Down The Rabbit Hole : Part 2

In my first installation of Down The Rabbit Hole, I covered the serendipity of my Springtime visit with Jonathan Weiss at the DUMBO Loft where he maintains a showroom for the focus of his passion: Oswald’s Mill Audio. Here below is the continuation of that story …

I arrived in NYC on a Friday, taking a hotel room down in the Financial District not terribly far from the Brooklyn Bridge but, as it turns out, quite a ways from just about everything else in Manhattan. I called up Joey Weiss, my partner and co-founder of this website, and we met in the park that’s just in front of the Brooklyn Bridge on the Manhattan-side. I’ve never walked over the bridge before, despite my having been born in Brooklyn and despite my returning to NYC three to five times a year for the past dozen years or so. Overcast, a little chilly by my now-Southern-standards, but we had a blast on our way to get lunch at Ferdinando’s. Years ago (maybe 1998?), when he was still living and working on Rapelye Street in Carroll Gardens, Anthony Gallo (yes, THAT Anthony Gallo) introduced me to the delights of Ferdinando’s.

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This is one of those places, here since the dawn of time it seems (1904), that doesn’t make fancy food. It makes authentic, sincere, real down to earth food. I’ve had the delightful pleasure to have run some of the proverbial gastronome’s gauntlet  at Le Bernardin, Corton (when it was open), Jean Georges, Daniel, Gordon Ramsay at The London, Babbo, Keen’s, Blue Ridge Sushi, Gallagher’s, Peter Lugar, Sushi Yasuda, Dylan Prime, Dawat, The Strip House – the storied list is even longer – but none of those places can give you a meal like you can get at Ferdinando’s, because – like great music – Ferdinando’s makes Italian soul-food. A meal at those other places will be superlative, possibly even mind-blowing. But a meal at Ferdinando’s lends people like me a connection with my history, memories of the past, of family, of comfort and love … it’s like a time-machine for the soul, a sort-of common context around which my history is woven. It’s not just food … it’s the ineffable experience of Meaning.

And meaning is why I listen to the music I love. Sure I’ve got a small stack of “audiophile favorites” – you know, the ones that do all the tricks and audiophile loop-de-loops that show off the system. There’s no real depth to them, though – not for me, personally. If I want to hear “female vocal” I’m not pulling out Diana Krall, Patricia Barber, Holly Cole, Norah *or* Ricky Lee Jones, Keiko Lee, Joni Mitchell, or even the tried and true Jennifer Warnes. There’s no doubt whatsoever that they are beautiful voices recorded really well, but if I’m going to sit in front of my system and seek my nightly skirmish with transcendence while listening to a female vocalist, the list is long and varied, and not necessarily audiophile approved. Shara Worden from My Brightest Diamond, Shelby Lynn, Chan Marshall (Cat Power), Elizabeth Fraser, Lisa Gerrard, and even a young Bjork from her Sugarcubes days (“Birthday” still hits me right in my heart). Add to that some of the immensely beautiful stuff that Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Carmen McRae, and Shirley Horn have left for us, and you don’t need no steenking audiophile singers.

Beyond those, my decades-long habit of collecting Jazz records continues unabated as I dig out more and more amazing vinyl from my local shop. Since my teens I’ve always felt that I was born at the wrong time, and that I’d have been happiest playing jazz guitar in the 1950’s and 60’s in the NY scene. When I listen to my jazz records, they have this way of making me feel wistful about a time that I never really knew. It’s a strange emotion to have, because it feels as authentic as a memory, or of the longing you feel when you miss someone … and yet I was never there in the first place.

My point here is that music should matter, should connect with you or connect you to your feelings or memories. Music has to have Meaning in order to have value, should be evocative, and so when it comes to my perspective on Hi Fi it is with these thoughts in mind. I don’t necessarily want my stereo to perform technical feats, or measure impeccably well, or accurately recreate the sound of music that I feel no connection with. It’s nice if they do those things, but never at the expense of what matters most to me. I’m after that connection, that ineffable-yet-authentic meaning that transcends the distracting bullshit – this objectification of sound that the audiophile press has pushed on us since Hirsch-Houck. It doesn’t matter if it comes from Ravel or The Ramones.

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Wandering Between Times

On Saturday I managed to make it to Central Park South, and headed west toward the mall. Just near Columbus Circle was an older gentleman sitting outside and playing his trumpet for the public. Simple, beautiful, heart-felt music radiating from that man through his horn. Why is it that we find it so easy to hear music when we hear it played by a living human being, but somehow get trapped into hearing and thinking and talking about sound effects when we hear it through the Hi Fi?

What is lost in the translation?

ORANGEWhat goes missing when we play music through the Hi Fi is an essential vitality that tells us instinctively that what we’re listening to is, itself, alive and vital. It’s like drinking orange juice … no one will ever mistake the stuff that comes from concentrate (or even the stuff that’s supposedly fresh-squeezed, sitting in the grocer’s refrigerator for a week or so) with the taste of the juice that comes out of a living orange, right there in front of you, squeezed right into your glass. THAT juice is alive and vital … and the other stuff is just dull, syrupy, and dead by comparison.

There’s some essence that you’re automatically hooked into when live musicians are playing and you lock into “it” – whatever “it” is. Once that connection is made, the noisy intellect is circumvented and no words can explain the sensation – you just know, feel, understand. There’s instantaneous meaning there, and you can sometimes feel as if you’ve been made one with the music.

In the over 20 years that I’ve been working in this industry, and after having gotten to hear some of the world’s most ambitious and advanced gear doing extraordinary work to reproduce music, I hadn’t really experienced that essential vitality of music in the same hyper-present way that one experiences it when live musicians radiate their art right in front of you. The closest I had come so far was that experience from last April ay OMA’s Brooklyn loft, or so I recall, and that’s part of what was driving me to make this trip.

Reflecting on my experience last April during NYAS, it reminded me of how one can be fascinated by a magician conjuring illusions – you see/hear/sense something that your mind tells you is impossible, but the sensation of utter astonishment is no less real. And if you, like me, have ever wandered into a magic store and paid your $10-$20-$50 in order to gain knowledge of how its done … you know that when you find out the mundane truth, you ultimately exchange the effervescence of astonishment for the dullness of practical knowledge. Employed expertly, that knowledge produces astonishment and delight in others … but the astonishment part is lost to you.

And so went my thoughts. Jonathan had agreed to let me see behind the scenes, and I wondered to myself a little if somehow that magic would be lost once I saw how it was all done. I was still having trouble parsing how very different my experience had been, how much more vital and meaningful the music seemed to me played through the full OMA system, that I wondered how much of my own somewhat jejeune astonishment and willing suspension of disbelief played a part in the success of that illusion. Was I in for a disappointment?

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That night I met up with my dear friend from Russia, Misha Kuchereko, along with two friends of his. We decided to hit Jules for jazz, wine and seafood down in St. Mark’s Square.

A little guitar-trio was about to start jamming, some fresh oysters hit the table, and the wine poured as Misha described for me an endeavor they had the prior evening at the apartment of one Professor Edgar Choueiri – the Princeton Rocket Scientist obsessed with 3-D stereo sound. Prof. Choueiri had designed a digital processing system that was said to project an almost holographic, lifelike sound-field from the mere and mortal output of two loudspeakers: i.e. a sort-of “surround sound” like experience, only from two speakers, and apparently far more convincing to the ear than any X.1 system around. (For a little background on Choueiri’s work, check out the article written in January, 2013 by Adam Gopnik for The New Yorker, here). This is a quite-serious project, backed by Princeton, and with very heavy-hitter names in the background apparently waiting for the opportunity to invest. Big, consumer-electronic, Japanese names.

It turns out that the good Professor was using a pair of Oswald’s Mill Mini speakers to demonstrate his BACCH 3-D audio process. When I later asked Jonathan about this, he confirmed, saying that the constant-directivity of the horn-tweeter is ideal for this kind of work, as it’s dispersion pattern helps to naturally limit the kind of crosstalk that Choueiri is intent on eliminating. Apparently the demonstration went well, as Misha seemed quite impressed – not only with the process, but also with the speakers themselves. There I was again, indulging in my favorite combo of wine-food-music and talking about the most unlikely-to-work 2-way loudspeakers and, in practice, how well they seem to have departed from theory. Even a super-genius Princeton Rocket Scientist loves the things.

Sunday morning I hopped in the car and popped over the Manhattan Bridge, finding Jonathan’s building without much trouble at all. Arriving in the late morning, sunlight plentiful, was a stark contrast to my last time here. It now seemed fairly normal, less Soviet – a little park and playground over here, a bodega over there, the occasional pedestrian – it pulsed with a gentle ordinariness. I heaved my photography case out of the hatch, a Pelican trunk stuffed – apparently – with lead. I hadn’t really thought this part through ahead of time, what with the four flights of stairs in my immediate future. I’ll save you the play-by-play, though … suffice to say that I made it up to the blast-door, gasping only a little (to my great surprise), as Jonathan welcomed me back to his Brooklyn Shangri-La.

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THERE THEY WERE …

The utterly magnificent IMPERIA loudspeakers – a 4-way system based on conical horns, and using a field-coil midrange driver from Cogent, with the area below 100Hz handled by the powered (and powerful) woofer you see in the center between the speakers. This is not a “subwoofer” – that is to say, not something to be added as an aftermarket supplement, but engineered for critical integration with the system for low-distortion full-range performance.

The mid and bass horns are made from Pennsylvania walnut, and the whole sculpture was designed by industrial designer extraordinaire, David D’Imperio. They stand at just over 7′ tall, “imperial” you might say. The framework holding the drivers in place helps to attach them in such a way that all of them are time/phase aligned. Unreal, or maybe hyperreal, or even surreal … there’s something overtly otherworldly about these statuesque beauties. The system was warmed up and waiting, and after retreating to the kitchen for a brief coffee we were ready to get a little bit of listening time in.

Barbara chante BarbaraI was marginally familiar with the name of famed French chanteuse, Barbara, but had only heard a cut from a Putumayo compilation CD called “French Café” – something my wife picked up in a bookstore or Starbucks, which we played over and over again on a car trip to somewhere forgettable. “Si La Photo Est Bonne” was the track, and I remembered how she had this sort of beautiful, gentle uvular trill as the française issued forth from her lovely lips. Here, Jonathan treated me to something really quite spectacular – a pristine mono LP of her.

This shouldn’t be the hardest thing to reproduce, ultimately, if we’re talking about conventional loudspeakers – dynamic tweeters and midwoofers, same or similar operating principles, located fairly close to one another on the same baffle. But for this set of speakers, with the drivers placed so far apart from one another – I half-expected a small disaster: Because the female vocal is featured, the mid and tweet drivers would have to be sharing much of the audio band together on her voice alone – here is why “female vocal” is useful to reviewers as a tool: a poorly designed crossover will reveal itself in the pass-band. As well, because it is a mono recording, the speakers should also be well- matched in order to ensure that there wouldn’t be any distortion to the ‘image’ of the singer.

I love great mono and have heard some wonderful mono records played on some truly world-class systems, but this was quite a different animal entirely. There was a visceral wholeness to the presentation that made her presence really palpable. To judge by her voice alone, it could have been mistaken for an extraordinary stereo recording, such was the apparent dimensionality. It’s not that the speakers “got it right” somehow cobbling together a performance that eked over an imaginary line in the sand … it’s that they managed to effortlessly surpass any standard that I may have had lingering in my mind about what makes great mono a wonderful treat.

OMA Tourmaline

OMA’s top of the line “Tourmaline” turntable – a beautifully honed piece of Pennsylvania slate for a plinth for a Technics SP10, was doing the analog honors. Add to that Frank Schröder’s “CB” arm with Miyajima Zero mono cartridge and a Frank Schröder Reference SQ arm with a Miyajima Kansui stereo cartridge, with a Silvercore Pro step-up transformer, with OMA’s PD1 phono stage doing all the other important parts, and you’ve got serious and world-class analog that would be fairly difficult to surpass. All amplification was handled by the 15 watt integrated “The Hollander” – a $60,000.00 testament to pure triodicity. Three chassis hewn from Pennsylvania walnut and black slate, massive and elegantly simple.

kremer plays bachGidon Kremer was up next, “Kremer Plays Bach” – an MHS reissue of a (presumably) Melodiya original recording, stereo, and again my thoughts were that of exceeded expectations and certainly of standards.

gulda as you like itNext, Friedrich Gulda, “As You Like It” … never before have I heard and felt the presence of an actual piano reproduced by a loudspeaker so convincingly! As much as I tried to adopt a strictly critical ear, the effort was easily overcome by the very disarming sounds I was hearing.

A truly insane techno recording (Gaiser “Trunkated”) came into play … subterranean, deep, controlled pulses shook the building at SPLs that probably shouldn’t be encountered for long periods of time. Next, a more introspective but no less driving vinyl release from Trentmøller – The Last Resort – also spun unrestricted and glorious, its synthetic spaciousness enveloping the scene.

What I had suspected was merely a gilded memory based partly in fantasy turned out to be the unlikely truth: this was an entirely new kind of aesthetic experience, and – record after record – it served up a generous portion of the kind of effortless vitality that seems otherwise missing from the High End at large – without missing a beat on all of those other attributes we tend to consider as sacrosanct. In short: for the duration of my professional career in this industry, spanning 20+ years, this experience has unveiled for me something entirely new, and impeccably sublime.

Granted – we’re talking about a system that probably sums to the low $300k area. Not chopped liver, but not nearly the most expensive system I’ve had the honor of hearing, either. Thanks to the peculiarities of my career path I’ve had the chance to hear client systems that approached the $1 Million range (and – in today’s money – they might even surpass that).

This reference system from OMA, including the Imperia loudspeakers, the massive Hollander amplifier, and the analog front end I’ve just described has made an indelible imprint upon me. My last sonic imprint since the early 90’s … to have overcome that as a matter involuntary and internal is no mean feat. Which is vexing, to say the least: this system exceeds the cost of my home – and yet, as is the way of men – I occasionally allow myself the passing fantasy about how I might be able to somehow earn, beg, borrow, win, or otherwise steal enough dosh to actually obtain this system for myself.

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Oswald’s Mill Audio at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair

The Backstory

Most of the media-attention OMA attracts is actually from the mainstream, and Jonathan prefers it that way. A recent exposition in NYC at the ICFF (International Contemporary Furniture Fair) netted OMA more editorial space and prominence in magazines like Interior Design than any of the other exhibitors there. OMA has garnered the kind of coverage from The New York Times, Walpaper, Men’s Journal, Abitare, Gizmodo, GQ, and other high profile lifestyle publications that audiophile CEOs just fantasize about over (many) cocktails. Jonathan has a “no review” policy when it comes to OMA gear, which means simply that he’s not interested in playing all those transparent reindeer-games at the various print and online magazines with their tired King-Maker routines, month over month, new “best” over old “best” … it’s easy to understand why someone from outside the industry might look at these hackneyed and transparent routines and run quickly in the other direction.

OMA was never about appealing to the Audiophile (capital “A”) – far too much programmed obsolescence and incitement to neurosis, too much backbiting, too much adolescent posturing and competition. From Jonathan’s perspective, OMA is supposed to be where you get off the merry-go-’round and leave all the “Capital-A” Audiophile neurosis behind. But Jonathan’s no iconoclast – he’s an entrepreneur.

And as an audio-entrepreneur myself, I know one thing for certain: this business is NOT in any university curricula, and those who wind up here enter from sometimes-related, sometimes not-so-related tangents. There are those who make it to the manufacturing end (and even the press-end) after first having been on the sales-floor of a high-end dealership – and that’s about as “related” as the tangents get, which is very much related and yet has utterly nothing to do with manufacturing itself. Two different worlds, two different skill-sets, two different disciplines. Then there are those who enter via unfamiliar routes, and in Jonathan’s case it would seem that his story ranks as fairly tangent. How do you move from a world-class education from Princeton and London School of Economics and Political Science, to avant-garde filmmaker, to sound-visionary?

It began with the acquisition of an historic grist-mill of 10,000 square feet, and the desire to somehow recreate the kind of sound he remembered from an old movie theater within which he worked as a teen. A strange and interesting tale unfolded that exposed him to the alternate universe of SET-obsessed horn-lovers from around the world, who gathered at a yearly event held at Oswald’s Mill (you can read his account of it here).

The Sound

In our conversations together, Jonathan confided to me the nature of his pursuit,  altogether different than those standards of old that I’ve written about in a prior article

. Brief recap: these “standards” evolved from the primitive Hirschian obsession with measurements, to the Gordonian obsession with sound for sound’s sake, onwards to the Pearsonian apotheosis of live acoustic music as l’arbitre absolu, tangentially to the Valinian libertine/Bacchanalian self-indulgence, and (contemporaneously) to the ecstatic-transcendent of the Gizmodian perspective – a different side to the same coin. But all of these are based, more or less, on an interaction with what is already known. Jonathan’s inspiration was quite apart from this bubble:

“I was always looking for a sound which I had never heard. At least not out of any audio equipment. When I was a kid, I worked in a big old movie theater that still had huge Altec horns, tube amplifiers, and the sound was incredible. When I was hosting the Tasting events at Oswald’s Mill, I had some of the best vintage professional equipment ever made, and people brought their own very ambitious, DIY amplifiers, mainly triode and single ended, but as good as the sound was, it was never ‘there’.  This was a sound I had in my head. You might think it’s crazy to be trying to create a kind of sound (out of audio reproducing equipment) that you never heard, but that was behind everything I did. It was only with OMA that I started to achieve the goal. If you make not only the loudspeakers, but also the amplifiers, the turntables, etc, (and have very talented people making tonearms, cartridges and cables) you have virtually total control of the sound. Suddenly we started to have the sound I had in my head. I always think back to when I studied Zen, and spent a lot of time in a Rinzai Zen monastery. They would say, “if you are off by an inch, you are off by a million miles.” Sound is like that. You’re either there or not there. And within that sound, there is still room to expand, improve, even if that seems a contradiction.”

 

 

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THE AC1 – How Things Begin

From this viewpoint in the photograph above you can start to get an idea of the scale of Jonathan’s loft … it’s enormous. This photo was snapped from within the ancillary-room behind the “barn doors.” To give you a sense of scale: off in the distance you can see one of the towering Imperias looking not so towering. Here in the foreground: The AC1

The AC1  has a charming, rustic beauty that I thought could be the perfect match for a house in the country or a nicely contrasting element in a traditionally-appointed home. From an industrial design perspective, I could imagine it fitting well in both modern and traditional living spaces as a conversation-piece or objet d’art. One thing that makes the AC1 very unique is their use of a vintage RCA midrange compression driver – the original, deeply beloved RCA MI 9584 – of which he has a very limited supply, and therefore can only promise very limited production of the AC1.

This is where the OMA business-story sort of starts … or at least where it gets off the ground. Up until that point, Jonathan had a somewhat marginal relationship to the industry, to the manufacture of loudspeakers, and to Hi Fi in general. He had acquired the actual “Oswald’s Mill” in Pennsylvania some time before, and he and wife Cynthia engaged in the never-ending struggle to repair and refurbish this 18th Century stone monument – the only known integrally-built house-mill in the USA. Restoring a vintage home is never easy, or cheap, but restoring a unique 18th Century stone building that was once also a functioning mill powered by rushing water from the nearby stream? This was clearly going to be very involved …

But it’s precisely because of that effort, though, that Jonathan became keenly aware of the resources around him that would eventually become the resources for his audio venture. Local artisans working with local materials, slate from a local quarry honed by tradesman with decades of experience – experts in their crafts, all. And this is also an important point, because his philosophy centers around a manner of manicured meticulousness that isn’t possible any other way but the hard, “old-fashioned” way; a practical expression of an ideal.

 

So how did this become a business, after all?

Circumstances were such that Jonathan would make the acquaintance of one Mr. Anton Corbijn – famed Dutch photographer and film director, whose work spans around four decades and whose reputation is as an ésthete sans pareil. Their relationship developed such that Anton became acquainted with Jonathan’s pursuit of The Sound. As well, he was in the process of moving from his long-time home in London to a home in The Hague, Netherlands. With this new homestead in mind, and with a fresh fascination for the expert-obsession that Jonathan demonstrated for wonderful music systems, Anton commissioned a full audio system. It was this commissioned work that gave birth to OMA’s first official products: The AC1 (AC for Anton Corbijn, of course), and the first OMA amplification and slate plinths and racks.

Jonathan had gathered the best talent known to him – Horn-loudspeaker-demigod Bill Woods for the practical design of the loudspeaker, David D’Imperio for the industrial design of the AC1, and his old friend from Netherlands, Paul den Hollander for the electronics design. This was the launching platform from which they would fashion, as a team of (very) creative experts, the Oswald’s Mill aesthetic philosophy and menu of products.

Out Of The Frying Pan, Into The Fire

If returning to OMA’s Brooklyn showroom only confirmed what haunted my memory up until that point, then visiting the actual Oswald’s Mill in Pennsylvania would launch things to an entirely new plateau. The Imperia system I described above was easily the most- intensely effortless? – performance of an audio system I have ever heard. The ease and rightness with which the music emanates from OMA’s topline system can stay with you like a first kiss – you just want more. And more is what we were headed for as we drove from Brooklyn to the little town of New Tripoli, in eastern Pennsylvania.

The approach to the mill is like a drive through a postcard, classic American agrarian, bucolic and serene. The contrast couldn’t have been more severe when compared against OMA’s Brooklyn neighborhood, itself emblematic of any “concrete-jungle” epithet.

In Part 3 I’ll share with you the indelibly delightful experience that I had at the actual Oswald’s Mill … stay tuned!

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