Sounds Perfect

On the quest for the ultimate stereo system

The room is silent now, without music. The scores on the cabinet shelves are chock full of masterpieces spanning 700 years of Western musical culture, but they can't produce a single note. Their pages are filled with dead characters. Until less than a century ago, you had to wait for the music middlemen - the performers - to come to town and revive the notes by playing and singing. Were a person to hear all nine Beethoven symphonies in his lifetime, he'd be thought fortunate. Today, who needs live performers when next to the scores, in a separate cabinet, there are discs arranged alongside a stereophonic system, on which all of Beethoven's symphonies can be heard, his eighth, for instance, with all the humor and irony inherent in it, as though the orchestra had come to our house. But is it really the same thing?

The quest to discover the ultimate stereo system, that will bring the great orchestras and soloists into my home, began one sunny Friday, with a drive northward to Yair Tamam's sales and showroom studio, Audio Design, in Moshav Rishpon. "A system is only as good as its weakest link," my guide, Alon Naaman, explains to me en route. He's an electronics engineer by profession who used to import stereo components and build speakers and now works as a consultant and sets up computerized control systems for private houses.

Naaman adores music and is a real expert on systems. "In the showroom you'll see lots of systems, but this is only the first stage. Once the customers have made their choice, the system is brought to their living room, and sometimes I work on such a system for days: move, substitute parts, change cables, until the sound is to their liking." Yair Tamam welcomes us at the entrance to his wood house. Inside, like a magic cave, are treasures to make audio mavens drool, especially those who know their way around home entertainment equipment: "That's the trend, home cinema systems," says Naaman, "and with these systems people usually don't invest in sound."

"I tell people that an audio system costs NIS 150,000 and they're flabbergasted," Tamam says, "and these are customers with money. They build a house and invest extensively in it, but they buy a stereo the same way they buy a washing machine; and if they wouldn't dream of spending NIS 150,000 on that, then why on earth would they pay such a sum for a stereo system? So I present it as `custom-made,' like a suit; and since many of them really do have their clothes made to order, they understand."

I selected two discs for the tour: The Eroica Quartet playing Beethoven's Op. 131, and Martha Argerich playing the Liszt piano sonata. In the lavish showroom, with its soft leather couches and wide movie screen, you start small, at what the pros call "entry level": a basic system priced at a total of NIS 55,000. The music definitely sounds better on it than on my system back home.

The next system already represents a gigantic leap: tall and slender speakers that broadcast truly scary Liszt. It feels as if somebody shoved me inside the piano and shut the cover; the sound oozes from every direction, submerges, reverberates. Stop, I beg Tamam, and he laughs: "You ain't seen nothing yet." With a thrust of his foot he kicks the display floor, which begins to revolve slowly, along with its soft couches, 180 degrees, leaving the screen and the speakers behind. "Tomorrow is already here," Tamam says as he detaches and reconnects cables, "now, hear some music through speakers that cost more than a car."

The sweet spot

On the way back to Tel Aviv, Alon Naaman points out large villas: "Here are a lot of systems worth millions that nobody touches and just are going to waste," he says. "Wanna see?" But it's far more interesting to find out how people who understand music and love it listen to it. So he takes me to meet one of the experts in the field: Yehuda Erdmann of Givatayim, who has a super-system at home that looks like a precious stone collection and cost an astronomical sum. Erdmann's system is in a constant state of construction, to improve the sound endlessly - installing new cables; affixing the equipment in sophisticated ways, to prevent vibrations from shaking the floor; changing burnt bulbs in the amplifiers, bulbs that can only be purchased online, being manufactured by the Soviet army and the English communication corps in World War II.

Erdmann is a computer analyst for industrial needs, and also a former musician who has tremendous knowledge of classical music and its great performers, whom he can identify after listening to a brief clip. "Here, sit in the sweet spot," he indicates the precise point in his armchair. The room, as in the homes of all true audiophiles, is not a music temple by any stretch. The household sounds are clearly heard there: the phone ringing, kitchen noises, the television. They're not a disturbance and don't mar the sweetness of the spot between the two speakers: the late great violinist Nathan Milstein sounds on the slightly scratchy record playing a Bach Partita for violin as though he were sitting next to me, utterly tangible.

"Discs are the biggest nonsense man has ever been dished," Erdmann says, and proceeds to place another record on the phonograph. "There was a good product, the LP, and they messed it up, threw out of it everything that really matters."

Erdmann plays an eternal record: Prokofiev's opera "Ivan the Terrible," in an English recording from the 1970s that brings the entire opera house into the room. "I bought this record for four shekels," he says, while in the background the softest pianissimo and the roof-raising shouts of the chanting narrator come across equally refined on this system. Each instrument is reflected, every subtlety in orchestra and harmony reverberates in a magnificent audio experience. "They knew how to record, those English," he says, "not like Deutsche Gramophon and their lousy recordings."

Is it better than a live concert?

Erdmann: "I never compare a concert, which is irreplaceable, with what I have at home. It's not interesting and in any event the quality of this system is not designed to bring a concert into my home, but merely to pamper myself a bit, to raise the domestic listening level."

And do you attend concerts?

"Plenty. I make a point of stopping in Berlin on my way to work in the United States, for example. I love hearing Barenboim conducting works by Wagner. I've seen many operas with him."

And how do you find the time, and especially the relaxation and peace of mind, for listening to music at home?

"Relaxation and peace of mind? I don't need those for listening. On the contrary - thanks to listening to music I am relaxed."

No superfluous button

At night, after the rest of the household has gone to sleep, or early Saturday morning, alone in the silence, Ze'ev Schlick sits in an armchair across from the stereo system in the living room of his Ramat Gan apartment and listens to music. His system does not belong to the millionaire's circle, barely totaling NIS 60,000, but it's still top-of-the-line and is equipped with speakers of a special sound quality. And as with all systems at this level, as Naaman observes while Schlick goes to fetch refreshments, it doesn't have a single superfluous button: no bass and no treble, no equalizer and no gizmos and special effects - as little interference as possible with the pure sound. "With me, music always took precedence over the system," says Schlick, "and in the past it was only a hobby, unadulterated love." Today, as managing director of NMC Music, it's also a business and livelihood.

Like most audiophiles, and like musicians, Schlick too is in an ongoing process of searching for the sound of his imagination. "These quests led me from one system to another. You live with each one for a few years, then you become fed up with its sound and look for some contrary type, at the other extreme. But I always love the natural sound - the simpler the better, and never louder than the volume of speech."

"The system is like a musical instrument, so Stradivarius in his day built real top-of-the-line systems," Naaman says, "but like any musical instrument, this one too is always an intermediary, and therefore it can't be perfect. That's the reason audiophiles are always changing and replacing. I don't know car- or other gadget- freaks who do this. In the computer world, the industry forces you to replace and renew. In the stereo world, it doesn't, because in the end there is no ultimate product that can make your dream come true. Here they don't force; the people themselves, on their own initiative, never stop looking for the divine."

He doesn't have a musical holy of holies either, and the living room's lighting alone creates an intimate listening space: "An enclosed space is not natural for listening, and household background noises don't bother me," Schlick says. "Most people can't fathom and accept the tremendous sensitivity of the ear, and sometimes treat me as though I were a little insane. Look, I threaded the cables for all the components of the system through holes drilled in the floor and they said I was nuts; but if you could listen to the amazing difference in sound, you'd understand why."

As a professional in the field, he's also familiar with the ins and outs of recording technology: "Today, when vinyl records are making a comeback, but dictated by a fashion imperative, they're being produced from a digital master - and that means that 60 percent of the sound is getting lost. Pink Floyd's `Dark Side of the Moon,' did you hear the record they made of it? It's not worth the plastic it was pressed onto. A listening experience includes the sensation stemming from the natural behavior of the material substance. A record made from an analog master has warmth and presence and a void of sound, whereas a record from a digital source is airtight and its sound is sometimes totally ruined.

"People replaced their record collections with the first compact discs that came out in the 1980s, but the sound was terrible," Schlick continues. "And after the technological improvement that replaced them a second time, and now we are once again replacing or going back to records. It's sad to think how many times I've bought the same record. Imagine how miserable today's kids are growing up with the compression of the MP3. What sort of quality of life will they have?"

Modernist sculpture

Alon Naaman accompanies me out of Ze'ev Schlick's apartment following another long night of listening to lots of classical music, and also jazz and '70s rock. We still have at least two more must-see apartments ahead of us, and it virtually goes without saying that their proprietors are men: "Women might buy, but they're not freaks," says Naaman, "and I've never seen women going around searching for electronic parts and speakers. It's yet another expression of male insecurity, I guess."

At the first address: a fabulous super-system. The phonograph, a sort of modernist sculpture, comprised wholly of a white plastic tube, cast, hanging by a thread, impelled by thin rubber bands, and resting on spider-like aluminum legs whose points stand on a marble surface, to prevent vibrations. The disc player has a simple look, gleaming black. Superb silver cables, delicately entwined, extend toward a series of rotund amplifiers, inside which shine bulbs picked one at a time from a gigantic inventory purchased in advance. And from there to the final destination: two man-high towers of boxes containing a seemingly jumbled pile of speakers, the latest word in technology.

The pocket calculator easily tabulates the system's cost: phonograph - $57,000; cables - $100,000; disc player - $40,000. Speakers and amplifiers ratchet up the total to $400,000.

The second address: Grisha Slutzky's little room in Tel Aviv. Seemingly in total chaos, in stark contrast to the cleanliness and wealth associated with audiophiles with sophisticated systems, with records by the thousands, pictures from the flea market, souvenirs, sound system paraphernalia, singles, mountains of burned discs and pirated mini-discs. A mixture of Serge Gainsbourg, Miles Davis, Mahler playing Mahler, Herbie Hancock and John McLaughlin, hard core avant-garde, Shotakovitch. Only the owner's masterful familiarity with the contents attests to the existence of perfect order here. Grisha has two phonographs that produce different sounds - brighter for jazz; round and soft and 0non-aggressive for classical.

Is that a new system?

Grisha: "No, I haven't replaced it in seven years, it's excellent."

And if you had $4 million?" Naaman asks. "I still wouldn't replace it," Grisha laughs.

The acoustics in the room are marvelous and everything is heard clearly. I notice the cables connecting the various parts of the system - sort of transparent ribbons, flat and paper-thin, and skinny wires crawling throughout them. Naaman sees my questioning look: "They're silver plated copper wires, in a vacuum," he whispers to me over the thundering avant-garde sounds of pianist-composer Cecil Taylor. "The freaks buy silver bars themselves, by the weight, and make cables from them." I heard some people make them out of gold, I whisper. "No way, gold isn't at all suitable for preventing magnetism, and that's the object - to clear the sound even more."

As a sort of moral to the story, on my way out I recognize a piece of furniture familiar from my childhood: a radio-phonograph like the kind that was in my grandmother's house. The whole sumptuous journey was forgotten in view of the wondrous machine, through which my uncle Yehuda introduced me to Elvis Presley. Grisha notices my excitement, lifts up the cover and places a few records on its crooked pivot, above the turntable. He presses a button and a white plastic arm, like the bony arm of a robot, is dispatched and feels up the record tower. A small tongue pokes out in response and pushes the bottom record, which glides down the pole, falls with a thud onto the turntable and begins spinning. The needle lands on it none too gently, and the warm voice of Frank Sinatra emerges with moving clarity from the single speaker, through the record's scratchiness. Is all the technology we've encountered in these weeks really necessary, I ask Alon Naaman on the way home, after all, that was the best of all. "It's all in our heads," he replies.