Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you. -- Lao Tzu
There was a period of about ten years when I just couldn’t sit still -- in audio terms. About every two years, I’d upgrade -- or, in many cases, just change for change’s sake -- my entire stereo system. This wasn’t about steadily improving my system’s sound quality. The components I was switching out were already part of any discussion of the state of the audio art. I wanted new. I wanted exciting. I wanted the buzz-creating latest thing.
A rush of lavender to the head
Recently, I was lying on my back in savasana (corpse pose), at the end of the 75-minute sweat fest also known as my Sunday hot-yoga class. As the teacher first placed a cool stone on my forehead, and then, on my face, an ice-cold, lavender-scented towel, I found myself drifting into a state of blissful relaxation. This was healing balm after a hectic work week, and as the relaxing sounds of sitar and tabla wafted into the room, I melted into dreamland.
Musical Performance: ***1/2
Sound Quality: ****1/2
Overall Enjoyment: ****
Mark Knopfler has written music for films since 1983, when he composed the score for Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero. He’s done the music for eight more films since then, including Cal (1984), The Princess Bride (1987), and Wag the Dog (1997). His latest, Altamira, is a collaboration with percussionist Evelyn Glennie, and is his first soundtrack since A Shot at Glory (2009).
Tweaks are for kids, to adapt a phrase from a 1960s ad campaign for Trix breakfast cereal. In the world of audio, the phrase is true and not true. Newbies fall in love with tweaks, for which are claimed miraculous improvements at little cost. The allure of customizing a relatively humble system has an attraction similar to that of using a tighter suspension and nitrous oxide injection to soup up a stock compact car into a tuner.
If you’ve followed my writing over the 20 years that I’ve been covering high-end audio, you no doubt know about my column “The World’s Best Audio System” (“TWBAS” for short). The last one was published in January 2014, but honestly, by then “TWBAS” had, to a large degree, petered out. I officially shut down the series in September 2014, with “Closing the Curtain on TWBAS.”
In high-end audio, overnight successes are extraordinarily rare. Almost every successful audio company I can think of took years, even decades, to establish itself as a globally recognized household name. Moreover, the great majority of these firms can trace their lineage back to one or two passionate engineers working in a garage, armed with little more than ingenuity and ambition. But every once in a great while, a company still in its infancy will introduce one or more pioneering products so different in design and so advanced in performance that those responsible for their inception quickly find themselves leading the market.
Musical Performance: ****
Sound Quality: ****
Overall Enjoyment: ****
The Jayhawks have endured some personnel changes in their three decades, but they hang in there. Guitarist and singer Gary Louris and bassist Marc Perlman are the constants, and drummer Tim O’Reagan, with 20 years in the band, isn’t far behind. Keyboard player Karen Grotberg has now done a couple of stints with the band, as has guitarist Kraig Johnson, and it’s this quintet that has given us the Jayhawks’ new album, Paging Mr. Proust.
After I graduated from college I spent a year in Japan, getting acquainted with the culture of my ancestry, coaching linebackers at Kyoto University (“Get low and explode into your opponent!” I’d shout), and generally having a great time being free, mighty, and 21. Once, on a warm autumn afternoon, I visited Ryoan-ji temple, on the northwestern outskirts of Kyoto, and took my time taking in the simple splendor of its famed rock garden. There were worn crags in puddles of green moss that seemed to float on a granular sea of smooth gray pebbles, those pebbles carefully raked into striations of linear constancy interrupted only by islands of rocks and mosses, around which they swirled in calming, concentric radiations. How like a lagoon dotted with islands! I remember thinking. How like frogs dallying in the pools and eddies of a stream! My mind kept proposing likenesses in this way until, eventually, it ran out of comparisons, and I thought of nothing but the sweet quiet of the composed scene before me, a trompe l’oeil of nothing but itself.
It should go without saying that the best way to choose a high-end stereo component is to listen to it. In a store is fine, in your home is better. To know if it’s really right for you, you need to hear it in the context closest to how you will actually use it. You also need to see its features, feel its controls, and closely examine its build quality. Listening to music through a high-end system is, by definition, experiential. You can do tons of research online before making a buying decision, but if you haven’t actually seen, touched, and heard an audio component in a context that’s relevant to you, you lack the most important and necessary information.
I’ve gotten the general impression that French hi-fi gear sounds sweet, with a tuneful, relaxed, enjoyable character that doesn’t impose itself on the music. So when offered an opportunity to audition YBA’s Passion PRE550A DAC-preamplifier, I eagerly accepted. YBA is a French company founded in 1981 by Yves-Bernard André, whose initials it bears.
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