If the Hifi Guru Says So...
Thoughts on musicality and the art of hifi

Brown rice and the art of Hi Fi


I used to teach about natural health and encourage people to eat brown, unpolished rice. And I used to hear lots of complaints about brown rice being too hard, too chewey, too smelly... not nice.

Those who ate brown rice cooked by me or by some of my friends, however, never made such complaints. Instead, they said, "It's so delicious!" Believe me, they didn't say this just out of politeness. Those who did not enjoy the brown rice usually would keep quiet. They didn't finish eating it, whereas some of those who enjoyed went for second helpings.

One interesting case involved a man who had been eating brown rice for about two years. One day, he attended a cooking class conducted by one of my friends. When he ate the brown rice there, he was totally surprised: "Oh! You mean this is how brown rice is supposed to taste?" For two years, he had been cooking brown rice the wrong way!

And he had been forcing it down his throat, not enjoying it at all, because he believed it was good for his health.

What has all this to do with hifi?

Just as some people don't know how to cook brown rice, some people don't know how to play hifi. Just as brown rice can taste either good or bad, depending on the skill of the cook, hifi can also sound good or bad, depending on the skill of the audiophile.

Kung Fu

I say this not because I have plenty of "hifi skills". I don't. But I am lucky enough to know several people who have plenty of "kung fu", ie skills, in setting up hifi people like the guru and his friend, Go Yong Kung.

With their help, I can make the hifi in my showroom sound very good. But a few days later, because certain things get moved, the sound changes from good to bad! It is frustrating for me because although I can hear that the sound has gone bad, I don't have enough skills to make it good again.

I am writing about this because a several of my customers have asked: Why?

Why is it that other brands of equipment sound okay even though they are just anyhow placed on the rack, whereas my equipment needs to be carefully tuned? Why must I place my isolation cones (DH Ceramic Cones / Qi Cone / RA Design Labs) at the exact position whereas other shops don't even use any isolation cones? Why does the sound change when I move the cones ever so slightly?

Coming back to the example of foods, why do some foods taste okay when all you need to do is plonk it into the microwave (actually I strongly discourage this!), whereas other foods require very meticulous preparation? A further question: Can those "heat and eat" types of food ever taste as good as those which require proper cooking?

Idiot Proof

Take another example: Photography& With an "idiot proof" camera, just about anybody can produce decently good pictures. If you give a truly "high end" camera like a Hassleblad to an unskilled photographer, the results will be lousy. However, a skilled photographer given such a camera will produce truly great pictures.

So it is with hifi. Some hifi equipment will sound more-or-less good no matter how you play them. Plonk them anyhow onto a hifi rack and they will sound okay. Put some effort to set them up properly, with isolation cones, good quality, stable racks, etc, and they might sound perhaps a little bit better.

Other hifi equipment, however, can sound bad when they are not properly set up. But when they are well set up, the improvement is tremendous!

A good example is horn loudspeakers. Very often, we read in hifi magazines even in articles written by very experienced writers and reviewers that horn speakers don't sound good. They are said to be too bright, too harsh, too colored, too horny, too whatever&

Yet why is it that the most serious / crazy audiophiles those who go to the extent of turning their entire room into a loudspeaker almost exclusively play horns?

I have seen examples of such people in Japanese and European hifi magazines. Even though I didnt understand what was written, looking at the pictures tell me that these people take hifi very seriously indeed! I have seen, for example, pictures where the entire wall of a listening room is actually the horn opening. The horn starts either in the basement or the attic, goes through a very long passageway, and finally opens up into the listening room!

It is not that horn speakers sound bad, says the guru, who has heard lots of bad sounding horns. The trouble is, horn speakers are very difficult to play. But when you get it right, the sound is exxxxxcelent!


The guru says this because he has heard a few very excellent sounding horn speakers. It is so dynamic, so lively, so real, so accurate& and Joni James' voice is soooo seductive!"

I never understood him until I acquired the ReTHM, which is a horn-loaded speaker using Lowther drivers. The first time I set them up, the speakers sounded horrible. The sound was so harsh, I could not tolerate it for more than two minutes. But with some adjustments switching to a lower gain preamp and changing speaker cables (using cheap, red/black wires) the sound became a lot more acceptable.

Then ReTHM designer Jacob George made major improvements to his loudspeaker design. And the sound changed from acceptable to very good.

I like to share with you a few of my experiences with the ReTHM:

1. At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, in January 2000, I wanted to try out a new brand of cables that was getting very good reviews on the internet. I borrowed a pair of interconnects, brought it to our room and plugged it into our set-up comprising ReTHM loudspeakers,  DIVA amplifiers and a Marantz CD63 modified by the guru.

Within a few seconds, I pulled that cable out. It sounded absolutely boring no highs, no lows, no dynamics, no life! Maybe the cable was not yet run in, maybe it did not match the rest of the system. Whatever the reason, it was the first time I could tell the difference so quickly and so easily.

Golden Ears

Yah, people with golden ears can always tell the difference quickly and easily, no matter what hifi system they are listening to. But I don't have golden ears. I normally take much longer time. So I was very surprised.

2. Yesterday, (20 Sep, 2000) the guru came to help me set up the ReTHMs because I had a very discerning customer who planned to drop today by for an audition. This same customer had heard the set-up some two weeks back while I was not at the shop, and complained (via email) that the sound was not dynamic, and too dark.

I was surprised. Because normally the ReTHM speakers with DIVA amplifiers sound very dynamic and bright (but not ear-piercing). I said it must be that the set-up was not right, probably because the cones got shifted. When I returned to the shop the following day, true enough I found that the cones beneath the CD player and preamp were totally out of place, while the cones beneath the preamp power supply were not even there!

I told him to come back for another listen after it has been properly set up. He came just now and he commented that it sounded very much better than the first time. Much more dynamic now, he said, and no longer dark.

What was more interesting, however, was what happened last night while the guru was setting up.

Mood changes

We were listening to Cai Qin's new album, the one with the green cover (Godot Theatre Company, 350087). It is a very expressive, emotion-filled performance, a CD which I would highly recommend to all audiophiles, including those like me who do not understand Chinese and dont know what she is singing and talking about.

As the guru tuned the system mainly by shifting the cone position underneath the preamp power supply and, believe it or not, underneath the power distributor strip the mood of Cai Qin's performance changed.

In several sections of the recording, she spoke. Her speaking voice changed from being overly serious to somewhat casual, from gut-felt to heart-felt, to almost no feeling but merely descriptive.

The touch of the piano accompaniment changed as well, from heavy to very light. At one point, the pianist was hitting the keys hard. After a bit of tuning, it sounded as if the pianist was just brushing his fingers over the keys, so so lightly.

Which is the correct feeling? It depends on which you prefer, the guru said. Of course, if you understand what the song is about, you will have a better idea.

For example, the song on Track 3 is about the Jasmine flower in June. By that time of the year, the flower is already past the peak of its blossom. The song is about a once beautiful lady, past the height of her beauty, looking for love. There were three of us in the room, the guru, myself and a customer, Mr Foo, who the guru said had golden ears.

We adjusted until we achieved the feeling that all three of us liked.

Once we had finalised the tuning, we could also hear the mood change from track to track. If all the tracks sound the same, I would be worried, the guru said. Every track is different and it must sound different.

The session was absolutely amazing for me. I knew the ReTHM and other horn speakers is very sensitive to change. But I never realised it is that sensitive, to the extent that the mood of a performance can be so radically altered simply by changing the position of some isolation cones.

Whose fault?

So I have a problem in my showroom. I have very sensitive equipment that can sound great one day, not-so-great another day, and even bad on yet another day! Thankfully, not every customer can detect such subtle differences. But some certainly do and I hate to think how many Ive lost because they happened to visit my showroon on a bad day.

Trouble is, even when I hear that the sound has gone bad, I don't know how to put it right. I don't have the long experience of people like the guru and his friend Yong Kung, who took five years to perfect the sound in his very imperfect hifi room. (I will tell you more about Yong Kung some other time.)

For now, I think the important lesson is that we cannot dismiss any hifi equipment that does not sound good. It may not be the equipment's fault, but the fault of the person who set it up.

Even the guru, who is by now very experienced in such matters, had to learn this lesson.

Once, he thought that a certain loudspeaker was lousy. For many years, he condemned it whenever people asked his opinion. Then one day, he heard that loudspeaker in a friend's house and it sounded very good.

The guru had to eat his words. One day, Ill make him eat brown rice ;-)





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