In the office block where I used to work, I’d regularly stroll past the premises of The Listening Room, without ever seeing the business apparently open. “We’re always open!” laughs owner Rod McKelvey, “but we just like to keep the door closed. We don’t like people coming in asking ‘What’s this, or that?’ — that’s the truth.”
There’s a lot to ask about. Music streamers, amplifiers, pre-amps, power-amps, turntables, CD players, loudspeakers, headphones, cables, accessories: an audiophile’s world of music appreciation and high-fidelity sound technology is both hugely diversified and highly specialised. And, as I’ll learn, it’s captivating.
The Listening Room carries about 30 brands. All are exclusive products, but some, like Kronos turntables, are ultra-premium, and others, such as Mørch turntable tonearms or Grado cartridges, are niche-within-a-niche components. McKelvey doesn’t really wish to talk about prices. “We’re about people who have a passion for music and who are willing to spend on it.” Sharing his passion means ushering me into the listening room within The Listening Room.
Bobby McFerrin’s a capella Don’t Worry Be Happy would not have been my first choice to appreciate nuances on a complex system. But I’m enlightened — actually, I’m astounded. I hear new dimensions to the music: a foot-tapping percussive effect, and another high-pitched rhythmic beat that might be finger-clicking. And, remarkably, McFerrin’s tiny breaths or fractionally out-of-time pauses are discernible in the whistling lines of the chorus. The auditory sensations make me smile — and yes, I realise I am happy. This is music as it’s intended to be heard — by the songwriter, the musicians, the sound engineers. By God, maybe.
CLOSETING AND COVETING
Many music lovers have come to appreciate it even more in the past year. “For me, music has always been a refuge, a garden that has flowers for every mood — more so in the weird times of Covid-19, with further solitude than before,” says my good friend, audiophile and financial director, Jerry van Alphen.
So, although the global pandemic has cut the physical demonstration opportunities of premium sound system dealers, more home time has also led people to re-evaluate their entertainment options, and either upgrade or extend through new installations. Jeandré Botha, owner of Pretoria-based The Audio Visual Boutique, confirms a surge of inquiries. And although Joachim Spelling has given fewer demos, 2020 was his best year for business at Thirteen Audio and Art in Cape Town.
WAVES OF EMOTION
What do you hear when listening to music on a R7m-R8m system? On Stimela (The Coal Train), when Hugh Masekela’s trumpet pierces your brain, and the percussion thunders into your body.
“And when they hear that Choo-Choo train / A-chugging, and a-pumping, and a-smoking, and a-pushing / A-pumping, a-crying and a-steaming and a-chugging and / A whooo whooo! / They always cuss, and they curse the coal train / The coal train that brought them to Johannesburg / Whooo whooo!” transforms into a visceral sensation of the migrant labourers losing their souls on the ill-fated train. The system helps create a human connection to the artist, deepening understanding of what Masekela surely intended when he composed the song.
Spelling seems to read my mind: “This you buy for yourself, it’s not a status symbol. It’s for the ultimate experience in feeling music.”
CAN’T GET NO SATISFACTION
But audiophiles, I also discover, feel music on a different plane. They love experimentation, and the metamorphosis of sound played on different systems. Chat forums and social media are littered with technical jargon, a foreign language to unattuned readers. Writes a follower on the Facebook page of Stellenbosch-based CelestialSounds: “I have a lp12 with ittok2 arm + circus bearing + audio technica-oc9 cart + Hercules Muse psu. What would you say is the go-to replacement, maybe slight upgrade cart for the oc9?”
For a deeper fix, audiophile websites carry a multitude of reviews, blogs, insights and opinions. Clearly, satisfying auditory senses also means reading everything related to the experience.
HAVE RECORDS, NEED TURNTABLE
Vinyl’s comeback means the necessity of a turntable. Some look sleek and beautiful; others, with many praying mantis-like tonearms, appear bizarre. But the experts are adamant: leading manufacturers focus craftsmanship on performance.
A small Canadian firm, Kronos, makes just two models, the Sparta and the Pro. The company intended to produce a limited number of just 250 Pros in 2014, but its popularity spurred Kronos to augment production — and at a cool $42,500 it seems there is availability directly from the manufacturer. Though it may be worth pausing: Kronos has announced plans to launch a new flagship model, the Discovery, later in 2021.
True to its name, Thirteen Audio and Art has gorgeous art on the walls. But I’m struck more by the obviously well listened to, appreciated, and diverse collection of music. CDs are strewn across tables; records lean on the floor against the base supports of turntables; album covers are open in a sign of immersion into the recording detail, lyrics or artwork.
Like The Listening Room, Spelling advises and deals at the top end. Some of the components’ prices are an eye-watering match to their design beauty. These are audio systems that transform a living room into a luxurious oasis. But the visual experience is a secondary delight. What a music lover craves, after all, is music.
And so, in a progressive sensory feast, I’m treated to a series of listening sessions in separate sections of the studio where different systems are set up. They’re all beyond impressive, but there’s an elephant in the room, impossible not to keep glancing on in wonder, which Spelling is leaving for last. The pièce de résistance is gigantic, and finally we settle in front of it.
The turntable, a Clearaudio Statement v2, is on the UK-based online publication What Hi-Fi?’s list of the world’s 10 most expensive turntables. Spelling has it linked to an Avantgarde Trio three-way horn speaker system with its matching triple-stack, active “Bass-horn” subwoofers, and two Gryphon monoblock amplifiers — one for the right channel and one for the left. (This makes you feel the bass in your bones.) Oh, and the Gryphon power cables themselves are important — and expensive: all the necessary cabling for this kind of money-is-no-object system, buying only the best, can cost upwards of $50,000.
Overall, it’s a surreal sculpture; inelegant, perhaps, but clearly a powerhouse audio god.
GET THE SOUND YOU NEED
The Listening Room's technical guru Craig Scholz swears Swiss specialists Nagra make the “bees-knees” of amplifiers. The Nagra Classic Amp is unflappable, solid power. But it looks, well, conventionally Swiss. For something that also makes a décor statement, consider the Union Research Absolute 845, whose gorgeous, ghostly vacuum tubes will light up any lounge space. At about R340,000, it’s guaranteed to create both visual and aural awe.
Sound For Life
In the showroom, it delivers: the experience is immersive. Is it right for devotees who want to listen to music for its purity as well as in appreciation of a system’s component wizardry? Plainly, no. But, while top-end audio enthusiasts may scoff at systems that incorporate wider entertainment uses, the Lifestyle 650 may be perfect for families wanting to simplify set-up and merge listening pleasure with everyday television or movie viewing options.
Satisfying Sound In All Sorts Of Shapes
Loudspeakers blur across the form vs function spectrum. This doesn’t mean the outlandish, artistic Avantgarde models aren’t superb speakers; nor that Harbeth’s quietly composed, pared down designs won’t blow you away. (Guaranteed, with a 40-year heritage linked to the BBC’s engineering research division, they will.) But for beauty with substance it may be hard to match the sultry Scandi style of Canadian brand Tomei. Sculpted blocks of acrylic mounted on walnut wood stands, shades of onyx or smoky grey, these futuristic objects of desire deliver formidable sound.
Digital music streamers (DMS) are a newer extension of audio equipment, capitalising on internet-of-things, cloud and streaming technologies. Platforms such as Apple Music, Tidal and Spotify are often incorporated into the firmware, providing access to a vast music library. And with a built-in amplifier and multiple connectivity options, it’s no wonder premium DMS units, such as the blue-ribbon Cary Audio DMS-700, are called all-in-one systems (AiOS), and are welcomed even by committed traditionalists among audiophiles.
Serious music lovers on a local budget could assess the Cyrus One Cast. Simple, compact, and voice-assistant enabled, when paired with quality bookshelf speakers it will provide a premium music solution with change from R50,000.
SHEER LISTENING PLEASURE
Whether this brings the music closer to the listener is debatable. It’s true, though, that large incremental spends won’t necessarily give commensurate increases in sound quality — or listening pleasure. How much is enough, then, and at what point is the extra money all about show, not substance? None of the experts I spoke to would answer definitively. But I can offer a perspective after listening to a lot of music, across many genres, on many of these fabulous components and inspiring systems: R5m does create a different experience to R50,000.
The decision may come down to the depth of meaning music adds to your life. Do you sometimes cry when you listen, or find that music sparks untold memories? Well, then you’re an audiophile, and you deserve the best system you can afford.
My advice? Set a budget, find an expert dealer and build a relationship of trust so you have a broad grasp of the options. If you allow the adviser to understand which music genres you love and the formats you listen to, and to assist in shaping your listening environment, a budget isn’t necessarily a hurdle to experiencing new levels of listening pleasure.
And don’t be intimidated. Audiophiles are often wordsmiths in articulating the temptation of what’s possible. But the twinkling of their eyes betrays a sense of humour at some of the mind-boggling costs of components. Ultimately, a system only needs a source — some combination of turntable, CD player or streamer — an amplifier, and two speakers. McKelvey, sums it up: “Music first.”
• Adapted from the April edition of Wanted, 2021.