An Edmonton audio-venture (names changed to protect the guilty)

So… I had an interesting day in Edmonton on the quest for high end audio gear.  For some reason Edmonton is a major Canadian hub for it.  Too bad it isn’t Calgary since that is a 1 hour drive and Edmonton is a 3.5 hour drive 🙁

Anyway, it’s really interesting to meet the people (all male of course) who are into this.  They all differ on their motivations and aspirations.  Every single piece of gear I’ve purchased here in Alberta (5 now) starts with meeting the wife in the nice cozy living room, then heading to the dungeon for “the goods”.  The wife always offers me coffee, beer (if it’s past 6 pm) then disappears.  It’s like this secret club or covert society.  Fascinating.  All good people, happy in their pursuit for what ever reason they are into it.  So here’s an account of the day going down that rabbit hole:

Stop number one – Threshold FET Nine preamp, circa late 80s, MSRP then: $2,595 USD

The Threshold FET 9 Preamplifier with attention to detail in spades
The Threshold FET 9 Preamplifier with attention to detail in spades

So I pull up to this newly built, large house replete with thee- car garage in the boonies outside of Edmonton, on acreage, terrible architecture – big, two story turret faces you from outside as you enter and once inside, the room therein is clearly never used cause it’s the antithesis of “cozy”, designed to impress rather than express (the interests of the occupants).   Classic example of what not to do from the book “The not so big house”, but I digress.

I’m greeted by the wife, who offers me coffee and I ask for water, then downstairs we go.  But this in no dungeon, this i a very well laid out home theatre complete with huge screen projector – the kind of thing you see in HT magazines.  He’s got a built-in cabinet on the left with a glass front that is filled from the floor to the ceiling with medium grade HT gear.  On a bench placed in front of the sofa, which is in the sweet spot, sits an old Macintosh SS (solid sate) amp, circa early 70s, and the FET Nine hooked up to a low end CD player.  The original box is off to the side, with hand written model and S/N on it, a good sign 🙂  He’s got some very nice Tannoy speakers, well positioned in the room (for a change) to listen to everything on.

So I start putting it through it’s paces, checking for crosstalk, hum, etc.  This thing is perfect!  I can already tell the phono stage has never been used cause there is absolutely no wear on the RCA jacks.  This is going well…  (unlike the Denon stuff I looked at in Calgary a week ago, but that’s another story).  When checking for hum in the phono stage I’m hearing hum… but identify it as not coming from the speakers.  He’s like, “oh, that’s probably the bar fridge” and I’m thinking to myself, seriously?!  But… he’s obviously gotten away from high end audio, and is only into HT now, that’s why he’s selling it, which is a good thing, for me 🙂

So we listen to a CD for a very short while.  I’m not evaluating since I already know of what this preamp is capable of, I’m just checking for obvious faults.  Nothing so far 🙂  So I head out to grab my turntable out of the FJ.  The turntable has an average at best phono cartridge in it.  I assumed it was a throw-away but this is the first time I heard it and it sounded way better than I guessed.  He knew I was interested in the FET Nine in part (a very big part) because of it’s phono stage so he knew I was bringing my turntable.  I put on a MFLS OM (Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs Original Master) of George Benson Breezin (one of my reference’s).  The opening sounds a little flat, but it always does, I know to expect that, then the steel guitar and vocals kick in and I bask in the goodness.  I look over at the seller and his jaw has dropped, gazing like a deer in the headlights in disbelief.  Then he looks over at me and stammers, “it’s like they are in the room with us…”  It wasn’t turned up very loudly, didn’t need to be – that’s part of the beauty of high end gear.  I head straight to the volume control (no remote here of course – Why audiophiles don’t get to have a remote control), turn it down and exclaim, “I’ll take it.”   I can see by the look on his face that he doesn’t want to sell it anymore.  He’s owned it for 25+ years and I honestly think this is the first time he’s heard what it’s capable of.  It’s certainly the first time this famous Nelson Pass phono stage has had a signal passed through it.  Amazing really.

I had brought a couple more MFSL OMs with me, but no need to break them out, I already know this thing is magic.  And I’m thinking time isn’t on my side anymore and he’s likely to change his mind.  Then, his wife walks down the stairs to check on us and offer refills of our drinks.  Thank god for the WAF (wife approval factor).  The seller says, “that’s amazing”, to which I reply, “yeah… but it’s a slippery slope and next thing you know you’ll be collecting records”.  I look over at his wife Laura and she has a look of horror on her face and when he glances at her I know it’s a done deal and this piece of audio history is mine.

Before we box it I ask to pop the lid and look inside.  I’m like, “there must be a cartridge loading dip switch in there or something”.  I hadn’t researched this, but figured there must be.  I also wanted to check for bulging capacitors, overheated resistors, crumbling diodes, etc.  This thing is 25+ years old, after all.  He had obviously never done this and it seemed sacrilege to him to do so.  I dig around in the box and find, in the original little plastic bag, the 1.5mm allen key provided to remove the eight tiny screws and very carefully remove the top cover.  I’ve been into high end audio for over 35 years and honestly have never seen prettier circuit topology or populated circuit board.  All hand made of course.  But obviously done so with complete pride and audio craftsmanship.  Both the mother and daughter board are gold plated, all the capacitors, resistors, and other components are of the upmost quality, and the entire package looks like a gem box.  Exemplary design, exemplary execution.  No wonder this thing is collectable.  We pack it up together and off I go.

Stop number two – Nakamichi PA-7, circa 1988, MSRP then: $1,600 USD

The Nakamichi PA-7 power amplifier - amazing circuity topology and components meet gorgeous industrial design.  Beauty and the (high current) beast.
The Nakamichi PA-7 power amplifier – amazing circuity topology and components meet gorgeous industrial design. Beauty and the (high current) beast.

I can remember like it was yesterday the first time I set eyes on this power amp.  It’s mesmerizing and belongs in a museum of industrial design.  Let’s face it, brute strength power amps aren’t usually a thing of beauty, but this one is truly “beauty and the beast”.  Everyone already knows that Nakamichi made it’s name on the very best quality home audio cassette decks in the late 1970s.  They had cash to burn, and wanted to become a major player in the high end audio market, which was dominated by US designers and manufacturers.  So what do they do?…  They recruit Nelson Pass (of Threshold) as a “hired gun” and combine his designs and circuit topology with their deep pockets and efficient production techniques.  The result?…  What is essentially a Threshold power amplifier but way more sexy looking and less than 1/2 the price. They were supposed to just license his STASIS technology, which combines the benefits of Class A amplification without the drawbacks (runs stupid hot = very low reliability) into a hybrid Class A/Class AB amplifier with optical bias.  Well, they don’t just license STASIS.  Rather, the first generation of the PA-7 is a direct copy of the equivalent Threshold amp.  A lawsuit ensues, then Nak releases the PA-7II with an altered design, 25 more WPC (watts per channel), and a higher price tag.  But everyone knew then and knows now that the original PA-7 was, “the one to get”.  As a side note I also sourced a Nak CA-5A pre amp of the same era and also designed by NP and executed by Nakamichi for my Maui system.

So… Enough history.  Now it’s time to describe the seller.  This time it’s a Polish guy who has a hobby building his own speakers.  Not exactly an audiophile, but he’s a cabinet maker and a craftsman.  He lives in a tiny one-story house and I’m greeted by him and his (hot) Polish wife, then downstairs we go.  This time it’s truly a dungeon, no windows, star wars memorabilia, the “man cave” big time. There’s speaker drivers everywhere.  No listening chair, a huge rack of gear that must stand 6.5 feet tall with a turntable on top that I can’t even reach and he’s almost a foot shorter then me – obviously there for show and not used (only a half dozen records on his shelves), all flanked by two pairs of huge home-made speakers.  The set which are his pride-and-joy sport two sets of 15” woofers, huge horns for mid-range, and dome tweeters for high frequencies.  I look over his design, all phase aligned and actually well executed, and offer (genuine) praise.  He’s selling the Nak PA-7 cause he can’t tell the difference from his Carver, to which I offer no comment.

So once again I’m not here to evaluate this amp, but rather check for faults.  I’ve already spoken with the previous owner and got it’s history and it’s all good.  Kris (present seller) has thankfully only owned it for a couple months.  Thankfully because I have the feeling if he owned it much longer something untoward would happen… to the amp, his house, or his marriage.  He asks, “what kind of music do you want to hear?” and I reply, “how about some soft jazz”.  He looks puzzled, as if he’s thinking to himself “what the hell are you looking at the PA-7 for then?!”, but just shrugs and goes over to play something from his “music server”, which I put in quotes since it’s a laptop playing FLAC files that originated from Redbook CD quality at best (44.1k/16bit).  I listen for a while, everything seems to be working OK and his speakers sound pretty good and I suspect would sound really good with a descent front end.  The only other things to do to test this power amp are to drive it to clipping and look inside, then I’m ready to buy it.  I figure I’m never gonna drive it to clipping with my Magnepan MG-12s, as I would likely shred the quasi ribbons if I did so long before this amp cried “uncle” (side note – I’ve subsequently discovered this isn’t the case and I easily drive this amp to clipping with my MG-12s), so I ask him if he’s ever seen it clip.  “Oh sure, he replies, you mean those little red lights?”  I nod and he says, “Well, we gotta listen to something different for that.”

He puts on Dire Straits, Brother’s in Arms (the SACD version of which happens to be one of my references – lucky coincidence), then cranks the volume and looks over proudly at me as his speakers deliver seismic bass response and actually hold their own to everything the legendary PA-7 can throw at it.  I’m starting to get uneasy as the room resonates and things start to vibrate off tables and shelves all around.  I think of his wife, trying to watch olympic figure skating upstairs with her fingers crossed that I buy it.  But… it’s still not clipping.  He sees that and yells at me to wait for it, then notches it up a bit and the red lights flash away as the next bass line kicks in.  I give him the thumbs up and he turns it down so we can converse once more.  I said, “holy shit” and complimented him on his speakers once again.  He was beaming and says, “yeah, I have to replace the light bulbs every few weeks since it rattles the filaments loose”.  I said I’ll take it but want to pop the lid first, and he says, “sure, just give me a hand getting it out of the rack.”  At nearly 70 pounds, this is a two person job.  I ask him if he’s every had the top off and he says, “no” and I think to myself that’s probably a good thing.  There a sticker on top that says “Lethal shock hazard.  Do not open!”

The two of us box it up, original manual and original double box 🙂  He says, “I’m a cabinet maker, trust me it’s easier and better for your back if one person carries it.  I’ll take it to the front door if you take it to your car from there.”  I thought I’d got the better part of the deal since I didn’t have to carry it up the stairs until I got on the icy sidewalk outside.

Stop number three – Acoustic Research SP-9 MkII, circa 1987, MSRP then: $4,000 CAD

The Audio Research SP-9 MkII - one of the finest tube preamplifiers ever made.
The Audio Research SP-9 MkII – one of the finest tube preamplifiers ever made.

Third stop is at a high end store who is the second largest Audio Research dealer in North America, according to the salesman at least.  I get inside and with seven listening rooms full of their gear, I’m not surprised.

He’s got the ARC SP-9 MkII sitting on the test bench, warming up nicely.  This thing is visibly perfect, not a scratch and almost no wear on the RCA jacks.  He pops the hood and shows me the inside.  He’s particularly proud of the new tube he’s installed in the phono stage, which is an upgrade from the original and he shows me a link to it on ebay for $150.  Now that the transaction’s done he proceeds to give me a tour of the store.

First we go to the uber-high-end room since I had asked about phono hum and how much was normal since it’s been so long I’d honestly forgotten.  He points at a stack of large steel boxes on the floor with massive power cords into them, “See that?  $20K worth of power conditioning, that’s how you get rid of hum.”  Then he switches to the phono stage on the rack of the TOTL (top of the line) Audio Research gear feeding a floor standing Mark Levison amp located squarely between two large but not overly imposing cone speakers with (by peeking behind their cabinets) what I determined to be acoustic suspension design – almost zero hum as he inches the volume up to 104 DB.  “I spent 4 hours setting these babies up” he beams as he turns the volume down, switches sources, and motions me to the capacious leather lounge chair located in the sweet spot and pulls up in an identical one next to it but just off centre.   I’m thinking to myself, “this is gonna be a treat!”  I don’t even know what he’s gonna put on and am especially pleased when I recognize Patrick O’Hearn chiming in at mid volume levels.

It sounds great, but then as I put my critical ear on I’m thinking to myself, “I expected more than this”.  Then I hear some mid frequencies come in a bit hot and harsh and am already start to experience listening fatigue instead of closing my eyes and immersing myself in the music.  I’m like, “Am I losing it?…  Do I not know what high end audio sounds like anymore?…”  Then I glance over at the rack and the huge ARC transport’s display says “CD” on it.   He gets up (he’s been doing this for 30 years and knows how to read a listener’s reaction), turns it down and says, “You know, I never liked these Mark Levison amps”.  The amp costs $30K and is not the problem.  I know it, he knows it, but we both remain reticent.  I don’t want to say anything and be insulting.  He has to sell this stuff so he can’t say anything, but the tour moves on in short order.  The only other source in the uber-high-end room is a floor standing turntable that sits about 4 feet high.  It’s obviously not set up so I don’t even ask.  No SACD player… strange.

I spent two more hours touring the remainder of the rooms, full of high end goodness, mostly turntables, and Mangepans everywhere.  I told him of my experience testing various Maggies in a similar sized to mine (small) listening room in Calgary and he agreed that he didn’t care for the 3.7Rs.  “Accurate to a fault”, I described them as, to which he replied, “exactly”.  He shows me the HT room and points at a 5 channel amp and says, “watch this” as the lights flicker as he turns it on.  “It runs off two dedicated 15A circuits.  We’re wired for this and it still does that”.  He shows me modern turntable designs and we go on about phono cartridge loading in preamps, and why the ARC SP-9 MkII he just sold me has fixed gain.  I said that I’d remain unconvinced until I listen to it.  I could have spent all day there, but it really is too bad the only thing we sat down and listened to was a CD player.

He liked that I knew about gear from the 70s and 80s and mentioned a pair of old Kef bookshelf speakers they had kicking around about a week ago.  “They didn’t have T-27 tweeters did they?,” I inquired, failing miserably at not appearing excited.  “They sure did.  Are you thinking of building a pair of LS3/5As?”.  He was on to me right away.  “Yep, but they’ve gotta be SP-1032 version of the T-27s and Rodgers only accepted about 20% of the drivers from Kef as being within spec” I countered.  That was true but I was primarily trying to drive the price down at this point as I knew he now knew he’d get top dollar from me for them.  “We might consider parting them out” he said to which I replied, “do your research and get back to me with a price”.  I already knew they are worth $200+ USD and figured why throw that price at him until he knows if he even wants to remove the tweeters from the speakers.  That might seem like a lot for a pair of 40 year old used tweets, but worth every nickel if he’d sell them.  I spoke of my Kef 104/2 restoration project over on Maui and of replacing the ferro fluid in the T33 tweeters on them.  He knew exactly what I was doing and why, and called me “brave to tear those tweeters apart to rebuild them”.  I told him I didn’t have them working again yet and was practicing on a pair taken from salvage 104/2s that were given to me by someone who was just so happy that someone actually knew what they are he didn’t care about the money.  And, the WAF was present again in that instance, she wanted them out of the house (or even the garage).

Driving home back to Canmore:
And so, home I drove with my precious cargo of vintage audio gear.  I was even careful over the bumps, like I had an FJ full of eggs in the back.  And now the real fun starts.  Where, finally after starting down this high end audio path once again around four months ago, I hopefully begin to reap the rewards of my efforts, and sit down and listen to music again.  Something I will do almost daily once I’m able.  And, what a journey full of interesting characters it’s been so far, even before I play (really play) my first record!

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