David Karmeli's Natural Sound in Utah

PeterA

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Dec 7, 2011
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David Karmeli’s Natural Sound in Utah

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In early December 2020, I made the decision to ask David Karmeli (ddk) if he could find me a Micro Seiki SX 8000 II turntable. He told me that it would take about a month to locate and then a bit more time to arrive in Utah. He would then give it a full inspection. David wants to assure that everything he sells is in top condition, aesthetically and functionally. When he told me that the turntable was about to arrive in Utah, I asked if I could visit.

Not one to make these decisions lightly, I wanted to see the table for myself, meet the gentleman who was fast becoming a friend and mentor, and hear his renowned audio system. I made my plane reservations and looked forward to a change of pace.

I arrived on Friday January 29th and planned to stay for four days. After a few days, I extended the trip and ended up staying for a week. I was not prepared for what I would hear nor how much I would learn about audio and David’s approach to “Natural Sound”. The trip became a transformational experience for me and really opened my eyes and ears to the possibilities of reproduced music.

David picked me up at the airport. We drove home to meet his family, I settled in to the guest bedroom adjacent to the main listening room, and began to take it all in. He showed me the Micro Seiki table I had requested and promised to finish setting it up the next day. After a tour of the audio rooms, he asked me if I wanted to listen to some music. He wanted to hear what LPs I had brought along with me. The first thing we played was my very special recording of my aunt Carla White. This is her first LP on which she sings scat with her great friend and trumpeter, Manny Duran. David had heard a system video of this LP that I had posted on WBF and had commented on the sound. He was curious if it would sound as thin as it did in my video. Now in retrospect, I think he was hearing my inferior cartridge/tonearm set up.

I simply listened and smiled remembering her great performances live at the Blue Note in NYC and Tokyo. It makes me sad that she died far too early and never heard her recordings ever played back in such a realistic manner. I heard her sing these songs in some real dives on the Upper West Side, with noises from the kitchen crew or patrons chatting away at the bar. Here she was, singing in a quiet room for me and David. I will never forget it.

Record after record sounded better than I had ever heard reproduced music sound. I brought decent LPs, mostly original thin pressings, some well known. There was one ten year old reissue but no audiophile stuff from Reference Recordings or Chesky. We listened to my records, one after another until we took a break for dinner. David never told me what to play, never asked my opinion, and he did not offer any commentary. He simply let me play while he sat and listened, enjoying the music.

After dinner we listened to more of my records until we had listened to all but a few of the twelve LPs I had brought with me. What struck me besides the incredibly natural sound was that David did not control the music, nor did he tell me what I would hear or what to listen for. He simply sat there enjoying the music with me. I have been to shows, dealerships, and even to friends’ houses and it is usually the same: they play special tracks and tell me about the system, and then describe what I am about to hear. David did none of that. He simply suggested I play my music and listen. How refreshing!

Around 1:00AM (3:00AM my time), after ten LP sides and some interesting discussions, it was time for some sleep. What a night! This system was truly “Beyond” anything I have ever heard. My new education had begun. What had started in Vienna ten years ago with live sound and learning about the “energy” made by the instruments and voices, was now continuing with an emersion into “natural resolution” from an audio system.

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PeterA

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The next morning we went into the second and smaller listening room. There sat the Micro Seiki turntable I had requested waiting to be inspected. It looked pristine. David showed me the various parts, air pump, power supply, transformer and explained how to hook it all up. The manual and printed original reviews from when the table was made in the early to mid 1980s, seemed to all be in unopened condition in their plastic envelope. There were new belts and all accessories in a small box. I was astonished. We hooked everything up and turned it on. The vacuum worked fine and the platter rose slightly on its air bearing, but it did not spin freely. After some adjustments, David realized something was wrong. We decided to put the main chassis on the ground, tilt it on its side and inspect the air bearing. Disassembled and in our hands, it was clear that this bearing is a marvel of design and machining. The quality is remarkable. David explained that it is a very elegant design; simple and functional, and that it was built to a very high standard. There is very little to go wrong, so he was quite confident that we could figure out what was not working properly.

We discovered that one of the rubber O rings was very slightly worn. After 35 or so years, with apparently little use, I guess this is to be expected. We went to the local hardware store to look for a replacement. David actually later found one in his stash of extra parts. We then soaked the bearing and various small parts in alcohol overnight. The next morning we gave it a thorough cleaning, applied some new high quality aviation oil, and reassembled everything. Voila, it worked like a charm. This is when I realized that David has a deep grasp of quality and how these things work. He assured me that everything must be right before it leaves his hands to the new owner.

I was impressed by the quality of this turntable and intrigued to learn more about his own turntable design, the AS 2000. He turned on a pump and spun the massive platter. We watched for a short while and left the room. When we came back about ten minutes later, that platter was still moving: incredible. He told me the Micro Seiki will do something similar, just not quite to the same degree. At almost 200 lbs, the 8000II weighs slightly less than half as much as the AS 2000. David explained to me that the original American Sound and his new AS 2000 are evolutions and expansions of the ingenuity evident in this last and greatest Micro Seiki. After hearing both the AS 2000 and MS, I understood what he meant.

David took me into his office and shared with me some of the details of his next project, a super table meant to compete in the ultra rarified atmosphere of the AirForce Zero. He has not settled on a name yet, but it will connote the same lack of sonic effect that his Nothing Racks have on the sound of a system. The scale drawings and rendering are not like anything I have seen before. Think of a step beyond the AS 2000.

As the Siemens Klangfilm Bionor speakers are to conventional large horn speakers, this new super table will be to the AS 2000 and all mass loaded, air bearing, belt drive turntables. Like his Nothing Racks, this table appears to be an elegant and minimalist design, yet built to an extreme. There appears to be nothing superfluous. It is massive and promises to go further than any table out there. I think the intent is for it to impose less of itself on the music than any other table and retrieve the maximum amount of information. Just as with the AS 2000, a few of the limited samples have already been sold based on nothing more than David’s reputation for design, service and ability to deliver. That is simply remarkable.

We took one of David’s SME 3012Rs off of one of his AS 2000s and mounted it to the Micro Seiki. I suggested using one of the new vdH Colibris, because that is what I have at home. I was eager to hear what this front end would sound like. Unfortunately, the small listening room is very compromised. It is standard wood frame construction with studs 16” on center covered with sheet rock to form the walls. The dimensions are not good making for a very challenging acoustic. There were two speaker systems set up, the JBL M9500 about a third of the way into the room, and a very rare, early pair of Vitavox CN-191 up in the front corners. The room was a cluttered mess because of the recent installation of a new carpet in the main room. This room was being used for storage.

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PeterA

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I was skeptical that such big horn speakers could sound half way decent in such a difficult room. And the surprising thing I noticed besides the clutter of gear and wires, was that there were absolutely no acoustic treatments on the walls. I don’t know what I expected or what I would hear, but it was not this. Set up for near field listening, the JBLs sounded superb. They might well sound better in a bigger, less compromised room, but boy, I was really pleased with the sound: open, lively, dynamic, and great tone. Lots of energy and what I would come to more fully appreciate in the days to come, a high degree of natural resolution. Just like in the big system, there was lots of information from the recording presented in a natural way with nothing drawing attention to itself. The room’s impact on the sound was barely audible at the listening seat, but when walking around and speaking, boy it was pretty bad. This was a major achievement in speaker set up.

Now I was really excited to hear the CN-191s. Unfortunately, the front of the room was just too compromised. The bass was muddy, and the frequency response was all over the place. The front corners were really bad, and one of the speakers had just arrived a few months earlier and had not been played yet. Who knows how long it has been sitting somewhere? David had been searching for a match to his other speaker for many years. He finally found one, but the room simply did not allow us to hear what the speaker is capable of.

We played the speakers on repeat over night with some digital to wake them from their slumber. David likes to solve problems, so the next day we set out to see if we could improve things. After breakfast, we drove to Home Depot and bought four large sheets of 5/8” sheet rock and a bunch of screws. We located the studs and screwed the new sheets in the corners to add mass to the walls where the Vitavox speakers were located. We joked that the walls now looked like the grey concrete walls with form buttons of Tadao Ando, the famous Japanese architect.

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PeterA

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Dec 7, 2011
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David and I share a love of simplicity and purposeful function. I went to architecture school and was lucky enough to be taught by Ando. He even had dinner in my apartment in NYC with fellow students. Later when working in Japan, I visited some of Ando’s buildings and his office. David’s wife Kana is from Japan. She walked into the room and David mentioned the quick renovation and attempt to bring a bit of Ando’s aesthetic into their home. She smiled. David was simply motivated to solve this problem of poor acoustics so that we could better hear the capabilities of the corner horns.

All of this effort helped quite a bit, but the room’s flaws were remained audible and the sound still had some issues, particularly in the bass. The big JBLs were still in their position in front of and not far from the corner horns. The JBLs were set up nicely in a trouble free zone, but I could not hear the CN-191 without also hearing the contribution of the room. I clearly heard the potential, especially in the midband, but the extremes were cut off. I moved the JBLs out of the way, which helped. A day or two later, David moved the CN-191s out from the corners and set them up where the JBLs had been. Better still. I could now here their potential even with the lacking bass. These are special speakers best heard in a less compromised room. David assured me of their superior sound, and I believe him because I heard glimpses of it and it was very reminiscent of the large Bionors. I thought within the limits of that set up, I heard just a tad more magic from the corner horns than I did from the JBLs.

On the fifth day, it was time for a change of pace. David took me for a drive in the country. We ended up at Bryce Canyon National Park. The beauty in this part of America is breathtaking. We chose a fairly warm and sunny day to see some of the great outdoors. Had I more time, I would have also enjoyed skiing for a day or two.

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PeterA

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The last full day was spent listening to the big system, comparing cartridges and the Thoren’s Reference to the AS 2000. This was quite interesting. They sounded different from each other, but both very engaging and enjoyable. I would describe the AS 2000 as just a bit more neutral, with less of its own sound. There was less flavor, but only in direct comparison. We also listened to the Ortofon A95 SPU on the Thorens and the vdH Colibri “5R”, the vdH Colibri Jazz, a vintage Technics, and the Neumann on the AS 2000. These all had different discernable flavors, but all sounded supremely natural with extreme amounts of information being presented. I think it is possible to achieve natural sound with different systems and different combinations of gear. What makes these massive reference tables, state-of-the-art SET electronics and super horn speakers sound “beyond” what I have heard before, is their ability to work together and present all of this extra information in a convincing and believable way.

We listened late into the night, just like every other night. Near the end of the visit, David played some of the LPs from his large collection. My records were really nothing special, but they were all good recordings in good condition. They all sounded superb except for one Charlie Haden/Chris Anderson recording called “None but the Lonely Heart”. I enjoy this LP and it has some great music. David talks about bass quality being essential to natural sound, so knowing this recording well, I wanted to hear Haden’s bass and Anderson’s piano on David’s big system. Surprisingly, the music sounded uninspiring. I could not understand why it was decent in my system and sounded poor in David’s.

David explained that the reissue was EQ’d to death. The bass was overblown, the piano was compressed, frequencies were boosted. It simply did not sound natural. David’s system is so revealing that it laid bare the manipulation in this reissued recording. On my system, the flaws were simply no apparent. Perhaps it was overall system resolution or poor cartridge set up. To further demonstrate the point David was making, he decided to play some more of his normal recordings: some Ella Fitzerald and Joe Pass on Pablo, Peggy Lee’s greatest hits, some string quartets, some Persian music. It all sounded wonderful. One of my favorites was Ida Haendel playing Britten’s Violin Concerto on EMI. Wow. We did not play any other reissues, and no special audiophile LPs.

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PeterA

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The final morning before the flight home, David played the rather small Mitsubishi Diatone speakers in his big room. We moved the Lamm ML2 amps back from the small room where they had been used for the JBLs and Vitavox. The rest of the main system remained the same: AS 2000, SME 3012R, Neumann cartridge, Lamm LP1 phono and LL1 preamp. All power cords were Ching Cheng going into DIY quad outlets on cables directly from dedicated circuits on the panel. The speakers were pushed up against the front wall. The whole set up looked casual compared to the main system and the efforts to which he went in the smaller room. He told me he listens to this system when sitting at his computer in the back of the room, or while simply relaxing.

I was shocked at the immense sound out of these speakers. The room was full of energy and incredibly natural sound. The scale was big, the sound was effortless, easy, and very dynamic with beautiful tone. I could have listened to this system all day long. These were small speakers with dynamic drivers and a front vent. He did say they should ideally be elevated a bit on low stands to raise the tweeter to ear level.

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PeterA

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I listened to four speaker systems in two rooms during my week long visit. We played around with different turntables, a variety of cartridges and speakers, even a bit of digital to break in the Vitavox CN-191s. Three of the speakers are horn based. The Mitsubishi is a high efficiency vented cone design. Two of the three tables are vintage and the AS 2000 is an assault on what is possible today, based on some of the best designs from the past. The cartridges were mostly vintage with a couple of new van den Hul Colibris. I saw only a fraction of David’s collection of vintage turntables and speakers, but I got a real sense of what drives David’s passion for audio and I began to understand his approach to music listening.

I have always thought that stereo systems that try to recreate the sound of live music sound best. A few years ago I began to listen to more live music, both classical at the BSO and at local jazz clubs. The more I paid attention to the actual sound of what I heard, the more I realized that most systems that I have heard, including mine own, just did not sound like what I heard live. I kept spending money, adding tweaks, making things more complicated. I began to realize that I was not getting any closer to the music. I was enjoying the sound, but I was somehow detached and not being drawn it to the recordings.

About a year ago, David and I started corresponding, and he made a few suggestions about my system set up based on the photographs and videos I sent him. The biggest improvements came from reorienting my speakers and getting rid of audiophile power cords. Then came more basic well-built cables, mass loading my rack with steel plates, and getting rid of the acoustic treatments in my room. These changes had positive results: I began to focus less on the sound and more on the music.

The system moved away from prioritizing “hifi” attributes and toward a more balanced, and complete presentation. Gradually, emphasis on certain frequencies diminished, the room became more alive and energized, and the sound became more immediate, present, and natural.

One afternoon while fiddling with David’s system in the basement, his elder daughter started practicing her cello with her friends. The four kids have formed a string quartet called “Un4getable”. Pretty clever, and they were pretty good. I heard them rehearsing upstairs and decided to go upstairs to listen. It is quite something to hear a string quartet in a modern living room with pretty high ceilings, even if it is only a bunch of talented kids. Every once in a while they would stop, listen to a recording on an iPhone and then try to improve their technique based on what they heard from the recording. I made a video of them practicing. It was a lot of fun and a reality check on what I was hearing downstairs.

Video of daughter's string quartet, Un4gettable:
 
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PeterA

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David’s two daughters play four instruments. While there, I heard the piano, the harp, and the cello. There is a local old drum in one corner of the living room. One evening I heard a daughter in her high school musical. The house is filled with music, real and live sound upstairs and reproduced and natural sound downstairs. Fascinatingly, while standing in the hallway outside of the listening room, and down the stairs from the practicing string quartet, I was mesmerized by how similar the sound was. Even sitting in front of the system or in front of the live performance, the sound, and the engagement were similar. Of course the main system did not sound the same, how could it, but it had all the elements of what I heard upstairs.

This comparison made me think about what characteristics the live and reproduced sounds have in common and what a natural sounding system means. A couple of days later, after I had heard all four systems, I composed a list of what the different systems all shared in common with the live music I heard a couple days before. These are the things which for me define the natural sound I heard in Utah, and what sets these four systems apart from most systems I have heard elsewhere.

The qualities of a “Natural Sound” system:
  • No aspect of the sound calls attention to itself
  • The sound is balanced
  • The system sound is absent from the presentation
  • Wide listening window: able to enjoy most/all genres of music
  • Portrays the character of each recording, nuanced venue information
  • Allows a wide range of volume adjustment for what is most appropriate for a particular recording and still be engaged
  • Superior information retrieval
  • Natural resolution, not “detail”
  • Able to scale up and down, large to small
  • No “sound”, only music
  • Room is energized and music is “alive”
  • Enjoyable outside of listening sweet spot
  • Images are stable as listener moves around the room
  • Draws listener into the music
  • Relaxing, zero fatigue
  • Open, effortless, and dynamic sound
  • No need to crank the volume
  • No added or artificial extension
  • No analysis of the sound into bits and pieces, music experienced as a whole
  • Result is beauty and emotion.
David discusses different degrees of natural sound. Surely more modest systems will not sound like his Bionors. However, the four systems I heard all exhibited these characteristics, to a greater or lesser degree. The systems simply sounded right. Lesser natural sounding systems will still have these characteristics, but to a lesser extent.

There is nothing wrong with bass extension, chest pounding impact, “sweet” highs, or a gorgeous midrange, but if one’s attention is drawn to such sonic attributes, he is focused on the sound rather than being drawn in by the music. It is a difficult thing to explain. I listened to my recording of Sir Adrian Boult “Introducing the Instruments of the Orchestra”. The cello was present, seemingly right in front of me. I thought it had great string texture, the body was appropriately hollow sounding, and the extension and body were just right. I thought to myself “this system has great extension and convincing bass. Then I heard the double bass being bowed and plucked right in front of me. The system did not exaggerate any one thing, it simply went places when the music demanded it and only then. It was exceptionally transparent.

People have criticized the term “natural” as being too vague, too undefined, too all encompassing. After spending a week with four different systems, I think the term perfectly captures what they all have in common: they make one forget about the system by drawing him into the music.

Even now, a week later, it is hard for me to describe how these systems sounded. It is hard to pull them apart to say this was good and that was bad. They were balanced and did not call attention to themselves or to specific sonic attributes. They simply sounded right, and they sounded like real music.
 
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PeterA

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When I think about the three “Beyond” tables I heard, or the various cartridges and speakers, they all sounded like different degrees of natural. The big system with the Bionors and Lamm ML3s was more convincing and believable than the smaller systems with the ML2, but not really by that much. All four of these systems presented a sound I had only glimpsed at before.

In the main system when comparing the Thorens Reference to the AS 2000 or the Neumann to the van den Hul or Ortofon SPU, it was not really about which is better. Nor was it about which is more right. At this “Beyond” level, everything sounds right. It becomes about preference and slightly different flavors. It is like hearing the same orchestra and conductor playing the same music in Vienna, Boston, and Chicago. Which venue does one prefer?

Having heard concerts in Vienna, Boston, and Chicago, I know there is no “absolute” sound. Having spent a week in Utah with David Karmeli, I now know more about “Natural” sound, and how to achieve it from an audio system.

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PeterA

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Dec 7, 2011
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I want to briefly mention two other subjects that have received quite a bit of attention on WhatsBestForm lately: cables and cords, and cartridge/tonearm set up methods. David has listened to many power cords and signal cables. He has settled on the ones he likes and pays little or no attention to how they are arranged. He builds his own four outlet junction boxes on cables wired directly to his electrical panel. The NOS Ching Cheng power cords go from components to these outlets. Signal cords are made from bulk wire rolls he discovered years ago. I took a photograph of the spaghetti. Audiophiles would be horrified. I quickly learned that cord noodles downstairs, or Japanese soba noodles upstairs, are all good at the Karmeli household. I heard more resolution from these systems that form those that have fancy cables and cords all neatly separated and raised up off the floor on cable lifters.

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PeterA

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One of the most valuable things that David taught me was how to properly set up a tonearm and cartridge. We used a vintage Technics cartridge and the SME 3012R tonearm. I have the set up tools he uses at home, so I asked if he could teach me how to optimize the sound. David shares his set up method with his clients and friends. I learned it quickly and applied it to my system at home. It has improved the sound of my system, and I am very grateful.

The method involves very basic but cleverly designed tools and requires careful listening. The key is to know what to listen for and how to make adjustments to affect the balance and quality of the sound. It is not mysterious but rather very straight forward and simply. I just could not get there myself without guidance.

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PeterA

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PeterA

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Dec 7, 2011
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Here are some videos of the main system:

Beethoven Piano Sonata:

Carla White/Manny Duran:

Art Pepper + Eleven:

Peggy Lee, Fever:

Holst, Savitri:
 
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PeterA

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Here are two videos of the smaller systems. Vitavox is highly compromised because of the room so we brought the speakers out from the front corners to hear what they could do in a better location of course the low frequencies are attenuated. But listening to the mid band one can hear the potential of the speakers.

Carla White on Mitsubishi:

Holst, Savtri on Vitavox:
 
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PeterA

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Dec 7, 2011
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North Shore of Boston
A few more photos of the Vitavox CN-191 speakers, the Lamm ML2 amplifiers, and the cover off exposing the horn with David hooking up the cables and for scale:



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PeterA

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Dec 7, 2011
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Here are some images behind the scene: The back of the Bionors, the ML3 power supplies, and a second pair of ML2s driving the JBL subwoofers:

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PeterA

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Dec 7, 2011
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I was waiting to see what I could write in this reserved post about my trip to visit David. A couple of days ago I sent a link of this report to my mother who wanted to know more about my trip. This is her response which I think expresses well the importance of music in many of our lives.

Dear Peter,

Thank you for sending your week long visit with David Karmali and his Natural Sound
to us all. The high quality sound is for sure your great Passion!
The photos are so beautiful also,and the little Quartet video,delightful.

I will reread it again, it is a whole other world which I know nothing about ,except my love of listening to classical music.

I have collected some quotes others have said regarding music:

" After silence,that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music!"
Aldons Huxley

Jefferson also said: "Music, the favorite passion of my soul."

Roger
[a friend] once also said to me: "I come to believe what makes us more human is music."

Have a good day!
Love,

Mom
 
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PeterA

Well-Known Member
Dec 7, 2011
8,486
4,863
1,135
North Shore of Boston
David Karmeli is a collector and music enthusiast. He seems extremely knowledgeable about audio gear, both vintage and contemporary, and he is generous to those who express an interest in learning. He is a dealer of vintage turntables and speakers, Lamm electronics, and various cartriges. Even though it is a business, I think he views it as more of a hobby for him and a lifelong passion that he loves to share with others. He has often written that the best thing about what he does is meeting fellow enthusiasts, sharing his experience, and making new friends in the process. These are his rewards.

I want to thank David for all that he has taught me so far. He is a real source of information and valuable contributor to the hobby. When I was there, people from around the world contacted him for advice about speakers and set up. I went to Utah to get to know him and to inspect and listen to a special Beyond turntable. I left having learned so much more. Best of all, I have a new friend.





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cjfrbw

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Apr 20, 2010
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Definitely an audiophile destination. If a group from California after Covid politics ever take a group field trip, let me know.

Lamm ML3 on big horns, yummie.
 

matakana

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Aug 26, 2020
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David Karmeli is a collector and music enthusiast. He seems extremely knowledgeable about audio gear, both vintage and contemporary, and he is generous to those who express an interest in learning. He is a dealer of vintage turntables and speakers, Lamm electronics, and various cartriges. Even though it is a business, I think he views it as more of a hobby for him and a lifelong passion that he loves to share with others. He has often written that the best thing about what he does is meeting fellow enthusiasts, sharing his experience, and making new friends in the process. These are his rewards.

I want to thank David for all that he has taught me so far. He is a real source of information and valuable contributor to the hobby. When I was there, people from around the world contacted him for advice about speakers and set up. I went to Utah to get to know him and to inspect and listen to a special Beyond turntable. I left having learned so much more. Best of all, I have a new friend.

I think you deserve a medal for that write up PeterA.
 

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