Rioja when it should've been a claret.
Is this a major faux-pas? Would this be the end of a fruitful evening before it had begun? Would it leave a sour taste in the mouth? How would my host react? Would I be invited back? Did I single-handedly save the Spanish economy?
The answer to one of the above was "no", but can you work out which one?
If your host agrees that a red wine fits into the "that'll do nicely" category then, as a visitor when you're trying your best to follow the protocols of polite society, you can't always get it right, but some things are near enough. And so it turned out on this particular occasion. The ingredients weren't 100% what was expected, but the result was entirely acceptable, it would seem. So claret might have been preferred, but rioja can be equally acceptable, but different.
What is he waffling on about this time? Isn't this supposed to be about music and hifi? Well, I'm trying to do that clever journalist thing of making parallels. Maybe I can pull this off, maybe I shouldn't have given the game away so soon in the post!
So we come back to the point. Tom's system. First off, I could say that Tom is a very brave man. Some bloke from a hifi forum sees pictures of your system and identifies the view outside the window. Same bloke spends a good bit of time in that location for work purposes and thinks listening to some music on someone else's system would be a good way to fill in an evening, perhaps strike up a friendship. So a message goes out and a complete stranger is invited round for a listen. So kudos to Tom.
We strike up a discussion on the way to Pizza Express to get sustenance to accompany the rioja. Suprisingly, we discuss the local area, living in the city etc., rather than diving straight into hifi. Pizzas ordered we headed back through the inevitable July 2012 (oooh, can I use that phrase without being shut down by LOCOG???) showers. Tom's flat is modestly sized and carries a minimalist theme - white being the dominant hue and one which means that speaker choice can be somewhat limited, unless a spray can is involved. The listening room has 2 opposing sofas - one for listening from, the other having the speakers either side. Speakers are probably a touch further apart than they are distant from the listening position, but the practicalities of living have to be factored in of course.
Being a flat, standmounts are the speakers of choice. We started out with a test. Not sure if it was the speakers or me that was being tested, but it turns out that I managed to pass the test, if indeed it was me being tested :-) A Nick Drake track was fired up to have a listen to a pair of white (inevitably) Linn Majik 109 stand mounts.
These are a recent used purchase by Tom, and they've already been "repaired" after Tom noted they weren't all quite what they should be. So it took about 60 seconds to decide that one of the mid/bass drivers is less than 100% - sounding muffled and un-dynamic compared to the driver in the other box. They didn't sound as good as my 109s either. So they left the room and I believe are on their way back to the dealer to have another crack at fixing them.
The system we listened to for the rest of the evening:
Linn Klimax DS/1 in black (I didn't spend too much time gazing at this as desire can be very unbecoming)
Lejonklou Tundra in black
Linn K400 speaker cable (using one pair of the conductors in single wired mode)
Linn Katans (hey, they're white!)
Some of you will know about the Tundra - essentially this amp seems to have arisen from a Linn enthusiast who decided he could do better than Linn in the power amp area. As you can imagine, this has been extremely controversial. There are claims that the £2,800 power amp is equal to or better than Linn's own Klimax Chakra Twin (approx £8,000). There are counter claims that it's not comparible to the KCT. And there are lots of claims from people who have never listened to it, to the KCT or to neither. Hey-ho: as in many hobbies, some people seem to be able to make decisions or pronouncements without the appropriate experience.
Down to the nitty-gritty. And in some ways there's lots of that - nitty-gritty detail that is. But none of it is grating nor excessive. It took me a while to dial into the characteristics of the system. The main reason for that is the need to re-adjust to a pair of standmounts. My main system and my second system both feature floorstanding speakers and there's no way that the Katans are up to the kind of bass that a floorstander can produce, so it takes a good 30 minutes or so to dial-out that aspect as it tends to be overwhelmingly obvious at first, masking other aspects. Once you start to put that to one side and start to focus on what the system is actually doing, then you can settle into listening to and enjoying the music (or not of course).
2 glasses of rioja in (it was going down reasonably well with my host too) and time to relax with the music. We listened to Blues Company, Nick Drake, Hurts, Yello and some other bits and pieces. Once you get over the lack of really deep bass you can notice that the bass actually goes deeper than you would expect for such small speakers and is definitely tuneful - toe-tapping being involuntary but constantly present. But moving on to other parts of the spectrum I heard some great vocals - male and female - easily picked out and emotionally charged. Treble is not the best I've heard - sweeter than my Linn Keilidhs, but not as sweet and smooth as you get from either of Linn's current 2K and 3K higher frequency arrays.
Then you get back to the details, the layers, the tiny tiny details that I've not heard before - slightly more sustain on a cymbal, an extra bit of fizz from a distorted electric guitar string, a high frequency ping that's now a bell, not just a ping. And this is laid out in front of you across the room - precisely located left to right, but a little 2 dimensional compared to the very best. Close your eyes and the imaging is still a little shallow and the gaps between instruments feel unrealistically spaced out - we discuss this for a while and agree that the speakers are probably a little to far apart - but needs must when you can't have a fully dedicated listening room.
Is the system musical? Absolutely. It's easy to listen to (don't confuse that with an easy listen - its not bland, its not over polite, it just doesn't shove the music down your throat nor does it grate with excessive and synthetic amount of detail), cultured, sweet and drives a rhythm beautifully.
Would I want to live with this system? Well, it wouldn't be my first choice - I still missed that low bass and the way it can help music (e.g. Yello's Drive/Driven) to fill out into a room and envelope the listener. But if I had to have a system for a flat, then yes, it would provide many hours of listening fun and I'm sure Tom's enjoying just that. So perhaps the rioja didn't have quite the depth of a good claret, but it did go down well, much like the music we enjoyed.
We were distracted a little by discussions on classic cars (another shared passion - but very differently focussed), working life, the system at Tom's other house and his plans there, The Australian Pink Floyd and other stuff. But hey, life isn't just about hifi is it? Shame we didn't find time to compare Tom's Klimax Renew DS against the KDS/1, but I suspect that the KDS/1 won't be around next time, we'll see what time brings.
So thank you to Tom for such an enjoyable listening session and for being so welcoming and easy to spend time with. We're hoping to do a Katan vs M109 session sometime in the near future. I'll get a claret for that one, perhaps there'll be a parallel with the difference in the speakers? Or would that just be me trying a bit too hard?