Cross product of maturity of audiophile and hi-fi system design

I was thinking about all the different stereo systems at RMAF. Thinking about how each system seems to attract at least some people. Thinking about how bizarre this seemed to us, being that some of the systems were really quite poor sounding. Thinking about how Best Buy also does manage to sell some of their hi-fi systems from time to time. And thinking about how to sell things to those mystical members of the often talked about but rarely seen… General Public.

There seems to be a discrete set of stages, or levels, a person goes through when discovering just how some systems really don’t suck.

These stages of discovery are more or less these:

0. This sucker goes LOUD!
1. Whoa! big bass!
2. Hmmm… big bass and it can do soft delicate sound too
3. Oh my, resolution. I can hear things that I never heard before
4. Weird, I can ‘see’ the instruments and musicians! Imaging!
5. Coolness, some instruments and musicians appear to be close, and some way, way back beyond the front wall; soundstaging
6. Why do some systems make be want to tap my toe or dance? PRAT
7. Wow! Why doesn’t the (harmonica, brass, violins, etc.) on this system hurt my ears like all those other systems?
8. Discovery of ones own personal preference
9. *swoon* … engagement, soulfulness
10. Discovery of other’s personal preferences
11. Naturalness, organic sound, basic levels of believably, how some hi-fis do not have to sound like a hi-fi
13. Inner detail, texture, micro-dynamics. Cocaine.
14. Realistic resolution and resolution linearity. Deeper kinds of believably.
15. Reproduced note envelopes can really be like real notes? Wow.
16. Harmonic / timbrel linearity. Deeper, ever deeper believably.
17. Separation. No more mashed potatoes. Hear every instrument using your mental spyglasses.
18. Dynamic integrity / linearity. Deep, so deep believably
19. Inner harmonic detail. 12+14+16+18 = heroin.
20. Real-life harmonics. Recognizing the almost universal lack of such.
21. Real-life dynamics. Recognizing the almost universal lack of such.
1000. Forget it all, where’s the bliss?

Probably forgot a few. I keep swapping 8, 9, 10 and 11, and as far as the rest of the ordering goes, YMMV.

OK. Here are some weird observations.

The Wilson demo at RMAF was designed for people between level 1 and 2 [you can watch the video of the presentation on YouTube]. The demo was largely successful among the people who type things on blogs, forums and online magazines. But not so successful among people who call us looking for expensive speakers.

Our rooms at RMAF had been designed for people around stages 15 and 16. This was fairly successful among the people who call us looking for expensive speakers. This received quite a bit less public fanfare, however, than the Wilson room. Lamm rooms typically seem designed for people around stages 9 and 10 (same Wilson speakers, more or less, as above).

Audio Note tries to convince people they should just skip to level 1000. They have some success with the general public with this idea. They also have some success with people all along the way at the other levels because of their basic approach, innate quality and the ability of some of us to create hybrid systems with the gear.

Wilson also has some success with people all along the way at the other levels because of their basic approach, innate quality and the ability of some of us to create hybrid systems with the gear.

At shows, you can find systems targeting audiophiles at all stages of maturity, just like you can find audiophiles at all stages of maturity.

Here on the blog, we like rooms where the stage of the system, as a function of the price, makes it either a good deal [like Acoustic Zen speaker-based systems, or, lately it seems, like the Magico S1 speaker-based systems] or where the stage of the system is very high, unfortunately often commensurate with its very high price.

I like all the in-between stages, not just level 1000, because I think they are really fun and entertaining in ways that just plain great music is just… not.

And I would be willing to argue that from just experiencing some of these stages one learns how to reach deeper and deeper into reality and discovers several secrets about what it means to be alive and how to better enjoy existence. Certainly more so than the vast majority of things that people do for fun in their spare time. 🙂

Anyway, the choices exhibitors make when it comes to what stage of audiophiles to design their systems for is interesting and has many consequences, many of which are not at all clear.

Evaluating Gear using the Heart versus Mind Approach

Different than Warm versus Cold Sound

Looking at gear in terms of where it lies on the Heart < --- > Mind scale is different from comparing things based on their sound’s relative warmth or coldness. For one, we are talking about the effect on the listener and not some under-defined properties of the sound [typically 2nd harmonic distortion and plentiful micro-dynamics versus overly aggressive note attacks and/or flat note tops and minimal ability to render subtleties].

For another, we are removing any assessment of the quality of the sound. Sound quality is on a whole separate scale. We can talk about high-quality and low quality components and why they are of this quality completely separate from talking about whether they primarily target the heart of the listener or their mind.

How to Assess Basic Quality

How the component performs with respect to our 3 main mental Music Processors gives us a sense of the basic quality of a component [the other, Pattern Detecting/Matching Processors help us assess the drug-like possibilities of the component]

Our Believability Helper Processor

How much effort does our mind have to exert to convince us that the sound we are hearing is actually music. Typically non-audiophiles ignore how much effort they are putting into this processor and almost all audio gear sounds believable to them.

Our Whiteout Processor

How much of the sound is so bad that we have to completely erase as it is coming into our ears. This may vary for person to person: for me it is often the beginning of each note that I mentally erase when the sound is too aggressive. Hard to do this forever [more than a few seconds :-)] though.

Our Rainbow Processor

How much of our mental energy are we having to add to make the sound sound Grrrreat.

How to Assess General Location of a Component on the Heart versus Mind Scale

This is hard to put in words.

For me, I figure out which part of me is listening to the music. If it is mostly mental: hear that awesome note, hear that tight bass note, boy those chines sound so beautiful – then you know that the sound is appealing to your mind.

If you keep getting swept into the music, having to fight to ‘maintain’ your adult [cool, calm, collected] demeanor when others are around, a feeling of wanting to smile or cry or dance, then the sound is appealing to your heart.

Some gear doesn’t appeal to either Heart or Mind. This kind of gear is unappealing and one has to rely on one’s Rainbow Processor to make it appealing in some manner.

Usually the sound of a piece of gear is a combination of Heart and Mind and depends somewhat on one’s mood to start with, and also the particular piece being played [but not as much as one might think].

Building Systems

Usually we build systems for people that balance Mind and Heart, with good doses of both, unless they really have a preference one way or another. This is kind of like balancing a warm component with a cool component, except that it works independent of how warm or cool the components are [terms which are derogatory terms to many people] – instead addressing directly what affect the listener wants to achieve. For example, one can build a Mind-centric system composed completely of what some would call warm tube gear.


We apply this approach to the real-world and compare popular gear using their position on the Heart < -- > Mind scale.

Break-through amplifiers. Part II

So, lets compare the Audio Note U.K. Gaku-on and Lamm ML3 amps.

The Gaku-On is a $265,000 monoblock 211-based amp [I think of it sometimes as 2 very souped-up Ongaku amps without a volume control]

The Lamm ML3 Signature is a $139,490 monoblock GM-70-based amp [4 boxes: 2 amps plus 2 power supplies]


Though I understand just a very little about how these amps break new ground in technology and simplicity of design, I am not qualified to compare them to other designs out there and describe why these are significantly better. So, although these are pretty obviously breakthrough amps in terms of technology [just look at the circuits – it is simplicity itself], it is really the breakthroughs in terms of the listening experience that is, and what some say [including us, and many others of this blog :-)] should be, the real criteria for breakthrough-level excellence.

The technology of the Gaku-On is found in several other amps from AN including the Kegon Balanced. Some of the technology of the ML3 is found in their matching L1 preamplifier.

Audiophile Characteristics

I feel that the ML3 has more resolution than the Gaku-On, but both have more than any other amp we have heard. The Gaku-On has purer harmonics than the ML3, much purer than any other amp we have heard [especially when paired with the better AN amps and digital sources]. The ML3 has greater harmonic resolution and harmonic and dynamic linearity, again breaking new ground. The Gaku-On is more dynamic and dynamically nimble, breaking new ground here itself [live with these for awhile and you will understand in a visceral and indelible manner why most big amps and solid-state amps have real problems with the kind of dynamics found in real music]. The ML3 has a quieter, startlingly dark background although the Gaku-On is itself among the most quiet tube amps in the world.

But enough with the audiophile chatter… 🙂

Character of the Amps

These can be thought of, I think, in terms of Heart versus Mind [though it is a Yin Mind and a Yang Heart we are talking about here].

When one things of Yin amplifiers versus Yang amplifiers one might think of, say, Jadis amps versus old Krell amps. And certainly the idea that Yin represents winning us to its side through delicacy and Yang through overwhelming power… kind…of… represents the case here…

The idea is that the Lamm ML3 presents music in a very sophisticated, delicate, intricate and accurate manner – and the Audio Note UK Gaku-On in a dynamic, colorful, and enthusiastic manner.

Effect of the Amps

The effects are more similar than what one might expect, especially when you realize that the heart can be won by convincing the mind [some say we always consciously (mentally) CHOOSE who we fall in love with], and the mind can be won by convincing the heart [e.g. love is blind, all you need is love, etc.].

I feel that the Gaku-On pulls harder on the heart strings, that the dynamic swells and casual ease and rich, insidiously TRUTHFUL color overwhelms our inhibitions and forces us to fall heels over head into the music.

I feel that the ML3 pulls harder on the higher mental functions, that the dynamic and harmonic resolution and convincingness is so entrancing that the mind is unable to resist falling head over heels into the music.

Strength of the Effect

It depends

You might think that after a day of doing math homework, say, you might want… something different – something that appeals to the heartstrings to distract your tired mind from a day’s hard work? Or would you want something that is intellectual but incredibly beautiful that sneaks into the head which is already open to intellectual stimulation.

Similarly, after a day of arguing with nincompoops, you might want something refined and delicate, the best of humanity in high resolution. But, maybe you want to just blast away all remembrances and de-nincompoop the day with some beautiful, heart-rending stimulation.

Both these amps are fun. Both help distract me from the days’ travails. Both are convincing and exciting and delicious. And even if I sometimes THINK I would prefer one or the other, I am wrong as often as I am right.

But that is me. I enjoy equally well both appeals to the heart and to the mind…. just sometimes more one than the other.

Mental Pattern Matching

Now that we have described some of the basic characteristics of these amps, we can try and talk about the listening experiences in more detail.

Our Believability Helper Processor
Our Whiteout Processor

These amps, largely based on the quality of their reproduction, require previously unheard of low levels of use of our fixer-upper mental processors. They are far more believable and have far fewer annoying characteristics than other amps currently available and/or that we have heard.

Our Rainbow Processor

Our desire and ability to mentally enhance our music in a fun and exaggerated manner never flags, and with these amps there is no exception, although the need or desire to do so is lessened quite a bit.

Our Pattern Detection Processor
Our Pattern Matching Processor

Here is where we can start comparing the amps and how they differ in what they offer the listener.

[Please note I am somewhat exaggerating the differences in order to better explain what is happening to a listener. In reality there is quite a bit of overlap as both amps are able to render the all kinds of music quite well and convincingly]

The extreme resolution of the ML3 lends itself the ability to render very complex patterns. These patterns stimulate the higher cortex of the brain. [I think. Therefore I am]

The extreme purity and dynamics of the Gaku-On lends itself to render very deep, primal patterns. Patterns that stimulate our human and animal natures. [Woof!]

[I feel like I should write more here in this section. But… well… see previous posts about how the patterns in music cause matching resonances in our brains, resonances that aid us in thinking and understanding and feeling things.]

Our Emotional Contexualizer

Both amps draw out the emotional subtleties of the music. In somewhat different ways, as described above, but both are very emotional amps.

Our Beauty / Wonder / Spiritual Processor

Similar to the emotions, both can frequently provide glimmers, nay stark proof, of the beauty of the universe.

An example: these amps on the Marten Coltrane Supreme Speakers

Putting the ML3 on the Supremes is pairing like with like. They are both high resolution and capable of rendering exquisitely subtle detail. People who are looking just for music that stimulates their heart, and not their mind, will not be so pleased. Those who like both will enjoy the experience quite a bit. And those who are primarily looking for music that stimulates the mind first and foremost, these people will be flabbergasted.

We played this exact system at RMAF … 2008? … and if you read the reviews, you are able to see immediately the preferences of the reviewer. The next year we brought the Gaku-On amps in a mostly Audio Note system. This mostly ‘appealing to the heart’ system flabbergasted those who really did not like nor understand the above system, these people preferring their music to be heart-centric rather than mind-centric.

Putting the Gaku-On on the Supremes is pairing male with female, chocolate and peanut butter. The combination sounds like the perfect horn speaker: a dynamic, high-resolution, harmonically rich point source. This was a more balanced, both heart-and-mind centric sound. Systems like this are a good compromise if you, like me, like both heart-centric and mind-centric sound.

Comparison to other sounds

Mind-centric does not mean cold and unemotional. Cold and unemotional systems have insufficient resolution to render the subtleties required to communicate emotion in voices and instruments [often because the speakers are too hard to drive and small sounds just get lost as the amps struggle with the major sounds] .

Heart-centric does not mean fake or sugary sound. The often used epithet used by people who fear heart-centric sound is artificially sweet is undeserved for real heart-centric systems. If there is to be more than just one emotion communicated by a system [like cheap wine, missing is all the wonderful variety of flavors possible], it needs to be high-resolution and highly realistic.


For a long time I preferred the Gaku-On and neli preferred the ML3. The I’d hear the ML3 and she would hear our Kegons or something and we’d swap. We’d go back and forth, usually wanting the opposite of what the other wanted [yes, some of it due to husbandly cantankerousness, but also some of it because I really do know best and she just kept getting it wrong :-)].

I lot of the appreciation of life, for me, comes when one knows what one appreciates. Not so much from getting what one appreciates, but understanding just where one stands with respect to where quality can be found. I know which two amps I want, and this does make the world make a little more sense than back in the day when I was a fish biting on everything that came along – including all those rocks, leaves and whatnot.