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Interview with NN

NN loves technology… mention theory, exotic materials, scientific evidence, graphs, MQA, DSP, room measurement software and his eyes start to well-up… with tears of happiness!

This interview by Tom Waters was originally published in Sound Travels (reprinted with permission of nextmedia Pty Ltd).

Tom Waters: Do you have a first memory, a first unforgettable musical experience that left an impression?

NN: Both my parents loved Western classical music and as a child I went to many concerts. We always had around the house some basic low-end mono equipment to play records with which I was always tinkering. I loved to take the covers off our Grundig tape deck and watch all the complex mechanics at play.  And I remember thinking that tin foil was the toughest thing around so I used it to insulate myself from electricity.  That wasn’t very clever – I did learn quickly though!

TW: And did that start you on the hi-fi journey or did something else start you on the audio equipment quest?

NN: By the time I was around 17 and in my last year of school, I began hankering for the better stereo audio experience which I heard at friend’s homes. I pestered my father to please buy such a stereo system. He declined, but wise man that he was, said that if I passed my school exams with very good grades he would find a way to afford something for me. My school final exam studies were interspersed with devouring the latest copy of Hi Fi News in search of “what to buy when I passed school with first-class grades”. My grades were good and my first hi-fi system was on order.

I went straight to the top of the hi-fi class with efficient 15” Tannoy Monitor Golds in homemade brick cabinets, Garrard 401 turntable, SME 12” arm, Shure V15 cartridge, Armstrong solid-state amp all of which made me very popular with my peers and we’d all gather at my home to devour the latest rock & pop albums.

TW: Where do you think your system is going, or has it arrived?

NN: My system has a long way to go before I’ll be satisfied.  There is work to improve the sound-stage, the low frequency response and the room acoustics.  I’d also like to start upgrading my audio library to higher res source files.  I’m somewhat happy with the mid and upper registers, but my panel speakers don’t have a good bottom end - they’re a bit thin.  I’ll get one or two Rythmik Audio sub-woofers, cross them over at around 100Hz.  I also have a new preamp on order – it’s the Emotiva XSP-1 to complement my Emotiva XPA-2 power amp.  [This new preamp was received before this article went to press and is shown in some photos.   TomW]  When I work on the acoustics I want to do it in a scientific way.  I’ve used REW (Room EQ Wizard) with a calibrated microphone to “see” what my room is doing.  I plan to build my own limp-mass bass absorbers, specifically tuned to my room’s problem frequencies of 50Hz and 70Hz.  I’d like to reduce or eliminate the room correction dialled into my DSP (by DSPeaker) that I use right now.  Lastly, I really should experiment with other speaker positions in my room – being dipoles they need more air behind them to sound their best.

TW: We talked earlier of MQA (Master Quality Authenticated).  It hasn’t taken off yet, perhaps it’s still too early, but do you see a place for it in high quality streaming services perhaps, for example Tidal?

NN: Yes, it may be too early, but 50+ companies have expressed interest in it.  I think in 2016 we’ll see it start to kick off.  It’s brilliant as a mathematical solution to the issue of how to pack high-res into a small footprint.  Streaming would be a great application for it.  I’d be happy to subscribe to such a service.  I still prefer to have the music/data local, but streaming is the direction things are headed.  I think streaming is being promoted because the sellers of the music don’t lose control over it. 

TW: What’s your favourite piece of equipment at the moment, something that you wouldn’t sell?

NN: I currently have a love-hate relationship with my new Magnepan 1.7i’s. They are incredibly revealing of flaws up-stream. So I find myself nit-picking about source-material quality, room acoustics and other flies in the ointment.  My Emotiva power amp sounds good and has been very reliable.  So much so that making the decision to buy their preamp was very easy.  Emotiva is such great value because in the U.S. (where they are manufactured) they don’t sell through dealer channels, but favour internet sales.  The sales model is a bit different for overseas sales but still very competitive (their dealer here has a minimal mark-up).

TW: What do you see as your next hi-fi purchase or upgrade?

NN: The Magnepan 1.7i’s have great performance from 100Hz up, but below that they are pretty thin. So the next step is beefing up the bottom end with some 12” servo woofers and an electronic crossover.  Then there is the new preamp on order.  I’m quite happy with my Enspire PC music server – it’s a purpose built PC that runs Windows 10 and JRiver.  It was built by David Kong in Marrickville.  It talks to my 8 Drobo drives in my office.  As I mentioned earlier, I’ll then need to work on the room acoustics to control some nasty room-modes I’ve noticed using REW. 

TW: Your entire system is digital, would you ever consider a turntable?

NN: I used to have a turntable, but in the end, it’s such an effort.  You’ve got to be really passionate about vinyl for it to work – I just don’t have the time or patience these days.  Turntables are complex and fiddly.  It’s all too hard!

TW: What’s the most memorable pair of speakers (or system as a whole) you’ve ever heard?

NN: I recently heard a friend’s Quad ESL 2912 speakers and fell in love with the openness of panel speakers like Quad, Magnepan and others in spite of their obvious flaws.  I also heard the B&W Nautilus speakers at a high end dealer overseas – that was a fantastic demo, but not long enough.  I like these designs because they sound less “boxy” to me.  It seems that you usually have to spend big bucks to get rid of the boxy sound in many box speakers.

TW: Is there any component you’ve owned and sold that you now regret selling?

NN: When I migrated to Australia I gave away my entire hi-fi system of Tannoy 15” Monitor Golds, solid state amp, Garrard 401 turntable, SME 12” arm, Shure V15 cartridge.  Just gave it all and hundreds of albums away to friends! What a dumb-ass move that was!  And to rub salt into the wound, I recently discovered that all my precious gear ended up being discarded.

TW: Do you use the same music for comparing components as you do for listening pleasure?

NN: Generally not.  I have some go-to high-res files I use for system evaluation but having over-played them, I prefer to listen to other music.  I tend to go to Pink Floyd and other high-res stuff that I have.  I love taking my test tracks to other people’s homes because it gives you such a great reference point. 

TW: What genre of music do you listen to mostly and who are some of your favourite artists?

NN: A mix of classical and rock/pop.  I was a bit of a hippie in the flower power ‘daze’ and listened to lots of Pink Floyd.  These days I listen to Adele, Carol King, James Taylor, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Rachmaninoff and this guy that most people have never heard of, Leo Delibes (French classical composer, 1836-1891).  He has composed opera and ballet too.

TW: What would be your ‘desert island’ music albums if you could only choose, say, three works?

NN: Likely these suspects - Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 5 “The Emperor”, Rachmaninoff Symphony No. 2 and Leo Delibes “Sylvia”.

TW: How would you describe the sound you’re getting from your current system?

NN: Very revealing from 100Hz upwards but there’s still scope for refinement.  Needs more oomph below that!  Room acoustics and layout need attention too.  My DSP solution is a temporary one (I think!) because I’m too lazy to sort out the room issues right now.   It really helped a lot with my old B&W speakers – they were very boomy in this room but the DSPeaker largely cured that and made them listenable.

TW: In what way does music affect your life, your emotions and the way you feel?

NN: Some might say I’ve gone loopy, but in every quiet moment there’s a tune going in my head, so I’d have to say music is probably integral to life.  I’ve always been surrounded by music – some might say I’m obsessed with it.   And I’ve made my kids promise to crank up the volume at my funeral in celebration of my taking flight!

TW: You seem to be someone that would play a musical instrument…?

NN: I played piano a bit when I was young, but I was never very good.  Actually, I’d forgotten something until now…  When I was young I used all my expertise and ran a sound studio for 6 years.  We broke down part of a wall between two rooms and put a double-glass isolation window up to create a studio and a control room.  I designed the acoustic treatment for both rooms.  It was all fairly rudimentary by today’s standards.  We also did sound re-enforcement and live shows.  I drifted out of that when I got into photography, video and then multimedia and eventually became a professional photographer. 

TW: Where do you see the high-end audio industry going in the future?

NN: It’s great that there are now all these amazing new materials and manufacturing processes available that make it possible to build audio components that were inconceivable years ago.  Anything new tends to be expensive though, hopefully technology will trickle down.  Prices and profit margins are outrageous at the high-end of town, but there is tons of outstanding equipment providing massive bang-for-buck. That is the gear I look for!  Personally I don’t think it’s necessary to spend 100K for a good system.  And with the faster CPUs we have today, we can write even more clever software and excellent DSPs.  Evidence of this is already making itself obvious in small clever boxes (MiniDSP, DSPeaker, DEQX, etc.) that do amazing things with audio.  There will always be the high-end but I really don’t think you need to spend huge to achieve high-end sound.

TW: Where would you like the audio industry to go or to evolve to?

NN: More rapid trickle down of high-end technologies to the low and mid-market to better democratise the wonderful experience of hearing great sound in your own home.  Technologies like beryllium and ceramic cones, diamond vapor deposit cone coating, 5 axis precision milling machines, 3D printing, MQA, DSP and many others are feeding the revolution in bringing high-end sound to the masses.  I want to see that continue at an even faster pace and revolutionize products at affordable prices.

Equipment List:

  • Server is a Windows 10 PC with JRiver in Server Mode.
  • The media centre is an Enspire quiet PC with Windows 10 and JRiver in Client mode.  Specially made by David Kong.
  • Connected storage is a DroboPro with an 8 drive RAID configuration and up to 30 TB of storage.
  • DSPeaker Anti-Mode 2.0 Dual Core loudspeaker optimization system.
  • Emotiva XPA-2 power amp.
  • Emotiva XSP-1 preamp (new).
  • Room EQ Wizard software (REW).
  • UMIK-1 omni-directional USB measurement calibrated microphone.
  • Rythmik Audio F12E direct servo subwoofer (purchased but not integrated yet).

(Interview by Tom Waters, President, Sydney Audio Club