Down The Rabbit Hole : Part 1

What do you get when you cross a mineralogy savant, an avant-garde filmmaker, a Princeton-graduated international relations expert, a nomad, a movie theater usher, a culinary artist, and a tirelessly passionate entrepreneur?

If I told you that the answer was “Time Machine” … would you think me crazy or just cheeky?

This isn’t half of the story, and yet each of these designations can describe Jonathan Weiss at various times of his life, and “Time Machine” is the only phrase that comes to mind as I reflect on my recent 3-day visit with Jonathan at his Brooklyn/DUMBO loft and at his Pennsylvania home – a converted 18th century grist-mill-cum-atelier for he and his lovely wife, Cynthia van Elk.

It was September 29th, and I had come with the intention of documenting Jonathan’s creation: Oswald’s Mill Audio. I dare not call it a “business” for various reasons, all of them laudatory, and chiefly among those being that – because it is, first and foremost, an ongoing work of passion, dedication, and art – it is automatically disqualified from the mere and mundane appellation, “business”.

“Business” connotes the ordinary, typically – dry cleaners, accountant, pack-and-ship, ice cream parlor, contractor, etc. – all of which (and more) are the kinds of things many of us are already involved in and that are probably not as eccentric and unlikely as this enterprise:

Oswald’s Mill Audio has resurrected the relatively ancient “conical horn” with the similarly-luddite technologies of field-coil compression drivers, low-powered tube amplification, and idler-wheel turntables and has combined these with modern industrial design and the mind-boggling abilities of a handful of extraordinary experts to create a luscious and seductive feast for the ears and the eyes.

What inspired me to this visit and this article in the first place was a serendipity of the paradigm-shifting variety …

Rabbit-Hole-2.

NYAS

Back in April of 2013 I was helping to demonstrate at the New York Audio Show with a couple of good friends: Todd Garfinkle of MA Recordings and Jack Wu of Woo Audio. Both of these guys have certainly earned the vast praise they receive from both the press and their customers, and I was treated to a weekend of amazing headphone-listening through a collection of the world’s best headphones. As these shows tend to go, though, I was exhausted by the end of it and ready for whatever small comforts I might find nearby in the form of food, drink, and good company.

Now, as it happens, Todd had begun a vinyl project awhile back which resulted in a lacquer of my favorite album from his catalog – Sera Una Noche: La Segunda – being toted along with him. At this point in the show, after we had all packed up and were ready for collapse at some nearby tavern, Todd invited me to travel with him to Brooklyn to meet Jonathan and to listen to the test pressing on Jonathan’s system.

I’ve heard of this guy,” I quipped … “Isn’t he the one with the big, crazy horn systems and the flea-watt amps?

Did you catch my sneering incredulity? After more than 20 years in this industry I had never heard a horn system that didn’t leave me feeling injured and abused, even though I have always – perhaps masochistically – accepted every invitation to listen to one. Todd assured me of two things:

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  • Yes – he’s the guy with the big,crazy horn systems and the flea-watt amps.
  • He will have a delightful spread of food and wine for us.

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My stomach voted (as did my curiosity about the horns).

And so I resigned myself to the ostensible, unspoken obligation of being very polite, smiling and agreeing with my host about how wonderful his creations are, and complimenting him on a fantastic accomplishment while enduring yet another barrage of aural torture.

And so we arrived to the loft in Brooklyn, itself emblematic of so many things in life whereby one has wrongly judged a book by its cover:

The building itself was sort of unremarkable from the street-view, and judging by surrounding circumstances one might not be faulted for thinking that the area could possibly do with an increase in police presence. Not that anything in particular was happening to give rise to that thought, but rather that the neighborhood – lit, as it was, with the dusk of an industrial city entering night – seemed almost cinematically downtrodden. Walking up the four-flight stairwell didn’t help matters, with its sort of Soviet sparseness of concrete and harsh light.

OMA Loft JW and Imperia

Breathless as we were from the climb, facing what seemed to be a weathered blast-door as an entrance to the loft – there was more breath yet to lose as we left the bitter and unwelcoming climes of that Московия ghetto and entered into a surreal Wonderland of lush and colorful delight. We were welcomed by Jonathan with an affable smile.As we entered, there was a diorama of sorts to the right, featuring a beautifully hand-carved Ching Dynasty bed, near which was a “control room” of sorts with a small collection of exquisite, vintage professional audio equipment. But it was the grand room that really took away my breath – so unlikely were these elements to come together, and further unlikely that they would coalesce so gracefully and artfully. Jonathan was sort-of narrating our tour through this garden of delight, but I must confess that I was so distracted by the environ that I really couldn’t retain what he was saying in particular. “Conical horns” and “field coils” were in there somewhere, as were “triodes” and something about “70 years ago” … not much else got through, I’m afraid.

As we passed through along the edge of the main room we saw the towering Imperia, racks of tube equipment and a couple of turntables, the elegant Monarch loudspeakers, another sitting area with two variations of OMA’s Mini loudspeakers situated nearby. Interesting objets d’art carefully arranged here and there, both accenting the environment and drawing attention. At the far end of the expanse of the main room was, to the left, some “barn doors” through which was an auxiliary room with more lovely design elements and a pair of beautifully-made “rustic” looking loudspeakers and, to the right, a small door through which we were now entering the kitchen and dining area.

Todd was correct: before us lay a bedazzling array of cheeses, breads and crackers, olives, and spreads. The cork was loosed from the first of several bottles, the wine flowed generously. This was not your Whole Foods affair, nice at that would be in its rather tame way. This spread was clearly the intentional work of a passionate gourmand intent on ensuring that our meal and our whole experience there was world-class. Clearly Jonathan is not a man who does anything by half-measures or a “good enough” approach.

In fact, if I had to judge by this spread alone and by our conversation there, I would say that he is someone passionately obsessed with Excellence for its own sake, as an ideal, even if the horizon may constantly be moving. Our conversation in the kitchen was enlightening, enlivening, and it was becoming apparent that Jonathan’s appreciation for these things went far beyond enthusiasm … this was the domain of a deeply-involved curator.

It was that curator’s touch, and perhaps the third or fourth glass of wine, that loosened my virtual necktie a bit as we moved from the kitchen back into the main room to listen to Todd’s lacquer.

And so we arranged ourselves in beautiful chairs as I faced the towering Imperia loudspeaker system, a monument of modernism and antiquity, its light skeleton of waterjet-cut steel, painted white, contrasting against the massive wooden conical-horns, flowering in a gargantuan bouquet of Jurassic proportions. Jonathan retrieved the lacquer from Todd, situated it on the largest of his two turntables … I braced myself for the onslaught of honky, shouty, megaphonic injury.

Instead, the music unfolded and immersed me in some of the most outrageously delightful beauty I had ever experienced. It wasn’t really parseable by the same old laundry-list of audiophile litmus tests. Once you fnished with the checklist there would still be so much more left over to deal with.

A complex sweep of emotion and thought hurried past my stunned synapses … I was sort of sad that I had spent the last 20 years chasing mere shadows and calling them “real” … this wasn’t subtle, wasn’t modest, and certainly wasn’t “audiophilic” at all. The “High End Audio” industry now seemed sallow and fading, with a Groundhog Day-like sameness, year in and year out, show after show, showroom after showroom, review after review of ported box after ported box …

Pour me another glass and let’s hear the B-side – this is a rare delight.

 

Home Again, Home Again, Jiggity Jig

I drove home from NYC to Atlanta, GA reflecting all the way on that experience. Was it real? Was I, like the fabled hashshin of Hasan-i-Sabbah’s storied garden, merely drugged and dragged into believing in something that was really just a mere and mortal construct enhanced by story, atmosphere, and hallucinogens? Was it just the combination of exhaustion, wine, food, and the cognitive dissonance of this palatial dreamland contrasted against the proverbial wasteland that lay just beyond its borders that unseated my defenses and brainwashed me? Was I somehow hypnotized to believe that what I heard was as truly exquisite and otherworldly as I recalled?

A return to my own system would tell me all I needed to know. It’s hardly an elaborate affair, but – as those who have visited could attest – it is very musically engaging and certainly ranks well according to those cherished, if ever-shifting, audiophile standards. It took me a day or two to decompress, get a little caught up, and then take some late-night time to relax and listen to music. It’s one of my favorite times, when my wife and kids have gone to bed for the night, and I can ease into the “in-law apartment” that I’ve annexed for the listening room and float away for awhile. My Sonus Faber Extremas. There’s a piece of my heart in those speakers, and I can’t imagine ever letting them go. There’s a story there about love lost and found (but I’ll leave that for another time).

Warm up the amps and preamp, get the table spinning, ease the stylus in the groove … beautiful glorious music … but something’s bugging me now. It’s sounding a little dimensionally flat and restrained, like a slight case of asthma or maybe excessive humidity. Maybe its the record, so I switch titles to something much more lively – some Basie Big Band will do it! I love my Pablos! And yet – there seems to be some electricity missing from the air, some snap is gone, it’s like they’re half-asleep or something. This isn’t right. Wait! I’ve got it! Todd gave me the lacquer from that night – I’ll be able to compare apples and apples! On went the lacquer, and it soon became very obvious:

This was not That.

Frownie-faced and glum, I powered down and chalked it up to me still not having equilibrated from my trip home. I’ll give it a couple of days and try again.

Trying again didn’t help. Compared to what I remembered about my experience at Jonathan’s, this was just some kind of half-hearted imitation. I needed to hear that OMA system again, if only to test myself – that my memory wasn’t playing tricks on me.

This was the background to the story I’m about to tell you.

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On The Road Again

Jonathan and I had been in contact between that April evening and my late September departure to visit him and get the whole story. Not only was I curious to hear all of this again, but further to that – I wanted to know how someone, anyone, gets to the point in their lives where they are willing to take unreasonable risks to promote unpopular ideas in an unforgiving industry using unlikely products. What I had found so remarkable about this scenario was the extreme to which this philosophy was taken, and – being an entrepreneur myself – the severity of the risk that was shouldered. As I had come to find out, Jonathan is no trust-fund child swinging from magical check to magical check. The risks are far from virtual, and the payoff is far from predictable. Was this the domain of an obsessed man tilting at windmills, or was there a concrete business plan in there – merely disguised as an unreasonable, idealistic philosophy?

Jonathan very kindly sent a pair of his Mini loudspeakers to me about a week before I was to leave for my drive northward. I would say that, of all the strange and wonderful constructs I saw at his loft in April, this was the one that I suspected was least likely to work well. A 2-way mating a conical-horned tweeter to an 8″ dynamic woofer in a bass-reflex box? I’ve heard a couple of examples over the years from companies that have tried to do similar things, and the overt discontinuity had always been painfully obvious. Nevertheless, the quick demo I heard at the loft told me that these weren’t going to obey my seasoned, expert prejudice. In the context of Jonathan’s system, listening room, and artful environment the sound from the Minis seemed nothing less than magical … but would they survive my own listening room and system? After all, Jonathan had the advantage of all his own equipment being driven en troupe – things that were essentially designed to be used together. How would the Minis fare in a more modest system featuring my Klimo gear?

In short: Magnificently

It became quite difficult to pull myself away from the system and actually work. I was firing up the system in the morning and getting at least four sides in before I’d actually hit the computer and deal with my morning emails and other computerly duties. For a guy who has work to do and bills to pay, this is unusual behavior …

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