Secret Societies of the Audiophile Page 2

ETF’s purpose is fellowship and the sharing of knowledge. At the meetings, diverse groups create special listening rooms featuring mixtures of vintage and home-brew gear. Loudspeakers by Western Electric, Siemens Klangfilm and Altec are de rigueur. But many members are accomplished speaker designers and bring their latest creations for everybody to hear. Every year, a unique large system is created in the main hall. Tonearm designers Frank Schroeder and Thomas Schick usually take responsibility for the record players. JC Morrison designs, instigates, or supervises all loudspeaker assemblages. Main room speakers are usually cinema-scale, as they must play effectively to at least 100 listeners.

ETF 2016 was held on a sheep farm on the North Sea coast of Denmark. (Imagine a dim November sun slipping silently, almost unnoticeably, into a black sky with a dense neon-lit Milky Way.) We slept three to a cottage. After lunch on the first day, everyone gathered in a medium-sized room with a piano surrounded by a sea of microphones. A trio, consisting of a piano, a violin, and a French horn, performed three compositions while 16 members recorded the music with their own microphones and recorders. The next afternoon, there was a five-hour march-madness-style shootout to determine – by all 100 member’s votes – which contestant got closest to the sound of yesterday’s live performance. (An antique Stellavox R2R with a stereo ribbon microphone won.)

ETF 2018 was held in a remote French village about 100km from Normandy. This medieval town featured a chateau, a thousand year old wall, a moat, a 17th century hotel, and a powerful-looking Romanesque church. This year, the traditional second-day shootout involved blind listening comparisons and voting on which of 16 member-built amplifiers played a trio of open-baffle-mounted Siemens full-range drivers better than the others. I traveled to this remote event with my friends Jeffrey Jackson from Experience Music who scratch-builds directly-heated triode amplifiers and exquisitely-crafted wood horn speakers and Dave Slagle from Intact Audio who scratch-builds audio-frequency transformers, tube L-R phono stages, and moving-coil cartridges. Together, they form a company called EMIA.

Together, the three of us carried (in our luggage) enough heavy iron, tubes, tools, and long-playing records, to assemble a complete mono horn system featuring a Western Electric #24 midrange horn with a genuine WE555 driver. Thomas Schick supplied a miniature Sony turntable with a 12” version of his famous tonearm. For me, the secret of this kind of travel is to never change time zones – or sleep-wake schedules. This works fine at ETF, because all the real action happens after midnight.

After flying from New York and driving from Paris with no sleep at all, Jackson and Slagle stayed up a second night putting together what I thought was the finest-sounding system at ETF. Using wood scraps and duct tape (plus what we carried on the plane) the two cobbled together a three-way corner-loaded speaker; using a scratch-built electrodynamic high-frequency driver (5kHz and up) by Jeffrey Jackson. Midrange frequencies (300-5kHz) were provided by a rare old Western Electric #24 horn with a vintage WE 555 field-coil driver running on a Jackson-built power supply. Bass (80-300Hz) came from a simple straight horn (designed by Jackson) driven by a 15” Altec woofer. Bass below 80Hz was augmented by the stone corner-walls of the 13th-century salt cellar it was set up in. The mid-range speaker’s wave-launch was enhanced by a grey-enamelled window shutter we found in the street. Best looking speaker ever! The two-stage Jackson-EMIA power amplifier featured an Eimac 15e triode driving a “globe 50” triode.

Dave Slagle’s scratch-built mono-cartridge was unusual in that it sported a field-coil magnet with a separate tube power supply. Its output drove an Intact Audio step-up transformer and direct-coupled L-R phono stage.

Folks, do not underestimate the research, work, or pounds of pure nickel that went into this unique system. To duplicate it would cost tens-of-thousands of dollars and take months to fabricate. But the sound was once-in-a-lifetime real, vivid and uncompressed. Best midrange I’ve ever experienced. It was so ‘right there in front of me’ real that late one night, after the last visitor had left the room, it was just me and my scrawny American brothers, not talking, playing one old mono blues record after another, sitting, standing in front of the #24 horn, squatting on the stone floor, leaning against the salt-encrusted walls; observing sound; thinking; dreaming of guitars, women and down South in America. I know it was late but I refused to look at my phone. I was drunk on the delta-blues and wanted to keep the high alive. Then someone, a woman, knocked on the salt-cellar door. We told her she was too late, we were closing up for the night.

To get to our little sleeping cottage, we had to pass through a long pitch-dark tunnel under a medieval mote. I got scared of the dark, so intuitively Jeffrey held my hand. Dave was out front feeling his way silently. The only sound was our six separate shoes clopping on the tunnel floor. When we exited the tunnel there was a high stone wall on our right. We touched it with our numbing cold right hands. When I looked forward onto the moonlit path I saw Dave with his back to the wall – both hands set flat against it. He looked like he was watching God speaking from the sky. Then Jeffrey turned and struck a similar pose. When I looked left, I froze. Then I too, pressed my back and hands against wall.

Some time passed before I realized what we were looking at.

It was a rural French landscape, with sleeping sheep and a tall shadowed cypress tree on the left that was maybe a quarter-kilometre away. Beyond the pointed tree were hills, smaller trees and cottages, glowing under the light of a slender but brightly-beaming crescent moon. What was wild, what made this scene so incredible, was the stars seemed thicker than any stars I had ever seen. This brilliant thickness exhibited an unmistakable throbbing quality. Wilder still, each star had a thin-red-line circle around it. Between this fine red line and each star’s thick white core, was a frothy yellow energy mass that gave the impression it created the skinny red halo. Amazingly, the yellow foam and red line appeared to be rotating – slowly – around the pulsing white core.

Then I noticed how all of the blue space between the stars was actually swirling and colliding like Hokusai’s Great Waves of Kanagawa. We stood there freezing in silence for a long while. I had to pee, but I did not want to disturb this once-in-a-lifetime vision. Then it hit me! We were witnessing exactly the same churning luminescence the artist Vincent Van Gogh observed from the window of his cell at the asylum in Arles. Suddenly I realized… Vincent didn’t paint his “Starry Night” because he was mad or hallucinating, he painted what he actually saw. He painted the same swirling gaseous forces we were right there witnessing.

I am telling you about these happenings because, for me, they were all formative. Every club, even the first one, with the Barbie-maiming president, taught me things I would have never learned outside its hidden dirt chamber. Each cult taught me to share my devotions with others, while forcing me to bond with souls I would have never known otherwise.

Most importantly, all of these societies are builder-cults. Their only requirement for membership was: that I know something about something so I could make something. Each of these outlier fellowships taught me to fashion and venerate precisely-formed fetish objects and pray to our ancestors. They taught me science, philosophy and timeless engineering principles, all while reducing my fears of failure and rejection.

If you are not already a cult member – maybe now is a good time?


DeFgibbon's picture

Thank you Herb.

you are right not me's picture

Searching for good words to express my sincere appreciation for your writing. This will have to do.

Wilderness's picture

Herb, you're the GOAT of writing about audio. Every time I read anything by you from now on, it will be with the understanding that you really have the chops to know what you are writing about on a level few if anyone else will ever reach. Who else could have such an impressive background?

I decided last night that I will listen to some better speakers and amplifiers this spring or summer. I have been putting together a library of music the past several years and while my audio system sounds okay, I know I could get better sound. Your magnificent story seals it: I will listen to a tube amp for the first time in my life. I look forward to hearing the magic, and when I do I will remember this story. Thank you.

Ortofan's picture

... "vices" in the basement of Fi - or did you mean vises?

rt66indierock's picture

The only audio society we need is what John Atkinson calls the "We oppose MQA fraternity" otherwise known as The Fraternity.