Monday, September 14, 2015
The Chronicles of Sydnia, Part 1
I've been back from my Australian adventure for about a week now, and it's occurred to me that I'm one of those people who get to travel somewhere cool and far away just once in my life, and I'll spend the rest of my life talking about it. Even in Sydney I was joking that I'd go back to the US and officially become an expert on all things Australian. What can I say? It was an incredible trip, and I'm very lucky to have visited this wonderful country. I want to go back as soon as possible.
Other than the whole driving-on-the-wrong-side-of-the-street issue, which of course is related to the why-did-they-put-your-steering-wheel-on-the-other-side-of-your-car issue, I was surprised that the greater Sydney area only felt sporadically exotic. Just throw in some half-dead banana trees and it'd look a lot like San Diego. Maybe it was all the palm trees and eucalyptus trees--something I grew up with in Orange County--but I never expected to feel so relaxed and comfortable in a country on the other side of the world. Plus, they spoke English. I understood every word, too--unlike when I travel to Chicago or Detroit. The only guy I had trouble understanding turned out to be British.
Reason #1 why I love Sydney: the tap water tastes like bottled water. Seriously. I've heard so many claims of drinkable tap water in my life, including here in western Colorado where people act offended if you don't drink right out of the faucet, that I was genuinely surprised that yes, the tap water in Sydney tastes like Aquafina or Dasani or Fiji or any other bottled water out there. The plumbing is just generally awesome in Sydney--I felt like I could flush a Persian rug down one of those Aussie toilets with no issues. (And yes, the water does swirl the other way when you flush.)
The main reason for going to Australia, of course, was this bloke right here. His name is Brad Serhan. He's an Australian speaker designer. He's been my buddy for many years now. Colleen and I already import and distribute one of his designs, the Axis VoiceBox S, which he finalized with partner and Axis head honcho John Reilly. Brad and his partner David Allen are starting a new venture called Brigadiers Audio which will feature upscale, practically bespoke designs that feature high-quality drivers, birch-ply enclosures and constrained layer damping (which I'll go into further in a future blog entry). I've been listening to their 2-way monitor since January, as I've mentioned already, and I traveled to Australia to help the tweak the design a little, and to hear their bigger 2.5-way floorstanding speaker.
I had very few reservations about the 2-way, and I approached my summary of its performance like a professional audio reviewer so that I could remain objective and make a sound business decision about carrying the line in the US. After my first listening session I proclaimed, "This is a speaker I could actually live with for the rest of my life." That was said with all honesty, and as little marketing hyperbole as possible, but I also knew that the Brigadiers designs were going to be expensive with their complicated birch-ply cabinetry and semi-exotic Australian hand-oiled veneers, and that a small expensive two-way monitor needs to do a couple of things in order to sell in the US--it needs to go low in the bass, at least relatively so, and it needs to sound like a big speaker. My only two pieces of feedback for Brad and David were to see if the speaker could dig a little deeper into its lowest frequencies, and that my personal preference was a midrange that was slightly more forward. Very, very minor nitpicks.
Brad said "No worries"--he knew it was just a matter of changing the value of a resistor, and the midrange frequencies would come forward a bit. David also made a rear port out of slightly different dimensions--deeper and narrower, and that brought some truly deep bass into the sonic picture. I learned a lot about port design that day.
This is, of course, John Reilly and David Allen, with me in the middle. On this night, thanks to John, I discovered the joys of Malaysian food. While I was in Sydney, I enjoyed Thai food, Vietnamese food, Korean food, Japanese food, Chinese food and Malaysian food, and all of it was fantastic. Malaysian food, something we don't widely have in the US as far as I know, was the best--like Thai, but less sweet and not as spicy. Since I've been back people have been asking me about "Australian cuisine," and outside of the pasty and peas I had on the airplane on the way back home I really don't know. But the Asian food I ate while there was absolutely exquisite.
This was the first time I've met John in person, and we hit it off right away. He's very interested in American politics, as are most Australians--every day I read the Sydney newspaper and at least a page was devoted to US politics. Well, not US politics as much as TRUMP. As in, "Trump's not really going to be the next POTUS, is he?" I was asked that question by almost every Aussie I met. Toward the beginning of my trip, my answer was "No way." Toward the end of the trip my answer was, "Um, er...I don't even know anymore."
Anyway, back to John and Axis. John said one thing to me that I really respected--he wanted to turn the VoiceBox S into a "heritage" product--one that stays around for a long time and helps to define the marketplace for years, even decades. In Australia, China and the Far East, I think it already is a heritage product. (Remember, I'm biased, but I do feel lucky to be associated with such a product.) At this dinner, John made arrangements for me to meet with Ian Robinson, the designer/manufacturer of Redgum Audio. Redgum and Axis share a factory, and John vouched for the synergy between his product and Ian's amps. I've got one of their integrateds here in Colorado for evaluation--more about Redgum in a later blog.
If I had a more general theme to my Australian trip, it would be something about high-end audio being alive and well Down Under. It seems like American audiophiles were all into Australian audio a couple of decades ago, not long after we were all infatuated with Australian film and The Thorn Birds and Paul Hogan. Recently it seems that some of that initial enthusiasm has waned--the affinity between the two cultures is still obviously intact, but we just don't crow about it as much as we used to. Mention Australian audio to US audiophiles and you may get a few comments about Duntech and Halcro. More often than not you'll also hear about Plinius and Perraux before you have to remind someone that New Zealand is Australia as much as Canada is the United States. It ain't.
But here's proof of how serious high-end audio is in Australia--this is a million dollar system...well, a million Australian dollars, in the main sound room in Knox Audio just outside of Sydney. Owner Jeff Knox is completely dedicated to the state of the art in high-end audio and assembled this system (Evolution Acoustics speakers, Ypsilon and Soulution amplification, AMG turntable and much more) to show his clients what is truly possible in our hobby. I have to admit that this one one of the most impressive dealer demos I've experienced. Everything was just life-like and realistic and infinite in its capabilities.
I'll talk more about Jeff Knox as well in the near future.
This is Brad and David's larger 2.5-way floorstanding speaker design. I came to Australia to listen to these. Unlike the two-way monitors, which were still in the prototype stage when I evaluated them, this larger speaker is a finished design and has already been auditioned by a handful of Australian hi-fi dealers as well as some professional reviewers. This pair, finished in Australian brushbox veneer (understated but unusually lovely close up), was actually the second pair made by Brigadiers. I watched Brad and David build these in an afternoon, and we were enjoying music by dinner time.
While this speaker has a relatively small footprint and fairly modest dimensions, not to mention more of that signature Australian understatement, it's a very substantial and complex speaker. First, carrying just the empty cabinets is a two man job. Handcrafted by Toby Hogpin, one of the top carpenters in Sydney, this cabinet feature multiple layers of birch ply that are bonded together with a special adhesive that actually controls resonances in the cabinet. Constrained layer damping also contributes to a solid enclosure that allows the drivers (two SEAS magnesium woofers and a Raal ribbon tweeter) to really sing.
It's no surprise that I loved these speakers. After spending the first day with them, I wanted to hug them and take them home.
We worked hard in Australia. Long hours, lots of critical listening tests, and lots of meetings with important folks. But I did have time to play, but just a little. This is me at legendary Bondi Beach just a few hours after I landed in Sydney. I grew up in Southern California and spent my youth at Huntington Beach and Newport, but I have never seen waves as big and as beautiful as these ones. I estimated at least 8-10 foot waves, perfect shape, evenly spaced sets. I haven't been on a board for 35 years, but I wanted to get out there anyway.
Further proof I was in Sydney. That's me and the Sydney Opera House. No photoshop. I promise.
David Allen even took me out on his 42-foot sailboat. We sailed Sydney Harbor, under the famous bridge, next to the Opera House, all through the nooks and crannies of this iconic location. Then I was offered the wheel for a few photo opportunities. After the photos were snapped, however, I just kept on sailing this big boat through the heads and out into the Pacific for a few miles. I kept asking if someone wanted to take the wheel before I screwed up too badly, but the response was always a cheerful "You're doing fine, mate!" and "You've really got the hang of it!" and "Colleen will be so proud of you!"
At the risk of being that guy, the one who's constantly talking about his big trip to Australia to anyone who will listen, I will share more of my trip in the coming days.