I know full well that writing anything close to even skimming any testing I do, will take much time, if not taking patience. Certainly on your behalf ;-).
Re the nature of this article : For sure I can only scratch the surface, mainly because of the sheer amount of gear and systems I tested with since I began. Even for myself when I was thinking how I would approach this article, it had the chance of turning convoluted, dense and maybe leading written material heading nowhere fast. I hope I will have prevented this read from becoming a waste of time for you all. Enjoy the snippets of humor...I am trying to keep you guys awake. Cheers
Why the testing ?
Because its our job !
What the testing process is about and why test at all ?
Thinking about what will be an article rather than a blog, I was thinking during the course of the early summer thinking about this, how easily I could loose my way in writing something of a clear article. I say this partly because of the many changes that occurred when testing procedures I use in my everyday life, how these have changed and become more complex over time. Looking back I now know how they are nearly all intertwined towards serving our client base. The last point is the only rhyme or logic that makes this make sense for us.
Testing can be messy
Many fan and clients have read or heard me state the following, " the right box, for the right application and the right person ". Why else would we place ourselves through this if not for our client base overall satisfaction. The labour involved in testing needed to be fun in order for us to do. But upon writing this, I now sense this is the main reason why I placed such value at torturing myself time wise.
A case in point when I was testing cables. I have an approach that would make my assessment of such cables lead towards discovering what the essence of these cables are under different conditions...discovering what changes and what stays the same over several system... which means what stays the same in the listening test over the course of many systems, becomes the cables REAL sonic signature. This implies one only thing, to be sure, you can test all you want, but the tester needs to remember what is newly discovered. Without this, it all means nothing of course, because you forget. I was lucky, all my results stuck to mind like a fruit fly in orange juice.
When you see a clean room, testing is over
Easier said than done, and quite laborious I assure you all, but I was lucky that I remembered the testing details. Considering the fiascos this industry got itself into in the early 2000's, I still maintained and insisted on this decorum around our component knowledge. Despite being a proponent on lets say, cables technologies, I had done so in such a way that SPI had developed a cult following way back when. I still think that if one knows what the gear they propose is about, it amounts to power...knowledge is power in helping you provide pertinent information to our client base.
When you consider the following story, about how a good friend bought a very expensive cartridge elsewhere ( a 10,000.00 for 4,500.00 if I remember ), then only to admit he had " betrayed " his friend Lucster and he was very unhappy with his choice. When I asked him what that cartridge was, he told me, and I immediately told him " no kidding, this cartridge is not your sound ". Or another friend who stated to Roger the same, but he had bought something else that he was not happy with. He was no longer satisfied with his system after spending 3,500.00 plus taxes. The end game when you have built up a wonderful system, it's that in a very special way, its really more that just placing Lego blocks together. One wrong Lego at the wrong time and place, it will still play music, but will it have your essence. There is nothing wrong buying where you want to, not at all. But when the above happens, its less fun.
Many may just think that our main mantra on our home page... Evening is here, open up a Pinot Noir, sit down, relax and listen. Experts at helping you do this since 1993. THIS IS MY END RESULTS as far as I am concerned with you folks …" this is my job well done ". That all I have made this company and the folks that work with me care about. This is another reason for testing and knowing our gear.
It is the essence of who we are.
So why the testing dudes ?
Knowing the different frequencies that spins inside all our individual heads... your heads, that are unique to us all, and finding out the same with components or cables is not an easy task for anyone. Its even more difficult to explain this. So why I chose not to really go there. I would tend to believe most of you would say, " yeah I get it ". BUT doing so and working this out is the best thing one can do to help your clients. Time and again. On some forums, some called or thrust upon us, " playing mind games ". I thought and maintain that one chooses the right gear for the right application, said gear has a bigger chance of staying in your home. This is not done by waving a wand, it is done through testing and discovering what your gear is about BEFORE we sell it. Discovering what makes every one of you buzz and smile is simply the fun part, the cherry on the cake.
But what can be explained rather easily are the different testing systems that I use in order to arrive at the above conclusions. For myself, what used to be fun, laborious and joyful, has now become work, still fun, but work nonetheless. As time wears on, well, we have less of it. As a business owner, there has to be an end game and a good reason why we do this. The formula has got to exist for great cause.
How the testing process has changed throughout the years prior.
So over the course of the summer, I decided that it was going to be to difficult to explain my testing procedures in such an article, but let it be said that, most products went thought these torture techniques. Its interesting in order to highlight this realization, is to note that it was in early summer of 2017, just after the flood at home that I began to FINALLY initiate changes in these testing procedures that are draconian.
Imagine having been flooded like we were at home, provoking mayhem and havoc elsewhere in our house, then asking my wife to help me out in order to take out a pair of hard to handle speakers and what many would call a heavy amplifier...only to place these in a much condensed living space only to test and burn these in for a 1000 or more hours. Discovering burn in time, burn in behaviors, what cables work better etc etc all the while dealing with the floods loss and mayhem within our wall at the same time. Both these components were introduced October 21st in our shop in our OXFORD JMR /ROKSAN show, nearly 5 month later. I remember thinking when that event rolled around, that it was insane, like actually unreasonable to even do that, a aha moment. Now consider this one, as I write this in August 2018, my wife and I are still dealing with the changes in lifestyle choices that came with the with May's 2017 flood. Still I had the audacity to test right after this event.
So what do I test on ?
Downstairs office systems.
Certainly what is easy to grasp is that I use several systems at all levels to test, even my office system as I considered this a real world system. Other than Linn, YBA and Naim gear, that system had Musical Fidelity Cd players, Classe audio, Jm Labs, Celestion, Klipsch Cornwalls III etc and I am not even scratching the surface of the office system. Much in this office systems were saved from the flood, but many were recently sold off. But I even used these office system to test as I worked in my 2 offices. It was important to know how gear behaved at this real world level. Tested quickly enough, but it helped me recommend exciting things to new clients that were just starting out. I still have office systems, much simplified but still massive in real world terms.
Upstairs havoc, mayhem and sonic bliss ! What does this mean Lucster ?
Roger is always traumatized by my Santa Claus
In my upstairs floor, it was not the same thing at all. Testing and burn in was never an easy breezy thing. The meat and bones of all the SPI knowledge base basically started here then was shared with Kris and Steve so that they would know. In all the years in this business, I have discovered that even some high end gear should not be used for testing. I found similar threads of thoughts with different tube types, different tube amplifiers and so on ( why I could not really go with explaining testing procedures except briefly ). There were so many caveats and " do not's " in my mind, well... it was simply better to allude to it and end it there.
This being said, I have developed standards and streams of thoughts about gear I use to test. The process was the same, but the testings did change since I started way back when, so I have limited myself to the last 8 or so years in terms of the testing systems I write about here. Some of the systems I have used prior was YBA, Sonic Frontiers, Musical Fidelity Nu Vista and Kilo Watts level, Vandersteen Reference 3a's, Focal Utopia, Merlins VSM's, FAB Audio and the list goes on. As the years wore on, I saw that certain gear should not be used to test... because of the " editorial content " they possessed.
I eventual concluded the following. The main systems I use to test should not be either too emotional, or threadbare ( instrument like ). They need to have soul and an openness about what is going on. Neutrality is an illusion in audio, it only exist live in my books. However it does not mean that we cannot test gear either, we all live in the real world. Many will now know, that when I test at any level I use superb cables that are not expensive. I want to hear the gear, not the cables. Systems differences, differences between companies should all be celebrated and not condemned. If I could not do this in a real way, and actually believe this, SPI could not and would not exist.
Cable testing at its best
Never assuming anything, test and verify everything.
Once when I began way back when, I was representing then older Linn product, and VDH cables, I thought combining both these companies, would make for a rich and overly ripe combination thereby making for an over caramelized sound. One of my colleague's stated that I should try these together, he stated they went wonderfully together, and so I did try. He was absolutely correct... and I learned, had I tested rather then play master of the universe, I would have found this out by myself.
Why I test the " should a and could a "... I dont leave things to chance. Now getting back to gear I test, once I complete testing whatever I am testing, then do I move on and formulate what cables would go well. I never assume at this level BTW. I learned that I need to test, listen and verify. Clients dont want me to assume with their hard earned money, so I dont, quite simple. But let it be said, that I would have been surprised how different results and the sheer number of times I would have been off the mark ( " assuming " would be responsible for approx 10 % or so error rate. If you test, the rate drops to near zero ). Why I never assume, and why I always test. This is what I learned way back in my beginnings.
Now that some know I do not use every gear in my home to test, there are several performance plains that I listen for and that I need to hear. The more $$ it costs, the more I need to hear. With the gear that as I test with, I cumulate facts around how compatible they are, about how difficult they may be able to mate with other gear ( many will hear me verbally state the terms : compatibility ratio ) on the shop floor. The moment one hears me state these great " doctrines, on the shop floor, these come from the testing procedures I use behind the scenes. BTW, let it be said none of the "doctrines " are safe, not permanent and can be changed and asked to leave in order to reflect newer realities.
Other worldly considerations are placement issues, sensitivity to support systems, are they tweak sensitive or not, do they lend themselves to all sorts of music within their capabilities, any bugs or lack of proper exterior design work. One could only guess that when you add even more ways to swing at this testing, it takes years to accumulate such a good testing procedure's in your mind. This is not written down anywhere.
I used to listen to several discs for testing, I no longer do this. I like to keep myself on my toes, fresh and not locked into listen what becomes preconceptions of listening habits. Having a super duper aural memory helps here I would think. But this keeps the doctrinaire attitude in check and these being revised at all times. There are no sacred cows with testing. The more I think I know, the less I know !
When I need to be very critical if not rude ( it does happen btw, and painfully rude I can be ;-) in my testing I place a time limit. I find shredding components apart, somebodies work and creation, is not fun in my books.
Now in this disposable world we live in, should we even go there anymore. Four years ago I decided that much was going to change, as this type of approach was commercially unviable. As the industry is collapsing, I can rest assured that the " system " that I use to test is functional, operational and sound as is but was it viable commercially speaking ? But this was in thought four years ago, it actually changed only when I did the last major testing of those JMR speakers and Roksan BLAK last May 2017. Change is sometimes slow and difficult, yes even for me, a guy that sort of likes change, not sometimes easy, I admit. But it did change in 2017.
Burning in components can be a pain after a flood (the above went for over 1,100 hours)
So what gear do I use to test ? Better yet, what gear dont I use, to test ?
I will not use push pull tubes amplifiers, nor will I use unique sounding speakers, low powered Triodes, never test gear with hideously expensive cables at first ( I know this surprises most readers ), I dont use turntables ( may surprise many ) but they do come in to play later. I do not use Audio Note with the exception of one component. I am missing some here, but what ever imparts a heavy editorial imprint on the sound is not welcome in THIS process. It skews results where conclusions are concerned.
A glimpse of only two walls at home, note turntables not being used
Is there gear that is better than others at testing, you bet.
But before I state what these are, they must be both great at being musical and analytical in their capacity. By musical I mean not emotional ripe, but simply musical. Emotionality as a factor is listened to very distinctly and separately ( why often you will read about this term separately than what I describe on this website ). Its a term our web fans and our clients will hear me state out loud on our shop floor. Emotionality can be missing at first and then show up as burn in is finishing it due process. True of speakers and certain brands. Some gear is plug and play, we need to know this AND advise clients of this. The inverse is also true and provide a time where burn in will cease.
Even a Cyrus The One amplifier ($1,300), gets tested and listened to for approx. 150 hours at home
Of the many speakers I use to test is the Merlin VSMs ( without BAM ), the B&W 802's II that some have seen on our website, and the Tannoy Kensingtons S/E's that are to arrive in our shop soon enough. When I test at the shop, after hours I use exclusively the Volents Paragon 3.5. The USHER 5751 BE were stunning in this regards, but I did sell these to make room in our home. The most expensive speaker I have at home, I never test with BTW.
Noting the sheer amount of world class speakers used to test with
Sources must be great if you place yourself in this torture and work scheme. There are times when … time is of the essence, at where I tend to float about, I have the capacity to really skim through with little fanfare or mistakes in testing gear. I say this not to brag, but when one considers fatigue setting in while continuous testing, one needs not to test while your tired. Guess what... sometimes you just want to settle in and listen to music. When this happens, I stop testing and suspend my critical mind. Its simple wear and tear. No one is a robot.
With sources I use to test with, I tend to gravitate to CD's near exclusively now. Just as I tested all serious gear with full Linn Klimax separates and yes this includes Klimax DS. At the same time I did use and continue to use Naim CDX2 with XPS power supply. Cary player and Linn Akurate High Rez players carry the day in terms of DVD-A and SACD. I have many other CD players, but these are not used for testing. At about 2013 I greatly began to simplify the amount of gear I test with.
When one sees a clean room, I'm no longer testing
For digital transport I use exclusively Audio Note CDT 3 as well as YBA Signature, both the best in many regards. In terms of digital cable, I will gravitate with Nordost Vahalla as well as a hideously expensive cable coming from Europe.
What was and what is now.
Some will note that I possess much stock not sold by SPI
I did have some top octave Naim separates as well up until 2015, a Naim NAC 552 pre and a Naim Super Cap with a Naim NAP 250. I moved away from these as well at the same time I did with the USHERS in order to make room. About several years ago, I thought we should proceed with a kind of Super integrated amplifier at home. It made sense, and let it be said I was able to move more quickly in testing mode. This was becoming an essential as we were also becoming quite busy and test tired behind the scenes after years of testing. With the vast amassed knowledge, I was no longer sure it was necessary and many folks would simply not get the amount of work it took behind the scenes, nor actually care about it.
But before 2015, I decided to hone in on YBA Sig amplifier as the one that has now carries the main duties. Together with the YBA and Audio Note digital transports, they are now my backbones of testing systems. I will use my Naim CDX2/XPU and my Naim NS 01 streamer on occasion. These do me plenty well, and I don't feel I am short changing the testing process. But I equally began to make room for these by selling off plenty of expensive gear at home. The process has continued still today.
Now I will use turntables to test how gear does with projecting ambience and timber. It may be a romantic medium, but these tables do excel at these qualities.
Testing is now going on diminishing cycles, times have clearly moved on and quite literally, so have we.
Then add with the amount of mileage on our bodies while testing for no reward other than doing it for your client base and some innate need to do things right, after all the years of testing behind the scenes, we now have little to prove. Need I mention my wife, well she's been living with an extreme high ender organized hoarder all her life, and what's worse … a bloody guy that has more music than brains. Music is all over our house... so its time to pay her back and give her more room in that home of ours.
Testing will still go on it must be said, but far from the level we have seen before now, I have simplified our jobs here. No one can blame us for simplifying. I have barely mentioned a fraction of the gear I use to test for securities and privacies sake and the pictures barely show the amount of gear either, but one gets the idea that if I state certain things a particular way, it may be because I have tested far and wide and back. No regrets on our parts.
Both these pictures contain approx. 3% to 5% of overall collection
I hope you enjoyed this 3rd stream article, its there to educate who and what we are about and continue to be. Perhaps you folks have your own way to test as Kris and Steve do, I am certain they are as good as ours here. I am certain you have had as much fun as I have here testing your own gear.
On that note, I hope you had fun reading folks, cheers.