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Matej Isak

Title: "Mono & Stereo"

Published since: 2007
Publication frequency: irregular/internet portal
Country of origin: Slovenia/Austria

Contact: tel.: + 386 41 466 359 (9-17h weekdays)



Interviewer: Wojciech Pacuła
Photos: Matej Isak/"Mono & Stereo"

Published: 2. March 2013, No. 106

Wojciech Pacuła: First, please tell us where you come from and where you live.

MaMatej Isak: I live in a small town near Slovenian-Austrian border.

JaHow did it happen that you took to audio? What is your experience in that area?
Actually, everything goes back to my youth. Before studying law my father first education was electrician-technician and he loved music dearly. So some sort of hifi-reproduction gear was mandatory in the house and so were the records. With my brother we listened to his quite large album collection from legendary artist like The Beatles, Louis Armstrong, Elvis Presley, Ella Fitzgerald, Glenn Miller etc. and many domestic artist. I still remember how much we spinned the good old vinyl on turntable to the point when some records were almost worn out. Do remember, that buying LPs back then was something special. It was not cheap and often hard to get good pressings.
Later in my primal school a few things happened that changed everything. I got across Pat Metheny and John Coltrane, tried to learn classical guitar in music school, became a member of well-established and prominent vocal choir and trying to understand the art of soldering and building of tube amps. Last phase came a bit later on.
Fellow singers from the choir opened up the world of music in a passionate magical way to me and we had one of the best and most demanding conductor to guide and teach us. Not as close as Toscanini in strictness, but we had to understand and remember not only notes, but also song lyrics and the meanings of all songs. Discipline was non-questioning and my respect and critical view of the music in general was being affected in the best way possible. Our repertoire was broad from Eric Clapton “Cocain Lily”, pop songs, national hymns, modern poetry, to the established classics. Luckily these songs imprinted my inner understanding of music and opened doors of my hearth for the music of any kind.
In my fifth grade when I moved from the main large city to smaller town my musical teacher who recommended me to the conductor of choir gave me a good-bye gift. It was Ivo Pogorelič piano concerto. Perhaps out of affection and as a token of appreciation I listened to it continuously and with my whole being. My curiosity for classical music began and it didn't stop up to today. I just wish I had enough time to explore the vast universe of classical music and travel with composers through all time periods...
Some of that is on the way, but John Coltrane is still one of my favorite artist. His path and quest for music perfection and in later years a hankering to touch and help the people at large with his music had a largest impact. He went beyond what most understand as music in trying to bring the transcendence and ragas into his playing. Sadly he died to young with many things out for wonder. I’m humbled by his genius and hard work and forever thankful for his unaltered quest of perfection and meaning of music and life.

As my love for music grew, my interest of hi-fi and later high-end came to attention. I went through the phases of DIY and great dreams of becoming an audio designer. Thankfully I learned my lessons quick and safe enough. As it turned out that was neither my path nor destiny :).
Slowly I moved from DIY projects and hi-fi, to high-end tube amplifiers, speakers etc. I learned about classical hi-fi and high-end and to this day I still respect strongly anything from Western Electric, 300B, Alnico, Japanese audio, tubes etc.
With mileage came an ever going quest for "perfect" reproduction and I'm entrapped by the so-called magic of high-end audio reproduction. In my writings I tend to talk about culture as it brings people together with the history of unique musical events and poetry of composing.
So, audio gear would come and go and I developed a certain taste and critical view on how the gear should be designed, how high-end should truly sound and what one should and could avoid along the high-end high-way.

Why did you start “Mono & Stereo” magazine? Where did the idea come from?
I was the co-founder of first national internet high-end forum and as things gone out of hands I wanted to move further on; not being trapped by narrow minded mentality which tend always to take their life’s mission to criticize and see no light at the end of tunnel. I simply want to see audio as it is and without constraints.
My passion for music reproduction and audio gear kept me in contact with people and manufacturers around the world. Gradually I started to write short articles about high-end audio and the ball was thrown. For some time I was writing for American “Wired” and helped with establishing brands and public image for few audio companies, designed few websites etc. In due time I saw that people started to recognize some of my writings and what I had to say.
Many small articles about audiophile gear, headphones etc. started to pile up and at some point I said to myself: “Being the jack of all trades and master on none is no way to go. Do something, make a difference and try to envision all the things you always wanted to read about in other magazines.”
To put it simply, I guess I wanted to make a difference. And making difference brings sleepless nights, countless swapping of gear, endless notes, objectivity in subjectivity, feedback on any kind etc. Not always a glorious and shining life as it seems from the distance. It's both heaven and hell and hard work with one blessing – the MUSIC.
All this comes with responsibility. Suddenly you're being recognized at shows by manufacturers and people are coming to you with questions, problems and open criticism. I started to receive emails and calls from all over the world with people asking me questions related to high-end, suggesting a system, how to change things for better, what is my opinion on this and that, etc.
I always took this seriously. You cannot play fool with people's hard earned money and feel no responsibility. All of the people contacting me simply want best musical reproduction within their budget and I'm trying to share my experiences, mileage and knowledge in an open and friendly way with staying down to an earthly plane packed with an healthy portion of ego :).

Do you see “M & S” as an audio magazine or as something else?
It’s the magazine, news center, interview place and most importantly cultural virtual place for music and art of musical reproduction. Perhaps my following text sums it up perfectly:
"Twenty years of active traveling through the unique landscape of high-end audio led me to many people and objects of rejoice or sometimes even sorrow. That all unmistakably shaped my vivid and strong perception about audio, music, high-end industry and manufacturing. It's my goal and passion to listen, review and reveal great and carefully carved high-end audio products.
Most of our daily readers are audiophiles, audio connoisseurs and owners of high-end audio components. These people not only recognize and respect real artisans of audio industry, but they're actually willing to spend their respected money for the high quality audio products regardless of price. There are still people who trust in high-end audio manufacturers knowledge, efforts and heritage. High-end audio is becoming more and more personal. That can only be a good sign and safe path to the mutual satisfaction for both sides. Honest customer care, quality of the products and on the other side satisfied music lovers are the real keys opening the doors to the future of high-end society.
As a devoted fan of music and high-end oriented components I'm in constant search for unique audio instruments that speaks back to us naturally and cherish the unique world of music reproduction. In my audio quest I'm trying to reveal those standout products that convey music with the highest impact of it's coherent natural imprint.
After years of listening and testing vastly number of audio components passing through my listening room I dare to conclude, that only those who truly love, respect and know music to the hearth, strive for the absence of specific sound imprint and try to balance natural transparent signature sound in their audio products. It's always joy to find such exemplary products and people behind them. At the end of the day, it's simply all about music. Duke Ellington's famous quote sum it great with: "If it sounds good, it's good!."

You’ve mentioned that live close to Slovenian-Austrian border, but in Slovenia, hence my question: Is “Mono & Stereo” a Slovenian or Austrian magazine?
It's borderless magazine with world wide readership.

How do web based magazines differ from print magazines?
I guess we can reach out to more people and there is no cost of printing. Web magazines doesn't carry the burden of advertising and large staff machinery. One of the triumphs of web magazines is reviewing of less known high-end brands and small manufacturers. Without a tight links of old dinosaurs "scheme" between distributors and large print magazines, small high-end audio entities can deal with web mags directly.
We've seen the rise of head-fi phenomena where small audio designers (often one man work) established a fair dealings and healthy business for audiophiles and headphones fans. What I want to say is that we play an important role in presenting the healthy balance to the high-end audio society.
Now, not everything regarding the Internet is great, but some things for sure can be very positive as for example connecting the people in an easier and more transparent way. And there along the way an positive interaction between the readers and writers can be established that is much freer and comprehensive.

How are print magazines better from online magazines and vice versa? What we can learn from each other?
Printed magazines bring the long standing, great writers, fixed advertising money and established readership. Web based magazines can open up the doors to many manufacturers that are usually forgotten on not taken seriously due to the policy of non advertising. There are also web based magazines with "cash in front" policy when it comes to testing and reviewing, but a fresh new wave of writers and web magazines are slowly, but surely taking the leading role over in a good way. If transparency and fair attitude are the main store front in due time even big names came in front and wanted the exposure of web-based magazines. Jointly with printed magazines we can help bring the culture back to the high-end society and we all hankering for this in some way.

What are your thoughts about the future of CD?
CD as medium will stay for quite some time, but not as strong as it was. Many people (also non audiophiles) still use some sort of device that support red book replay and new releases are coming out daily on this medium. It's not the future, but it won7t disappear any time soon.

Does the future then belong to digital streaming?
Good question. We've seen with French Devialet (see our review of the D-Premier AIR HERE ) and few other small companies that digital streaming is pushing the boundaries of what was possible up to present time. So far any kind of streaming was handicapped with reproduction quality. Even with 24bit/96khz there is an instant recognition of lesser quality. In due time it might get perfected to the level of direct digital cable connectivity, but so far it fails in the ultimate sense.
Streaming media use mainly wi-fi and bluetooth as a transfer protocol. This is still niche industry and it takes a lot of time and funds to perfect. Devialet is working hard on making it work. With their 15 million euro injection they got and with the most impressive tech team being hired I have strong feeling that they'll reveal some impressive solutions in not to far future.

So far Bluetooth dealt and still do with "limited" transfer. Technology works great within domain of phones, i-acessories, computers etc. but still fails at proper high end or hi-fi reproduction. We've seen and heard for example Burmester implementation. Easy handling and universally outreach is the key. Still song sound is of second nature.

What do you think will be the ultimate specification for USB?
DSD over USB is coming to the new devices. I think the industry will push the ability of USB to the max. What exactly will this translate into bits and kHz we'll see. It seems that along the streaming USB will become (and already is) an important digital transfer method. As USB upgrades (currently at USB3) performance will also advance.
Asynchronous USB has become an unwritten standard for audiophiles as well as high resolution. We'll see what USB 3 protocol will bring regarding the speed transfer and stability. Trend with digital seems to follow the computers. Bigger, faster and better is the key.
In past few years we all learned the hard way that setting up a state of the art digital system demands as much efforts and know how as setting of true high end turntable front end. Everything down to the smallest nuances matters. So, I do expect further refinements and advancement. Streaming audio and USB will develop jointly without a doubt.

How about vinyl and reel-to-reel movement?
Reel-to-reel is a niche market. Yes, their reproduction challenge the best vinyl and digital releases with their master track quality, but the technology, knowhow and funds needed to use them properly are never going to become mainstream.
Now, vinyl is a different story. I'm very happy to see the "return" of vinyl. Sadly it won’t catch up with digital, but vinyl can bring something different to the table. It reveals the culture of handling with music being and going beyond just a concept, changing the way that we listen to music. Even younger generations are getting on the analog train and can hear the difference.
For me a well configured analog system still sound much better then 99% of digital. I know it's a bold statement, but I had a privilege of listening to some of the best digital converters and setup and so far nothing convinced me even so far to conclude it in any other way.
Contemporary digital is good. Actually great. Yet, there is something that simplye doesn't convey the music as is should be. I've done my elaborate homework and I actually grew up with the digital revolution side by side. Being a geek at heart I’ll never push away any new technology, DAC, software etc.
As said great times ahead, but in ultimate sense... still a lot to hanker for.

Please tell us about the audio market in your country and how it differs from other countries?
I guess our national situation is non different from around the globe. High-end as it was became a dying beast. Only few high-end shops are still around and people are moving towards online buying and references. I'm the first one to support local distributors and dealers as some of them are the best advocates of high-end audio culture, yet as William Gibson said we live now in a crazy world and have no future because our present is too volatile.

What do you think about the future of audio, which direction will it go?
We all see the digital nature of audio future. It will develop and become more affordable. With digital the step down of state of the art happens very quickly.
Vinyl will stay an interesting medium as almost all more or less recognized artists are bringing their albums also on vinyl. Now, I wish they would put more efforts into the separate analog mastering. We’ve seen with the labels like Morten Linderberg 2L, Opus 3, Stockfish records that same high-resolution digital masters on vinyl transfer can sound phenomenal.
2013 is the year of life style products and we can see this trend coming “back” into the high-end. Some sort of future retro reunion. Compactness and integration of many technologies are becoming a standard and a must. This is in no way a bad thing as it brings the easiness of handling with music and audio gear to the hands of much more people then just audiophiles. We need more enthusiasts over at high-end audio society to survive in a long run.
It’s a fact that lifestyle product are the thing of rising demand. Dan D'Agostino told me this year at Munich High-end audi show in our interview that he plan to bring cost no object lifestyle product as there were numerous requests. New Wadia Intuition 01 is clear sign, Devialet Premier D needs no introduction. As we speak many high-end audio manufacturers are working hard on new products with true integration and shape .
This is one branch of high-end future. There will still be a market for separates as it's within nature of audiophiles to change and try new things, “voice” their systems and experiment with different setups.
Other branch is an over growing movement of luxury components. There are some amazing products with the premium pricing, but it feels that became a mandatory how high price relate to high performance. This concept is as wrong as it gets and is keeping the people away from high-end. I written many times, how I see audiophiles in general as healthy intellectuals. They are critical and wise, but luxury labeling is killing the true spirit. We don't need luxury for the sake of luxury. It’s an death end.

Please describe your audio system(s).
My audio system is in constant rotation due to the review items with quite few steady players. Bellow is a complete list, but I would expose a few stand outs like: Mactone MH-300B amplifier, Robert Koda K-10 preamplifier, SoulSonic Impact speakers, Arte Forma Perla preamplifer, Burson Conductor DAC and preamplifier, Lampizator Level 4 DAC, Goldenote Baldinotti blue MC cartridge, Skogrand, LessLoss and High Fidelity cables etc.

Matej Isak’s reference system

Integrated Amplifier: GoldeNote S-3 Signature II

Amplifiers: Musical Laboratory Bosangwha monoblocks, April Music Eximus S1s, Sanders Sound Systems Magtech, YBA Passion 650, Mactone HH-300B

Preamplifiers: Lamm LL2, Musical Laboratory Paeonia passive preamplifier, Woo Audio WA2, Thomas Funk LAP-2.V3, Burson Audio HA-160 D, Burson Soloist, Robert Koda Takumi K-10, April Music Eximus DP1, Burson Conductor, Arte Forma Perla

Passive amplifier: UCA Unidirectional Current Accelator

Speakers: Sonus Faber Elipsa Auditor, Ologoe Five and One, Sound Design Tcyhe

Audio Rack and furniture: Solid Tech Rack of Silence Reference 4, HifiRacks Ltd. Modular rack system, Music Tools ISOsquare, EMMESpeakers EMMERack Audio Rack

Isolation platorm: Pro Audio Bono Basic and Reference Anti Vibration Platform, CA Electronics Damping Plate Isolators

Absorbers: Solid Tech IsoClear, Solid Tech Disc Holder, Solid Tech Dics Of Silence, Solid Tech Feets Of Silence, Alto Extremo Neoflex, Viablue absorbers, Agora Acoustics MagicHexa™

Isolating and absorbing feet: Alto Extremo Neo Flex, Electronics Ceramic Cones XS

Resonance passive control: Shun Mook Mpingo discs

Headphones: Sennheiser HD-650, Sennheiser HD-580, Sennheiser HD-800

Headphone amplifier: Burson Soloist, Burson Audio HA-160 D, Burson Conductor

DAC – Digital Source: Lampizator Level 4 DAC, Burson Audio HA-160 D, Macbook pro, Halide Design S/PDIF Bridge, MHDT Labs Havana, Apple IMac, Apple AirBook, Brik Audio Bluetooth digital receiver and DAC, Kingrex UD384 +U power, , Antelope Audio Zodiac DAC with Voltikus power supply, April Music Eximus DP1, Burson Conductor

Bluetooth: Brik Audio Bluetooth digital receiver and DAC

Analogue Source: Mono Stereo Reference turntable, Thorens TD-235

Analogue accessories: CA Electronics Ceramic LP Puck LW, KeyStrobe Lights & Discs turntable speed adjusters, Pathe Wings Record Clamps and turntable mat, Spin-Clean - Record Washer System MKII

Tonearm: Pole Star PS-UNV2 Tone Arm

Headshell: Pole Star Aluminum/Chrome, Yamamoto HS-1AS 6N and HS-3 Head shell

Cartridge: Goldenote Baldinotti MC, Nagaoka MP-500, Miyajima-Labs Shilabe Stereo, Miyajima-Labs Premium BE Mono, Miyajima-Labs Kansui; Denon DL-103, ZYX Omega X

Phono Preamplifier: Tom Evans Audio Design Microgroove X +, Acoustic Preference-Reference one, Aries - Cerat Talos Reference, Clearaudio Balanced

Speaker Cables: LessLoss AnchorWave speaker cables, Audionova Moonwalk MK2, Skogrand SC Air Speaker Cables, Tellurium Black Q speaker Cables, Marc Audio Silver, Skogrand SC Markarian 421, Element Cables Connoisseur

Cable isolators: ESD Cable Isolators, CA Electronics ceramic cable isolators

Interconnects: LessLoss AnchorWave interconnects, Artisan Silver XLR, Audionova Aurora MK2, Tellurium Black Q interconnects, Giant Killer Audio silver, Marc Audio Silver Cryo treated, High Fidelity Cables CT-1 interconnects, Skogrand SC Markarian 421, Element Cables Connoisseur

Digital Cables: High Fidelity Cables CT-1 digital cable

Power Cords: LessLoss DFPC power chords cables (3x), Sablon Audio power chord, Shielded Power Cord GigaWatt LC-2 (MK2)

Power Strip: Filtering Power Strip GigaWatt PF-2

Power Distributor: Furutech ETP-609E

Power Conditioner: Audience Adept Response aR6 power conditioner, Tombo Audio PPSC Passive Power Supply Conditioner

Power Filter: LessLoss Audio Firewall

Acoustic treatment: Organic Acoustic pure organic panels, Advanced Acoustics panels, Avcon Grande acoustic panels, Astri Audio Qseries acoustic treatment panels, absorbers, bass-traps

Accessories: Entreq power chord energy transmiter

USB & Computer cables: Entreq USB cable

Ambient field conditioner: LessLoss Blackbody 4 x

Tubes: KR audio KR 300B 4x

I have on my hand few listening rooms when needed to confirm my findings or clear out any doubts related to room acoustics. One important factor is to expose review items to different settings. Most of the audiophiles and music lovers don't have a luxury of dedicated and fully treated rooms. So down to earth rooms with the access to fully acoustic room is best combination for balanced review.

Could you list, say, 10 album titles the readers of “High Fidelity” should buy and listen to straight away?
- John Coltrane, A Love Supreme
- Michael Franks, Abandoned Garden
- Dirty Projectors, Swing Lo Magellan
- Anne Bisson, Blue Mind
- Zlatko Kavčič, Roundtrip
- Sam Cook, Night Beat
- George Harrison, Living in the material world
- Pat Metheny, Bright Size Life
- Jaco Pastorius, Jaco Pastorius
- Arturo Toscanini, Wagner, Tannhauser Overture
- Other People Place, The - Lifestyles Of The Laptop Café
- Rasa, Everyting you see is Me

Thank you for the interview!
Me too :)