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Marc Mickelson's Listening Rooms
Buses make me barf. The last time I took a bus was in South America. I paid the premium price so I could ride first-class in an enormous two-story highway cruise ship. Being on top of the world seemed like a good idea at the time, but about two hours into the trip, I realized that this wasnt all it was cracked up to be. The exaggerated swaying of the top-heavy bus -- not to mention being at least 10 feet above the road -- made me feel as if I were in a real ship in 50-foot waves. The people around me couldnt speak English, and I cant speak more than a few words of Spanish, but everyone knows what it means when you grab a paper bag and hold it over your mouth.
So it was with apprehension that I boarded the bus at Chicagos OHare airport a day after visiting HeadRooms World of Headphones. Marc Mickelson assured me that it would be only a three-hour ride to his house in Wisconsin. The three hours seemed fine -- my stomach can handle that as long as Im relatively close to the ground -- but I wasnt expecting the ten stops along the way. Twisting'n'turning every time we left the highway gave my guts a similar challenge to the one that I faced in Venezuela. Luckily, there was that cold winter breeze in Wisconsin and not the sweat-inducing 95-degree temperature there was south of the equator. In the end, I endured -- and I arrived in Wisconsin, my first time there, 90% intact.
Never judge a book
Most people in the audio world know Marc for two things. First, hes the editor-in-chief of the SoundStage! Network. Hes the one with the final say over all things that go to print in our cyber pages. Second, hes the guy with the system -- the type of system that other audiophiles love and cherish and want to rub up against and perhaps one day own.
Marcs got a dream stereo that puts him among the audio elite, as it were. And lest you think Marc got this system just because hes an audio reviewer, think again. Marc was known as the guy with the system long before he came to work for the SoundStage! Network more than three years ago. His big ProAc speakers, Wadia transport, Timbre DAC, and other gear led most people to assume Marc was a doctor, lawyer, drug smuggler, or -- well, anything that would allow him to spend scads of money on frivolous things like audio. Nope. Marc was an information-systems analyst/manager with the same type of house he has now and, actually, the same car he drives today. He just put his emphasis on his audio system.
Marc lives in a quiet suburb, only blocks from where he grew up. The concept of living so close to your original home is foreign to me -- I moved a dozen times before I finished high school (and no doubt this probably explains just why I travel so much and have trouble staying in one place for more than a month). I have no idea which one of the many homes I lived in I would consider my "own."
When you hear whats inside his house, youll think he lives in a 5000-square-foot estate with a pool and tennis court in the back. Wrong again! Marc lives in a modest bungalow, the kind youd find in many suburban American neighborhoods, with an attached two-car garage. Hes living incognito.
The real difference between "Marc the editor" and "Marc the guy with the regular day job" is that he no longer has just one system -- he has two. And no, one of them is not a separate home-theater setup. Theyre both stereo systems representing fine sound at different price points. He needs them because he reviews lots of equipment and they allow him to match review components appropriately.
The first system I saw was the one in the longer, narrower room that you enter when you first come down the stairs to his basement -- the room that doubles as his office. This system usually has the Merlin TSM-SE loudspeakers in it, but on the day I visited, Marc had the big Mirage OM-5 loudspeakers he just finished reviewing set up. Of the two systems he has in his house, this is the less-expensive one -- although it still costs more than most people would consider reasonable. A budget guy Marc is really not.
The rest of this system consists of the Audio Analogue Puccini SE Remote integrated amplifier and -- get this -- a Panasonic portable CD player as a source. He needs to use an adapter on the line-level output of the CD player to connect it to regular interconnect cables. Being a hardcore audiophile, Marc doesnt just use any stretch of wire for connection, mind you. In this case, it is the unique, and now-discontinued, Audio Magic Tubed Interconnect (there is an active tube stage in the middle of the wire!). The speaker wires are the more sane DH Labs Silver Sonic T-14. Not including the wires (Tubed or otherwise), this system is about $5000.
This system may be less expensive than the one Im going to tell you about next, but it compares favorably with much more expensive offerings. A great deal of the credit for this goes to the OM-5 speakers. They have a huge and spacious sound, with outstanding bass extension -- a quality that people pay a lot more money for when choosing speakers.
The next system -- his big system, the system -- is in the adjoining room. The electronics are all by Lamm Industries, and they are the companys best (now). These include the ML2 monoblock amplifiers ($29,290 per pair -- youch!) and the L2 line-stage preamp ($13,960 -- yikes!). He uses the Mark Levinson No.39 CD player as a transport and sometimes feeds that into a Bel Canto DAC1.1. The speakers are Wilson Audio WATT/Puppy 6es in a beautiful golden beige finish. He also has the new Wilson Audio WATCH Dog subwoofer, a review item. The cables during my visit were Nordost Quattro-Fil and SPM Reference.
From the price of the electronics you know this system is in the financial stratosphere -- more than enough for a pool and tennis court in the backyard. Is it worth it? That all depends on who you are and just where your priorities are in life.
When audio goes to the extreme, like Marcs system, certain notions go out the window. Forget trying to justify the cost -- you just cant. Too many other things come into play. A Mazda will get you around town just as comfortably, just as reliably, and just as quickly as a Mercedes. But a Mazda isnt a Mercedes. And a Timex, although it can tell time with tremendous accuracy, just isnt a Rolex. Marcs system in one room isnt the system in the other. Theres a reason all these products can co-exist in the marketplace and many reasons why some own them and some dont.
Marcs big system represents high high-end audio and succeeds in a way that few cost-no-object systems Ive heard can match. Its appeal is registered on a emotional scale -- or an irrational scale depending how you look at it. Suffice it to say, to hear it is to want it, regardless of the cost. Its a wonder to look at and a splendor to listen to, and if I could have it in my room, I would. I sat down and listened to one of my favorite Ani DiFranco discs for a time, and time suddenly lost any meaning. I could have listened all day. And despite the fact that I make my living criticizing audio components, I found myself at a loss when it came to critiquing this system. That's a sure sign the system is doing something right. A lot of things.
In some fundamental ways this system is perfection. You can tally up what it all costs, but its worth is tabulated in terms of the enjoyment it delivers, and that's priceless! Thats what the best of high-end audio is about.
Busing it again
I spent only two days at Marcs place, so I once again boarded the bus and headed back to OHare airport. Luckily, there arent as many stops on the way back, so I arrived ready for my flight feeling 95% normal. I needed to get home to, yes, plan another trip to South America (without any time on a bus, if at all possible) and also get ready for CES 2002 in Las Vegas. I imagine there will be a good story or two from that show this year!
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