Live from Casa Saxon

July 1997

Listening in the Dark at Madrigal

In June I spent the better part of three days ensconced in the sweet spot of an audiophile dream system.

This difficult duty took place at Madrigal Audio Laboratories in Middletown, Connecticut where I had journeyed under threat of excommunication to attend a distributor’s seminar on new products. Joining me on this pilgrimage were 14 devotees from other foreign lands, including Australia, Korea, Kuwait, the Scandinavian countries, South Africa, Taiwan, and Uruguay. The rest of Madrigal’s Far Eastern and European importers attended seminars closer to home in Singapore and Munich. Our two seminar hosts, product development guru, Jon Herron, and export sales honcho, Jerry Hanna, provided the instruction. Missing were the audiophile dream system and the factory tour.

The aim of this report, which skips the tour and seminar, is to provide sonic impressions gleaned from a unique vantage point, one that any audiophile would covet, the dead solid perfect seat in a major hi-fi manufacturer’s listening room.

Madrigal’s audio/video laboratory is a dark, eerie 30 foot by 20 foot by 60 foot cavern of cement block and menacing metal wall-treatment. That is, with the lights on. With the lights out, it’s a planetarium without stars on the ceiling, a black-hole. Under such conditions, doing simple things like sipping hot coffee or clipping fingernails is dangerous. Taking notes is out of the question. Under such conditions, I couldn’t have picked any other nose but my own and thus didn’t bother.

During our visit, the audio system consisted largely of Mark Levinson Reference digital components, various preamps, and No. 33 monoblocks driving Wilson Audio X-1 Grand Slamm loudspeakers through Kimber 8AG silver speaker wire. Messrs. Herron and Hanna also demoed the new Proceed digital sourround decoder in a video set-up using Snell Acoustics reference home theater speakers and subwoofers (high-end audio/video is so involving to experience, I understand why rich people are buying the program). In addition, we listened briefly to a new satellite-sub system from Revel, a division of Harman International (which also owns Madrigal) . Except for the Revel demo during the final afternoon, I always occupied the main chair, unimpeded by feelings of hubris or audiophile gluttony.

In my defense, I didn’t immediately hog the sweet spot. In fact, I wasn’t sure where the focal point was until Jon Herron explained that the Wilson Grand Slamms had been dialed in to image perfectly at "Jim’s position." This occurred after the initial morning break. Up to that point, I had avoided the central seat out of self-effacement, as did everyone else. Apparently, audio importers are descended from Uriah Heap, ‘umble and proud of their ‘umility. Recognizing a once in a lifetime opportunity, I decided to insinuate myself even though by pecking order based on annual sales I deserved to sit out in the hall. Carpe diem.

My age and infirmities justified the move. At 52, I was by far the oldest person in attendance, and therefore deserving of deference for age, if not for fair-haired beauty. As events showed, I also had the worst hearing. Morever, my night vision is terrible and even with the lights on I could barely make out the black speakers against the dimly-lit background. When Jon Herron wore a black shirt over black trousers, I could barely see his head, floating in space.

Despite the intensity of the training sessions which were akin to parachute-school initiation, we were given numerous opportunities to listen to music in the Enormous Room. More than anyone in attendance, I wanted to experience the Wilson soundstage[!] and wound up getting my wish. (If I could only parlay such will-power into making money. . . .) The holographic imaging I enjoyed was not shared by a single soul. The Swedish importer two chairs to the right heard information from both channels, but noticed a big hole in left-center as the closer channel predominated. The South Africans two rows behind and three seats over listened for tonality and definition. They were too far off center to bother with imaging. Interestingly, no one sat in the second best chair directly behind me. Was it my shampoo?

Musical selections in laboratoryland were similar to ones we use in Paradise, e.g. Eric Clapton Unplugged and Missa Criolla. The sound of the drum at the beginning of Missa Criolla cut 2 impressed me with three distinct phases of information, stick slap, drum-head thwack and an enormous echo which I had never heard reproduced on any other system. When Jose Carreras started to sing, he sounded as if he were standing out in front of the speakers (as I remembered their position). The chorus erupted way behind him, spread out from first base to third, it seemed. Inner details were abundant to the point of distraction. The experience was like listening to hyper-fi, rather than music, appealing more to a score-keeper than a participant.

Jon had warned of this sensation. He told us the speakers and cables were chosen for their borderline brightness to allow testers to notice high frequency anomalies more easily. At Madrigal, a prime design concern is to mititgate sibilance and other nasties. "Ruthlessly revealing" speakers and cables show the point at which brightness is about to intrude, enabling the designers to back off a notch. The goal of neutrality is then attainable on speakers of slightly mellower performance. I marvelled at what I was hearing, but it was bigger and brighter than life and too analytical for someone with caffeine-induced alertness such as myself.

At the risk of being called a shill for Madrigal, I confess to being mightily impressed with the role that listening is said to play in the design of Mark Levinson and Proceed products. Phil Muzio, Madrigal’s chief executive officer, and Mark Glazier, chief operating officer, head a listening group which has been known to work into the dead of night to fine-tune products. Phil is a trained jazz guitarist and his musical ear is the final arbiter of parts choices. In a process the Madrigalites call "comping," resistors and other devices are plugged into a grommeted circuit board without soldering, and immediately auditioned. The process is tedious and time-consuming, but produces a signature sound that enables Madrigal to sell more amplifiers, preamps, digital transports and processors on a yearly basis than all other high end manufacturers combined.

Particularly impressive during the listening sessions was the performance of recently-comped Mark Levinson preamplifiers, and thereby hangs a tale. For two days we listened to the No. 31.5 transport, No. 30.5 processor, No. 380S preamplifier, and No. 33 monoblock amplifier. On the third day, the No. 37 transport and No. 36S processor were substituted with a negligible decline in sound quality. As resident gadfly, as well as golden ear, I asked to hear the No. 36S with the No. 31.5 transport. Jon Herron humored me for a few minutes. The results verified my belief that the No. 36S is more enjoyable to listen to than the ten grand more expensive No. 30.5, even though not as ultimately revealing (but close). Unfortunately, when I hung my opinion out to see if my confreres would salute it, no one did. Strike one.

Jon then polled to see if we would like to compare preamp designs. Yes, we chirrupped in unison. "Blind or sighted?" asked Jon. I voted for sighted. The others voted for blind. When total darkness fell once more, I panicked. As a subjective listener, I had never engaged in blind testing, and why should I? I pays my money and I makes my opinion. That’s part of the fun. Besides I like to "see" the players on stage and notice directional cues in relation to the speakers’ position. This quasi-visual aspect helps to re-inforce my sonic memory. For me, peering into total darkness produces a genetic memory of Polish forebears working in the mines. My palms sweat..

I rallied enough to appreciate the first preamp under test.. To my ears, it produced a round and forgiving sound which seemed, dare I say, almost tube-like. The second preamp was clearly more more revealing of inner detail but also more hard-edged and ear-prickling. I surmised the first preamp was one of the new ones, either the 380 or 380S and the second one was the old No. 38S. I voiced a confident opinion that the first preamp had sounded better and was chastised by my cohorts, who loudly disagreed. Jon Herron disclosed that the second preamp was the the $4,000 No. 380 and it had obviously bested the first preamp, the $6500 No. 38S. Publicly humiliated once more. Strike two.

People squirmed in their chairs, as if hearing disability is contagious. I vowed to redeem myself with the final test. Clapton’s "Layla." I gulped. Blind testing is for stout hearts. The selection ended and preamps were changed. Within seconds of the first guitar chords, I heard a huge improvement and blurted out a preference for the second preamp before anyone could stop me. There was some tittering, then silence. Could the old guy be right? You bet your bippy. The second preamp proved to be the high-line No. 380S ($6500) and it was by a long stretch better than the other two preamps we had heard. Chalk up a home run for the geriatric set. Now turn on the lights.

Following the final coffee break, I found someone sitting in MY chair. I tried not to seem concerned, but the message was clear. I no longer deserved the sweet spot. With the calmest of airs, I took the Proceed t-shirt and other gifts we had received and plopped into a seat adjacent to the newly self-appointed golden ear. I rustled around and made scraping noises as if to maintain my continued authority from slightly off center, but in truth, I had been displaced. Later, when I grumbled a lack of enthusiasm for the Revels, no one cared. By consensus, the Revels, with or without subwoofers, were adjudged great speakers. Strike three after all; time to slink back to Paradise.

When we finally began to clear out, I exchanged business cards and email addresses with a number of good joes, including my old buddy from Chile, Edgardo Silva. As of this writing I haven’t heard from anyone. I suppose it will take awhile to regain stature within the group. Maybe next time I’ll sit in the back row and keep my mouth shut.


Jim Saxon