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Close Encounters of the SIXTH Kind:





Text and photos: Witek Kamiński

No 220

September 1, 2022

"Close encounters of ..." was created in the form of a humorous reference to the Krakow Sonic Society - this is the sixth meeting. The group is made up of friends meeting at their homes and listening to music. They are led by Witek Kamiński, the owner of the WK Audio company.

he world of audio is full of paradoxes. Travelling around it is like a rollercoaster ride in an amusement park – up and down, and up and down again. What is worse, we never know if the track that we are entering at full speed is not going to be an Indiana Jones type trap.

The sole process of building an audio system may make many of us dizzy, or really depressed – it’s because a lot of money often comes into play. We wonder what elements to choose, how to combine them, whether they will sound good and not dissonant – and so on, infinitely. These elements are becoming more and more expensive, while systems – more and more complex. We need power supply, anti-vibration gear, specially designed accessories that are supposed to capture white energy from black holes – from outer space.

And when we already have it all – a system that we have been building for many years and investing our energy in – we play our favorite album and… it does not sound the way we like. The sound is somewhat dry, sharp and harsh; we get some squeaking instead of a trumpet and knocking instead of a drum! We play another album and it’s all the same, or even worse! We get the impression that we have just opened Pandora’s box. What comes to our mind is “It was supposed to be so beautiful”, or “It did always sound so good in the car”.

| About this, how wine and audio come together

SO, WHAT’S THE NEXT STEP, thou common man? Audio is a bit like wine.. When you’re young, every kind of dry red wine tastes the same – i.e. bad. But you are still having a good time, as it really gives you a kick! That is why sweet (or rather sweetened) wine is mainly consumed, to make it easier for one to drink it. With time, however, we discover that sugar, apart from all its advantages, is basically boring, as it is just sweet, while our taste has sharpened and we start looking for something that is more refined. This path is also full of landmines and blind alleys. Knowledge and perseverance, however, ultimately give us full satisfaction coming from our relationship with this beverage. For a lay person, every bottle of red wine looks the same, except for the aesthetic aspect of the label.

A good audio system works like our taste buds. Just like someone who has been drinking wine for many years will easily distinguish between a noble drink offering a complex bouquet and refined acidity from vinegar-like wine that burns your mouth, our audio system will allow us to identify badly recorded albums full of noise and compression, thanks to its high resolution and the ability to differentiate.

And the question arises again, „What’s the next step?” As we finally own a great audio system, do we have to give up our favourite music and only listen to “audiophile” stuff? Or are we supposed to ruin our budget, spending money on very expensive reissues of the same albums (i.e. 2K, 3K, 4K, and so on)? Ultimately, we will be able to sing each of them after a night. From my point of view, both roads lead to nowhere.

Just like a French person who is going to buy a bottle of wine “armed” with knowledge in the form of a wine vintage chart (tableau des millésimems) kept in their wallet, while buying a record we need to be aware which of its issues has been the best, otherwise we are buying the proverbial pig in a poke. And this applies not only to LPs, but also, not to a lesser extent, to CDs.

| About the fact that the CD record, the CD record is uneven

The fact that different CD issues (SHM-CD, Platinum SHM-CD, XRCD2, K2HD, BLU-SPEC, MFSL...) sound different is already known to every audiophile and music lover! The Editor-in-chief has written about it more than once and even provided us with diagrams presenting in which sonic aspects these issues differ (more in the article Compact Disc – yes, of course! But what kind?).

The differences between the album releases are obvious, the original musical material of each has been processed in a different way, and different masters and materials to make the records have been used...So why write about it again??

Let me just calm the impatient down, no, that’s not the topic for today. I will give you an example that will be off-the-wall for some (again), related to low alcoholic strength beverages that I have already mentioned, i.e. (for a change) – red wine). Why, each time I am in France and go to any Supermarché,even one that has no ambitions, and buy a more or less random (as I don’t have my own wine vintage charts with me on holiday...) bottle of wine for €5-7, it always tastes good?

Or, for instance, why does a VW Passat does not break down in Germany? Do they manufacture different products for different markets? Oh, there’s one more excellent example. Why do they sell the same washing powder, but twice as expensive, in Polish “Household chemistry from Germany” stores? Is it only bought by those who, as the MM commercial would say, are... idiots? The answer to these questions is easy: different markets require different quality products. No one will be able to sell poor quality wine to a French, or a faulty Passat to a German person.

As it will be proven in a moment, using the example of CDs (in part one), the same rule also applies when it comes to the origin of the given CD. The same albums released onto the European, American, or Japanese market sound totally different.

The venue for our next “Close Encounters of...” meeting was the recently opened audio showroom in Poznań - HT AUDIO. Jarek Kaźmierczak, the owner, agreed with great commitment to the proposal of organizing the meeting at his place, but also showed a large dose of distrust in relation to the subject of the experiment. Then he changed his mind...

| About this, who attended the meeting

⸤ Mr. Jarosław Kaźmierczak, owner of the new HT AUDIO showroom in Poznań

JAROSŁAW KAŹMIERCZAK the owner of the Hardsoft-Telekom company in Poznań. A businessman, but also an avid audio enthusiast. It was from his passion that the audio company HT AUDIO was born. Through it Jarek decided to share his way of looking at music and sound with a wide audience, hereinafter referred to as JK (it's good that not JFK)

MIREK – the oldest (not with age, but with experience ...) and the most persistent strategic client of the HT AUDIO salon, hereinafter referred to as M (M - like Mellow)

RAFAŁ from Nowy Tomyśl (as you can see a man excavated from the abyss of the deep Middle Ages ... ;-), employee of the HT AUDIO salon, hereinafter referred to as RNT (for selected, close friends of TNT).

MAREK MOCZKOWSKI - IT manager, electronics and short-wave radio fan. With audio equipment he has rather little to do, but he likes to listen. He takes part in my "testing" of a new equipment from the moment when I bought in the 90’s my first CD player. It means from the very beginning! Mark was always "good" in physics; hereinafter referred to as MM ( not MC…).

WITEK KAMIŃSKI – architect, audio journalist, owner of WK AUDIO company; hereinafter referred to as WK (well known).

Unspecified being called in dead language-Latin "Spirtus" (rctified spirit), located in different concentrations in beverages which man must drink in order to maintain vital functions of the body. It hasn’t directly expressed an opinion about the sound, but had a definite effect (purely scientific) on ours not present this time, I was the driver.

| The audio system – Poznań

  • Digital source CD C.E.C. CD-5
  • Loudspeakers GAUDER AKUSTIK ARCONA 60 MkII
  • Power distributor FURUTECH e-P60E R
  • Power cables WK AUDIO TheFog
  • Interconnect ORGANIC AUDIO Original
  • Speaker cables ORGANIC AUDIO Original
  • Anti-vibration platforms WK AUDIO “PURE SERIES”
  • Audio rack NEO High End Tripod Light

| CD records used in testing

|1| MADONNA, Ray of light, Warner Bros. WB 9362-46847-2 (Made in USA), 9362-46847-2 WE 852 (Made in Germany)
|2| DIRE STRAITS, Brothers in arms, Vertigo 9871498, SACD/CD (Made in EU), Vertigo/Mercury 42282 44992, SBM CD (Made in EU), WB 9 25264-2 (Made in USA)
|3| MILES DAVIS, Kind of blue, Columbia/Legacy 01-064935-10 (Made in Austria), Sony Records SRCS 9104 (Made in Japan)
|4| PINK FLOYD, A momentary lapse of reason, Columbia CK 40599 DIDP 070659 (Made in USA ), CBS/Sony Records 32DP 820 (Made in Japan)
|5| JOÃO GILBERTO & STAN GETZ, Getz/Gilberto, Verve/MGM Records V6-8545, 314 521 414-2 (Made in USA), Mobile Fidelity Labs. MFSL UDCD 607, gold CD (Made in USA)
|6| ENYA, Shepherd moons, Reprise Records/Warner Music 9 26775-2 (Made in USA), WEA/Warner Music WMC5-450 (Made in Japan)
|7| PINK FLOYD, Wish you were here, Harvest CDP 7 46035 2 (Made in Holland), Columbia CK 33453 (Made in USA)
|8| DIRE STRAITS, On every street, Vertigo/Mercury 510 160-2, SBM CD (Made in EU), Vertigo PHCR-1120 (Made in Japan), Warner Bros. WB 9 26680-2 (Made in USA)

We performed tests in the A-B system, sometimes to confirm the observed A-B-A observations.

| Listening

|1| MADONNA Ray of light

RNT: In short, the American release had an open free sound with lots of air, while the European one sounded like from a boom box, with the sound backed off into the speakers and boosted bass – it was unpleasant.

M: I remembered the impressions more than the details. In the US version, Madonna's voice was much sweeter and the sound was more open. The European version was selective and you could hear the sound engineer’s intentions, but I liked the American version much better.

MM: In the European version, soundstage width was artificially inflated; it was flat and without any depth. I had the impression that the strings were completely detached from the rest of the musical message, as if someone else had pasted them in... The vocal was so paper-like. The US version was a completely different experience, but also without much depth.

JK: I always take the approach that something is better or worse. The US version was definitely better and there was more treble, as if someone had moved the upper midrange sliders up. This, I think, contributed to a sense of more detail. The only thing I liked more in the European version was bass pulsation. It was better defined and had better space. In the US version it was mundane and understated.

THE WINNER IS → Warner Bros. WB 9362-46847-2 | Made in USA

|2| DIRE STRAITS Brothers in arms

RNT: The American version features springy bass without any sharpening or dry sound like in the two remastered European editions, which I find unlistenable.

M: The hybrid is primarily characterized by an insistent midrange thump. The SBM seemed to have been better produced, but probably because it was only slightly quieter... The American version seemed to be the calmest and most evenly made, but it was very quiet and I would need to turn up the volume to fully evaluate it. Having increased the volume, I stand by my opinion. The US version is the best because it is the most even and calmest – in a good way.

JK: The hybrid is penetratingly sharp. The SBM version seemed ok to me at first, but probably only because it was so much better than the first one.... The US version is definitely the best and quietest. I have made a comparison for myself that the SBM version would be good for listening in the car, while the American one – at home, on audiophile equipment for contemplating and experiencing music. After turning the volume up, in my opinion, the US and SBM versions almost equaled each other.

MM: I would perversely say that the hybrid version showed some potential, as the sound began to float when it was played. But it was completely flooded with bass and the sound was lost on it. The SBM issue, as Jarek said, is suitable for the car. And the US version? Let us play it with turned-up volume – yes, it's the most well produced album, but I won't say that it has particularly captured... or moved me.

THE WINNER IS → Warner Bros. WB 9 26680-2 | Made in USA

|3| MILES DAVIS Kind of blue

M: On the European version, the bass was a little "left to itself" but the treble was much more expressive than on the Japanese issue. In the Japanese version, everything was much better arranged, but a little devoid of expression. The bass was much better, although some of it sometimes slipped out, but I think that is due to the age of the recording, and that it could not be done any better.

RNT: You can hear that the Japanese did their best. Technically, this issue is certainly better, but I like the European one more, despite the booming bass which I do not like.

MM: I liked the European version better, as it was more expressive. Subsequent instruments came in more nicely and they were nicely drawn in space, despite the fact that the bass was a bit drenched and the trumpet was wheezing, which, in my opinion, gave it some edge. The Japanese version was very, very ordered – almost sterile, while the instruments were isolated. You can marvel at the quality, but it lacks emotion, it is ascetic.

JK: The first thing I noticed was the noise. On the Japanese issue it was more filtered out, but also, for example, the trumpet was much clearer and you could hear more of its tones. So, this version featured much better resolution. I have the impression that the European version was slightly overdriven.

THE WINNER IS → 50/50: Columbia/Legacy 01-064935-10 | Made in Austria/Sony Records SRCS 9104 | Made in Japan

|4| PINK FLOYD A momentary lapse of reason

RNT: The Japanese version is much better, despite the fact that this album is not well recorded in general. I have an old edition on vinyl. The Japanese issue differentiates better in the multitude of sounds that are present here. The American version was too sharp in the treble, almost sandy.

MM: For me, for a change, both versions were emotionless. The American version was as if you put on some kind of "buzz" at a disco in primary school. The Japanese issue was much more precise, but, overall, I did not any of the versions.

JK: I choose the Japanese version, of course – it was better. I've been to both countries, to Japan and the U.S., and it seems to me that the American issue was a kind of McDonald's – eat quickly and run away quickly, while the Japanese version encourages you to savor it delicately, to calm down. There was more of everything there

THE WINNER IS → CBS/Sony Records 32DP 820 | Made in Japan


RNT: On the VERVE/MGM RECORDS release, percussion instruments had more sparkle and that's basically all I liked about it. The MFSL issue had much better midrange and vocal tangibility, and was much better overall – except for the aforementioned instruments.

MM: The VERVE/MGM RECORDS release seems to me to be completely out of order on stage in terms of volume of musical elements. MFSL is the kind of "Japanese tranquility" that I've observed in previous Japanese releases, although I know that this album also comes from the US...

JK: I also bet on the MFSL release, apart from "betting on Tolek Banan"...;-) (a reference to a book by the Polish author Adam Bahdaj – translator’s note). For example, with the VERVE/MGM RECORDS issue I couldn't tell for sure if it was the sax or the trumpet playing... and here there are all the tones and timbres, and the vocal was much deeper. So, the MFSL is really cool!

THE WINNER IS → Mobile Fidelity Labs. MFSL UDCD 607 | Made in USA

|6| ENYA Shepherd moons,

RNT: The Japanese version was too mellow, too calm for me. The American issue was much more airy and I liked it much better.

MM: Both versions were bland for me. On the album from the USA everything was blended together and there was no precision, so I did not want to listen more. The Japanese version was more precise, something was happening on the stage, something was balancing, flowing.

JK: Both versions were very similar, there were no big differences. If I have to pick the better one, it was the Japanese record, as it was much more pleasant to listen to./p>

THE WINNER IS → 2/3: WEA/Warner Music WMC5-450 | Made in Japan

|7| PINK FLOYD Wish you were here

RNT: I know the HARVEST version well, and I like to listen to it, although I know it is not too well recorded. On the other hand, I did not know the American issue and I must admit that with the track "Welcome to the machine" I had the impression I was sitting inside the machine, and I could feel its working elements on me. Enormous space and freedom, no comparison to the HARVEST version...

MM: The US version was definitely much better.

JK: For the first time, I really don't know which version was better... maybe it was the pizza...? It was like HARVEST was on steroids and the album from the USA was kind of flattened and lacked emotions... Objectively, however, I think it was better, because it was more balanced.

THE WINNER IS → Columbia CK 33453 | Made in USA

|8| DIRE STRAITS On every street

RNT: The European SBM version is "playing itself". I liked the American version best, as it had music and depth. You could hear it was Knopfler singing. The Japanese edition was better than the SBM one, but there was some nervousness in the sounds, the bass was too hard and homogenous at times. In short, the USA wins!

MM: The European version features very artificial width – the instruments extend to the sideways too much, which may seem "sexy" but is artificial. The US version is very nice. Knopfler was finally in the middle and you could hear the percussion. Depth emerged. The Japanese issue sounded as if it was going twice as slow, making you sleepy, as if it was lagging behind in terms of tempo. The instruments were again scattered to the sides and sat in the speakers a bit. The whole thing was very distant, as if you were listening to it from a garden...

JK: I'll agree with Marek. I expected the Japanese version to be the best, as it was before, but here everything went so slow here – you could fall asleep...! The US version was the best, there were emotions in it! And when it comes to the SBM issue, I thought that I could even leave, as I would not lose anything …

THE WINNER IS → Warner Bros. WB 9 26680-2 | Made in USA

| About keeping ear to the ground

WK: As you can see, the scoffers did not always "sing" with a common voice. However, the most important thing for me is that, apart from a few cases, nobody had any doubts that records released on different continents sound different. Ordinary records from the broadly understood commercial circle, let me emphasize it again. Perhaps as a “side dish,” I threw the Getz/Gilberto album into this comparison on purpose, in order to prove in the fratricidal battle, straight out of the Civil War, that what Americans do well as a standard can be done even better.

Basically, I am really glad that there were different opinions as to what someone likes better, what someone thinks is better! This fact shows once again what a non-linear phenomenon the audio industry is. It is, of course, full of traps and blind alleys, but, which seems simply phenomenal to me, it is also full of PARALLEL PATHS!

Whether someone likes or liked something in this test-comparison more or less depends on many factors. From the number of records listened to. From the initiation into the artifacts of good sound and, finally, on one’s preferences. After all, some of us are obviously direct descendants of Ancient Romans and like only sweet wine.

The audio industry in its broadest sense, also including the recording industry, has to come to terms with biodiversity. This is not an easy task, as the ability to cater to so many different "tastes" is a feat worthy of a Nobel Prize in at least several fields at once...! This calls for some averaging and that's exactly what we observed during these listening sessions.

The highly respected scoffers could easily distinguish some features typical for records released by the descendants of samurai and those from the land of the Sleeping Buffalo. Does it mean, then, that people on different continents hear differently and that the phenomenon was first studied, then analyzed, and then someone made a binding decision on how to release the given album so that it would sell?

Yes and no... I think there are many factors that determine whether a record sounds one way or another. One of them is, of course, the taste of the audience (let me remind you that a lack of taste is also the taste in the commercial sense...!). The second element of this puzzle is whether it is demand or supply that shapes the given market. Trivializing it a bit, we can ask, what percentage of "respect" for the recipient the producer has to "include", so that the recipient does not feel offended or think that someone is trying to sell them some bullshit.

Such an approach to the customer determines certain moves and, obviously, pumps up the budget, because you have to hire a better sound engineer, the master has to be done using better equipment and you have to pay more to gain access to a better master tape (I guess). And if I were to add some of my observations to this test-comparison, I would say that this is what I hear in American CD issues – i.e. respect for the customer.

In my opinion, these CDs sound incomparably better than their European counterparts , which, in comparison, seem to have been hastily rushed out... I am of course referring to commercial CDs, not wanting to offend labels such as Deutsche Grammophon or Decca, but that's a completely different story... though, in fact, their Japanese editions sound better anyway.

Speaking of Japan, I probably won't discover anything new here. As far as the phonographic market is concerned, it is a completely separate entity. In these records, I see neither any American business-like approach to product quality, nor any easy-going and a little ignoring attitude typical for the Old Continent Records made in Japan live as if for themselves.

I remember reading an interview with Walter Rȍhrl once, in which he said: „all my life, I have been racing only with myself”, Because of that, the man won every possible rally and race in the world, and still today, at over seventy years of age, he drives faster than when he won all those rallies...! It is a rare quality in today’s era of ubiquitous followers and haters, it enables one to climb the ladder of self-improvement, but it is deeply rooted in the culture and religion of the Land of the Rising Sun.

And this is what you can see, hear and feel in Japanese editions – the archaic and somewhat romantic idea of getting into a pissing contest with a skunk. It is such a rare example of when it is not the recipient that creates the market, but the market shapes the recipient . Teaches them what is good and does not blindly follow the herd, educates and does not feed one with chocolate, in order to see the child's smile forever, without any consequences in the form of diabetes or tooth decay.

The effects of such actions can be seen with the naked eye. Japan, which used to be an undeveloped agricultural country at the end of World War 2, has become the country of most advanced technologies. Owing to such upbringing - and not breeding of people it is mainly thanks to Japan that the analogue record, tube speakers and tubes have “survived”...! Since the country reached a certain stage of development, no one has been able to sell any audio-bullshit to the Japanese, just as no one is able to force bad wine down French people's throats.

Not everyone might have liked or understood it, but everyone at the meeting "at least" appreciated the technical quality of the Japanese versions. I don't blindly love Japanese issues, as there are some minor or major flops among them. However, the albums that they did produce well sound in a way that breaks the stereotype of digital sound.

In my opinion, their jazz records are unsurpassed, as demonstrated by "Kind of blue". Rock music becomes "digestible" thanks to them and we finally do not have to suffer in order to listen to, for example, Pink Floyd's "A momentary lapse of reason". On the other hand, I think the US offer us phenomenal first releases of Dire Straits’ albums (for example, of course).

| Summary

A good audio system is like a big bank account. it gives you a lot of opportunities, but also brings a lot of problems. Nothing will be as it was before again. But when you have started, you need to finish. Once opened, Pandora's box cannot be closed and we are doomed to "know" for the rest of our lives that buying a poor edition of our favorite album will probably bring us no joy.

In order to fully enjoy the advantages of a sports car, you need to drive it on proper wheels and tires; those from an average VW Passat are unlikely to show what the sports car can do, or may even spoil it. In fact, "this whole audio thing" is all about music , and, whether you like it or not, it is still stored on physical media (files are just blah).

Records, just like wine, need to be bought carefully, so that after opening the bottle you and your guests can please your palate without coming across as an ignoramus serving vinegar to accompany an exquisite dish. Just simple: DO NOT BUY A PIG IN A POKE!

The GAUDER AKUSTIK ARCONA 60 MkII loudspeakers supplied for testing by distributor: RCM

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