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Interview with O.Sydney

O.Sydney is an audiophile with a real love of live music – he loves the energy of the performers, the audience and the music. But he loves his home system even more. Here to talks with Tom Waters about his love of all music, his boyhood adventures, his journey to Maggie nirvana, plans for his musical future, the friends he’s made along the way, and how ‘good enough’ beats chasing that elusive ultimate system. For him, it’s all about the spiritual experience of music, how it makes him feel.

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

O.Sydney's audio systemTom Waters: Do you have a first memory, a first unforgettable musical experience that left an impression?

O.Sydney: Yes, I recall around 16 years of age hanging out in the local Tandy store and heard the Mach One speakers and thought wow that sounds like real music with tonnes of bass and real sounding guitar midrange. It was then that I started to realize what was possible. By the time I had saved up enough the Mach Ones were being phased out for the Two's, so thinking the new model was better (the special price certainly was) I bought a pair.

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

OS: No, it didn’t..! It was a bit of a start as it made me aware, but it was short lived as I earned very little money so I could hardly ever buy anything I liked. And then the journey came to a grinding halt when beer and girls took over as priorities in the late teens and beyond, it wasn't until I was around 40 that I resumed travelling this road.

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

OS: I'm happy with the sound I've got. After the initial buying spree 2 years ago it's now more tweaking and small gradual low cost improvements, particularly with fine tuning the sources upstream from the pre amp. I've also enjoyed learning to tune the system within the room; I was so pleasantly surprised with the difference this has made. (Bill McLean from McLean Smarter Home Entertainment was very helpful with this tuning – I bought the Maggies from Bill.) When you indulge in a hobby over a number of years it's more enjoyable, and even more so when you dedicate a lot of time to listen to music.

My audio system is a visually prominent feature at home and the amount of time it's playing music indicates its importance. Regardless of actual financial outlay I consider it to be absolute value compared to a $2000 TV or a car that does not get used that much.

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

OS: I wouldn't sell any of it except the PC or basic preamp perhaps. I see the PC as more disposable than quality audio gear. I love my 3.6 Magneplanars and likely wouldn’t sell them, but I suppose I’d upgrade to the 20.7’s if I had the money! Absolutely!

TW: You don’t use a subwoofer. They can be hard to integrate with the main panels but have you ever thought of experimenting?

OS: I miss the deep bass maybe 5% of the time. If the content is well-recorded I don’t feel like I’m missing much, but for movies yes, sometimes. 95% of the time they go deep enough for most music content.

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

OS: When a bigger budget of play money presents itself, a native DSD DAC or a better pre amp will be the next major purchase. But for the near future I may look at a high quality linear power supply to keep the Audiophilleo 2 off the grid – it will be more convenient than small battery packs which need constant charging. I could also experiment further with another USB cable, and at some point speaker cables. And I might experiment with other music server software products too.

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

OS: I can’t say I’ve heard a home system that I recall as most memorable. I listen to a lot of live music and the most memorable system I ever heard was at a festival over a long weekend in 2012. I think the System was called the KV2 system. There were about 1000 people in an open air setting – the system had air, transparency, silence between the notes, it had clarity! It was sound quality that you don’t normally get in indoor venues let alone outdoors. For example at this year’s Homebake festival all the stages sounded very compromised in sound quality in my opinion.

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

OS: No, only the ones that I regret not buying.

TW: Your system is solely a file-based system. What music server software do you usually use, and what have you experimented with?

OS: I use FooBar for every day, its configurable, its free, its open-source, it sounds reasonably good. For more attentive listening I use AudioGate, it has smoother mids and lower and better defined bass on my system. I’m a big fan of free open software – there’s a big community of programmers that do it for the love of it. It’s like a lot of musicians. I’ve experimented with a few other music server programs but nothing worth mentioning.

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

OS: Yes, except for test tones :)

I do have a regular set of discs I take whenever I go to see Bill McLean in Gosford. He’s got a brand new sound room now with the 20.7 Magneplanars setup. Lovely! And I also take them to the Sydney Audio Club meetings to compare the sound of familiar music.

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

OS: I've been listening to a lot of electronica lately - psy trance, dark prog to ambient (like Brian Eno). I also listen to classical and jazz but I go through cycles. It’s more a mood thing.

Some artists I like include Mariza, Ray LaMontagne, Youn Sun Nah, Anouar Brahem, Mark Knopfler, Marcin Wasilewski Trio for World music, Pantha Du Prince, Nicolas Jaar, Nick Tsiavos, Monolake, Jon Hopkins, Donato Dozzy & Neel and Alva Noto + Ryuichi Sakamoto for Ambient tech dub glitch whatever. And also including the following Electronic DJ/Producers: Robag Wruhme, John Talabot, Tom Cosm, Donny Darko, Shadowfinder, Thomas Schumacher, Oliver Lieb, Kyoshi, Max Cooper, Miss Shiva, Magda, Struggä & Tobiaaz favourites from Soundcloud.

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

OS: If you pardon my cheek, these days it's hard to imagine being stuck with only 3 albums when so much music can fit on a tiny chip. But really, music is about moods – you choose music that suits the moment. A person has so many different moods that it’s difficult to pick just a few albums. As well, at times you want to create a particular mood. If pushed for an answer I’d say pick from the above.

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

OS: I like it – it works for me! The sound is velvety and on the warmish side depending on how I'm feeding the speakers, ie. different PC audio players have their own sound signature and also the method of powering the Audiophilleo 2 changes things. I can accept a slight loss of detail for a more relaxed and meaty sound. One of the negatives of living so close to the CBD of a big city such as Sydney is that the sound quality changes depending on how dirty the power is. On weekends for example the sound is much cleaner.

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

OS: I'm fortunate to live within a few blocks of many live music venues, which I attend regularly but being home with good sound is most important to me. It's not uncommon for music at home to be on for at least 20 hours per week. I sometimes use it to enhance whatever mood I'm in or to moderate a mood. For the occasional party it definitely makes a big difference to all.

TW: You obviously love live music. What is the attraction?

OS: It’s the energy created by the performers. Energy created by people in the audience. That all gives it something the home system won’t give. If the band is tight, the crowd is getting into it, the sound quality is good then you can’t help but enjoy it. Even if its music I don’t normally listen to.

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

AmpsOS: I think the high-end will enjoy a slow growth till the next economic growth cycle, then much broader acceptance of investing in good equipment capable of producing good music. The main reasons are: technology and innovation helping bring good sound at a lower price point, more promotional avenues for manufacturers and enthusiasts to spread the word through electronic media, acceptance and awareness of non mp3 music sources which will drive mastering studios to use best practice with sound quality as a priority.

People will purchase from specialist manufacturers because of the poor service they are getting from store chains. Online sales will continue to have good growth for lower end product.

And young people hooked on mass media will surely be exposed to at least the rumours of better sound so they will go looking at possibilities. I’ve heard cases of kids buying $100 head phones – they wouldn’t be doing that without some exposure somewhere. That’s how they start, that’s how they get “hooked”. Lower prices give wider appeal, and more technology provides more exposure. So I feel optimistic about the high-end.

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

OS: What I'd like to see is an International or a National body for the promotion of high end audio. Areas of improvement include: different methods of finding and paying for music - it's all a bit scattered, years ago it was a few local record shops and you could by over the counter, now there's thousands of online places you have to surf through and signup for an account, then pay and download. And with some sites you have re-register every time before you purchase – it’s just all too difficult. Also, we need an agreed sound quality reference / ranking accompanying each advertised piece of music for sale.