Mid-Priced Speakers

With a specific mission to upgrade my existing system, my buddies and I went on a quest to find the best speakers money (or more specifically, around RM 8,000) can buy.

Body: We tested a few speakers that day but there were really only 2 contenders (with another one worth mentioning but the KEF reference series was way, way, way beyond my paltry budget, about 4 times beyond):-

B&W Nautilus 805: First, a note about the B&W showroom in MidValley. This shop is ONE of the BEST, if not THE BEST hi-fi shop in terms of size, variety (if you’re looking for B&Ws and Arcams), interior decoration and, oh yes, tastefully furnished and sonically superb listening rooms. Now for the speaker:- the Nautilus 805 speaker is sweet! The test track that we played was one of those non-descript-generic-fusion tracks and the result was good with excellent highs and clear mid-range. As this is a bookshelf, the bass was little muted but the lows was deep enough for most purposes. It is a fast speaker with excellent transients. One small thing…it is a little too sweet for my taste as I found the sound to be overly bright. Normally, I can stand bright speakers but the Nautilus 805 lacks something…something that I couldn’t put a finger on until we tried the Harbeth…

Harbeth HL Compact 7ES-2: Ok, before I go on, a word about the hi-fi shop that carries Harbeth in KL, namely Tropical Audio. This small shop is hidden in between motorcycle repair shops in Setapak. Upon entering, I was shocked to see the listening “area”- which wasn’t a room. As one enters the shop, one sees a run down rattan sofa, very much like those that was in vogue during the early eighties, pushed all the way up against the left wall. On the right, was a line of speakers and in the middle of the line was a pair of old and dusty Quad CD Player and 606 amplifier. I also noticed a JBL subwoofer in the line up of speakers as I hesitantly took my seat in the old rattan sofa. Before me stood 3 pairs of the most ugliest speakers that I had ever seen. They are rectangle boxes. That’s the design! To make things worse, I nearly left when the lady of the shop inserted a Jacky Cheung CD into the CD player. Expecting the worst, I closed my eye and waited for the result…And the result was fantastic! The 7ES-2 sang with bass that was tight and surprisingly low (coming from a half floor stander- of course, this can only be concluded after we coaxed the lady to disable the JBL, which was giving an artificial rumble to the set up). The highs were clean. But what blew me was the stereo imaging, I could literally “see” Jacky in the middle of the room! Wanting more, the lady switched to Aaron Neville- which I protested and got a Telarc Happy Trails instead. Again, I felt the orchestra in the room. I could literally pinch the red haired oboist sitting to the right of me.

Comparing both, I realized what the Nautilus 805 lacked are the superb stereo imaging, clarity and pure passion of the 7ES-2. After listening to the both, I had not choice but to abandon my personal favourite (though the B&W still looks absolutely sexy) and settle for a pair of boring looking, but sonically superior Harbeth.

In search of the perfect sound

Inspired by a visit to a friend’s place in Singapore where I tried out some vinyl on his hi-fi system, I decided to plunge right back into the world of perfect audio reproduction…

To be honest, I am a relapsed audiophile.

I tinkered with audio reproduction systems as a kid but never had any resources then to get anything really good to start with. My house initially had an 8-track system and later an unbranded all-in-one-cassette-tuner-amplifier unit and some home-made speakers. I grew up listening to the Beatles, ABBA, Bee Gees, Anne Murray, Art Garfunkel, Fleetwood Mac, Earth, Wind and Fire, Leo Sawyer, Boney M, Beethoven, Mozart and Simon Hui on that basic setup. From my musical “roots”, it’s no small wonder that I grew up emotionally balanced and normal (or am I?).

The audiophile bug bit me when I came across a very old Hi-Fi Annual by the now defunct Asia Magazine in one of the Berita Bookstore jumbo warehouse sale of yesteryears. The annual contained interesting articles about high fidelity as well as reviews of outstanding systems for that particular year. One of the article in the magazine claimed that every true audiophile’s dream is to have a system that can recreate, as true as possible, the sound of live music. Seeing that I had never heard a live musical event- save the kindergarten and school performances, which I think don’t really count- I took the opportunity to attend a live classical music performance by a traveling youth orchestra. And even in that sonically challenged environment that is the Dewan Tun Hussein Onn of the Putra World Trade Center, I was completely and utterly blown away by the sound. It was reminiscent of a scene in Amadeus where Salieri first heard Mozart performing his clarinet concerto. I was seduced by the live sound that had allowed the performed pieces to transcend beyond mere musical notes to become intangible ethers of absolute beauty, moving hearts and taming souls. At the same time, I was also envious that my system back home could not- no matter how hard I tinkered- sound like live strings and horns.

Without any financial means to upgrade my system, I survived on compact audio cassettes (though I would need to insert a toothpick on the pinch roller of the tape deck to slow it down because it tends to play faster than normal speed) and FM radio. Later, thanks to Bob- a friend and fellow audiophile- I added a mini-compo (that word still gives me shivers) that had a CD-player. The first CD that I ever owned was Enigma’s debut album. It was played over and over and over again just so I could hear how hiss free and clean the sound was. Adding a CD player to the basic home hifi system brought me one step- out of perhaps a thousand- closer to live music but it was a step that has brought about wonderful vistas in the journey to perfect sound reproduction.

But I digress- to cut a long story to be really short, after having a CD player, the passion became cyclical. At it’s high point I have a Marantz CDS5000 CD player, NAD C320 integrated amplifier and Tannoy Mercury MX1 speakers. At it’s low point, I thought that iPods sounded fantastically natural and I switched my Tannoy with my Audio Pro Focus SA-5 floor standing AV speakers because they have a low bass just like- dread of all dreads- an Ah Beng’s car.

Next: SACDs, DVD-Audios and finally, Vinyl.


Apple’s latest update, the Mac OS X 10.3 (code-named Panther) is a great operating system and sets the bar for how computer operating systems should evolve.

Body: It was a pleasant surprise a couple of weeks ago when I received an e-mail from our friendly MacAsia Apple Centre in GE Mall announcing that they are going to have a launch event on the 24th October 2003 at 8pm. A quick check to the calendar revealed that Deepavali falls on that day. Wanting to be sure that I do not show up for an event because of a typographical error, I e-mailed them a few questions and got a prompt reply stating the following:-

1. Yes. It is a public holiday and they’re having a launch event with food and drinks
2. No. I may not buy the OS before that date no matter how much money I had spent with them

I am a big fan of Jaguar, the previous OS and had no complains about it and was anxious to try out the software. After 2 weeks of running the new OS, I am pleased to report that it is everything that I had expected and more.

Apart from the subtle but effective GUI changes (something that I look forward to in every release of new OS), my Powerbook and Powermac appeared to work faster and breezier. Now, I’ve come traditionally from a Wintel platform and this is the most perplexing “feature” of Apple Mac OS X updates- they actually make your current machine faster! To confirm this, I’ve installed Panther on my friend’s clam shell iBook (which was crawling on Mac OS X 10.1) and everything (reponsiveness, screen refresh, windows dragging, etc) was so much more faster.

I challenge Microsoft to pull this off without requiring people to buy new Intel machines every time a new Windows is released…

So long and thanks for all the fish

When I first had greater awareness of the world around me when I was about 5 years old, the Prime Minister of Malaysia had always been Datuk Hussein Onn. One of his most endearing feature was his recognizable parrot-nosed side profile, made famous by Lat in one of his “Scenes From the Malaysian Life??? collection that included an instructional chapter on how to draw all 3 Malaysian Prime Minister (up until then).

When Mahathir became the Prime Minister and Hussein Onn retired (later made a Tun), my world-view was severely shaken. To me, Hussein Onn was a quiet and unassuming character. He looked like someone who will remain calm even under the most stressful situations. And to me, his laid back and peaceful aura represented Malaysia.

But my perception of Mahathir then was secondary hand-me-down opinions that I had heard from the grown ups. My liberal but Chinese household was suspicious of the fact that a Malay ultra was taking over the reigns of the Government. Some relatives were commenting that Chinese businesses, education and way of life are going to be severely affected in Malaysia.

Naturally I was concerned.

One day, a Chinese classmate told me that Mahathir is good for the nation. I disagreed and an animated discussion attracted a Malaysian crowd (read Malay, Chinese, Indian students) that participated in the debate. Primary school political discussions are probably the most politically incorrect forum because children often parrot whatever their parents said in the privacy of their homes. But they are often a true indicator of what most households think.

From that debate, it was evident that no one knew what to expect. And that was pretty much how people who had grew up since then felt when Mahathir ran the country- they didn’t know what to expect but they knew what whatever it is, it’s something big.

The first opinion of my own that I had of Mahathir was that he is fascinated with time. Why did I think that? First, he took an hour away from Malaysia- we had to move our clocks to be ahead of Thailand and Singapore so that East and West Malaysia can have the same time. Next, he introduced punch cards in government offices (that then trickled down to private organizations).

I remembered the effects of those changes. As I was growing up, RTM used to publish their TV schedules with up-to-the-second time. So, the Six Million Dollar Man would play at 8.07pm on a Wednesday night- which is 43 minutes after a cartoon. But the problem was RTM couldn’t keep up with the schedule themselves so scheduled shows always came on early or late. After the change in attitudes towards time, RTM published their schedules on a half-hourly basis (but the part about getting their act together is still going on and is taking much, much longer than anticipated).

Next, Mahathir asked the nation to looked East. This was a pretty bold thing to do as most people were looking West to either the United States or the USSR for aid. This was the first time that Malaysians had to look towards an Asian country to emulate- which was difficult considering all the colonial worshipping we did back then to the Mat Sallehs. To compound matters, Mahathir spearheaded a “Buy British Last??? campaign.

Then came the period of privatization and all of the associated Filem Negara shorts on “Malaysia, Inc.??? that came along with it. I remember watching these (I do a lot of TV back then) on a lazy Friday afternoon and not understanding the message of the short film, wondered just what in the world are they talking about then. I was thinking then are they going to make Malaysia into a company and all of us could a salary from the Government?

As a result, either out of frustration or out of ignorance, people complained. Being Malaysians our capacity to talk, debate and complain far outweighs our sense of initiative to do actually something about it. So naturally, Mahathir’s policies persisted and sometimes caused me sleepless nights because they tend to appear as Bahasa Malaysia essay questions.

Under Mahathir, more and more big things suddenly crept up.

Malaysia started producing local cars. The first car, however, was the aesthetically challenged Proton Saga of which I still remember to this very day the awful TV commercial jingle:- “Pro-Ton SAAAA-GAAAA, ke-ja-ya-an Ma-lay-SIAAAA!??? One is grateful that Proton got lesser and lesser laughs from the public with each subsequent release of new models. The first 3 cars that I had owned were proudly Malaysian made cars.

Transport and communications infrastructure improved tremendously. In fact, I don’t ever recall a day that goes by without me ever noticing a construction of a new overpass, bypass or underpass. The country has been tarmacked and wired up like never before. This not only has truly brought the nation together but to bring the world to Malaysia and vice-versa. I still get chills, and not from the air conditioning of KLIA, every time I depart or arrive at this spectacular airport.

On the social front, Mahathir “softened??? the NEP- which is one of the biggest policy contention that non-indigenous population have with the Government- without really stating it in public. In its place, free wheeling capitalism took root and it created a super class of tychoons. The Vision 2020 speech, an important milestone for the Malaysian society because it outlines the utopia that we should all work towards. This is an important vision because, truly, this outlines what a Malaysian society to be like.

This is not to say that I agree a 100% with our PM.

My biggest criticism of Mahathis is on the Anwar issue- which I believe is one of the biggest black spot of his career. He probably miscalculated the ground swelling support for the Deputy Prime Minister. Who can forget the imagery of thousands of casual Malaysians taking to the streets and highways to protest against the heavy-handed approach that the Government took to silence Anwar? The real reason behind the sacking will probably never be known during Mahathir’s lifetime but I don’t buy the corrupt homosexual angle.

Secondly, Mahathir was in a position to accelerate the liberalization of society, economy and politics but he didn’t go far enough. Mahathir could implement transparency policies in all levels of government bureaucracy like he did with punch clocks and nametags. This would trickle down to society and reduce the rampant graft that now occurs in all levels- from the paying off of law enforcers to the cover-ups of corporate scandals. Small things create big differences and Mahathir was in the right place and the right time to plant this small seed but he didn’t.

While these legacies (good or bad) will always remind Malaysians of Mahathir, he had also done for us something good that time will never erase. He had instilled a new sense of confidence and pride in ourselves so that our children, their children will always believe that if we work hard enough, we can truly make anything happen.

And with that, I would like to thank our Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Dr. Mohammad Mahathir, for his great contribution to the nation. The Malaysia and Malaysians of today wouldn’t be where we are without you.

Ah…the smell of the ocean, lush rainforest, relaxing spas, good food- what more can one expect?

Ah…the smell of the ocean, lush rainforest, relaxing spas, good food- what more can one expect?

The company will be off to our annual trip tomorrow and this time, we are heading to the beach. Come to think of it, ALL of our company trips were beach trips- the benefit of being a Malaysian is that trips are either way up in the highlands or way down in the beach.

This time around, however, we are headed to the luxurious Pangkor Laut Resort. Ah, the place where Pavarotti shed tears because he said that it resembled paradise or heaven (how he knew what paradise or heaven looked like wasn’t entirely clear but I think that overweight opera singers probably have a direct line with the Almighty seeing how they always look up to the sky dramatically when they sing). But seriously, it is THAT nice.

It isn’t my first time as I had been there a couple of years back. The accommodations were first class and the facilities were excellent. What’s different now is that they had completed the Spa Village and after reading what they wrote, I can’t wait to be there!

End of MSN Chat

Microsoft is shutting down MSN chat rooms around the world because they claim that they are unsafe for children. However, will this make the Internet a safer place?

The short answer is: NO. Taking away just one channel out of a possible unlimited channels where minors can chat does not a safer Internet make. In fact, it might even be more dangerous. The danger is if parents are lulled into a false sense of security by the move. Minors still can have access to Instant Messaging (whether MSN, Yahoo!, AOL or ICQ) or other on-line bulletin boards.

And with Microsoft being a market leader, their social responsibilities are higher. What is astounding is that Microsoft chose the easy way out (by shutting down) instead of doing something more proactive to mitigate the problem. MSN portals could and should be used by Microsoft to teach children about safe Internet surfing.

Of course, one can’t deny the financial aspect of the move as Microsoft can cut it’s MSN portal operation costs down. But in this case, they should have put people