Aural Fixation (FHM Interview Featuring Tats Paman)

Aural Fixation (FHM Interview Featuring Tats Paman)

hearhead Audio, Gear, Press, Vinyl 0 Comments

About This Article

This is a feature article published in FHM Philippines, January 2017 Issue wherein I was interviewed about being an audiophile. There’s a portion below where you can see the full excerpt of the QnA session.

Author: Miguel Escobar

Illustration: James Andres

Original Title: Aural Fixation (Apparently, It’s Not Just All About The Bass And Treble)

“An audiophile is a music lover who spends a substantial amount of their time and money on improving musical playback. It’s as simple as that.” says Tats Paman, Sound Engineer at Soundesign Manila, and bona fide audiophile. He simplifies because he’d like to dispel any notion that audiophiles are an elite group of wealthy hobbyists who look down on your pitiful stock earphones.

On the contrary, Paman sees the term as much more inclusive. “Anyone who saves up a bulk of their earnings for a pair of headphones, makes space for the streaming subscription on a meager income, spends their time thinking about how they can improve their listening, and researches information about their records is an audiophile in my book.”

So how exactly does one become an audiophile?

“It starts with falling in love with the act of listening to music,” says Paman. “Getting attached to a piece of music and trying to figure out how to listen to it best is the first stepping stone.” Then, when you discover that there could be more to your favorite song than what you’ve already heard, you’re going to want to do it justice with better equipment.

Which brings us to the focus of audiophile culture: equipment.

What kind should you start with? Where do you get it? “The most common mistake would be to buy blind online without auditioning a piece of gear first,” says Paman. “It’s still best to audition gear in a brick-and-mortar store.” That way, you can hear for yourself what you’re paying for, and test it against other equipment. From there, you can begin to build a setup.

See illustration here for the numbered items in the paragraph below.

A budding audiophile can start with the most basic setup: a smartphone and a pair of headphones.

Paman recommends the (1) GRADO SR80 for beginners, noting that they’ve been the “undisputed value-for-money headphones for years now.” Plug this in with a (2) FIIO Q1 portable headphone DAC/AMP, which bypasses your phone’s hardware to upgrade its sonic capability.

If you’d like to explore a home setup but lack the space, Paman recommends a pair of powered monitors like the (3) mAudio AV42, which doesn’t require an amplifier. And as for the front end of your setup, it would depend on whether you want to go vinyl or digital: an (4) Audio Technica LP60 for the former, and a (5) FIIO X1 player for the latter.

Beyond these, your path forward is infinite. “As you get deeper into the hobby, I think your sound preferences crystalize to the point that your notion of what sounds right becomes highly personal and subjective,” says Paman. Audiophiles tend to build and upgrade based on a lot of different factors, ever in search of a combination that delivers sound just the way they like it.

But to simplify further, Paman breaks the factors down into three general categories:

First, Source Preferences: Your choice of playback medium. Some people will gravitate toward analog sources (turntable, reel-to-reel, or tape) or digital ones (streaming, lossless formats or CD).

Second, Amplification Preferences: Your choice on how to power your speakers or headphones. Some people gravitate toward solid-state power or tube/valve-based amplification.

And third, Speaker or Headphone Preferences: You choice on how to immediately hear music, Some people prefer traditional dynamic speaker drivers, some like horn-loaded speakers, and others prefer the intimate quality of high-end headphones.

The nuances between all these categories are learned over an extended period of auditioning and listening to equipment, discerning the differences in the quality of music they produce.

Being an audiophile isn’t just a complicated hobby; it’s also quite costly.

That’s why it’s almost always necessary to join a community, such as the Filipino Audiophiles Club (FAC) and Audio Pilipinas (APIL) on Facebook, to get advice and guidance from veteran audiophiles. “Aside from the banter and wealth of information you can absorb in these groups, they also organize meet-ups that let you audition gear in all price points,” says Paman. “Even as a lurker, you can back-read topics aimed at audio newbies and read up on posts that delve into the minutiae of audio.” Coupled with regular auditioning, this is the best way to learn how to be an audiophile.

But ultimately, the joy of the hobby is in the music itself.

The excitement and effort that go into buying and assembling an audio setup is, to most audiophiles, only half the fun, if at all. Much of the pleasure is in the music. “At the heart of being an audiophile is the fact that music should be accorded the same reverence and attention that we have for the other modern modes of entertainment,” says Paman.

“All this convenience is costing us our attention span, and I’ve found that sitting down and listening intently to a setup you’ve curated and painstakingly assembled as it plays a cherished album is the perfect remedy for stress. It contributes to a richer inner life and [puts] a permanently stamped grin on my face.”

Q1: What does it mean to be an audiophile?
A1: That’s actually a pretty loaded question because a lot of people who appreciate HIFI gear don’t necessarily want to be tagged as an audiophile – some of them actually prefer “music lover” to audiophile. It’s a bit sad that the word “audiophile” suddenly conjures up images of snooty men spending upwards of a million pesos on speaker cables and looking down on people who love playing their music on a decent pair of headphones because (at least from my experience) some of the hardcore (wealthier) audiophiles in the country are really nice and very eager to share their knowledge to anyone who would want to listen.

For me an audiophile is a music lover who spends a substantial amount of their time and money on improving musical playback.
For me it’s as simple as that.

So if I know someone who saved up the bulk of his/her earnings for a pair of headphones, made space for a streaming subscription on his/her meager income and spends their time actually thinking about how they can improve their listening and researches information about their records– Well, he/she is an audiophile in my book.

If we strip away the negative connotation of being an audiophile as an elitist, condescending and gear-obsessed group of hobbyists, I think a lot of people would identify with being an audiophile and that’s honestly what I would want.

Q2: How did you start to become an audiophile?
A2: One of my very first memories is of falling asleep on a thick carpet and feeling the vibrations of a custom tower speaker blasting out Steely Dan’s Do It Again. So you can say that I started my audiophile journey as a child — though I didn’t know it at that time. I grew up in a house where music playback was a very big deal because my Dad was always building custom speakers and testing it in the living room. I remember pestering him to play the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine album because I always thought the Beatles were a cartoon series rather than a band. I’ve always been surrounded by a revolving door of HIFI gear and my Dad would always ask me to weigh in on his new designs or If a particular piece of equipment caught his fancy.

But I think I really started to care about acquiring HIFI gear around the time I moved out of our house and started to build my own HIFI setup. I’ve always looked for the Sound Quality I heard growing up that was as close to a live performance as possible. The lessons I’ve learned from listening to my Dad’s HIFI proved priceless when auditioning gear. The only downside would be getting accustomed to that level of sound quality and finding out that the reason my Dad built custom speakers is that the gear he wanted was priced about as much as a small tropical island.

But we live in pretty exciting times and I believe that getting good sound is actually getting easier and cheaper.

Q3: How do people discover the hobby?
A3: Well, I like to think that it starts with falling in love with the act of listening to music. Just really getting attached to a piece of music and trying to figure out how to listen to it best is the first stepping-stone. After that curiosity, I think you can pretty much fall into an audio rabbit hole and before you know it you’re blowing a whole month’s salary on audio equipment hahahaha.

Vinyl playback is currently enjoying a revival and I think it’s the perfect gateway drug to audiophilia as you’ve got to know how to properly set up a record player and invest on gear to be able to squeeze out every warm drop of sonic bliss from a record.

Q4: What kind of equipment can you recommend for someone who wants to start exploring the hobby? Is there an “entry-level” set-up?
A4: Knowing what I know now, I’d hunt for vintage gear and refurbish them and/or order factory direct online; but I’m familiar with the struggles of not knowing where to start so I’ll start with the basics. The most common mistake would be to buy blind online without listening / auditioning a piece of gear first. The best way is still to audition gear in a brick and mortar store with a decent warranty program.

For the cheapest setup I’d recommend you start with what everybody seems to have, which is a smartphone and a pair of headphones. I’d buy a GRADO SR80 (the undisputed value for money headphones for several years now) and also get an FIIO Q1 portable headphone DAC/AMP that would upgrade the sonic capability of your smartphone by bypassing your phone’s DAC (Digital to analog converter) chip and providing stable power to your headphones.

For the space constrained, I’d buy a pair of powered monitors like the mAudio AV42 that do not need a separate amplifier for power and preamplifier duties. If you want a vinyl front end I’d go for an Audio Technica LP60, which includes a phono preamp so you can plug it in directly to the speakers. For a digital front end, I’d recommend getting an FIIO X1 Player.

If you’ve got money to stretch I’d recommend this combo: First get the feature packed ONKYO A-9010 Amplifier that features a built-in headphone amplifier, Digital Inputs for your digital sources and a built in phono preamplifier for your turntable. It also supplies a decent 44-Watts of power to drive your speakers. As for speakers I’d get the Q Acoustics 3020, which combines a refined sound that goes along with its equally refined design. For the source, I’d get the Rega RP1 turntable if you want a vinyl front end. The RP1 is an instant classic that boasts of just the right mix of entry-level minimalism and an option to upgrade each of its specific parts as you progress with the hobby. For a digital front end I’d recommend using your laptop or smartphone with the Audioquest Dragonfly to upgrade your phone or laptop’s built in DAC chip.

If it were up to me, I’d get you started with a vinyl-based setup immediately since I believe the format can recondition your perception of music playback. Vinyl — compared to the convenience of digital sources — is an inherently fussy medium that forces you to focus on the playback and the ritual of setting up a system. The fact that you can’t easily skip tracks and the cleaning of the turntable’s stylus before an album plays forces you to ritualize listening to music and the warm, syrupy sound immediately conditions you to pay attention.

Lately music has become more portable and accessible and the downside to all that convenience is that we don’t necessarily “listen” to music, rather we just hear them as the background ambience to the everyday rituals we have. At the heart of being an audiophile is the fact that music should be accorded the same reverence and attention that we have for the other modern modes of entertainment. It would be a dream of mine to go back to a time when albums were just as relevant as the time and thought we reserve for our favorite TV shows. It would be cool to once again have passionate discussions about our favorite artist’s albums in the office water cooler rather than just gushing over Game of Thrones or the latest Black Mirror episode.

Other than equipment purchases, I think the best (and arguably the most important) step a budding audiophile can do is to get involved with the local audiophile community via social media pages and groups. I can recommend the AUDIO PILIPINAS (APIL) Facebook Group and the FILIPINO AUDIOPHILE CLUB (FAC) Facebook Group. Aside from the audio banter and wealth of information you can absorb in these groups, they also organize meet ups that lets you audition gear in all price points and topologies. Even as a lurker you can back read topics aimed at audio newbies and read up on posts that delve into the minutiae of audio.

As an aside on how valuable an aid Social Media is for the budding audiophile, I’ve talked to some seasoned audiophiles about how social media made their hobby that much more fulfilling. There was a time when audiophiles lurked alone in their man-caves and had the hardest time connecting with like-minded hobbyists. Social media enabled this niche hobby to connect individuals and the fun off shoot of this is a bigger community and a wealth of experienced knowledge that is available to anybody who wants to dip their toes in audiophilia.

Q5: How does that set-up change as you become more and more interested in it? What is your set-up now?
A5: As you get deeper into the hobby I think your sound preferences crystalizes to the point that your notion of what sounds right becomes highly personal and subjective. Also your budget and the extent of what you’ll spend for audio also increases – wives and significant others be damned hehehehe.

This may be a gross simplification but we can divide the changes into 3 categories.

Source preferences: Your choice of playback medium. Some people will gravitate toward analog sources (Turntable, Reel to Reel or Tape) or digital ones (Streaming, Lossless formats or CD).

Amplification preferences: Your choice on how to power your Speakers / Headphones. Some people will gravitate toward solid-state power or Tube/Valve based amplification.

Speaker/Headphone preferences: Your choice on how to immediately hear music. Some people will prefer traditional dynamic speaker drivers, some will like horn loaded speakers and others will prefer the intimate quality of high end headphones (that also include different topologies).

All these categories have a thousand different variations that will suit your preference and as such the hobby can be a never-ending cycle of auditioning and upgrading in search for the one chain of components that can satisfy you. This cycle is both the joy and the sadness (due to the direct threat it poses on you bank account) of the hobby.

As for me, I went through the initial entry-level cycle in which I purchased the most bang-for-the-buck items currently available and a brief foray into hunting for vintage gear and refurbishing them. As of now I’ve settled on a horn based speaker, a restored turntable and a low powered tube amplifier.

I’m a sound engineer so I get to listen to a neutral pair of monitors in a tuned room so I settled for something less sterile sounding that what I’m accustomed to, hence my decision to go for horn loaded speakers and tube amplification.

I currently own a pair of Klipsch Heresy 3 speakers from the US because of its efficiency. The speaker design for this has remained basically unchanged for 60 years and is one of the longest running speakers in production. For amplification, I own a boutique tube amplifier from Almarro of Japan (the Japanese are doing wonders now in terms of bringing back vintage technology and improving upon them). I prefer an analog source so I have a restored Technics SL1200 MK2 turntable (the SL1200 was recently brought back into production due to the revived interest in vinyl). For my digital source needs I have an Audioquest Dragonfly that I usually connect to my Macbook Pro.

For backup, I have a pair of Kef LS50 speakers (one of the most value for money offerings in audio) and a Vintage Marantz 2252B receiver.

I also have Grado Headphones and Stax Earspeakers for late night listening sessions.

Q6: Would you say that it’s an expensive hobby? How much do people normally invest in the hobby? (A range will do; doesn’t have to be specific)
A6: From an outsider point-of-view I think they would say yes, it’s an expensive hobby.
But for me there’s some needed perspective on how to view audio purchases and I do believe there’s a bias in terms of how we look at spending for audio. For example, no one would bat an eyelash if you upgrade your smartphone every 18 months and if you spend at least $600 on that phone that’s easily $3600 in a 9 year span and that smartphone will almost always be outdated and outperformed by the next model. However, that $3600 dollars invested in audio will already give you a very excellent HIFI setup with change to boot and the equipment purchased can last you for more than 30 years with the proper care. I have a direct experience with this since I borrowed my father’s 30 year-old equipment while I was building my own system and they’ve always worked flawlessly.

People aren’t freaked out if you spend millions on a Super Car or buy a state of the art Television at ridiculous prices even if these items lose their value at a constant rate. It’s a bit biased when people are freaked out and feel like you’re a wastrel if you buy a $2000 audio setup yet these items almost always outlast other electronic items.

In terms of expense, I’m afraid that would be entirely up to the person. Some people are perfectly happy with their first purchase and would only invest in source materials like records and lossless files. Others forego getting a car just to have the latest audio equipment.

Q7: How can it be more approachable to newbies?
A7: I think it’s currently more approachable to newbies already because the sources for information on high fidelity audio exploded along with the Internet. Online forums and social media groups are making it easier to meet up for equipment auditions and to advice newbies on what purchases matter.

I do think that some hardened audio experts can turn down the elitism and condescension so that people can be attracted to the hobby. Alongside spreading the gospel of why music can and does matter in our hyper-connected, ADHD world. I think listening is a lost art and I do think that audiophiles owe it to the hobby to spread their love for audio and for more hardened hobbyists to be tolerant of decent gear that doesn’t necessarily match their higher standards.

Q8: What kind of music do you listen to?
A8: Honestly I listen to anything and everything but I tend to focus on excellently recorded albums. That said I mostly gravitate to classic rock, the blues and jazz.

Q9: Is there any specific music that is most appreciated by audiophiles, or among the audiophile community?
A9: There’s just too much variance in all the audiophiles’ preferences but you can’t go wrong with these:

  1. Any Steely Dan Album
  2. Miles Davis – Kind of Blue
  3. Jennifer Warnes – Famous Blue Rain Coat
  4. Norah Jones – Come Away With Me
  5. Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here
  6. Radiohead – OK Computer
  7. Al di Meola, Paco De Lucia and John McLaughlin – Friday Night in San Francisco
  8. Nirvana – MTV: Unplugged in New York
  9. Any ECM Records album
  10. Ry Cooder – Buena Vista Social Club

Q10: What advice can you give to people who are interested in becoming audiophiles?
A10: Start and end with your love for music.

All the equipment in the world are just tools to give you a richer inner life.

Going back to listening as an art, I think you can tie up the cause for going back to intently listening as a reflex to the current trend on mindfulness and slowing down as a response to our fast-paced lifestyle and instant gratification mindset.

All this convenience we currently experience is costing us our attention span and I’ve found out that sitting down and listening intently to a setup you’ve curated and painstakingly assembled while listening to a cherished album is the perfect remedy for stress and contributes to a richer inner life and a permanently stamped grin on my face. Even with the added expense nothing, beats the instance when I close my eyes and I nod my head to a piece of music and just surrender. When my toe taps to the beat I can’t help but wonder how priceless this moment is.

FHM Philippines January 2017 Cover

FHM Philippines January 2017 Cover