A few weeks ago, a friend of my wife’s shot her a text asking if she or I would be interested in accompanying him to listen to Geddy Lee, bassist of Canadian band Rush, discussing his new book, My Effin’ Life.
Marcia doesn’t like Rush, as she just can’t get past Lee’s voice. I, on the other hand, am a longtime, committed fan. Back in early 2020, the death of Neil Peart, Rush’s drummer, hit me hard. I wrote about my reaction, along with a retrospective of the band’s work on vinyl, in my “For the Record” column on SoundStage! Ultra.
I jumped at Shai’s offer. My neighbor Rob is a fellow Rush fan, and I shared the news with him. He hustled over to my house for a drink and a quick listen, and we threw Exit . . . Stage Left (LP, Anthem ANR-4-1035) onto the VPI. Side 3, with “The Trees” unfolding into “Xanadu” is a spectacle. I cranked it right up, given that my south-side neighbors were out of the house, and Rob and I soaked up both tracks without speaking.
After the side concluded, we discussed the part Rush’s music had played in our lives, and what I might expect from Lee’s talk. Then I showed Rob my cast of Lee’s nose.
Marc, a family friend, is a moldmaker in the movie industry. My understanding is that people like Marc have a penchant for making molds of the distinctive anatomical features of rock stars. It turns out that somebody at some point made one from Lee’s nose, which, as you’ll agree, is quite distinctive. As Marc is a moldmaker in good standing, professional courtesy led a colleague to provide him with a copy.
Knowing that I’m a huge fan, Marc presented me with the nose, which has—conveniently—a neodymium magnet in the back. It’s been attached to my equipment stand for about eight years.
My sincere hope for Lee’s talk would be that somehow I could get him to sign the nose. Although I realized this was highly unlikely, I decided to take it with me to the event as a talisman.
Anyway, after our listening session, Rob went about his day. Later that evening, he sent me a text.
As I related in my September editorial on SoundStage! Ultra and elaborated upon in the first installment of what will likely be a series, I’ve got gear spread out across two other townhouses in our little community. Rob has my Aurelia Cerica XL speakers and my backup Hegel Music Systems H90 integrated amp. The Hegel’s optical input is fed by a spare Chromecast Audio that I had squirreled away for just such a purpose.
The Aurelias are world-class speakers, and I stand behind my rave review on SoundStage! HiFi. That said, Rob’s praise of the sound I’m currently getting out of my basement system didn’t surprise me, because damn straight it’s amazing down there. I’ve dialed in the YG Acoustics Ascent speakers (review forthcoming) and they’re not moving an inch from where they sit. My Hegel H30A amp just spanks them, and the VPI Prime Signature turntable, DS Audio DS-W3 cartridge (review forthcoming), and EMM Labs DS-EQ1 optical phono stage combine into a world-class, planet-smashing analog front end.
Still, I was curious as to why Rob would feel dissatisfied with a system that’s also pretty-much world class.
The morning of Lee’s talk in Toronto’s newly renovated Massey Hall, Rob called to ask if I’d help troubleshoot his garage-door opener. I took a stroll down to take a look, and afterward we went upstairs for a listen. Rob’s got the Aurelias set up on either side of his living-room fireplace, mirroring the layout of my upstairs system. A short while ago, I’d brought over some Crystal Cable Art Series Monet speaker cables so I could get some photos of them in his living room.
Rob’s house is configured slightly differently from ours. First off, it’s about a foot wider, and secondly, it’s missing the spare bedroom at the back of the living area. Rob’s expanded living room has a huge, vaulted ceiling—it’s at least 18′ high, and there’s a second set of windows above the ones on the main floor. Light pours in, and the white walls and furnishings give it an Architectural Digest feel.
Sound-wise, it’s a mixed bag. It’s hugely open, so the bass is clear and crisp. There’s no boominess or weird modes, and the Aurelias have sufficient punch to fill the room. Combined with the vaulted ceiling, all the walls and windows create a bit of a hollow sound, and clapping my hands reveals more slap echo than is ideal. Still, it’s not too bad, and when I’ve listened there in the past, I’ve come away reasonably impressed, especially considering the room is used for actual living and isn’t a dedicated listening space.
There are a couple of limiting factors to his system, though. Trying to get the H90 to fill a room this size is a big ask. The H90’s amplifier section squeaks out 60Wpc, which means that the amp would likely be pushed to its limits, if not beyond.
The second issue is the signal that’s being fed to Rob’s system. The Chromecast Audio dongle is The Little Engine That Could in the world of high-end audio. It can pinch out a bit-perfect signal to its optical output, and I’m not sure how it’s possible to improve much on that. However, the Chromecast is only as good as what it’s digesting. And here, it’s getting a fast-food value meal.
I had originally set Rob up with a Raspberry Pi single-board computer running Logitech Media Server. I loaded a bunch of music onto a hard drive for him to try, and set up LMS to coordinate with Spotify by way of the freeware Spotty plugin. Rob and his partner, Jing, quickly became dissatisfied with this setup. Rob’s a music fanatic, and he’s built up a huge collection of curated favorites in Spotify, and LMS is a local-files-first kind of system. So I packed that in and went the Chromecast route, so that Rob could cast Spotify from his phone.
I know what you’re thinking, and I thought it, too. Spotify maxes out at 320kbps and does not offer full CD resolution, so Rob’s behind the 8 ball even before he starts. That said, the Aurelias sound wonderful via the Hegel. We listened to a bunch of Rush tracks, followed up by a session with Slayer, one of Rob’s favorite bands.
Rob plays guitar, and he’s quite serious about it. He also builds guitars. Even though I can’t play, I keep thinking about commissioning one from him. Lord knows why. So it’s entertaining to sit there with Rob, listening to some tracks on his system, and then watch him recreate the guitar parts right afterward.
I had Rob invite me to his Google Home group, streamed Tidal from my phone to his system, and re-evaluated. While it did sound a touch smoother and more resolving, the difference wasn’t as great as I’d anticipated. I recalibrated my expectations downward and thought about it for a bit.
A system of this nature—the Aurelias driven by the Hegel—is so far above what most people listen to that it’s reasonable to view it as an outrageous luxury. Taken in isolation, without considering even the existence of cost-no-object systems, Rob’s listening to something that comes startlingly close to real music, and it’s only possible to get better sound by incremental degrees. That said, the difference between my system and Rob’s is more dramatic than it has any right to be. It’s not a vinyl-versus-digital thing—the Meitner Audio MA3 streaming DAC sounds slightly different from the vinyl rig in my system, but just as good.
There’s a whole bunch of reasons why my system sounds better. The YG Acoustics Ascents are great speakers, but they’re not worlds better than the Aurelias. A bit more resolving perhaps, with deeper but slightly leaner bass. But the Aurelias counter with their zany 3D imaging. It’s more to do with the front end, and the amplification, I think. The Hegel H30A amp is a monster, with essentially limitless power. My Sonic Frontiers SFL-2 or—depending on which phase the moon is in—the Hegel P30A preamp need make no excuses. And we’ve already talked about the sources, right?
My room is well damped. It’s a teeny bit on the square side, but the record rack behind my head and the thick Persian rug on the floor help tone it down. So, taken together, it’s no surprise that my system smokes the one I installed at Rob’s place.
Then why so sad, Rob? I suspect it’s because Rob doesn’t hear hundreds of systems and hundreds of pieces of gear in the course of his work. I’m often at audio shows, and I hear all kinds of music played through all kinds of equipment on a regular basis. Rob hears two systems—his and mine. He has no other points of reference, so he can’t run through his mental Rolodex of configurations and put these two systems into perspective, into a world view.
When I just listened to his system, I was able to enjoy it for what it was, for the crisp 3D imaging and nice, clean bass. Far from ruining music for me, my professional exposure seems to have allowed me to relax into whatever system happens to be playing at the time.
That night, I Ubered over to Massey Hall, which is just under two miles from my house. Geddy Lee’s talk was wonderful. Alex Lifeson, Rush’s guitarist, joined him on stage and the two of them chatted and reminisced, and it made clear to me what I’ve always felt—these are two kind, intelligent, humble individuals who just happened to crank out 24 gold and 14 platinum records. Two lives well lived. And no, I didn’t get Lee to sign the nose.
A few days later, I spoke again to Rob. By then, he’d aurally forgotten my system and was back to enjoying the Aurelias, although one of them was now pushed way to the side to accommodate his enormous Christmas tree.
Senior Editor, SoundStage!