Audio Lounge, London Host a Special VIP Music Evening in Westminster to Thank their Highly Valued Customers

In August 2019, an exciting evening full of twists and turns that stimulated all the senses was held at the Hyatt Regency (The Churchill), just a short walk from Audio Lounge.  The Library Suite provided a highly distinctive venue with its tall, domed ceiling and fine architectural details.  Bookshelves lined with wonderful antique literary texts enhanced the sense of occasion.

Expectations were running high as a carefully curated selection of high- end audio equipment was put through its paces.  On demonstration was the ultimate HD DAC X and HD PREAMP converters from Swiss manufacturer Nagra, supported by the VPS phono stage and CDC CD player.  A pair of Nagra HD AMP’s huge mono power amplifiers supplied power to the Sonja loudspeakers from YG Acoustics which use housings crafted from solid aircraft aluminium.  

However, the star guest from amongst the sources was undoubtedly the new Garrard Model 301 turntable, which heralds a new chapter in the history books for this legendary manufacturer.

Another ‘classic’ was the wonderful Studer 802 tape machine, still in excellent condition, which provided a rare opportunity to experience the quality of first-generation master tape copies.

The evening was opened by Stuart McNeilis, CEO at British turntable and tonearm specialist SME, where many of the component parts of the new Garrard 301 are manufactured with the precision for which the company is renowned.  On completion, they are delivered to the Swindon factory where final assembly takes place.  A 12-inch SME tonearm is also mounted (the M2-12R), this time with the Ortofon A95 – a high-end MC pickup – on top.

Mr McNeilis shared the background, the hard work, and challenges involved in reviving the famous Garrard Model 301 to present it in as close to the original form as possible, with modern standards of handcrafted excellence. He particularly emphasized the friction idler wheel drive which, of course, remains integral to the modern version.

But now let’s start.  For this evening, our host presenter was Matthias Böde.  The editor of the German Hi-Fi magazine STEREO is a highly sought-after professional in the field of high-end Hi-Fi and has been conducting workshops and demonstrations for more than 25 years.  In the Hyatt Regency, he confessed that he had long considered how to present the highly revered Model 301 appropriately.  Mr Böde opted for the quiet, almost intimate solo number ‚Smoke Gets In Your Eyes‘ by American guitarist Earl Klugh from his album ‚Late Night Guitar‘, released in the early 80s.  Admittedly, despite almost perfection in terms of composition and arrangement, it is a rather banal work from the Easy Listening arena, however, it is so excellently recorded that it always fascinates anew.  

And that’s how it sounded!  The Garrard 301 easily reproduced the guitar in all its musicality and dynamically between the loudspeakers.  It was so natural it was breathtaking, and when afterward in ‚Nice To Be Around‘ a perfectly staggered, lively playing orchestra framed the Earl Klugh‘s guitar, the listeners knew that they were listening to a turntable – indeed a whole high-end system – in a special class of its own which had effortlessly fulfilled their high expectations – if not surpassed them. When the last note had faded away, spontaneous applause even broke out.

After this successful prelude, further highlights from Mr Böde’s prized record case followed.  One example, was the current AudioNautes re-issue of the audiophile album ‚Antiphone Blues‘, which showcases organ and saxophone within the acoustic environment of a church.  The system had no problem in playing the finest details and was meticulously set up by the Audio Lounge team beforehand.  Sometimes ‚I Feel Like A Motherless Child‘ came across spaciously and with almost holy breath.  Again applause.  And again after Cheryl Porter had sung her version of ‚I Look To You‘ based around the original from Whitney Houston.  The audio system revealed so much energy and radiance with this fully analogue title, recorded in the ‚Conservatorio‘ at Padua, that many of the listeners had goosebumps.  The opinion was unanimous, that this was how it should sound.

Next came Lincoln Mayorga and his distinguished colleagues with their hearty ‚America‘.  The direct cut from the label Sheffield Lab is renowned for its high-quality recording process where the band had played directly on the cutting foil, resulting in a captivating and lively dynamic.  It is unbelievable how easily the system coped with sudden bursts of sound. And, it was really loud!

How could we be yet more hedonistic?  We changed over to the Studer tape machine. This was already equipped with a coil, which offered master tape copies from the repertoire of the master tenor Luciano Pavarotti.  These were provided by Italian supplier Hemiolia Records, run as half-track tapes at 38 centimetres per second – and direct copies of the master tapes managed by the Pavarotti Trust.  The studio-Studer started with a gentle clack which let the large reels rotate,  ‚Che Gelida Manina‘ from the Puccini opera ‚La Behème‘ was heard.  The intensity with which the singer, who died in 2007, appeared in front of the audience was almost unbelievable. This demanded everything the system could muster so that the level meters of the powerful mono amplifiers swung threateningly far to the right.  There was no dissonance, so much so that Pavarotti’s incredible performance post mortem in the Hyatt Regency Hotel was greeted with sheer enthusiasm by the audience.

The question then arose as to whether the Garrard Model 301 could stand up to this performance.  In order to clarify this, Matthias Böde had brought master tape copies of other albums with him.  Among them was a concert recording of the jazz queen Ella Fitzgerald from 1969.  The reel was quickly mounted on the Studer.  It immediately played ‚Hey Jude‘, with a powerful sound and characterful expression from the YG loudspeakers.  Afterward, we put the same record onto the Garrard, to note that the differences were very small.  Speaking of impressing, the old prejudice that the tape was in a class of its own was disproved.  

Need another example?  A treasure among the audiophile delights on offer was Cyndee Peters’ version of the ‚House Of The Rising Sun‘, recorded by the noble Swedish label Opus 3.  With sparse accompaniment, the singer intones the blues classic, whereby the naturalness and spontaneity fascinate and the percussion intones impressive accents. An experience that we thought only came from tape recordings.  Not so!  The identically mastered record did certainly not come across as inferior to the tape in terms of authenticity and quality.

The Garrard delivered a masterpiece with ‚Summer Me, Winter Me‘, a lavishly produced number by Canadian singer and pianist Anne Bisson and her trio, played from the album ‚Four Seasons In Jazz‘, which was recently recorded in the studio of mastering luminary Bernie Grundman using direct cutting.  This time, the CD from the parallel digital recording system served as a comparison.  But the silver disc did not even come close to the black disc, which rotates in 45 rpm and offers much more magic and atmosphere.  However, this is not the fault of the CD player, which is one of the finest of its kind.  The direct cut LP is simply superior.

When offered the chance of a break, the enthusiastic audience said, ‚carry on‘!  Now the Nagra CDC took over the scepter and played ‚You Look Good To Me‘ from the Oscar Peterson Trio’s album ‚We Get Requests‘, which is highly acclaimed within the audiophile community.  It is a very special CD, namely the ‚K2HD‘- Reissue of the US label, First Impression Music.  Much attention was devoted to achieving the highest quality mastering and production in order to get as close to the original as possible.

Subsequently, FIM’s sound specialists found out that it sounds much better when they play the digital master in real-time and with a precision burner on a previously specially treated MFSL Gold CD-R.  In this version, they released the work as a ‚Master Edition‘ for about $500.  Matthias Böde owns one of the few rare copies in Europe and, after a short sequence from the K2HD CD, placed it in the drawer of the Nagra. And from this – believe it or not – the title sounded even more spatial, more natural and agile in its timbres than even from the superb K2HD CD, even though it is Bit-identical. Remember: the Hi-Fi world is always full of wonders and surprises!

But Matthias didn’t end there and promised the ultimate high-end experience that comes with one of the most exclusive sound carriers in the world: the unique ‚Crystal Disc‘ which is made from pure glass.  It comes from a company specialising in optical products of the highest quality and is characterised by running extremely quietly.

The ‚Ultimate High-Quality CD‘ serves as a comparison, where special materials are used in production to ensure sound reproduction that is unsurpassed in the CD sector. Scotty Wright’s ‚Saint Mic‘ album was produced in this format, and his cover version of ‚Sound Of Silence‘ captivates with its outstanding sound.  After the percussive intro and a brightly flashing bell, the velvety, expressive voice appears embedded in perfectly arranged orchestral sound. This really was spine-tingling!

Then the absolute highlight of the evening came!  Matthias Böde also inserted the Bit-identical glass CD.  The differences already become clear in the quiet introduction: the audio space opened up further, every tiny artificial touch of the previously heard UHQCD had disappeared.  The voice sounded rich and rounded.  A rare pleasure that is only granted to a few. The Crystal Disc from Matthias’ collection could even be unique in England. Audio Lounge has promised a musical evening to remember and this managed to exceed even the highest expectations.

This sound experience could hardly be improved anymore, which is why we now go to the anteroom for snacks, drinks, and discussions about what we have just heard.  But when Pavarotti sounds again from the Library, many of the listeners go back for more!  At the end of this wonderful evening, we let the master smash the ‚O Sole Mio‘ and of course the challenging “Nessun Dorma!” from Puccini’s “Turandot”.  Is there any better way to end?

Okay, so just one more!  Because the very last word should belong to the Garrard Model 301, which gave ‚Two For The Road‘ from Earl Klugh’s‚ Late Night Guitar‘ album heard earlier to see the happy listeners on their way.  A highly memorable evening of musical entertainment had come full circle.

Audio Lounge would like to thank Matthias Böde and all our guests for coming and wish them all the best in sound and even greater musical experiences for the future.

(Written in association with Matthias Böde)