Rocking The Casbah
So anything and everything with an acoustic bent is reproduced with impeccable grace and a degree of confidence that is borderline eerie in its realism? That’s all very well for folks who want to listen to Vera Lynn before toddling off down to the RSA on a Friday night. What about those who like a bit of rock to go with their roll? Will this system leave them hanging like a ravenous meat-eater staring at a plate of silken tofu and Bok Choy?
Gary Steel visited while I had the Shindo/Living Voice gear installed and we listened to some mellow acoustic music along with Steel’s heavier choices. He was so disconcerted by the experience that he wrote up this lengthy blog and he was dead right. The system was enchanting with certain music, but fell flat on its face when asked to pump up the jam and bring Frank Zappa or Massive Attack to life. No deep bass, no drive, no power. When Steel left, I was perplexed. Was the system totally incapable of rocking out? I didn’t see how this was possible, so I set about changing the room around.
The system was placed against a wall that looks out onto the open plan dining and lounge area on the floor below. There’s a series of wooden shutters and glass doors behind the speakers that were open while I was doing the first part of my review. All that space behind the speakers did wonders for the air and openness of the acoustic music I was listening to, but it was doing rock no favours at all. After closing everything and shifting the speakers back towards the rear a tad, the low notes beefed up substantially. Not to the degree that I could close my eyes and picture the four red-rimmed woofers on a set of big Cerwin Vegas, but at least the Avatar II’s were sounding tight and punchy down below, and rock was sounding far more dynamic.
One of my favourtite recent discoveries is ‘Sail’ from Awolnation’s Megalithic Symphony CD, which is strange considering I don’t like the rest of the album at all. Once I made sure the neighbours were away, I gave the volume knob on the Aurieges a shunt to the right and was rewarded with a very satisfying bass rumble and plenty of grunt. I could also hear way too much of the recording, with the distortion on the track making me want to turn it down, but that’s the software, not the system.
It does a decent enough job on rock but the speakers don’t go all that low even when close to a wall, and there’s a sense that the system is out of its depth at high levels. Compared to the performance on offer with more mellow music, this is notably not as good. There are speakers that would do a better job in this respect, even with only 15w of valve power, so a mix and match session would probably balance out the equation. Then again, getting masses of power is easy these days, if that’s your thing. It’s horses for courses and every single hi-fi system is compromised in one way or another, or in many ways. So this isn’t the sort of audio gear you’d buy to get Tiki Taane sounding realistic down the bottom of your lounge, as opposed to the local pub (before he got arrested at least).
The Other Side
For every up there’s a down, right? So it proves here – a system capable of delivering this much insight into what’s been captured in a recording doesn’t have a special filter button that turns down that discernment when you play a bad, compressed or compromised recording. The smooth nature of the Avatar II speakers does ease the pain by a small amount where a more edgy presentation might otherwise make things unbearable, but you’ll be in no doubt whatsoever when the software isn’t up to speed.
Don’t want to hear your favourite singer’s voice cracking in a live concert? Not keen on hearing when the vocalist gets too close to the mic or the engineer too close to the limiters? Rather not be privy to just how flat and undynamic some recordings actually are? Okay then, you’d better toddle of and listen to a different stereo system.
Again, this isn’t unique to the Living Voice and Shindo pairing; the further you move into the high-end, the less comfortable lousy recordings become (as Mr Steel pointed out). It’s just that some systems are more forgiving than others, and here you know what’s what all the time. For me, this honesty is cool. The flaws are part of the music. Up to a point that is: heavy compression and peak limiting are awful to hear. Listening to coarse bootlegged Dylan tracks or the raw Zevon songs on Preludes: Rare and Unreleased Recordings is a pleasure because you’re getting so close to what was captured on the day, but badly mastered music is a tough listen.
More Acoustic Notes
I’ve always found Natalie Merchant’s voice to be quite charming and I’ve been enjoying it from the earliest days of 10,000 Maniacs right through to her more recent work. Her Retrospective 1995-2005 compilation has some lovely songs on it, and this system made them sound as good as I remember hearing them. The level of insight into the recordings here is extreme.
I was checking a message on my iPhone while cuing up the final track on this CD, ‘Sally Ann’, which is one of my all time favourite female vocal performances. When the Marantz’s laser hit the groove and the fiddle came in, it sounded outright fabulous, rasping into the room with a vengeance. The vocal sounded even more amazing (what’s better than outright fabulous I wonder? Whatever it is, that’s what I had here), like she was in the room, along with the instruments; intense, emotional and impossible to ignore or treat as background muzak.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my number one review CD – Nil’s Lofgren’s Acoustic Live. I think I’ve played this on at least 90 percent of the hi-fi and home theatre systems or headphones that I’ve reviewed. I know it backwards, yet I still listen to it for pleasure.
I can’t make any claim here with absolute certainty because audio memory is as volatile as oilcloth in a fire, but I’m pretty darn sure that the guitar has never sounded quite this real to me. The briskly strummed section between 0:15 and 0:25 is so clearly rendered that it’s easy to visualize the fingers on the strings, and the combination of detail, texture, depth and speed makes it sound less like a facsimile than on most anything I can recall. The vocals are as clear and open as the guitar notes. In the past, I’ve heard more weight in the decay of the strings in certain parts of the song, extra impact when he thumps the guitar body and additional scale to the performance (not to mention more height to the images) but this performance was one of the most involving I can recall.
What’s Hi-Fi All About Anyway?
Being this close to the performance or having the impression of natural and unforced realism is captivating, and is where the Shindo/Living Voice system differs from many others I’ve heard. Some systems sound like good or even great hi-fi in the way they play back a recording, but they still sound like hi-fi; this, on the other hand, often sounds like music.
The difference isn’t light and dark; in fact, it’s subtle and it’s easy to disregard it by listening for the aspects of the hi-fi experience that you love best. The more you listen, however, and with the right music (that’s vital), the more there’s a realisation that something wonderful is happening, a shift in consciousness that creeps into your mind. Once it’s there, you have a problem, or in this case, I do.
The human auditory system is an exceedingly adaptable thing, and capable of making allowances when it needs to. Got a slight steely edge to a tweeter? Don’t stress, you’ll adapt and it’ll sound fine after a while. You may even tell yourself that it’s “highly detailed”. Dealing with a wee bass peak and a touch of honking from a speaker’s ports? No worries at all, it won’t be long before it sounds like a “generous bottom end”. Digital glare from your old CD player? That’s all good too, and it actually is because in small amounts, everything from clangy metal domes to resonating boxes can be tuned out, accepted or explained away.
Even the tiny things that we’re only subconsciously aware of (crossover distortion, unnatural sounds from strange driver materials, hum, hiss), those little things that prickle at the back of your mind won’t stop you enjoying the music. That’s a good thing because they’re found on so many systems, even expensive ones. Nothing is perfect in this game, and we can only hope to come up with the best possible compromise for our tastes and budgets.
Those compensations and concessions, conscious or otherwise, just don’t seem to be a factor here. Sure, it would be terrific if the Montille had 400 watts of heat free power with no change in character (or cost), maybe the Aurieges could have a 24/192 DAC built in, along with a remote for the couch potatoes out there and perhaps the speakers could reach down to 16Hz without getting any bigger but that’s all wishful thinking. Actually, it’s bullshit that doesn’t matter one whit. Sonically, where it counts, the one area that matters and which is what hi-fi is all about, there’s a purity here that I’ve never heard quite as distinctly in the past. It reminds me of a system fed by an exceptional turntable, despite the fact that my Marantz is no analogue machine. I know it well and it’s got that Marantz CD sound to it in every way, but here, it’s as smooth as polished glass without being tamed or boring.
I’m not for a moment saying that this system is all things to all men. It’s not. After all, one man’s meat is another’s poison and nothing is as subjective as the arts. Hi-fi is definitely as much an art as it’s a science when you come down to it, and I’ve heard more than a few approaches to this blend of passion and engineering I love. There are so many different ways to spend this much money in audioland. Between all the brands, amplifier topologies, speaker designs and cable materials, not to mention all the sources, it would be hard for anyone to tabulate all the options and combinations.
Some equivalently priced systems will hit harder, with big bass, huge impact and the ability to reproduce the levels of a Drum and Bass show, and some buyers will love that. Others will turn to the revelatory capabilities of electrostatic speakers so they can hear a pin drop in the corner of their vast soundstage. Some systems will be much more balanced and able to do justice to mellow jazz as easily as they resurrect Hendrix.
Even my own system is more adept with the hard stuff and can do things that make my spine tingle, but getting me this close to the belief that I’m listening to real people playing music on actual instruments? That it can’t quite do, but then again, very few can.
I’ve always been into detail and subtleties in musical playback, along with textural information, accuracy and that old chestnut called “foot tapping musicality”. This system offers all that and more, within its limits, of course. It moves along quite nicely in the direction my gear was always heading, as long as most of my listening was always in the more mellow acoustic area, which it isn’t. So the Shindo amp and preamp could stay for sure, but I’d look for different speakers. I’m hearing good things about DeVore and will hopefully be able to cadge some time in front of a Shindo/DeVore system soon, just for interest’s sake.
Which brings us to the end of the tale. This has to be one of the strangest reviews since our hapless caveman blogged about his time-displaced oxtail soup and coq au vin on a long forgotten rock-face using berry pigment and pastes. It’s also far too long but it’s been hard to precisely define this collection of audio gear. Cutting to the chase: I’m totally taken with the Shindo components; as enchanted as I hoped never to be. I’m also terrified to consider that these are the entry level to the Shindo Labs range.
There’s a remarkable level of synergy here, but as good as the Living Voice speakers are (and they are very good indeed, within their limitations), I believe that it’s Ken Shindo’s magic that elevates them, along with the source to superior levels. Throw a much better source on the front and get the speakers you prefer, assuming you need more than the Avatar II’s, and you’d be set for life. This is the kind of sound that has the owner occasionally staring between the speakers in bewildered amazement. If you own a stereo system costing this kind of money, or more for that matter, and you’re not feeling like that on a regular basis, then you made a mistake and that’s all there is to it.
Shindo Labs gear is craftsmanship the way it used to be, pure and simple, and that does something to the pride of ownership factor that few other audio brands can approach. I can think of no finer way to spend my audio dollars, and I’d urge anyone with the cash who deeply loves their music to at least audition Ken Shindo’s components, if only to broaden their perspective – this is without doubt, where the heart of the music can be found. ASHLEY KRAMER
Living Voice – www.soultosoleaudio.com
Shindo Labs and Audiotorium 23 www.turned-onaudio.co.nz