Krakow Sonic Society
Meeting No. 95
usic lovers all over Poland lick their lips with jealousy at the concert hall in Katowice. By this, I mean the new headquarters of the Polish Radio’s National Symphonic Orchestra. Mr. Tomasz Konior, the architect who designed it, refers to the idea of “context architecture.” He also emphasizes that a building can only be considered successfully built when visitors have no stupid questions to ask about its design and function. If an architect creates a space which has its own natural rhythm, dictated by the building’s intended use, everything went well.
You can’t miss it looking at the design of the building’s elevation. It is based on traditional Silesian themes and associations with music. Even its pillars have a clear rhythm. Tomasz Konior said that he wanted the building itself to be a story of its own, a spatial narrative growing out of the roots of Silesia’s rich culture. That means the brick-built, red-colored landscape of the Nikiszowiec district of Katowice, which is associated with the traditional look of Silesia within Poland.
But what’s most important to the musical world is what hides inside this building. It contains two concert halls: a large one with the capacity of 1800 people, as well as a chamber hall that can seat 300 music lovers. Both halls have a very warm atmosphere thanks to the materials used to build it: birch wood combined with exotic wood as well as a wavy concrete base. A specially shaped plafond hangs under the ceiling of the large concert hall to improve the sound propagation.
The process of building this concert hall was complicated because of acoustics. Nagata Acoustics, a Japanese company, helped with preparing the halls. The process was supervised by Yasushisa Toyota, a master of his craft. The Japanese company previously worked on building places like the Suntory Hall in Tokyo, the Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles or Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw. Yasushisa Toyota cooperated with other architectural celebrities like Frank Gehry and Jacques Jean Nouvel.
One of the key moments when Nagata was designing the hall’s acoustics was building a 1:10 scale model of the room. The PRNSO’s miniature was used by Nagata’s engineers to run acoustic tests. “The miniature room, replicated in even the smallest details and filled with nitrogen, became somewhat of a sound laboratory” – said Ms. Ewa Niewiadomska.
The idea for engaging the Japanese in the process of creating the concert hall was brought forth by the famous Polish pianist, Mr. Krystian Zimerman, who took part in planning the new PRNSO headquarters from the very start. He even visited the building site, paying attention to all the details that he believes to be crucial to the musicians and music lovers. He wanted extra attention to be paid to the atmosphere of the chamber hall, which is meant to house concerts of smaller ensembles and solo artists.
During the official opening concert which took part on October 1st, 2014, the orchestra performed Witold Lutosławski’s Tryptyk Śląski, Krzysztof Penderecki’s Przebudzenie Jakuba, Wojciech Kilar’s Siwą mgła, Johannes Brahms’ 1st Piano Concerto , and Ludwig van Beethoven’s IX Symphony. The orchestra was accompanied by the Bavarian Radio Choir, while the solo parts were performed by Krystian Zimerman, Wiesław Ochman, Luba Orgonášová, Anna Lubańska, Christian Elsner and Dimitry Ivashchenko. The whole thing was directed by Alexander Liebreich, PRNSO’s artistic director.
That’s all that we heard about the opening of the PRNSO’s new headquarters from Ms. Ewa Niewiadomska, who is responsible for the promotional materials of the Polish Radio National Symphonic Orchestra. If I can add my own two words, I’d like to point out that the opening ceremony was a huge event, commented in TV, radio, and daily press. I don’t remember this much attention being paid to any other culture-related opening ceremony in the last few years. Let me put it this way: we, Kraków folk, are very jealous of the PRNSO. Here we are, getting ready to attend future concerts in Katowice, but we all wish we had something like this back home, too.
Although… I kept a newspaper clipping from a “Gazeta Wyborcza” edition from April 2nd, 2009, where Dawid Hajok wrote an article titled Testing in Cambridge. As I read there, the model of the Congress Center’s main concert hall was taken to be acoustically tested in Great Britain. The Centre, which was to be erected on an empty lot near the Grunwaldzki Roundabout in Kraków, was expected to become the “architectural icon” of Kraków. Its architectural design was meant to be done by Krzysztof Ingarden and Jacek Evý. I can still remember going on walks in the place where the ICE’s impressive building stands today. The walks usually lead me towards cheap hot dog stands, or, alternatively, the bus stop, hidden there amongst unkempt tall grass and bushes, from where the 101 bus (which goes to the Kościuszko Mound) had its first stop. The way that this place, as well as all its surrounding area, has changed since then is incredible.
The ICE’s appearance is one-of-a-kind and, unlike the PRNSO’s headquarters, it caused quite a stir in Kraków. On October 16th, 2014, exactly 16 days after the ceremony in Katowice, during the official opening ceremony, while standing amongst the journalists from all the major Polish TV and radio stations, as well as magazines and newspapers, I heard both quiet growls that could only translate to: “this place looks like a bathroom”, as well as those that went like “outstanding.” The former referred to the building’s elevation that is made up of tri-colored, rectangular plates. But these are the people who cannot look past a detail. The second group is made up of people who can see the bigger picture. And I stand with them, united.
Through this, Kraków has gained a place in which people can finally comfortably listen to music concerts of a high standard. Similarly to Katowice, though, the concert hall was definitely its most important aspect. The concert hall in ICE can hold up to 1800 people in the audience and has a “vineyard” shape – similarly to Katowice, yet again – i.e. a shape resembling a grape vine. Its particular design is slightly different, though, as the PRNSO orchestra stands on a scene suspended in the very middle of the room, surrounded by seats on all sides. Meanwhile, the scene in the ICE is arranged at the front of the “vine”.
ARUP Acoustics from Cambridge is responsible for the acoustics of the ICE concert hall – the same company that received a 1:50 scale model of the building for testing purposes. The company had been previously responsible for the acoustics of the Copenhagen Opera House, the Sydney theatre, and the Olympic Stadium in Beijing. As Mr. Ingarden said, after the first few tests it turned out that the room’s reverb was just right for classical music. It was compared to the Musikverein in Vienna, for example. Acoustic reflectors have been suspended above the scene so that the musicians can hear themselves better. The main acoustics expert and head of the acoustic design of the ICE Kraków was Mr. Raf Orlowski.
The design for this building was chosen in an international competition. The work on the building started in 2007 and the whole investment cost over 357.5 million zlotys. The Center is over 35,000 square meters in size, and the largest hall can seat up to 2,000 people.
I could not find this information in the beautiful book specially prepared for the opening, so again I quote from Hajok’s article:
The Krakow studio developed the concert hall design in consultation with the Japanese office of the world-class architect, Mr. Arata Isoaki. – This is the most complicated project I have ever worked on – discloses Krzysztof Ingarden, co-author of the concept.
The presence of a Japanese architect and designer in the process of building another extremely successful concert venue is no accident. "High Fidelity" readers surely know that, but it does not hurt to repeat it: there are areas in audio where it is difficult to compete with the Japanese. These include phono cartridges, CD and SACD pressing, CD and SACD players, tube amplifiers, cables, anti-vibration accessories, but also inexpensive (mass produced) audio. Everybody I asked about that pointed to a particular predisposition of the inhabitants of the Japanese islands to persistent work and honing everything to the last detail. It is hard to disagree with that.
Just look at the components from the Japanese audio manufacturer, Accuphase. Made with extreme precision and sounding great, they are a kind of statement product; reference components for other audio manufacturers. This can be seen both in their visual design and in the technical solutions that were started by Accuphase and which I saw later reused and employed (sometimes quite creatively) in many other products.
On October 16th, when the ICE Krakow was opened, in the morning we were with my son at the official session for journalists led by Mrs. Izabela Helbin, director of the Krakow Festival Office, and Jacek Majchrowski, Mayor of the City of Krakow. In the evening, we were invited to the Preisner’s concert about which I wrote earlier. In the end, we did not get there, as explained below. An hour before the first bars of 2014. Here and now sounded at 19:00 in the Auditorium Hall of the ICE, I welcomed special guests from Japan, who are the most important people in Accuphase: Jim S. Saito (President & CEO), Mark M. Suzuki (Executive Vice President) Tatsuki Tozuka (Manager, International Marketing Div.) and Kohei Nishigawa (Supervisor, International Marketing Div.).
Our meeting did not happen by accident. We had been planning a visit of Accuphase managers at a Krakow Sonic Society meeting for a long time, at least since the interview I had with Mr. Saito in January 2012 (see HERE) . The meeting topic was not accidental, either, especially in the context of the both venues I mentioned earlier: it was the DP-58, the latest model of room acoustics equalizer from Accuphase.
The DG-58 Digital Voicing Equalizer, as it is called in the Accuphase literature, is designed to measure and then to adjust the listening room acoustics. The DG-58 has the dimensions of a medium-sized amplifier and its built quality is as perfect as the quality of every other Accuphase audio component. We learn about its intended use by looking at the front panel. It sports a large touchscreen display, which shows various types of information, e.g. the measured acoustic response of the room (in the 63 sub-bands), introduced compensation, and the differences in measurements and compensation between the left and right channel.
The machine is based on high-speed, 40-bit floating point DSP chips, custom programmed by Accuphase engineers. One of the basic ways of plugging it in the audio path is to feed the digital signal in and out. Hence, if we have a CD, audio file or SACD transport, instead of connecting it directly to a D/A converter, we first hook it up to the DG-58 and then, also digitally, to the DAC.
The unit is also equipped with analog inputs and outputs. Thinking in purist terms, the "digital" connection is much better, because using the "analog" version the signal is first digitized and then converted back to analog.
Krakow Sonic Society meetings have been going on for 10 years. During that time, we developed a certain methodology of auditions (tests) and certain habits, as well as gained knowledge. All these elements are equally important. We grew together, as did our audio systems. We built up our music collections, exchanging information, observations, and often calling each other with the "super-important" news about the recently released, one hundred fiftieth version of Kind of Blue (I am obviously generalizing). Each one of them was exciting for us and we were curious about it.
KSS meetings usually take a similar course: we greet each other, listen to new music to get "warmed up", and gossip about. We drink some wine and have a bite of something. Then I introduce the topic of the current meeting and we start auditions. Because they are usually based on comparisons, we listen for 2 minutes to one element (album track) and then switch to another, and so on. After some time, I sit down in front of everyone and ask for comments, writing them down and passing on to “High Fidelity” readers. And then we drink some more wine.
However, our meeting with the visitors from Japan and their DG-58 looked different. The audition methodology I have just described is nothing "sacred" and was born out of practice. The same practice suggests, however, that often the audition road we travel is not fully chosen by us, but rather that we are invited to a journey. It can happen through specific characteristics of a given product (or album), unexpected sonic changes or some functional peculiarities (idiosyncrasies).
The objective of this meeting was to determine whether the DG-58 affects the sound (1), and if so, in which way (2), and how to evaluate this type of change (3). I planned the auditions the same way as any other KSS auditions - a guest is just a guest, and we are the hosts. And while it is good to create the best conditions for nice gentlemen, where they can feel comfortable and can be fully involved in the auditions and discussion, we expect active participation in the meeting prepared by US, not the other way round. This rule has applied to all our guests whom we had the pleasure to meet.
The Accuphase (I am referring to the component) had other plans, though. There was no discussion. We did not to persuade each other with passion and zeal worthy of a better cause, nor did we try to outshout each other, showing gaps in logic. There were no angry frowns, winces or pursed lips as we listened to someone else’s opinion. No flapping the arms, either. And all these things do take place during KSS meetings.
Our assessment of what we heard with the DG-58 in active mode was 100% positive (3). About fifteen percent of the one hundred percent was conditional, though. The correction that the Accuphase introduced to the signal, eliminating the impact of the room acoustics on the sound, makes everything sound better, more genuine and more (this is the major change) natural. The low bass is even lower and less loose. Despite a better definition it is not contoured. For me, contouring is something bad, unnatural; definition – as good as it gets.
Switching the DG-58 in and out of the audio path, we noticed equally strong changes in the upper midrange presentation. In many audio systems, it is this range that is responsible for a nervous sound and listener’s irritation. It happens because it is usually too bright and too strong. That's too bad. The highest quality sound is dark and velvety at first glance. It is never detailed, in the common sense of this word. All of that is there, but kind of "underneath", not really "audible." What you can hear is music, which sounds the way it does. Always in that order. If you have it any different, if the sound attacks you, think it through and try to change something in your system.
And it is the direction towards the "density," "velvet" and "darkness" that the Accuphase equalizer brings to the sound and music. These changes represent the 15% I have mentioned earlier. Not everything the DG-58 does is unambiguously better; in some aspects it is simply different and I can imagine those who will not be happy with that.
An amazing experience was to watch our guests, especially Tozuka Tatsuki-san, reading the descriptions on Japanese albums the same way as we read a newspaper. Even though everybody knows that this is the way it should be the Japanese alphabet, treated by us as an ornament or secret writing, almost burst out with information as soon as it was read and translated. And the fact that the meaning of "OBI", i.e. the name of the paper band that is mandatory on the edge of every Japanese release and which means a kimono belt, even though apparently known, took on a deeper meaning when it was explained and shown "manually" by Mr. Tatsuki.
It is no coincidence that the best discs are pressed in Japan. Nor is it coincidence that the biggest design studios in the world hire acoustic architecture specialists from Japan and that PRNSO Katowice and ICE Krakow have some of the best concert halls in Poland. This is the result of the pursuit of perfection, the need to clarify any and all uncertainties. But also a kind of artistry and understanding of what music and sound are all about. Years ago, in the conference room of the building No. 100 of the Fair Center in Poznan, the then Polish president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Walesa promised us that "we would build a second Japan in Poland." Contrary to what some people say, we are now much closer to this goal. All the more so that on this October evening in Krakow Japan was at hand’s (and a wine glass) reach for us.
I felt a little shy around our very important guests, which probably influenced my judgment at this meeting.
My amateur’s opinion:
As it has been said countless times before, the Japanese are the masters of acoustics – this is confirmed by both the big (buildings, for example) as well as small (CDs/SACDs) monuments to their own expertise that they have erected. Auditioning the DG-58 acoustic equalizer (and in what a great company!) had me excited from the start, and I couldn’t simply imagine that nothing would happen after switching on the unit. I didn’t know whether the changes would be positive or negative, but I was sure that the difference would be audible.
And it was. The DG-58’s influence is unequivocal. There was no need for discussion or speculation. With the DG-58, the sound IS better. It’s a fact. At first earshot it may be less effective than a system that doesn’t use a digital sound corrector, but the appeal of these “bare” systems is very much garish and tacky and has no concrete meaning in the long run.
The sound that we all heard this day, after powering up the unit that came to us straight from the Land of Cherry Blossoms, was very mature – darker, heavier, devoid of all the annoying shrill in the treble. In other words: it was far more pleasant to the ear.
Despite that, it’s hard for me to make a definite conclusion, even though the DG-58’s influence on sound was unambiguously positive. The way I see it, this product is intended for use with complete systems, i.e. those in which the owner sees no need for any further upgrades. This corrector won’t fix a poorly-put-together system, nor will it improve the sound of a cheap system. It must be treated as a very exclusive cherry atop an already deluxe cake.
In all honesty, I have to admit that the Accuphase DG-58 does miracles. I tested its predecessor, the DG-48, and back then its effects were far from my initial expectations, even though its job was more difficult, because it was before I had my Ecophon ceiling, which meant that my listening room had a very long reverb. The correction introduced by the DG-58 really makes it seem that all of your room’s imperfections just cease to exist; in just a few seconds you can forget all about unpleasant resonance, echo, standing waves and other such phenomena which cause us daily trouble in listening to music.
This processor smoothes everything out, darkens the tonality and calms down the sound. I do have some doubts as to whether investing in room acoustic adaptation doesn’t result in something more natural to the human ear, even if – in the long run – there’s always something imperfect even in the best of rooms.
We’d have to check how the DG-58 performs in spaces which are completely dedicated to listening to music.
I also liked the “suspension” of particular vocals in three-dimensional space better without the processor. But these were all small exceptions to the general rule of the evening. The DG-58 did an amazing job.
Our KSS meetings may have been varied, but I can’t remember the last time we came across such striking differences between auditions. In the “analog” configuration, all of the most important sonic aspects, like tonal quality, dynamics (especially micro-dynamics), imaging or detail, i.e. those that influence the emotional message of music, were improved by the DG-58, in my opinion.
The sound became denser and darker (in a most positive sense of that word). The changes were usually so notable it sometimes seemed like we were listening to a different, better remaster of the same album. To put it short, I don’t see much point in further auditioning – I’d rather make my way to the dining room and indulge in the delicacy-laden table (hats off to our Hosts, especially the Lady of the House and her Sister), try all the different food, and then come back for another round of good music and wine.
I actually have only one question to ask of Suzuki-san or, more precisely, of the Polish dealer for Accuphase who is present with us here today – a low bow in his direction : will donating one of my kidneys, slightly worn after years of heavy (ab)use, be enough to buy myself a DG-58?
PSAfter the auditions, the DG-58 was bought by one of the meeting participants.
- Konrad Wojciechowski, a journalist from the Polish newspaper “Gazeta Wyborcza” visiting me at home and listening to an album by the Polish act “Siekiera.”
- In the picture, Mr. Jim S. Saito (second from left), Mr. Mark M. Suzuki (second from right), Mr. Tatsuki Tozuka (first from right), Mr. Kohei Nishigawa (center) and Robert Szklarz, head of Nautilus, thanks to whom the meeting came to fruition.
- Left channel without correction.
- Left channel with correction.
- Right channel without correction.
- Right channel with correction.
- Right channel minus left channel (the difference), without correction.
- Right channel minus left channel (the difference), with correction.