the best. They often go to great lengths to experience the perfect sound

Published: Oct 6, 2010
The Minds that Listen
Image: Vikas Khot
Premnath Rajagopalan

Premnath Rajagopalan
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.

The Minds that Listen
Image: Gireesh G V for Forbes India
Jacob George

Jacob George
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.”

The Minds that Listen
Image: Mallikarjun Katakol for Forbes India
Ferzaan Engineer

Ferzaan Engineer
Media: Over 1,000 near-mint condition LPs; 95% are “first labels”
Source: SME Model 20/2 turntable
Pre-amplifier: AirTight ATE-2
Power Amplifier: AirTight ATM-211 monoblocks, one for each speaker
Speakers: Sonus Faber Guarneri Memento
Rack: Finite Elements

Clearly, choosing a technology that the rest of the world has moved away from doesn’t mean that it stays frozen in time. You can’t just buy the best there was and stick with it. As your ear gets more discriminating, life becomes a constant aspiration to distil ever-purer music. You find the perfect speaker, which makes you realise your amplifier isn’t really doing a good job of driving it, so you replace it with something better. Then you discover that your turntable itself isn’t really the best your money could buy, and you replace that too. And that helps you spot imperfections in your LPs, so you scour the planet for higher quality recordings. Then someone tells you that your connecting cables suck. You get those right and then figure that you should re-upholster your listening room for acoustic reasons.

Our director of photography tells the story of a man he visited once, whose audio equipment rested on a very special platform: Specially built, it rose direct from the foundations to his first-floor apartment without so much as touching any other part of the building. Can’t have the neighbours’ footsteps disturbing the audio experience, can one?

Yes, perhaps a little bit obsessive.

THE SCIENCE BEHIND THE MUSIC


Valve Amplifiers
Valve amplifiers use vacuum tubes to take low-power electrical signals from audio sources and amplify them into ones strong enough to be able to drive loudspeakers. You can spot them by their exposed vacuum tubes, which resemble miniature light bulbs.

mg_36392_new_valve_280x210.jpgAround since the early 1900s, they began gaining in popularity in the 1940s, peaking in the 1960s, then losing ground to a new technology that was smaller, more energy-efficient and cheaper to mass-produce: Solid-state transistors. As transistor technology evolved, manufacturers and researchers figured out ingenious ways to make them sound more musical. Once transistors became as widespread within amplifiers as quartz crystals within watches, a back-to-the-fundamentals movement started among long-time (often rich) audio enthusiasts, much like the watch aficionado’s passion for hand-made Swiss watches.

Horn-loaded Speakers
Drivers are the vibrating cones you see when you remove the front panel or grill of your speakers; their job is to convert varying electrical signals into varying acoustic vibrations, i.e., sound. Most loudspeakers you will see are powered by many of these, each one dedicated towards reproducing specific frequency ranges: Broadly you have woofers for very low frequencies and tweeters for high frequencies.

Lowther was originally an amplifier and tuner manufacturer in the 1930s, and later started making speakers. Its speciality was building drivers whose sound output was meant to be amplified further by horns. Horns, at their most basic, are probably the earliest forms of audio amplification known to man. Think of the shape you make with your hands around your mouth when you want to be heard from a distance.

In a horn-loaded speaker, the sound generated by a driver is fed into an acoustic horn. In the 1930s and 40s, horn speakers were a necessity, because the valve amplifiers of the day generated only enough power to drive a single, often small, speaker driver. The horn essentially allows even small drivers to produce better sound.

As valve amplifiers gave way to transistor-based ones, this equation changed. Mass-produced transistor amps could generate significantly more watts per dollar than valve amplifiers. Direct radiator drivers — the ones you most likely see on your speaker today — arrived, allowing manufacturers to do away with bulky horns, and produce smaller, cheaper speakers by combining multiple drivers into a single enclosure.

Analogue and Digital

Sound, as we hear it, is variations in air pressure. We can record it through microphones that detect and convert these pressure variations into correspondingly varying electrical signals. These signals are then captured on storage media, either as groove patterns on LPs or 0-and-1 sequences on CDs.

As late as the end of the last century, most music was recorded and stored entirely in analogue form. When music companies decide to convert them to digital formats, say CDs, the analogue data is digitised into 0s and 1s, by passing them through  analogue-to-digital converters. When you play it back, your speakers are meant to create sound from analogue electrical signals, so the digital data must be reconverted into analogue signals, using a digital-to-analogue converter. So the music is analogue at the point of creation and final consumption; purists believe that this conversion-reconversion loses original recording information, and also add distortions. By sticking to analogue — recordings, storage media, amplifier and speaker — they believe you end up reproducing the original sound more accurately. 


(This story appears in the 22 October, 2010 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Suyog

    Though original music was recorded in Analogue during pre CD era it is wrong to assume that it was Vinyl was the \"source\"of that analogue music. it was tapes, the Vinyls were created from the original tapes, it beats me to see this argument by so called \"audiophiles\"that Vinlys are reproduce true to source music - which is not a fact. Vinly is the worst medium when it comes to Hi fidelity, infact it colours the original music and induces distortions in the form of clicks and pops. That is why Vinyl is dead! despite all the claims of rising sales, as a medium it was dead long ago. Now, we should appreciate people who hang on to antiquity but should not start thinking that Vinyl is the gold standard for listening to Music! it is not. Digital is! you can get the same if not better music reproduction less than $1000 these days.

    on Jul 16, 2014
  • Nitin Kanade

    Excellent Article, may your audiophile tribe increase Hope we are able to listen one such setup.

    on Oct 19, 2010
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