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The Audiophile Voice:
Infinite Wisdom Grande Review

Emotional Milestones orů Gonzo Journalism Meets Wisdom Audio

by Russ Novak

It’s wonderful to live in complete ignorance. Nothing intrusive ever bothers you. One is free to go where one wants and make judgments about things no one knows nothing of. (Hey, Russ, I didn’t know you were an editor, too. – Gene Pitts)

It was in just such a condition that I arrived two days late for CES 2002. Not only was I unaware of the nature of the components installed in the Million Dollar System, I didn’t even know it was there. That is, until I got on the bus that shuttled visitors between the official CES location for high-end audio and T.H.E. Expo at the Tuscany Hotel. Someone handed me a flyer. A $1,000,000.00 system had been assembled and was there for the listening at the Clark County Library. The bus would take there if I chose.

Jee-zus! That meant a dozen manufacturers had thrown together some system with the most expensive component they each manufactured, replete with ridiculous tweaks. As a publicity stunt. Just to see what they could do. How tiresome! I knew it would sound like crap.

I didn’t go. That is, until the day AFTER the CES portion of the show was over and people were fleeing town faster than cockroaches from a can of Raid. I still hadn’t seen all the exhibits, so I dropped my brother and his pal at Bally’s for an early morning round of blackjack and headed for Starbucks and then the Tuscany.

At the Tuscany guys were packing. Or, bleary eyed, they were just staring out from the open doors of their suites. Or they had already gone. No one looked like they wanted me to hand them a CD for a quick listen. The place looked lonely. The town felt lonely. I felt sad at the prospect of leaving. And I also felt a little guilty I hadn’t heard the Million Dollar System.

So I got in our rented car with our luggage in the trunk, our plane tickets in my pocket, and two hours to make it to the airport, and headed out for the library. When I entered the auditorium and saw what was there, I groaned. The these “things” again? Hell, I wouldn’t have even gone if I’d known what they were using for loudspeakers. I heard those things in New York in May, at the Stereophile Show. Hard as nails. Cold. Antiseptic, analytical, I’d concluded the designer was a detail freak. I remember walking up to Luke Manley of VTL tube electronics fame ad telling him “This is not your kind of sound.” (His amps were powering the Wisdom speakers on that occasion.)

But there was this kindly gentleman in the auditorium and a kindly lady whom I took to be his wife, and I was the only visitor. The joint was empty. Sort of hard to back out at that point. I was invited up to the stage to inspect the set-up and select some music. Almost nothing in the music pile was familiar to me, but I picked out a recording of the Quaker hymn “Simple Gifts” and “Lord, Make Me The Instrument Of Thy Peace from the Rutter Requiem on a Reference CD. I was invited to sit about midway back in the auditorium, to get the proper perspective, and the music began.

Something hit me and these drops of water began appearing in my eyes. I mean, I literally sat there weeping. Goose bumps came up on my arms and all of a sudden, I’m pretending to casually wipe the morning cobwebs from my eyes so as not be seen friggin’ weeping. It’s embarrassing. Russ, get hold of yourself. (Uh, Russ, you speaker reviewers are supposed to be tough guys. What’s going on here? – Gene Pitts)

The first thing you need to understand is that these speakers sounded nothing, but NOTHING, like they had in New York. Off the record, it appears someone on the East Coast had messed with the digital equalization.

Would “flabbergasted” be too strong a term? How about “laid out cold?” Do I need to run the through the litany of audio qualities? First of all, they were sweet and detailed. Dynamic, of course, but also micro-dynamic in their ability to jump when the small, subtle dynamic contrasts within the music called for it. The stage was wide and deep. There were no frequency or timbre abnormalities of either an additive or subtractive nature; some things that are very hard to accomplish with any speaker in any environment.

Most simply put, this was the most natural-sounding speaker system I have ever heard. The entire chorus appeared holistically on stage, layered front to rear and top to bottom as they stood on their risers before the microphones. Each voice seemed separate and distinct, but not artificially accentuated. The impressive contrast between the quality any size 0of the sound and the simple, devotional theme expressed in the music was too much. It just got to me.

The kindly gentleman turned out to be Tom Bohlender of Wisdom Audio. He asked me how it sounded and I told him. And I told him about the bad sound in New York. He hadn’t been at the show and I advised him never to allow his product to get out of his control again, at least not at a public demonstration. Tom asked me if I wouldn’t want to go get some of my own CDs, so I found myself outside and out of breath, tugging heavy suitcases, golf bags, and boxes from the carefully packed car trunk and dumping them in the street in my effort to get at my CD wallet with the reference discs.

Back inside, on the verge of a coronary, I found we had been joined by some rockers, musicians or engineers or whatever in leather pants and long stringy hair. They arrived following a night of debauchery at the Hard Rock Café and they seemed to know something about commercial audio, if not the high end.

So no there were four of us sitting in the empty auditorium at the Clark County Public Library, in Sin City and I put on the anthem: “One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)” by my man Frank and the memories from lost decades flooded my mind. The voice with the solo piano behind him and the slow decay of the piano chords in the room and those pesky tears started to bother me again while the saxophone obbligatos and the strings entered, and it was like, “Frank ain’t dead man, he’s in this room with me”. There was complete silence when Sinatra finished and walked away and disappeared behind the stage. I went on to serenade the assembled with a half-dozen jazz, vocal, and classical pieces, while the rockers are asking me “who’s that?” and “when was that recorded?” Whenever it was that I managed to relax the tightness in my throat, I answered them.

The postlude? I picked up my brother and his friend from the casino and we headed for the airport. I tried to explain, but made the mistake of saying it was one of the emotional experiences of my life, hearing MY music on a million dollar system. They started to laugh and I have to admit that I had to laugh at myself, blubbering through an audio demonstration and all. Most people are moved to tears by births, weddings, and deaths, but I get wracked with emotion when I hear music reproduced as superbly as I did on that Sunday morning in Vegas. Well, hey, that’s how I know what species I am: Homo sapien audiophilus. It was a great system, man. Your ultimate is out there too.