It’s a checkpoint, Charlie!

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Nah und Fern – near and far – is a 4CD collection of Wolfgang Voigt’s ambient work, released under his Gas alias. Much of it is beatless but when four-to-the-floor pulses do emerge, they do so subtly. Often the throbs are as woozy as the synths that wash over them. Picture Biosphere’s Substrata drone re-moulded for the techno set.

Voigt is also the co-founder of Germany’s Kompakt label whose releases continue to be de rigeur listening for electronic music conoisseurs…

..and from Kompakt this week comes an all-new, super-limited Gas Box: luxury packaging housing ten LPs and four CDs that compile a slightly different take on Voigt’s ambient catalogue. Featured here is the OKTEMBER EP, not found on Nah und Fern.

Too late if you’ve yet to snag a copy – it’s already sold out. No mind. Gas’ music might be better suited to digital formats where surface noise cannot spoil the stillness. Or perhaps the crackle and pop of vinyl helps Gas better emote the slow decay of analogue tape or a night under the night stars, in front of a fire, in a midnight black German forest.

It’s Friday afternoon in Berlin and it is bitterly cold. The upside of a large coat is more pocket real estate for more portable audio hardware: a Sony NW-ZX2 Walkman, digital audio broken out over USB to a Chord Mojo, plus a selection of IEMs from Campfire Audio and Noble Audio. Soundtracking a three hour West Berlin walkabout are FLAC rips of Gas’ Nah und Fern box. The audio show tour comedown has begun. Time to ask: what’s next?

Farther away is a lautsprecher/loudspeaker system. Nearer is kopfhörer/headphone listening.

My home for the next three weeks is a first floor apartment in Charlottenburg. Its high ceilings and tall windows make for a bright, large and airy space but the walls and floors are paper thin. Even at lower volume levels, a loudspeaker-based system would disturb the neighbours. Delivery of the KEF LS50 Wireless will wait until an apartment proper – ideally a top-floor maisonette – is found.

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Ditto the Aqua Hifi Formula DAC, around which a second two channel system will be built. Vinnie Rossi has plans to send an improved LIO to yours truly before Christmas. It’ll hopefully arrive in the same time window as the Devialet Expert 200, presently being babysat in Melbourne by their Australian distributor. Passive loudspeaker choices will be determined by the room in which they are placed – an as yet unknown.

A pair of AudioQuest’s closed-back NightOwl Carbon headphones (US$699) are already in the air, scheduled to land on Wednesday. Their review coverage will come loaded with a video interview with AudioQuest’s headphone designer Skylar Gray, shot way back in May (but not too far from here) in Munich.

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From the back of a Fedex truck this week will also spill another box from California: Schiit Audio’s Jotunheim headphone amplifier. I visited its circuit designer Jason Stoddard and digital co-conspirator Mike Moffat the week after RMAF 2016 at their Valencia, CA headquarters and filmed an entire factory tour as well as some terrific interview footage with the dynamic duo; this will undoubtedly fire from within the Jotunheim commentary.

Mine’s a Jono – Schiit’s in-house shorthand for a Jotunheim loaded with MM phono module (US$499 all up). As the loudspeaker-friendly apartment hunt continues, I shall build a headphone system around vinyl. Required still are a plattenspieler (turntable) and some records (schallplatten). These are easily found on the ground in Berlin. Time to go east.

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The walk from Adenauerplatz to Alexanderplatz and then south into Kreuzberg and Neukölln is almost fifteen kilometers but loaded with audio pit stops.

Saturn is Germany’s equivalent to Best Buy or Dixons. At Ku’Damm’s Europa Center we find one of their larger stores. Four floors of electrical goods with a large space given over to loudspeaker systems. At one end a Sonos stand. At the other, Bowers & Wilkins’ high end offerings are laid out in their own glass-walled demo room.

In between the two, an impressive range of entry-level turntables. Belt-drives from Pro-Ject, a hitherto unseen direct-driver from Onkyo, the digitising TEAC TN-300 and the similarly ADC-equipped Sony PSH-X500.

A digitising table was now on the menu – I could share rips samples on these pages from which readers could draw their own conclusions directly.

With a cartridge from Audio-Technica factory-fitted and DSD encoding lobbed into the bargain, Sony almost snagged this reviewer’s own cashish. Close, but no cigar: PSH-X500’s tonearm drop-lever is pure Fisher Price. Raincheck, please.

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How about something from Pioneer? Their newly released PLX-500 trades in some of the finer points of the bigger PLX-1000 for a PCM-encoding ADC.

Like its bigger bro, the PLX-500 is another ‘Super-OEM’ Technics SL-1200 clone – direct-drive, bullet proof and almost €100 less expensive than the aforementioned Sony. The only downside was I’d have supply and fit my own cartridge.

Floorstock of this new, more affordable Pioneer had yet to reach the Saturn store. Instead, a visit to the pro/DJ-centric Just Music across town was required. This birthed a more unusual idea.

ortofonHow about an investigation into what DJs hear? Rather than install an Ortofon 2M Red to the PLX-500’s supplied headshell, how about detaching it completely in favour of one of Ortofon’s ‘banana’ direct-connecting DJ cartridges? Going club cart would sidestep the alignment tool, leaving only VTA and tracking force between this listener and his vinyl playback. I buy the PLX-500 (€336) and an Ortofon Concorde Nightclub MKII cart (€126).

Rotational hardware sorted, I walk the twenty minutes from Just Music to Huxleys Neue Welt, a music venue in Neukölln. No band plays tonight. Instead, a CD and record fair organised by Schallplatten CD Börsen whose weekend-long event promises over 200,000 titles for collectors and casual buyers (like yours truly).

I buy up a smattering of the usual, the most expensive of which was stickered at €14: The Best of R.E.M., a career retrospective released in 1991 by former label IRS to cash in on the band’s and Warner’s success with Out Of Time. Elsewhere, I dig out Billy Bragg’s B-side compilation Reaching To The Converted (€8) and Momus’ Don’t Stop The Night (€5). Kitchens Of Distinction’s Strange Free World? €5.

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Contemporary electronic music, like that released by Kompakt, is notable by its absence. Perhaps its close proximity to Hard Wax, Berlin’s most well-known electronic music vendor, is why this record fair presents as squarely aimed at rock n rollers.

For fans of David Bowie’s late ‘70s ‘Berlin trilogy’ – Low, ‘Heroes’ and Lodger, only the first two thirds of which was actually committed to tape at nearby Hansa Studios – a sharper eye for separating the bootlegs from the real deals is required. It took visits to three different vendors before a decent and genuine vinyl copy of Low was found. €18.

With the software bagged and half the hardware in place, a heady, head-fi rig will soon be fermenting here in Berlin for yours truly. The stimulus for home-brewed review commentary will soon be ready to drink. Fern…und nah.

Further information: Saturn GMBH | Just Music | Kompakt | Schallplatten- und CD-Börsen

Written by John H. Darko

John lives in Berlin, Germany. He derives an income from the ad revenues of DAR. John is also a very occasional staff writer for Stereophile, 6moons and TONEAudio.

Twitter: DarkoAudio
Instagram: DarkoAudio
Facebook: DAR

15 Comments

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  1. RE: “Too late if you’ve yet to snag a copy – it’s already sold out”
    Hah!! Ordered mine via Phonica. Probably arriving next week…. and yes, I’m broke now.

  2. I am looking forward to your coverage of the active KEF LS50’s. The passive ones sound fabulous, and I am waiting to see if they will work with the microRendu.

    I have driven myself batty trying to find the best stand mount + amp pairing for my US$ 2000 budget, the active LS50’s might be the ticket out of this HiFi merry-go-round.

    I really enjoyed your review of the Sony headphones. Will pass word along to my parents who only hear about Bose active noise cancellation headphones

    • I’ve owned many expensive components/systems. Downsized with age, health, finances. My last system, sold now was Devialet, KEF and Melco file player. I’ve been looking to assemble a low cost (relatively speaking) system for this senior with active bookshelves and just play my mostly dsf files through the active speakers with a small DAP (I own a QP1R but other brands would suffice as well). Along with having affordable actives and playing files via DAP, having streaming option is almost a must these days. Most younger audio enthusiasts still experienting with full-size pricey component systems will one day soon enough succumb to downsizing to more affordable systems that take up less space. I see in future another wave of LP sales such as I lived through. Rumors of music media (CD/SACD/LPs) being dead dead dead is only slightly exaggerated no matter how many new turntables appear on market – that market is a niche within a niche within a niche. Just one mans been there done that opinion of course (:

      • I am just 30 and am building my first stereo system after enduring years of job instability. Due to some bad decisions, I have only $2500 to spend on my system (which is a lot for some people). It is common (and disheartening) to read blogs which say $2000 or $5000 are ‘affordable’ for a pair of speakers.

        I was going to go for a pair of bookshelves like the Buchardt s300 (which go down to 33 Hz!) and an integrated like the Cambridge Audio CXA-80.

        I hope I don’t have to downsize for any reason. I do like audio CD’s myself, but I am setting up the components for network-based playback.

        • For that money you could also consider going active? The KEF X300A W pack a marvellous punch for the money and you’ll come away with cash to spare. Or something from Dynaudio maybe? The Xeo 2 are smashing little performers for smaller spaces.

          • I am actually trying to decide between the Dynaudio Xeo 4 and the Active KEF LS50’s. I am leaning towards the KEF’s due to their crossover functionality and dedicated subwoofer output.

            At present I just have a subwoofer and a pair of speaker stands. I returned the Peachtree nova150 due to the active LS50’s becoming a reality.

            My listening space is about 21 sq m or 230 sq ft. The X300A may not cut it, and the LS50 is a fabulous speaker.

  3. As a person who is also contemplating a move to Berlin (waaaay down the line), I am living vicariously… But, oh those terrible thin-walled flats of Berlin! (How can you be so impressive from the outside and yet so shallow within?!) I wonder how I will be able to give up my current concrete heaven…

    Momus’ Don’t Stop The Night (€5)
    Now this is a find. A bit of white boy funk for the daytime and Guitar Lesson for those dark, dreary Berlin nights, I think (lyrics aside).

    Kitchens Of Distinction’s Strange Free World? €5
    Drive That Fast is a hell of a “rocking by yourself on a long walk” song, no?

    • Indeed it is, Les. It was a bit of an anthem for boozy nights with university friends back in 1991. The Kitchens always take me back there.

      Momus takes me back further to the late 80s when I discovered him through Hairstyle Of The Devil. I play his Creation stuff frequently – from Jacques Brel wannabe to deviant Pet Shop Boy, Currie made not a single dud album initial the noughties. Very little of his output has grabbed me since.

  4. Since you are keen on active speakers, do take a look at the German company Teufel. They are sold Internet direct only with an 8 week return policy.

  5. One of the better known stores for fans of high fidelity in Berlin is the “HiFi im Hinterhof” in Kreuzberg. You might want to go and check them out…

  6. I listened to GAS already, you might also like this release Brandt Brauer Frick / Joy. You can still see him 10 Nov 2016 Gretchen Berlin, DE. Check Brandt Brauer Frick website

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