A Pilgrim's Audio Journal by Richard H. Mak

A Pilgrim's Audio Journal - Summer, 2016 by Richard H. Mak

As a person engaged in investments and finance, my business associates have often told that audio is the wrong hobby. "You ought to be golfing or rubbing shoulders at country clubs". While that may hold true during my younger days, I am fortunate enough to be in a position where I can have enough time to pursue my true passion: Music, Audio and making new friends.

Contrary to popular belief, audio is not a seclusive hobby. It is only seclusive only if you choose to make it so. Audio is as much as it is about the equipment and music, as it is about people. With the help of the internet and our audio club (GTAA) which we started in 2004, my social network of audiophiles has ballooned exponentially, leading to thousands of great friendships from all over the world. The blessings from the people whom I have met through audio far outweigh the regrets.

The article you are about to read, is a brief journal of my audio adventures of the past summer. My business travels took me to 3 Continents, in 3 countries, and 10 cities including Toronto, New York, Carlisle, Chestertown, New Jersey, Fort Lauderdale, Bahamas, San Francisco, Portland, and Singapore. Thankfully, I was able to squeeze plenty of time for audio and music in between the time devoted to my real job which brings bread to the table.

And here's how it began .................

A Somber start

The summer of 2016 kicked off with a somber note, with the sudden passing of a great friend and audiophile, Dr. Nickolas Polischuk. Nick was one of the kindest persons I knew, and also one of the most enthusiastic audiophiles one could ever encounter. He is an honorary member of the Audiophile Club of Athens. It is quite uncommon to find an individual with 30 turntables (26 Gerrards), 30+ tonearms, and countless cartridges, amplifiers, NOS tubes, and a to die for vinyl music collection. Nick has taught me more about life, simply by being himself, more so than those who constantly boasts of their accomplishments. My best friend will be missed.

Onto New York

My summer journey began with a visit to Allen Hom, an online friend whom I met on Audioshark.org. If the phrase "A stranger can be your best friend" is ever true, it most certainly applies in the case of Allen Hom. Apart from this visit, I have only met Allen face to face once. Yet, the welcoming spirit of his family can be felt as soon as I stepped through his front door. 

His amazing system features a Kronos Sparta turntable, an Ortofon A95 cartridge, connected to a Trinity Preamp and Phono, a CH Precision A1 power amplifier and a kick ass Magico S7 speakers. The room dimension is also to die for, with high ceilings and a shape very close to the golden ratio. The sound coming from the CH system is well composed and elegant, combined with the rock solid bass of the Magico S7 speakers, makes for a evening thoroughly enjoy by not only by Allen and I, but also our spouses.

If anything is better than the music we heard that evening, it was the prior sumptuous steak dinner and 3 fine bottles of French Bordeaux's which he served: an 86 Cos D' Estournel, a 96 Leoville Las Cases, and a 96 Chateau Latour, carefully chosen to match the tune of the music. The refinement of the Cos D' Estournel represents the voice of female vocals, the beauty and elegance of the Leoville Las Cases represents the sound of melancholic violins, and the graceful power of the Chateau Latour reflects the dynamism of symphonic tunes coming through the Magico M7s. 

The clock ticks faster in the company of fine people, the four of us enjoyed music and fine wine well past midnight. Rest assured, if any fault was identified in Allen's system, it was long forgotten by the time when we finished the third bottle. The greatest tweak you can have to any system, is perhaps not with an expensive cable, but with a bottle of French Bordeaux.

Two things I've learned from Allen that evening: First, the neutrality of the Ortofon A95 cartridge matched really well with the accurate lively sound of the Kronos turntable. Second, never text on your iPhone after drinking 3 bottles of fine Bordeaux, presumptuously in the bathroom. Without going into too much details of the mechanics of the actual disaster, my iPhone got dropped into the toilet -- it was an embarrassment and an inconvenience. Without the guidance of the iPhone's GPS, it took me much longer to get back to my hotel that evening. 

I also had to cancel my visit to fellow magazine reviewer Gregory Petan scheduled for the next morning. Greg is a writer at TONEAudio and Positive Feedback, and we also shared a common past writing for Daggo.com. Thankfully, he was an understanding person and granted me a rain check on my next visit to New York.

Onto San Francisco

Two weeks later, came one of the most pleasant experience I had the entire summer. I was invited by Michael Wood's to his full day "Open House" audio event, at Elite Audio Systems in San Francisco. Michael's fine reputation which precedes him, are all proven to be true. He is one of the finest purveyors of high end audio you will ever meet, his gentlemanly ways can only be bested by his eloquent style in speech and in conduct. Michael never comes across as pushy, and he will spend the time and attention with you, the same way a seasoned investment manager builds a portfolio for his clients. After all, Michael and I have a good understanding of each other's background, we were both investment managers in the past. 

Nested in downtown San Francisco, Elite Audio has an inconspicuous front entrance which upon entering, greets patrons with a modern Coffee Bar. The coffee bar itself has earned its fame from it's now infamous barista Melanie Aquino, turning ordinary lattes into a work of art. The whole coffee bar concept is Michael's ingenious idea as it generates enough revenue the cover the overhead of the audio business.

The real Elite Audio shop, is tucked away behind the hustle and bustle of the coffee business. The showroom boasts a 40ft vaulted ceiling and a generous open space tastefully decorated with modern art, it easily accommodated the 100+ guest of the full day industry event.

Highlights of the event includes the debut of the all new Magico M3 speakers ($ 75,000) by Alon Wolf. The M3 is loaded with the bells and whistles and has the sound to show for it, the testimony of the "Oooos and Ahhs" of the crowd which walked out of the room smiling is a pretty accurate depiction of the sound. The M3 features newly designed all "Graphene" midrange and bass driver, a material 100 times stronger than the toughest steel. The tweeter is the same diamond coated beryllium diaphragm used in the M-Project. How does it sound ? Mesmerizing ! The M3 retains the rock solid bass customary of Magico speakers, yet lighting fast top end is more natural sounding than ever, making it the most organic sounding Magico speakers yet. 

Also featured in the event are presentations by George and Caroline Counnas of Zesto Audio on their newest two boxed Téssera phono stage and a prototype of their new power amp, Andreas Koch from Playback Designs presenting his Sonoma series Merlot DAC, Norman Steinke of Rutherford Audio presenting their products including Burmester, Raphael Pasche of CH Precision presenting two separate CH systems, and Meridian was also there to talk about their digital systems. Then of course, there is Michael Fremer's famous Turntable Setup seminars, which makes turntable setup fun and easy. Bravo to him for doing the seminar 3 times on the same day using three different turntables. I especially enjoy my time with Allen Perkins of Spiral Groove who was there as a special guest. If you have not met Allen, he is one of the friendliest people you can talk to in the world of high end audio. 

But of course, no fine day is ever complete without sampling San Francisco's culinary offerings, Raphael Pesche, Lawrence Lock (both from CH Precision) and I, went to the Michelin Two Star restaurant, Atelier Crenn. Chef Dominique Crenn's "poetic culinaria", is a multi course expression of her poetic creativity. The dishes are light but intensely flavored, mysterious yet sensual, in other words, you walk out not knowing exactly what you ate, except for the olive which I can identify.

Our engagement with Elite Audio did not end that evening, the next mooring Michael invited me back for a private session listening to Elite Audio's flagship Kharma / CH system, which turned out to be an unforgettable experience which will remain in head for a very long time. 

The Kharma Exquisite Midi Grand ranks forth from the top of Kharma's lineup, yet it carries a price tag of $ 250,000.00. Paired with the CH D1 Drive, D1 DAC Controller, M1 Monoblocks, and a Spiral Groove SG 1.2 Turntable, presented a sound which matches the Kharma's model name: Exquisite. Form Jazz to Classical, the sound was refined, elegant and smooth as butter. Yet the sonic image which was vivid and solid even at very low volume. The spatial projections were adequate despite the enormous size of the room combined with a high ceiling. I am very conservative when it comes to speakers and seldom can anything make me want to change the Dynaudio Temptations which I have owned for 11 years. This time, I was moved. These will be my ultimate speakers. The day when the floodgates of heaven are opened and my barns are filled with plenty, and my presses shall burst out with new wine, on that day I will buy these Kharmas! 

If you are ever in San Francisco, do yourself a favor, call up Michael Woods to have a listen to the Kharmas, they will not disappoint.

Dr. Gordon Lai

Shortly after I said goodbye to Michael Woods, I was scheduled to meet up with an online friend whom I have known for over 8 years, yet we have never met each other face to face. Dr. Gordon Lai was kind enough to invite me to his home and introduced to me to his lovely family. But of course, I marveled at his audio system which consist of a Clearaudio Master Innovation, and a Galibier Gavia II turntable, with Simaudio, Audio Research equipment driving a pair of Avalon "ISIS" speakers (obviously not related to the terrorist group). 

Dr. Lai is an avid listener of classical music, his collection of multiple tonearms allow him to utilize different flavors to match with his choice of music. On the very short period of time we spent listening to his system which is housed in a relatively moderately sized listening room, the sound of the Avalon ISIS certainly did not disappoint. This the dual 12" bass drivers which I thought would over power his room, produced a linear bass response which was tight and adequate. It is the directly result of Dr. Lai's hard work on speaker positioning and measuring frequency response with spectrum analyzers. I was definitely impressed.

Analog Marathon 

After saying goodbye to my friends in San Francisco, I was looking forward to marathon of analog setups which began in Portland Oregon. Jeff Dorgay of TONEAudio was kind enough to flew me over to Portland to spend two days with him. It was an honor for me to setup 8 turntables for him, which also allowed me the opportunity to experiment with my proprietary computer software analog tool currently under development. 

Jeff is a creative character known for having the some of the best photography in the industry, it was amazing to watch him in action shooting products for his magazine. 

Two days later, I flew back to my home town and got a call from my dear from Len Goldstein, administrator of the GTA Audiophile Club, that he landed on the ever illusive, brand new in box, mighty Lyra Olympos SL cartridge. The Olympos is a special cartridge made in very small numbers. Its production requires the magnets from the old Parnasus cartridge which means finding one is almost as difficult as finding an organ donor. Surely Lyra has some of the finest cartridges in its model lineup, yet to some the liveliness and realism of the Lyra Olympos sound is second to none. Of course, I quickly obliged to my friends request, as I consider it my honor to setup the sixth Olympos I have encountered.    

Two days later, I received a call from another audiophile buddy from Goodwood Ontario, asking me to setup 4 tonearms on his two turntables, the JC Verdier, and TW Raven AC-3 Turntable in one session - not an easy task. The tonearms are my favorites which include the Master DaVinci Virtu and Grandezza, the Reed 3P, and a Rossner and Sohn custom made tonearm. One session turned into two, if for no reason other the fine wine Italian Barolo which he served, alcohol and turntable setup certainly do not mix, but a 1989 Barolo is a temptation which cannot be easily refused.

Audio by Mark Jones 

Just before I was about to take off to another country, I made it my point to visit Audio by Mark Jones located in the outskirts of Toronto. Mark Jones's runs a brick and mortar audio store, which happens to be my favorite shop in town. To his credit, he was the one who made the Tenor Phono 1 review possible. 

Part of my due diligence in writing a review is to hear the item under a completely different setup environment. Mark happens to have one of the finest system I have ever heard, with the Kronos turntable hooked up to Tenor setup powering Magico S7s. The good news is my listening notes were confirmed, but the bad news is I did not want to linger a minute more than I have to, in fear of falling in love with the of the complete Tenor setup. Just like the Kharma speakers, it may turn out to be an undertaking which may result in my significant other half sending me to the dog house. 

Venture at your risk into Audio By Mark Jones, as the Tenor sound is addictive and transformative, once you have gotten it in your head it will be difficult to get it out. But at least you will have the opportunity to meet one of most knowledgeable dealers in Toronto, and I guarantee you will be like a kid in a candy stores. In addition to CH Precision, Kondo, Tannoy, Kronos, Magico, and AGM, Mark has other addictive offerings such as fine Brunello di Montalcinos.

Onto Singapore 

Within the week, my business travels took me to the amazing city of Singapore. It has been more than 25 years since I last set foot in this country, and as expected the city has changed so much for the better - by a huge margin. From its high living standards, to the cleanliness of the city, to its multiculturalism, to its citizen's manners, to its modernized architecture, Singapore leaves nothing to be desired. No wonder its living standard is ranked just behind Switzerland, while CNN actually calls it the greatest city on earth

As for audiophiles and music lovers, Singapore has plenty to offer. The first thing I did was to attend a concert at the city's iconic concert hall, at the Esplanade Theatres on the Bay. The concert hall has a seating capacity of 1,800 and cost nearly 500 Mln US dollars to build. I was lucky enough to catch a double bill performance by Patrick Wolf and Lisa Hannigan, the latter is one of my favorite indie rock artist which I frequently play on my own audio system. The deep and dark angelic voice of Lisa Hannigan's voice is a cross between Agnes Obel and Olivia Pedrolli, yet I find her live performance hypnotizing and alluring, capturing my full attention with her Irish voice. The acoustics of the Esplanade concert hall is splendid, and is almost like a large scale version of Toronto's Koerner Hall. 

As much as I like the sound of my own system, it is still incomparable to live music. It serves as a good reminder that as an audiophile, I should aspire to recreate the sound of a live performance in my very own living room.

A few days later, I was scheduled to meet up with two individuals who had really made my trip all the more colorful. They are Kok Chieat Wong of Enjoy the Music.com, and Jerry Seh, whom I met on AudioKarma.org. Once again, we have been online friends for many years, but never had the opportunity to meet face to face until now. Little do I know, they had already planned out for me sumptuous dinners, as well as numerous visits to local dealers and distributors . 


Jerry drove me to a commercial shopping center called "The Adelphi Singapore", as soon as I entered the building I realize the place is an audiophile's heaven. I saw countless number of stores which are all audio or music related, spread out in the entire shopping complex. I lost count of the number of brands I saw, as the whole experience is resembles going to an audio show. Pretty much all the high end brands once can think of, can be found under this roof.

Our adventure began at "HiFi.com.sg", and I was introduced to the owner Desmond Poon, and his store manager Cecil Tan. Desmond and I are of the exact same age, and both of us have been audiophiles since we were young kids. While I went into Finance, Desmond went straight into the audio business fresh out of college and have been doing the same thing ever since. He is the distributor for Audio Note UK and Avantegarde speakers, as well as representing names such as Raidho, TW Acustics, Reed, Ortofon and many more. 

I can't help but to notice the amount of Reed and Ortofon tonearms he had on display so I commented upon it. Desmond said: "We are a specialized analog shop and likely does more analog then most within this building. We build long term relations with the brands which we carry, and we only sell products which we believe in. We have been selling Reed since day one, and their product have made great strides over the years. It is now a world class tonearm". 

In Canada, when a dealer says he represents a brand, it may mean he has one floor models on display. At Desmond's shop, brand representation literally means he has every single model of a brand, on display as well as stocked in inventory. I was mesmerized by the sheer size and scale of their stock inventory, and multiple number of systems displayed in different rooms. The amount of foot traffic, many of which are young people, gave me a pretty good sense of the vibrancy of audio business in Singapore, at least much more so than my hometown!

I have listened to Raidho's at numerous audio shows, but it was only at Desmond's shop that I was finally able to devout my undivided attention to them in a properly sized room. The tall and slander Raidho D-5.1s occupies a very small foot print but they deliver a refined sound typical of Scandinavia, they are less punchy and upfront versus North American counterparts. If sonic traits can be represented by wines, then the sound of Magico and Wilson would be Napa Cabernets, whereas Raidho's would be a Côte de Nuits, each with their own beauty albeit with character traits. Put on classical tunes or chamber music, the Raidho D5.1 replicated the natural qualities of a cello or a violin with lifelike harmonics and decay, filled with airiness and finesse. These are polite and elegant speakers. With a list price of nearly quarter of a million dollars, they delivered a sound quality which commands their price tag. The best part is, Desmond can deliver them to you on the same day if you happen to have the spare change. 

The second system which caught my attention is the complete Audio Note system. Desmond explained that the Audio Note UK sound has captured heart since his college days. With their speaker backed against the corner of the room, Audio Note UK seldom catches my attention at audio shows, but at Desmond's shop they sounded magical It is no longer about dissecting or qualifying different elements of sound which audiophiles are often guilty of doing, this is simply musical. There is something sweet and natural about the sound that is seductive, romantic and captivating. I wanted this sound!

(L to R: Richard Mak, Desmond Poon, Jerry Seh)

Absolute Sound

Next, we headed over to a store called the "Absolute Sound" (not to be confused with the magazine) and owner Ben Chia welcomed us with a big smile. A quiet and composed gentleman, Ben commands respect as he has been in the audio business before the time I was born! He owns several stores within the same building and offered me the choice to visit anyone. Knowing he is the regional distributor for FM Acoustics, I quickly pointed my finger towards the direction of the FM shop. 

"FM Acoustics, good choice! I'll give you a private session.", said Ben. 

While FM Acoustics may not be a name often mentioned in North America, it has achieved iconic status throughout Asia. FM owners are fiercely loyal and with it comes a tremendous pride of ownership. As far as pricing is concerned, be prepared for zero or very little discounts. The wait time for FM products ranges anywhere from 9 to 24 months, and sometimes even longer, resulting in a very high demand of second hand FM products in Asia which commands an equally high price.

The system I heard consist of a FM 268 line stage, a pair of FM 115 power amps, and the XS-3 speakers. How does it sound ? If I have to choose one phrase to describe the sound, it would be a high contrast exhilarating experience. FM Acoustics has a consistent house sound which exhibits a high level of dynamic contrast. It is detailed but without sibilance, extended but not artificial, it culminates into a sound that is highly engaging with ultra fast transient response. 

As a traveling visitor, I am thankful to Ben for offering me the opportunity to enjoy the thrill ride, as Canada does not even have a single dealer representation. 


Near the end of the day, Jerry wanted to say Hi to his friend Ron Ong just as we walked by Coherenceaudio. Little do I know that a 2 minute visit turned out to be 2 hours. 

Every person I met in Singapore carried a much admired welcoming spirit and friendliness. Ron Ong is no exceptions. Ron is literally "Born of Hi Fi Blood", as he came from a family who has been in the audio business which dates back 2 generations. He is now the 3rd generation owner of the same business, originally started by his grandfather in the 1930s. 

"You see the McIntosh shop over there, it was also started by my grandfather", said Ron, as he pulled out a 3 volume phone book thick collection of his family's audio history. Two photos which caught my attention, are Mr. Ong senior's photo taken with Sydney Corderman, and Frank McIntosh, who are the original founders of McIntosh in the 1950s. The Ong's have been representing McIntosh for 3 generations and the business still remains with the family. I was fascinated by his stories as my own grandfather is also one of the earliest owners of McIntosh products in the 1950s back in Hongkong.

The McIntosh business, however, is now ran by Ron Ong's cousins. Ron's focus is on MBLs. While MBL does not even have a single dealer in all of Canada, Ron has almost every MBL products on display. There were multiple MBL systems setup in multiple listening rooms. They even have a pair of the original MBL Omni-directional Radialstrahlers from the 80s on display. 

As the conversation continued, Ron got more and more excited as he flipped through his photo album. "We have a practice of taking pictures of every system we setup for our customers", said Ron, and he has the pictures to prove it. "Real customer service in the audio business, happens at the customer's house. The experience you earned from setting up systems in real listening environments, is what makes the customer come back to us.". Indeed, I saw thousands of customer's photos taken at their homes dating back to the 70s and they keep coming back to buy from Ron 30 years later, he has most definitely earned their respects.

(Richard Mak with Ron Ong)

The Reference Line MBL system I heard at Coherenceaudio is my favorite setup of the day. The omni-directional MBL Radialstrahler speakers has the ability to project a sound which takes the word "Un-restrictedness" to a whole different level. Like real instruments, the Radialstrahler project equal sound waves equal in pressure in every direction, projecting a soundstage which is airy, open and life like. At approx. $ 45,000 US a pair, albeit not cheap in any sense, but they are not overly expensive in today's terms as most high end speakers carry 6 digit figures. Be warned though, the Radialstrahler has a sensitivity of only 81dBs and are notoriously power hungry. They are best matched with high power amplifiers.

As much as I didn't want to leave, I had to say good bye to my gracious host Ron Ong, and my dear friend Jerry Seh after the long day. 

The Final Encounter 

Just like in San Francisco, no adventure is complete without sampling the finest cuisine Singapore has to offer. Singapore boasts itself has having the most number of Michelin starred restaurant in a single city. I was lucky enough to have found a solo opening at the Michelin 2 starred, Restaurant Andre, which often requires a 3 month advance booking. It is also Singapore's highest entry into the World's Best Restaurants.

The Octaphilosohy of Chef Andre, brings together 8 different artistic elements to arouse your sensations: Pure, Salt, Artisan, South, Texture, Unique, Memory, Terroir. The 8 course meal is actually 26 in disguise, and took me more than 6 hours to finish. Each dish is as much an artistic presentation as it is a jig-saw puzzle, as not everything on the plate is edible. 

As I pampered myself over fine wine and the best cuisine Singapore had to offer, I couldn't help but to reflect upon the adventures I had over the summer. From the country side of New Jersey, to the shores San Francisco, to the star of the Orient, Singapore, it dawned on me that every single friend I have met throughout this summer, is a direct result of our common passion: our love of audio and music. Audio is much more than just a person sitting lonely in an front of a system, audio has broadened my horizon and opened my heart to a world of wonderful people. 

The maple leaves had already started to changed colors as I landed into Canada. As I stepped off the plane, I received a phone call from my friend that Mr. Paris Ng, an avid audiophile once featured in Enjoy the Music.com, will be coming to visit me the follow day. A new page has been turned, and it is the start of my fall audio adventures....................

Text: Richard H. Mak - Mono and Stereo Senior Analog Contributing Writer