A high-end story from Vantaa

by Keijo Tanskanen

Pertti Ihaniemi lives in Vantaa. His audio enthusiasm began already when he was a school kid. He recorded music from the radio but unfortunately Finnish rock and pop programs were very rare those days. The best radio channels to hear the latest hits were the pirate Radio Luxemburg and Caroline. The equipment was Telefunken open reel tape recorder, no more or less. The first stereo set was built around a self made amplifier and speakers including Seas elements. Due to this he was able to buy a Dual 1214 vinyl player. He had his first setup ready around 1972.

After owning several audio systems he decided to jump to pure high-end three years ago. Although a reasonable amount of money was reserved for the investment, the budget was clearly exceeded. But that was a minor issue. More important was that the sound quality was improved by the help of the extra money. How much did it take to build this system then? A suitable sum and a lot of effort, this is a hobby, Pertti said!

During those three years Pertti tested over ten pairs of speakers as well as numerous amplifiers and cd players. Finally he picked up Acapella Harlekins after having heard them during a visit to another enthusiast, Juha Laukonmaa, who has a lot of experience with Acapella speakers. Although the speakers were carefully selected Pertti was not totally satisfied.

He exchanged the Harlekins to Audio Physic Calderas and after half a year of search he managed to find second hand Audionet Amp II Max monoblocks. He tested Bladelius Thor and Gamut M-200 before Audionet but found out that only Amp II Maxes could drive these speakers well enough, not only because of the watts but because of the clarity of the sound and the control of the lower register, Pertti explained. Another alternative would have been to use a subwoofer but Pertti thought this wouldn’t have solved the clarity and accuracy problems, only covered them up. Well, I must agree with that. In many cases when very high quality speakers are used in a suitable listening room the quality of the bass will not be improved by the help of a subwoofer, only the amount and the range of the bass can be improved. Actually the main target of this project has been to get the best features of the speakers to shine, Pertti pointed out.

As a CD-player Pertti has used the Musical Fidelity A3.2, Bladelius Freja, AudioAero Capitole and finally the AudioAero Prestige SE with the latest updates, including Sony’s transport unit inside. The update was done only because of the improved user comfort. The sound of the previous SE version was already good enough for him and especially the preamplifier of the player has showed its strength.

Now Pertti is very satisfied with his system and digital front end. Due to this his attempts to improve the system have now focused more on the vinyl player. The latest purchase was a Benz Ruby 3 cartridge and a VTA lifter for his Clearaudio Champion player with Unify tone arm. That’s definitely a true high-end investment! Fortunately Pertti found a second hand cartridge – he was lucky again! Anyway the improvement was tremendous especially when listening to the classics of the 70’s. The Benz cartridge actually deserves an even better player with a more suitable tone arm, but this shortage may be corrected in the future. Pertti also explained that high-end components at this quality level are usually made so well that buying them used is quite safe. This means that the units are less expensive and often just burned in.

Pertti’s system today:

CD/SACD player: Audio Aero Prestige SE
Amplifier: Audionet Amp II Max monoblocks
Speakers: Audio Physic Caldera
Vinyl player: Clearaudio Champion with Unify tone arm and Benz Ruby 3 cartridge
RIAA: Clearaudio Balance
Interconnects: Transparent Super Balanced and Clearaudio Quint RCA for the vinyl player and Transparent Reference Balanced for the CD/SACD player
Speaker cables: Transparent Reference
Power conditioner: Shunyata Hydra 8
Power cords: Shunyata Copperheads and a Taipan

Ihaniemi’s listening room is a special one, approximately 6 m x 8 m x 3,4 m. It has a quite complex geometry, like a little church, and several materials are used in the room construction. Because the listening room is used for various purposes no additional acoustic treatments have been installed. The speakers had a very wide placing and all the walls were far enough from them.

What are your personal preferences, I asked? Pertti likes a lot of resolution, cleanness and an expansive and focused soundstage. Those features are well achieved by this system and especially the soundstaging is tremendous, Pertti said. So, Pertti consciously sacrificed the last bit of realism and built his system so, that the overall sound is slightly towards the silky side.

Pertti enjoys a wide variety of music material. The records of the seventies and the eighties are mainly vinyl ones and the newer ones CDs. So far the SACD format hasn’t achieved a significant foothold in Pertti’s collection. Finish pop and rock music is well presented and not less so because of his wife’s music taste. When one invests a lot in equipment, a lot of music needs to be available too, Pertti added! One interesting notification was that female artists, like Katie Melua, Eva Dahlgren, Kate Bush, Eva Cassidy, Patti Smith and KT Tunstall were well presented. So far no internet music uploads has been done at this house. We’ll see what happens in the future!?

Then Pertti told me about his attitudes regarding high-end enthusiasm. He knows that the preferences and the systems of each enthusiast are typically more or less different but that this should not limit social contacts and it does not at least for Pertti. Actually he respects other enthusiast’s opinions a lot and thinks it is a pity that there is too little time for meetings and discussions. Pertti has a clear opinion of the web discussions, too. He thinks people very rarely get any real benefit from these forums. There are persons who are often narrow minded and restrict the forum’s atmosphere and it is a shame that some guys follow their ideas blindly. Anyway, the level of high-end is achieved only by the help of passion and quality, Pertti said!

Writer’s comments on the sound:

It was a slight surprise that the audible results were very good although there were quite a lot of echoes in the listening room. For example there were plenty of dry bass lines when the listening chair was optimally placed. The sound did not have any serious coloration either. Maybe some extra airiness and vividness was present due to the echoes.

I’ve always liked the sound of Audio Physic speakers when they have been placed in a suitable listening room. This was the case this time as well. The Calderas will not work very well in all kind of rooms but in this listening room they do! Also, the other parts of Pertti’s system are of the highest quality level and they did not cause any bottleneck phenomenon for the sound. So the result was very well in balance and I did not notice any significant attenuations or emphases in the frequency response. Additionally Pertti’s system bass went very low and did not need any subwoofer, at least not for my taste. As usual the place of the listening chair affected the level of the bass a lot.

The last bit of dynamics, speed, control and precision was still lacking when compared to the very best sets I’ve heard. But as Pertti told before, he has built the system according to his own preferences and the sacrifices are subjectively small ones. The overall sound was absolutely listenable, very slightly smooth (silky as Pertti said!) but clean and gave a huge sonic picture. Somehow the sound reminded me of the several listening experiences from the large Magneplanars and naturally that is mostly a positive issue. Also important was that I did not pay any attention to the speakers during the session. They disappeared completely.

I wrote an Avanti V review some time ago and liked that speaker very much. A direct comparison between the new Avanti V and the Caldera is very challenging because the front end and especially the listening room are different ones. Anyway, I must encourage myself to say that I slightly prefer the Avanti V’s tweeter over the Caldera’s tweeter because it produces for example, a cymbal sound which is a bit more natural. However, the tweeter of the Caldera has features which I believe Pertti values a lot: high overall cleanness and coherence.

It was a great pleasure to listen to Pertti’s system. Especially the vinyl player sessions were delicious when high quality records were played. That does not mean that the sound of CD’s was worse but the sound of the vinyl record was a bit more sentimental. Also the comparison results were very dependent on which records were played. I conclude by saying that I really can believe that Pertti often finds himself enjoying sessions without listening tiredness but with plenty of listening pleasure regardless of which front end is used. What else is needed!?