Where to start....?!
I like music a lot. Always wanted to be around music, listening to it, having it act as a real-time soundtrack to my life. Nothing beats those goosebumps during a 'good bit', and I mean nothing.
My great-grandfather was a 'child prodigy' on the harp, of all instruments. My great-grandmother was a well-known singer of opera music. My grandmother wrote music and sang beautifully. Unfortunately their talent didn't filter down through the gene pool (either that or there is something my parents aren't telling me...). I got to Grade 1 (Merit) in violin at my first school, and was moved from trumpet to euphonium and all around the brass section at my secondary school, acting as little more than the musical equivalent of hamburger helper to help bulk out the sound.
Anyway, the closest I was ever going to get to a musical career was helping out, so I decided to do an OND in Sound Engineering + Music Production. This was fun but involved too much cable-bashing for my liking and I felt as close to music as a pit-stop technician feels to the driver of the racing car itself. But it did teach me about the basics of recording music which principally boiled down to getting the music from the musician's left brain to my ears, with as few steps and as little colouration in between as was humanly possible.
After a letter to Trevor Horn (King of Music Producers) for some advice I was lucky enough to get an interview at his Sarm West recording studio; but due to the fact that I lived in Gloucestershire, had no car, and Sarm West was in London where I had no handy friends with living-room floors to kip on, this was always going to be a non-starter.
So that was the end of that....
A well-paid job on the High Seas allowed me to spend a bit of money on some HiFi gear. Reading the various reviews in the hifi magazines (amongst which was this august publication) I picked up firstly a Rega Mira amplifier, then a Rega Planar turntable, and a pair of Dynaudio 52 loudspeakers. All five star kit, if I remember the reviews correctly. I had proper stands and everything. My music sounded bigger, but not incredible. Still, the kit did its job. Came back to the UK, went to Uni to get a degree, sold the kit to help pay for it. Finished Uni, got another job and promptly bought the same kit all over again (stick with what you know, right?) and this time I added a Marantz CD63SE player.
Then one day I ventured into a local HiFi store, got talking to an advisor, who seemed to know his onions and “Gasp!”, wasn't patronising. I grumbled that my system was fine but did not impress or really satisfy. He asked me if I'd just bought all the 'best-buys' in my budget range and simply plopped them together. I said I had. He said a lot of people do the same thing. Stupidly, I let him play me something on a Cyrus CD6S and that was it. Thin end of the wedge. The slippery slope. Abandon hope all ye who enter here. Not only was I sold on the sound, the whole upgrade-ability thing appealed to the OCD gene within me.
So I went ahead and bought one. I was hooked; it was like having a whole new music collection again. And a few weeks later I went back for the Cyrus PreVs2 and Cyrus 8 Power amps. The improvement was definite, noticeable and spectacular. I started getting decent interconnects (Atlas Equator, and the now-discontinued Myryad brand). Better. Jump to a pair of Monitor Audio GS10's and some Genesis Silver Spiral speaker cable, at first single wired, then bi-wiring. Cor! I then added a Cyrus X Power and bi-wired the lot. Fantastic! I topped everything off by adding the Cyrus PSX-R dedicated power supplies (I was initially very cynical about what increment of improvement would be added by these, but was soon convinced).
The sound kept getting better but was never quite there, if you get my meaning. I traded the CD6S up for a jolly good deal on the Cyrus CD8SE and finally succumbed to the dreaded eBay for a killer deal on a showroom pair of Tannoy DC8 stand-mount loudspeakers; I was sorry to see the GS10's go but oh boy, what a sound! A pair of Cyrus Mono X's to replace the 8 Power brought the whole lot to its current glory.
So I now find I've spent the best part of 10K by adding and adding and adding and I'm now a little stuck. I think I've hit a plateau and am experiencing the full force of the law of diminishing returns. My system sounds really good, but the music is still not quite there enough; I want it to sound clearer, more defined and more present. My friend and colleague says you know you've made it when you can no longer hear the system, only the music itself. However, I have a mortgage and need to eat; I've also changed jobs and taken a pay cut so I can't upgrade any further.
So the question I have for you (and thanks if you are still reading), is: Could I do better elsewhere, go along a parallel track, as it were? Do I sell the lot (ouch!) and sidestep to another set-up? I've heard great things said about Naim, Linn, Chord Electronics and many others. However, I always trust my ears and have heard a lot of kit that is supposed to sound good, but actually doesn't. I think we can all get sucked in by killer-looking kit with huge price-tags. It should sound great, so we believe it does (must be some aural equivalent of the placebo effect!) Even my trusted HiFi shop has got it wrong on the odd occasion – I popped in one day and they had proudly set up some top-of-the-range Chord gear; everyone was standing around looking very pleased, until I rather timidly suggested that it sounded like it was wired out of phase. Which it was. And no-one had noticed. Which begs the question, were they actually listening to the music, or simply looking at the expensive kit and extrapolating the sound quality accordingly so that it correlated to the high price-tag? (Now there's a $5 sentence!)
I was invited to an evening to hear the one-off prototype (or so they said then) of the Kef Blade. Lots of figures were bandied around as to what they had cost (adding up all the R&D and man hours). 250K, 350K, 500K! We all arrived, clutching a carefully selected handful of CDs with our test tracks on. I left twenty minutes later. The room was packed, I had no hope of getting a track on, let alone a decent seat at the top of the triangle. Besides, the speakers hurt my ears; too mid-rangey. I spoke to a friend who is an audio and electronics engineer; he thought they were rubbish too. Not throw in the bin rubbish, but just not worth more than, say, a couple of grand. Maybe he and I have ears of tin, but it has not escaped my notice, and probably not yours either that there is an awful lot of 'Emperor's New Clothes' around the HiFi industry.
Which brings me to the end of this essay. Do I sell my set-up (and incur a whopping loss in the process?) or just move the speakers three inches to the left, install laminate glass in all the windows and hear the improvement I've been looking for? Could I get the sound I'm after for £1500, or will it take £150,000? I'd invite you all round to listen, but the missus would probably object. Thank you.