This is a story like Cinderella. There was a Polish company that a prince noticed during a ball. The lady (company) run away from reality, but fortunately lost her shoe. So the next step was to the prince. And the latter, led by hi heart, chivalry or just plain business, made the decision to complete the paradigm and find Cinderella. He was successful with benefits for the story, the lady and himself. And they lived happily ever after. This is of course a fairy tale, but the reality is even more fascinating and although it fitted the story in main items, it had some branches and allowed to explore strange new worlds. One thing has not changed – happy end and the change of the social status of Cinderella – from an unknown, maybe beautiful slattern, she became a lady. Known in high society.
The story I am telling really happened and I told is in parts in my editorials. But because we did not archive those “confessions”, or whatever you name this kind of writing, the story became a little vague – the oral tradition of storytelling survived only partially, so the oral version of the story changed the main players, place of the action or even its sense. This is probably the reason, that the readers of “HIGH Fidelity OnLine” requested on a regular basis for the details and recapping of the story. This happens to fairytales quite frequently. I think, that this edition of HFOL, where the story finds its place in the form of a reportage, is the best one for it – where, as not in an edition called “CD + amplifier systems” should it appear… In general, the story will be similar to the original one. But, as it always happens to stories, it evolved in something more. Hence in the text you will also find some fragments told by the participants of the expedition for the Golden Fleece – the Argonauts sailing fearless the best American restaurants and nature wonders searching for the holy grail: the absolute sound.
And let this be the introduction to a short apology of the company Ancient Audio. Let me introduce the actors: the prince – John Tu, owner of Kingston Technology, second largest manufacturer of solid state memories (for photo cameras, MP3s, etc); we have already met Cinderella, this is the Krakow based company Ancient Audio, and the squires were the members of the Krakow Sonic Society. The meeting between those, seemingly distant, worlds happened in… Krakow, at home by one of the squires (we are knights now – maybe this in not fully according to the written law, and was done by us alone, but this is how it was…). John was invited to a KTS meeting, to an evening of comparison between different CD pressings. This first step was crucial, so I encourage to read the report from that evening – you will find it HERE (in Polish).
ACT 1 - POLAND
Have you read it? No? – I encourage you to do that, everything will fall nicely into place. Now? – OK, we can proceed. After John left there was nothing happening for some time. We had some nice reminiscences, because we had good time, but rationally, we assumed that something important has happened, but that is the end of the “good” – apparently the amount of which is stable in the world, and this means it is limited. But… A week or two after that meeting – I don’t remember well – John sent a brief fax, in which he asked to design a system for him (CD + amplifier + loudspeakers) that would sound better than everything he heard before. And preferably by far. Hmm, we have just learned, that Ancient Audio did the best it could to deliver sound of that class to us, and it has to be better? Much better? This is a big challenge to everybody, even the biggest fish in the audio pool, but at the same time an opportunity, the once in a lifetime kind. So it should not be surprising, that Mr. Waszczyszyn took on the challenge. After he replied with the price a short email reached Poland with only one sentence: “Proceed, please.” And the bank account of Ancient Audio received a generous advance. I would like it to happen that way. Action had to be taken immediately, this is no joke – john is a businessman and should be treated with respect. Despite the immediate mobilization of all forces of AA (please don’t confuse with Anonymous Alcoholics) the design and manufacturing of the system took about a year. Based on the top models of the company a new player and amplifier were designed, that look the same from the outside, but are completely different on the inside. Also a pair of speakers was built. The latter were real monsters, 2100mm high, with four Eton drivers on the bass, each with its own amplifier, and a big ribbon tweeter Raven R3 handling the midrange and treble.
I have not seen it anywhere in a commercial product, because it is expensive and even the top offerings host the smaller and cheaper version R2. If I am wrong please correct me. How complicated the electronics is can be seen by the fact, that the drive itself is powered by three separate transformers. Even the laser lens has a separate power supply… I promised to give you a detailed description after returning from USA. Because john invited all participants of the mentioned meeting to fly over to New York for a week of mutual feast, placing of the equipment, listening, concerts, etc. Everything on his expense. But before everything left for America (the boxes with the loudspeakers had to go to Frankfurt by truck, they were too big to be placed on the plane in Poland) the system was assembled for one evening at Mr. Waszczyszyn’s home, and everybody that knew what he will be dealing with was invited. Of course no one knew what to expect – we haven’t heard it at any point during the design process. And taking into account, that the expectations were huge, as well as the costs, everything could happen.
I never heard anything like that. I mean – I never heard anything like that before. Also thereafter. I wrote then: “I will probably find some weaknesses in time, but at this moment it is hard for me to imagine that”. Of course, after some time, I could slightly criticize the connection between bass and midrange, that could be a bit more vivid, but it would not come from a comparison to another system, as those cannot compare, but with things I know from reality. Everyone of the listeners had their comments, but they were also confirming, that the sound is closest to the real thing in most aspects they ever heard. Closer to reality than hi-fi! Despite the small dimensions of the room the monster speakers had to fit in, there were no problems with the bass – you could immediately hear what comes from the speakers and what from acoustics. Incredibly impressive were the dynamics and the scale of sounding (better than in most professional stage systems) and the stage was phenomenal. When I wrote that I realized, that for me the brilliant timbre was most important – from the bottom registers – up to the upper end. Raven is b-r-i-l-l-i-a-n-t! If not the price… Listening to upcoming discs, with recordings ranging from Davis to Zappa, from Depeche Mode to FIM re-editions, Alpha, Harmonia Mundi, everybody was surprised how much information is captured on this pitiful carried called the Compact Disc. So it seems that it is much easier to record something than to play it back afterwards. Everything was showed in a new way. The differences in every detail of the mix were so obvious, that one could wonder, what the sound engineers heard while mixing. Probably not much. And there was no trace of sharpness there. Professional systems in audio engineering rooms most of the time perfectly show the details, but in general they are too bright and do not define timbre well. Here we had beautiful, saturated timbres and incredible detail. The change of cabling made also a big change to the sound. Everybody was surprised to the change. The ‘standard’ cables were not bad, but for this project, after many weeks of listening, the best were chosen for every connection. Interconnect - TARA Labs ISM The 0.8, loudspeaker cable - XLO Limited, power cables – XLO Limited, Unlimited (transport/converters), Cardas (loudspeaker bass section). Adding up to this is the Fadel power strip and long interconnects supplying the amplifiers built into the speakers – Cardas Golden Reference. I hope I didn’t mismatch anything, but the cables cost much over 30000 USD. So the difference should be audible… The supremacy of those cables over the standard ones was overwhelming. The system was good from the very beginning, but better cabling transformed it, everything was clear, noble and true.
Such impressions always stay with me as a signpost. Just like it was after listening to the most expensive digital source, the Jadis JD1 Mk II/JS1 Mk III that I knew how my CD player should sound, so now I know how I would like my system to sound. Such big loudspeakers are absolutely impractical in Poland, so quite quickly after the mentioned evening a thought about their more ‘domestic’ version came to mind (John’s listening room has 100m2 surface). The first show of the smaller version was at the Audio Show 2007. I will say something that I do not want repeat, because I do not want to bash on anything – I did not fully like what I heard. I think, that next approach will be much better! Because this is exactly what audiophilism is – a never ending search of the unreachable. Unfortunately, even such a brilliant and expensive system like the Ancien Audio (I don’t know the exact price, but it is about a few hundred thousand zloty) still did not sound like a live orchestra. The basic problem here is the recordings, because those are not a document but a creation, regardless of the fact if those are multitrack or purist stereo recordings. If the reproduced sound will be identical to the live one audiophilism will come to an end. Fortunately this is only a theory – it will never happen in reality. Otherwise I would have to write about post stamps…
ACT 2 - AMERICA
Regardless of everything this was the best sound I ever heard in my life. Like I mentioned it was about an incredible feeling of being there, fooling the body, because this is not about the ear alone, to let it think that the event is really happening in front of us. This is the reason I could not analyze the sound similar to my daily routine, splitting the sound in small bits that are easier to describe and interpret. The music was perceived as a whole, just as live music. And, like I said, the system was listened to one day before packing it for the final destination – Mr. John Tu, who claims, that after the Krakow Sonic Society meeting nothing sounds the same at his home.
And a splendid kitchen, 1000-dollar tips, 10000-dinners, etc. Everything was included. This impressed much, because John is a man from the top list of wealthiest US citizens. But if we would concentrate on all those things we would miss the most important thing – the man himself. It turns out, that John is a one man charity institution, supporting immigrants, poor children, etc – things his coworkers learn only by chance, as all is paid from the Kingston Chairman’s private account. Much about his character can be learned from the fact that he did not place the company on stock exchange, or sell it in a way – although he would earn incredible amounts of money – because he feared headcount reductions and did not want to loose control over the company’s earnings, as those are distributed amongst the workforce in great extent.
So this was the man that came to great my friends that arrived at his home. Barefoot, from a large garage, where he was playing drums and percussion, he greeted everybody as if they were close friends. I mentioned it earlier, John is a musician, plays in and records discs with a Jazz band. It turned out, that all packages arrived in time and without visible damage, the setup of the system had to begin. Despite the wealth on the bank account, John and his family live very modestly, for their social status, in a house like upper middle class. This means of course beautiful sights, splendid localization, wooden floors, etc, but only some items remind us where we are. Little things like a hand made carpet, a piano, etc. So the Ancient Audio system is to be set up in these surroundings. Because we listened to it in Krakow, so we knew how to handle that. The situation was worse only by the fact, that the room John wanted the system in was not really suitable for that goal.
Those first, incredibly nervous minutes, as described by Mr. Jaromir Waszczyszyn, the maker of the system: “First tests were bad – stage was flat, bass was terrible. The only good news was that everything works. So on the second day the whole system was transferred to a second wall and there it sounded well. Here we have to mention, that American houses are very fragile, especially compared to Polish Defensive Architecture (concrete, bricks, towers, bullterriers, etc.). John’s home was a typical upper middle class one. The only solid element was the floor, wooden, on solid support. The walls – plaster. So the whole was a bit fragile, and in addition the living room was connected to the big kitchen and hall. The bass escaped to the side, run around the house, and bounced back at most unexpected times. Here the bass control and attack of the Wing Speaker were needed – bass was not absolute class, some complaints about the readability of melodic line could be made. The rest did not allow a trace of doubt – such impression makes only live music: size of the stage, dynamics, timbre of the instruments, grading of the attack could only be compared to the nature. Of course most important was the reception by the host – John was take by a percussion solo – he understood what he has at home in that moment. So he made a proposition like a true businessman, a proposition a true hi-end company can only dream of (details by phone…).”
What is it about? Well, John, enchanted by the sound, as well as the “service”, mentioned his visit in Krakow he enjoyed and the atmosphere during the installation, so he proposed to show the system to a few friends. For example Bill Gates, John’s friend, has a top MBL system at home. It sounds well, but reading between the lines, John appreciated every dollar spent on the Polish system… Anyway, the case is evolving and it put Ancient Audio in a completely different place on the world audio market – this is not only one of the best systems in the world, but a true brand, because it was appreciated by people that can own everything. Everything in their case, means really EVERYTHING.
OK, I promised that other participants will describe the event. First a few words from Janusz, then a photo story from Ryszard and finally a technical look from Mr. Waszczyszyn.
Does this look like 500 kg of equipment???
We meet at an Italian style dinner, John came last.
What car did he use? Of course his Veyron...
That was something to be proud of; you can see it on John’s face.
Everything supervised by the lady of the house.
John listened and sat down.
Instructions from Master Jaromir to John, the King of flash and computer memories.
There was help during the installation, and this was not a German team, as everybody assumed, but a Polish one.
This is a truly Audiophile preparation to installation at an Italian table.
The trip to California will be unforgettable, because during the week the amount of impressions surpassed the boundaries of perception.
Our host had a very tight agenda, so our visit started with the tourist part and ended with the installation. I would have preferred it the other way round, because in case of problems there was no time reserve. I was especially bugged by the status of the system after the transport and room acoustics. The transport had brought some tension, as the whole (about 500kg, boxes in the size of basketball player’s coffins) was too big to be loaded on a plane flying to the Balice Krakow airport. So the first part of the trip was by truck to Frankfurt, where the boxes were packed on a Jumbo-Jet and got to California complete. Just in case, all tubes, woofers, stabilizers, the CD mechanism and other strategic elements were packed in double quantities.
The first contact with the host house was fairly modest – just a sympathetic set of houses on a hill. Only the road was a bit exotic – a lane for cars, bicycles and horses. The house suggested wealthier American, without any walls, barbed wires, security people with machine guns and dogs. Just some 30cm high poles – just to mark the turning place for the lawn-mover. Only a few beautiful, old cars suggested where we were. The house was open, nobody inside. Only a sound was coming from the garage. It turned out that John practiced on a drum-set.
The shipment was received by Madelyn and Tawny, two nice girls from Kingston, and they arranged the transportation to the host’s home. He has probably not realized the size of the delivery – the boxes occupied a vast part of the driveway. The first sigh of relief was when the packages were counted. And then the dance started. The Knights had to move really quickly to unpack the whole thing in one afternoon, and it was summer. I have to add here, that packing took three days… We must have made good impression, because a troop of electricians called to exchange the power sockets to something more… audiophile, was convinced we were from Germany… Anyway, they were not much off. Strengthened by octopus pierogi and green tea we started the fight.
The host prepared a surprise for the evening – best places on a musical. To be in America and miss such an opportunity… Unfortunately time did not allow us to have such pleasure. The living room the system was to be placed in was of medium size, so the loudspeakers did not “vanish” as I expected. But it was connected to the kitchen and a hallway, so the surplus of power was not big. The mean height was 3m, and total surface about 100-120m2. Around 11pm we could have a test run and verify that everything works. So I had my first quiet night for a long time – the stress finally got loose. For the next day we had a visit to Hollywood, so I let Janusz and Ryszard go. So I could start the day on a honest hour, around noon.
Despite the positive comments of my colleagues (“ok, the vocals are not that worthless”) it was clear that the system plays only with a small percentage of its capability. The stage was shallow, bas terrible – some frequencies disappeared, some were underlined. So I needed to find another position for the speakers. This can be done easily with stand mounts, the Wing Speakers are much more troublesome. In addition we had to move much furniture, but I was aided happily by the lady of the home. The furniture was real Chinese antiques, and the value of the vases, screens, etc was quite high, but fortunately I did not break anything. I don’t know anything about ceramics, but the carpet made me stun – it was made from silk and covered half of the room… It is good, I did not notice that before. The change in the speaker setting improved everything. The acoustics was not ideal, because the ceiling was only from two layers of wooden planks, the walls from plaster and the three glass planes made me shiver. For symmetry we had a big plasma screen. Only the floor was solid, placed directly on concrete – those are the positive things of Californian weather. The only problem was the need to place the speakers off the walls. To make the stage deep and bass even they had to be placed 1m from the walls. Adding to that their almost 70cm depth made them dominate the room. The lady of the house was worried, how the host will see this.
The host did not show any emotions (traditional Chinese school) until the moment the system played. The set was a standard torture with: La Tarantella, Jordi Saval, Beethoven, Carmen, Duke Ellington and a percussion solo – especially for our host. Probably in a year or two there will be something better, but in that summer evening everybody had the impression that live music just sounds like this. But the thing I enjoyed most was the discs brought by John’s wife’s cousin. She asked to play her discs – I usually don’t like such surprises, because most of the time complete failures land on the player. And this time this was a Chopin set issued by Philips Classic. The attack, timbre, acoustics and interpretation – just splendid… We moved to the terrace and the illusion that Maestro plays on the Steinway (room equipment) was complete. For such moments it is worth to work 20 years. And some traditional rules were abandoned, everybody was enthusiastic.”
And so ends the incredible but true adventure of the Krakow Sonic Society, that started with a good word: the Polish representative of Kingston mentioned during a dinner in Los Angeles, that there is a man, who makes good equipment and that there are people that have good times with it. John quickly learned where is Europe, but Poland was not so easy – let us be frank, Poland is less known that Bhutan or Chad – and he went to Krakow only when personally assured by Pawel, that such a place exists. This comes not from ignorance, but from hierarchy in the real world. But it did happen. It was even more successful than one could imagine in the wildest dreams. But this is not the end of the story, because besides the business, there is another Krakow Sonic Society meeting planned with John attendance. This time again in Krakow. We will report it.
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