Not Your Typical Review

One person at a time.  That’s what Buddhists refer to as the best approach for spreading harmony and setting people on the right path.  The same approach should be taken when spreading the word of higher end audio, one person at a time.

Good music provides enjoyment.  Great sounding music stimulates the imagination.  That’s what this stereo review is about; a test to measure the enjoyment and imagination created when listening to great sounding music.  I was the control subject with decades of listening to higher end stereos and a large library of music.  The test subject would never have listened to higher end stereos and would have a limited exposure to the variety and volume of music available.

Based upon the requirements I decided to convert my neighbor, Big T, into an audiophile.  His sources of music were a decades old RCA boombox and an antiquated truck stereo with the doors wide open.  He and his wife would crank out light rock and country music while working in the garage and around the yard.  Knowing that he liked music made him a suitable candidate.  Knowing that he liked beer made him even more suitable.

The journey began about a month after my hip operation, the time I was coming out of the pain killing fog; I decided to upgrade my stereo.  Off I went to see my audio cognoscenti, Darren at K&W Audio.  Darren and I go back a long way, and he goes back even further in the rich history of the audio business.  For 40+ years I’ve been buying great sounding audio gear from him.  I had an idea of what I wanted, and it didn’t take him long to send me home with the following:

  • Prima Luna – Dialog Premium HP Integrated Tube Amplifier
  • Totem – Forest Signature Speakers complete with bi-wire cable.
  • Blue Sound – Vault 2 (Network Hard Drive, Hi-Res CD Ripper, and Music Streamer)

In a period of a year, with the new stereo in hand, I converted Big T into an audiophile and fostered a relationship where conversation, story telling, and music, would be worthy of a radio show.  Sitting around a kitchen table having a beer is one thing, throw in a high-end stereo and life takes on a new flavor.

After the initial break in period, of both my new stereo and my neighbor, I turned things up, both in volume and variety.  Big T became enthralled with all the new music he was introduced to.  There were many evenings full of cheerful, story creating banter with the stereo playing in the background, as well as very frequent interludes of the Prima Luna and Totems cranked to sheer performance with music such as Cowboy Junkies “I Don’t Want to be a Soldier” and Prince “Sign ‘O’ the Times”.

I became more engaged the more I listened.  Buyer’s remorse had long since dissipated and even the cost of the custom, magnificently built, bi-wire Totem speaker cables became worth every penny.

I would never have guessed, but one-night, Big T became mesmerized with Miles Davis’s “Amandla”.   He excused himself from the kitchen table, sat in front of the stereo and asked me to turn it up. Without hesitation, from my iPhone to the Blue Sound, I turned up the Prima Luna like a narcissistic junkie.  I sat at the kitchen table, watching him catch every note pouring out of the speakers.  I knew that the first stage of his conversion was complete; he had entered the jazz zone.  He excitedly talked about the music in the way an audiophile would.  As he described clarity, presence, depth, dynamics, detail, sound stage, imaging, although not in those exact terms, I thought of calling Darren and asking for a finder’s fee on the upcoming sale.

It was like Homer’s Sirens luring in a wayward sailor.  From Miles I took him further into deeper unknown territory.

The relationship almost fell apart after I played Lara St. John’s “Bach: The Concerto Album”.    He found out I had tickets to her concert, and I was taking my son, not him.  His attitude changed once I played him some Buddha Lounge and “Dona Cre Tun”.  I tamed the wild beast.

Each evening I played something new for him.  “Jazz at the Pawnshop”, Beethoven cellos, The Cure, Roxy Music, Opus Recordings, Yellow, he breathed it all in and expanded his musical appreciation to new and wonderous heights.  He heard things on familiar recordings that he had never heard before and heard music he never knew existed.  Even I would excuse myself from the kitchen table, sit in front of the speakers, wind up the stereo, drop my analytical and technical mind, and be truly happy that I bought it.

The stereo plays everything well.  From the quintessential BIS recording of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” to Melissa Ethridge’s Live in New York “I Won’t be alone tonight”. The sound never failed us.  Our top ten favorites became a moving target, changing frequently, and eventually hundreds of songs vied for the position.

We learned to talk about death and laugh.  One-night Big T thought that Amy Belle’s “I Don’t Want to Talk About It” would be the song for his funeral.  He laughed and said he wanted it played on a high-end stereo so it would make people cry.  My first choice was Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House”, although he did prefer the version with Tom Jones and the Cardigans.  Often one of us would discover another song we wanted added to our funeral playlists.   We soon realized that the funerals would go on for days.  Which in turn led to another brilliant idea which I will leave aside for now.

The technical details were easily lost on Big T, but that did not matter.  It was the enjoyment that counted.  Even the 1983 Jose Carreras version of Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma” thrilled and inspired him.  He shook his head in disbelief and covered his overwhelmed and palpating heart with his hand.

Big T was a 63-year-old man, and this was his first time in a candy store.  Stashed in my 64-year-old brain were thousands of recordings, none of which he had ever heard.  At some point in the evening I’d suddenly recall a piece of great music and play it.  It was like his first time at bat and I would throw him a 90 mile per hour fast ball.

I started a playlist to begin our evening sessions.  I could play it over and over and each time Big T would be as delighted as the first time he had heard it.  After all, he was still learning, listening, and drinking beer.  The list grew, and so did our crazy ideas.  We would never get tired of “Cool Jerk” by Bootsy Collins.  We thought of opening the “Funk Club” at the empty Canadian Tire store, complete with food trucks.  I thought that every morning, at 10 AM, the entire world should stop, look up to the sky, and listen to Annie Lennox’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale”, just to make the world a more gracious place. The music fed our imaginations.  Occasionally I would ground us and play Joe Walsh’s “A Life of Illusion”, which also made it into our top 10 and funeral lists.

Female vocalists were high on our favorites.  Joan Osborne lured Big T into a parallel universe with songs like “Midnight Train to Georgia”, “Heat Wave”, “Why Can’t We Live Together”.   It took a long time to get him back.  Amy Belle’s “I Don’t want to talk about it” created tears in his cosmos.   I played Bonnie Raitt, Toni Childs, Mini Ripperton, Phoebe Snow, Tracy Chapman, Sinead O’Connor, Beth Orton, everything I could find.  He was destined to become a groupie.  The music seduced him, he envisioned himself as a young, svelte, and handsome gold-digger.  He woke up from his fantasy and admitted that many of the artists have aged far better than him, but his maturity and insight should more than compensate.

At home Big T would go down the rabbit holes of Google and YouTube, finding new music and videos, and researching artists.  At times we would sync a music video with the song on the stereo.  We watched Robert Palmer “Addicted to Love” on the computer while bopping to the music on the party stereo; even the neighbors were dancing on their patios.

It took a few cases of Modelo beer and many evenings of exploring a large repertoire of music, the weaving of tales and laughter that left us breathless, but the conversion of Big T to an audiophile, and perhaps the other neighbors, is now complete.

Over the past year the stereo components worked flawlessly.  The performance of the Prima Luna cannot be overstated.  It is a magnificent piece of electronics in terms of build and functional design, capability, and simplicity.  It’s like a great race motorcycle with torque, power, finesse, and inspiring looks.  I’ve had some great integrated transistor amplifiers over the years, including class A designs, but the Prima Luna tube is by far the best sounding integrated amplifier I have owned.  Are there better?  Sure, just like everything else but, you will pay a significant amount more to achieve that just notable difference.

The Blue Sound Vault 2 provides for tremendous flexibility to manage and play your sources of music.  Record your hi-res CDs onto its disc and stream CD quality music from online providers such as Tidal.  The interface from the computer, iPhone, and tablet worked like a charm.  The Vault has an onboard digital to analog convertor which is exceptional for its price point.  I already owned a Bryston BDA-1 off-board convertor from K&W.  I found that the Bryston was a little warmer and more open.  However, with the configuration of the system I can easily switch between the two convertors and at times I’m hard pressed to tell between the two.

Housed in a beautiful glossy mahogany finish, the slim, floor standing, two way, bi-wired Totem Forest Signatures, driven by the Prima Luna, and fed by CD quality music via quality digital to analog convertors, encourages me to book a trip to the Austrian Concert Halls just so I can see the orchestra play the music.  These speakers are gorgeous with performance to match.  One superlative, outstanding.  They are articulate and musical at any volume level, disperse sound exceptionally well, and do everything that Big T accurately described when he reached the first stage of his conversion.

I sold high-end stereos many years ago and always remember the elderly lady crying in the sound room.  She described her listening experience.  She could see the piano when she closed her eyes, detail the movements of the keys and the foot pedals.  It was, as she said, “as if the piano was right in front of me”.  That was enjoyment.   That’s imagination.  A great stereo stimulates the mind.

We will continue to laugh ourselves breathless over the tales we weave, drink our beer, and live in the now with the Prima Luna, Totems, and an endless source of great music.  An awe-inspiring and exceptionally engaging combination, and a cosmic upgrade for me.

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