You’re invited to read a very riveting and exclusive interview with Ricardo Franassovici of Absolute Sounds, which covers many current topics and addresses the luxury aspects of high-end audio products.
Times are changing, as are the needs and requirements of customers. What does it currently take to add adrenaline to the high-end audio brand?
What it takes hasn’t changed: it’s good music played through a great system! What’s changed is we need to raise the awareness of just how much more excitement and pure musical pleasure can be had in your home.
Music is much more than A.S.M.R. (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) and during the pandemic, many people rediscovered the importance not only of music but also of high-quality reproduction. Do you see it the same way?
Yes, of course! The therapeutic and well-being effects of good music are well known and more important than someone whispering into a microphone! But yes, people rediscovered their love of listening in the home during the pandemic, and their systems somehow became more like a friend with good vibes and great taste in music.
In this context, more than ever, music lovers seem to seek the advice of professionals to combine a well-balanced and high-performing audio system!?
I feel very strongly about this! With all due respect, audiophiles can never gain that experience just by reading magazines or blogs or watching YouTube videos. A mature professional not only has the knowledge of what makes a good product, but also the ability to combine them to make something a whole that is much better than the sum of the parts.
As in the chef’s kitchen, different intonations, tunings, and sound alignments, not to mention impedance matching, etc., require an experienced hand, a trained consultant, or a stroke of sheer luck?
Building a great system is very like cooking. We can take excellent ingredients and make something dreadful, but an expert is like a Michelin starred chef; they can work magic from the same ingredients.
How to harmonize a concert of different components?
We have a ‘less is more’ approach to system-building. Too many different ‘voices’ (the characteristic voicing from different brands) can rarely sing harmoniously. We try to create systems using a curated range of products to maximise the potential for harmony.
Is the approach of the same brand mandatory or can a mixture of brands achieve sonic nirvana?
It’s not necessary to have the same brand, but it’s often a requirement and we try to minimise the number of brands in any system. In addition, I feel that it’s almost impossible to create a truly enchanting musical experience with the preamp and power amp coming from different manufacturers, often due to the relative voicing of the products, but sometimes due to technical mismatches of gain structure, etc.
What do you think of a minimalist approach? A true Zen-like auditory balance, a straightforward concept where as little as possible gets in the way of full immersion in the music?
We love minimalism in terms of simplicity of circuit design, avoiding unnecessary components, sub-systems or additional switching. But you should always be wary of puritanical over-simplification… low-wattage, single-ended triode amps are a perfect example of this phenomenon. It’s music under anaesthesia!
One of the things that are rarely mentioned is the unity of system gain. Without it, the music simply cannot breathe and develop fully. What’s your experience?
This fits exactly what I said earlier about over-simplification; the love of passive preamps comes out of this puritan movement, but passive preamps don’t drive a system. They don’t transfer the energy of music
Recent events have pointed out many peculiarities, especially in connection with records. Do we need to know or care how a recording was made (digital/analogue) to fully enjoy the music since even some have been fooled with recordings that have an obvious digital fingerprint in the manufacturing process?
I’m so happy you’ve asked this question. If we feel good about the music, enjoy it! However, if a LP sleeve mentions the origin of recording’s provenance, those details must be true, and I think record labels should give listeners as much detail as possible.
What about the audiophile re-releases?
Most of the time, I dislike them profoundly! There are a few notable exceptions that sound great, but I have a special hammer for the rest of them because I wouldn’t want one of them to accidently spread its bad-sounding virus. There is a special level of Hell set aside for those who cut an LP from a CD and claim ‘audiophile’ status. They are a bicycle wreck, where the originals are a walk in the park!
What is your experience with the comparison between the first pressings and the later re-releases?
For several reasons, I’ll always prefer original pressings. They simply represent the soul and sound of the moment they were recorded and stamped like a time capsule, and anything doctored afterwards seems to separate the music from its soul.
180g or the even more seldom 200g vinyl? A big hype or a necessity to reach audio haven?
Adding mass to vinyl is known to improve sound quality, but in most cases it never reaches the euphoric high of the original release. Oil crisis vinyl from the mid-1970s notwithstanding.
33RPM vs 45 RPM?
I’m separating audiophile assessment here, in which case 45rpm is better. However, I would rather take an original pressing at 33rpm than some manicured and manipulated audiophile 45rmp edition… every time!
What about audiophile records? Should the end-of-the-game audio system be designed to play some of these records, or vice versa, to play any kind of music?
A system should play all kinds of music, good or bad recordings, not just audiophile stuff. I know the previous generation always played Jazz at the Pawnshop and Dark Side of The Moon, but do you remember what I said about a special level of Hell? Well, there’s one put aside for audiophile music!
When music is no longer available – or has been ruined – it’s great that they spend time bringing back great records. I’m talking the Electric Record Company, Classic Records (RIP), Analogue Productions and a few others. As for the rest… get under my hammer!
Nowadays it seems that one has to be extremely careful with “fake” records from questionable sources, where vinyl and master tapes are in fact made from digital media of questionable quality!?
As with faked paintings and wristwatches, rare LPs have been faked for years. Whether you call them counterfeits or pirates, they are illegal copies, often “needle drops” off LPs or, more likely, taken from cassettes or CDs, and the sound will probably be execrable. The usual giveaway is they look too new to be credible – like the music, a copy of a copy. Depending on how badly you want an album, you might buy a mediocre copy just to have the music. On the other hand, if you have the patience and the funds, always hold out for an original.
Is such an audio system a utopian dream?
There is some great music that are bad recordings. I’ve got some outstanding classical and jazz recordings that were made under the worst circumstances. The recordings have almost no bandwidth by today’s standards, but an excellent system brings out the music in them. That’s what a great, professionally assembled system can do, and it’s not a utopian dream!
How can we recognize a real quality and how can we find a common point, a silver lining in the harmonization of the whole? Does the analogy between tree and forest apply?
Unfortunately, most audiophiles ask questions about bass, treble performance, imaging and detail etc, without ever engaging in the music, possibly because the system itself isn’t engaged with the music. When that system is musically engaging, you find yourself never asking those questions, and your brain moves into a more relaxed state. You instinctually know it when you hear it.
You also instinctually know it when it doesn’t work. Using the same methodology in reverse, if a system makes you want to over-analyse aspects of the sound – not the music – you can only handle a few minutes before that system wears you down!
Now, most of my evaluation is based on how it makes me feel (or not feel). The reference remains the live performance or a live recording.
A state-of-the-art high-end audio system should provide a unique opportunity to travel through time and be a time capsule that can transport the listener back in time and to another place. Either behind the mixing console or at the venue. But. Is that enough to reach the level of perfection so widely chased by some?
Yeah, absolutely… a good system is a time capsule and a time machine! Critical music lovers can appreciate the epoch where the recording stands in history, whether recent or old. That adds a tremendous value to the experience.
Do you think that recordings are like paintings, an impulse captured in the stillness of time, which should be presented as such?
Yes, but you run the risk of making your system like an art gallery if the system is too sterile and analytical and lacking all the musical ingredients. Good music, like high art or fine wine, is to be enjoyed and appreciated.
It seems that some of the latest digital products, such as the dCS APEX upgrades, offer a different kind of digital reproduction and open up a very special topic that goes beyond the eternal battle of the giants – analogue versus digital. It appears that these apparent antidotes no longer have to compete for their place but exist as independent entities with their special characteristics.
APEX has reshuffled the musical deck, so that we are now in a situation that tremendous music pours out of these products, making them stand alone in the digital domain. This means analogue lovers would have more difficulty making their point, than before APEX. Both the analogue and digital experience have tremendous merit now; nothing will challenge the analogue experience – it’s a completely different experience in fact, in collecting and interacting with LPs or tape. But, since APEX I feel both can give you tremendous musical thrills at home at last!
In the last two years, an interesting phenomenon of music rediscovery has emerged. People are uncovering the multiple potencies of music like the emotionally charging impact, a therapeutic quality, etc. How do we build a bridge to get more people on board with the music?
Music discovery and rediscovery are perhaps the greatest thing that has come out of music streaming. Online sources can open new avenues of musical performance and help you rediscover lost and forgotten greats. The problem is, unless you have a system with a dCS APEX-based DAC, the experience is too often ruined.
Also, our industry still has too many engineers with big egos. The language of engineers and audiophiles is too often present in public demonstrations. So, stop trying to be audiophiles and create an environment that is inviting… and people who have never experienced what excellent audio can do will be amazed. At that point, you become more than an influencer; you become a music promoter too!
People need to reward their senses with some sort of thrill, to energise their life and lifestyle. Some do it by the eye, some by the palette or through their sense of smell… our industry should deliver the same experience to the ear, and instead we too often just deliver jargon. It’s time to stand back and let the music be presented. There are some excellent salons around the world starting to do this, and we need more.
What kind of triggers and extraordinary emotions are to be evoked to call such an audio system the state of the art?
How about ‘all of them’? Or what about ‘satisfaction’ and ‘pure pleasure’? ‘Feeling good’? That would work too!
Where and what is the threshold of a particular product or system going beyond the initial wow factor? When is that established?
When it can play all music and it ticks all the ‘time capsule’ boxes, of course! When you can get concentrated pleasure from any recording. That’s when you know you have a good audio instrument, and – more importantly – when you know the system is carefully selected and installed. If you can play everything from Chopin to Elly Ney to Thelonious Monk to Jagger and Richards and on to Daft Punk (to name but a few), and play it perfectly, you know you are on the right track!
Can we achieve, domesticate, or even surpass the real thing in the ultra-audio sphere?
We’ve achieved so much performance out of great and superbly matched systems, that we can sometimes displace the live event. This isn’t just the lockdowns talking; it’s that you can go to a concert and end up sitting behind a pillar or next to someone chatting in the audience and often the recorded event isn’t just a good alternative… it’s a better experience all round. And don’t forget, neither Miles Davis nor Jimi Hendrix are touring anymore!
If you think of the scarcity of great live performances against the wealth of excellent music available in your home; the sheer choice and variety… it makes this question seem redundant!
What kind of high-end audio product cuts through the premium cloth of luxury and what is a real knit necessary?
We only choose brands made by music lovers for music lovers. We build and construct systems from these brands to precisely fit the listener. That’s like a Savile Row suit right there!
It’s very much like fine cooking. The finest ingredients in the hands of a master chef will make dining an experience never to be forgotten, but in the wrong hands, you get boiled soup!
True luxury follows the epitome of luxury, the performance, an unconventional experience that is intimately intrinsic. Would you agree?
I feel strongly that audio is more than just a luxury good. Or at least, the best audio is more than just luxury. Sure, there are what’s known as Veblen goods in audio (where they are expensive just because they are expensive) so be careful to differentiate between ‘luxury’ and musical ‘splendour’; the products that deliver pure pleasure to the ears and eyes alike stand above that concept of luxury, in my opinion.
Any last thought for the readers in this surreal time?
Simple: develop a relationship with a trustable audio consultant that loves music more than hi-fi. They are going to bring pure musical pleasure to your home… and the surreal world just outside your door goes away! •