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.

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!