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Sonic Viewpoints : a brief visit to Europe & USA

“My father is rapidly approaching his 80th birthday. He’d mentioned several times this year that he would like to visit family in the Netherlands. Seeing as it had been a few years since my last trip, we thought that it might be nice if we could both go together. A date was selected and after a long trip with a brief stopover in Singapore we finally arrived at Shipol Airport in Amsterdam. There is something about traveling for 18,000km without sleep that you never really get used to. Still it is a far quicker process than when my father first traveled to New Zealand for 5 weeks on a sea freighter.

My father comes from what was a small coastal village in The Netherlands called Noordwijk aan Zee, which is situated between Amsterdam and Rotterdam. His recollections were as a boy running from his house over the road, down through the sand dunes to the beach, looking out for the return of the sailing fishing fleet. Still heavily jet lagged he dragged me along to the local fish supply shop to sample a local delicacy of freshly pickled raw herrings.

It is interesting to see how this small village has changed in just 50 short years. What was once his childhood home, now stand huge hotels. Noordwijk is now a conference centre and party town. Fishing which was once the lifeblood of the village is but a distant memory. Not even Dads beloved herrings are caught locally anymore. Denmark with a very long coastline per head of population now sells them to a ravenous Dutch public.

All things considered, The Netherlands is an organized environment. A vast portion of the country is close or below sea level and the Dutch are amongst the worlds most proficient engineers in this area. Everywhere you travel in the western part of The Netherlands you are constantly reminded of their tenuous relationship with the sea. Drainage canals are ever present. Water is micro managed as the Dutch are sitting atop an inherently unstable environment, with the mighty North Sea, Rhine and abundant rainfall all trying to reclaim what was previously an inland sea. As we stood looking out to the ocean a giant suction barge pumped vast quantities of sand/water slurry inshore. Dutch hydraulic engineers have decided that the coastal dunes must be raised in height to counter the effects of global warming etc. Far from building a dyke and forgetting about it, managing their environment remains a Dutch work in progress.

Visiting our Dutch distributor Audio-Time in Breda was a pleasurable experience. Proprietor, Erik-Jan Embregts is very passionate about our products and has a number of systems on permanent demonstration. I introduced the prototype Silhouette CD player to him called the SXCD. Erik-Jan listened to it intently. At the end of the evening he said that he liked the unit a lot and when could he please order some. It was good to receive such positive affirmation for our new baby.

Visiting Belgian colleague and speaker designer, Koen Vaessen of Vaessen AudioDesign, was fun. Koen and I are mates and have previously exhibited our products together at audio shows in Europe & North America. It was comforting to be able to relax, kick off your shoes and let your guard down for a while. Koen is an avid audiophile, and his views are always interesting. Being a designer of high end audio loudspeakers, he had recently custom built a pair of large floor standers for a recording studio.

Standing approximately 2m tall and 0.5m wide, these were definitely not a pair that would ever be likely to get "wife approval". On account of the studios requirements, Koen had fitted a pair of 15" woofers atop of the speakers with a 3 way configuration mounted below. Some audiophiles not only like pinpoint accuracy and detail, but they also enjoy the presence of the music washing over them without the huge accompanying volume. If there ever was a case for big amplifiers and speakers… I just loved this system!

Koen’s room is deceptively large with the listener situated not less than 2.5m away from the speakers but with a very large hole in the rear wall directly behind the listener to allow for an overhead projector to be utilized. Sitting to the left of the couch where smaller rear room reflections could be felt, the system bass was overpowering. Moving to the sweet spot with the opening directly behind… the sound was nothing short of riveting! Low volume, but with the feeling of being strapped into an idling V8… I was transfixed!

Check out Koens range of products. He kind of reminds me of Marantz, Ken Ishiwata, who has magically been freed of his happy coat and multinational constraints.

Next it was off to visit our Belgian distributor Technology Distribution in Antwerp. Having quite possibly one of the most beautiful high end audio environments that I have seen to date, Francis and his wife, Sabine, and two gorgeous children, own and operate two old world Antwerp buildings. One of them is their personal residence and the other their business. From the moment you walk inside till the time we said goodbye, I felt it was an experience of unparalleled quality and warmth. Francis is very enthusiastic about vinyl/phono reproduction and has an enormous knowledge of the subject and espouses its virtues to all those who visit. We are looking forward to working closely together in years to come with this engaging couple.

Every time I visit the Belgian people I find that they are very friendly and warm hearted. They definitely don’t appear as frenetic as others in Europe, but retain a sense of perspective and style. Parts of old Antwerp are very leafy and old world, you’d have to see it for yourself to gain an appreciation.

Did I mention the beer… aaahh THE BEER… On my first visit I was introduced to Hoegaarden. If I lived in Belgium I think that I could quite easily become a total slosh… so good is this beer. Check it out it is simply the best I have ever tried… I’m addicted.

Not wanting to travel around September the 11th, I made a quick trip to visit the USA. America enthralls me with its vastness and diversity. This brief trip was no exception. We had arranged to meet in New York, but being a very large place it was deemed more convenient for me to come to Newark airport on the mainland. The US was bordering on paranoia around its Sept 11th anniversary and the airlines bore the brunt of this. I was subjected to no fewer than 3 separate luggage checks as well as a personal interview with an airline representative about the reasons for my lateness in reporting to the flight etc. One poor chap was detained in front of us all and god only knows, but the airline employees just kept on peeling off more and more layers of clothing. Why anyone would want to wear three pairs of track suits & 4 watches etc is beyond me… suffice to say it would raise my suspicions if I was on duty. I guess on one hand it is easy to be rather lassez-faire in security, but your life wouldn’t be worth sixpence if you were found to be the poor guy who lets the side down by being negligent of your duty. Get used to long security delays on international travel. Terror is the antithesis of the free world… and what a cheap shot it really is.

Newark is a vast emotionless agglomeration of past glory… great to get your business done and better to say goodbye to. Just happy to meet US business people who share our vision and enthusiasm for the brand and opportunities.

Returning to Germany via Copenhagen is a bit of a haul. Scandinavian Airlines SAS impress me. Perhaps it is because my mother is Danish and I have a soft spot for the culture… the airline just oozes quality and style. One cool idea was that the overhead screens feature a live nosecone camera. As the aircraft taxis on the runway you can see what the pilot sees and tend to feel more relaxed about the wait on account of the 5 aircraft you can see in front of you. Finally your turn arrives to take off and the view is pretty exciting as the big bird does its thing. The camera then switches to a direct below view… interesting idea.

I also really like the cold raw fish and dill meal thing… nice touch.

On advice of a friend I stayed in the old Eastern part of Berlin, it proved interesting. World wars have transformed Germany’s boundaries and Berlin has been the focus of the great east/west cultural divide. Berlin during the 1920’s (capital of Prussia) was a city of some 4 million people and the industrial and cultural heart of the country. With land to the east annexed, Berlin now finds itself located almost on the extremity of the country. Despite having its central government relocated in recent years from Bonn to Berlin and with massive government infrastructure assured the local Berlin government struggles under the weight of massive debt and a staggering 17% local unemployment. The hoped-for relocation of industry has not materialized and Berlin and much of the old East Germany remains in a bit of a blue funk. That said this city of 3.5million people is still the envy of many worldwide.

To enter the new central railway station and marvel at its multi-billion dollar steel and glass construction is to see all that Germany and its legendary people stand for and are capable of.

In the centre of old East Berlin stands a 365m high communications tower with an elegant ball shaped dome atop. It was commissioned by the Russians as a potent symbol of their influence.

Travelling to the western sector, the difference is quite noticeable. Cubic concrete worker accommodation blocks give way to the elegant old Berlin that survived the bombing. Historic churches & buildings which were simply torn down in the eastern sector have been partially or fully preserved in the west. Juxtaposed in the mix are the new steel and glass buildings of German central government. All in all old and new structures appear to blend together in seamless harmony. Berlin has lost little of its panache; however it still retains indelible tattoos from a past under Russian influence which in the fullness of time even those scars will be erased.

If any other western world capital city is to be held as a measure, Berlin will no doubt once again become a haven for bureaucratic largesse. Government employees ensure that they are paid handsomely for their services. In the fullness of time Berlin will undoubtedly make the most of this ever-present gift.

German Perreaux distributors Expolinear Elektroakustik were very warm and welcoming. Jorg and Heidi, having been in business for more than a quarter of a century, are consummate professionals. They have taken on the distribution of Perreaux and are working diligently to promote the brand there. Their own range of loudspeakers are all fabulous pieces of work and I was moved at the experience of listening to them. So much in fact that I ordered a pair of T-420L loudspeakers for my personal use at home. I plan to detail in an upcoming newsletter about my personal system.

Next it was on to visit friends in Nürnberg. I had planned the trip some time in advance and wanted to travel via the German high speed intercity express train called "ICE". The ICE train reportedly travels, at times, up to 200+ km per hour… so it was to be an experience not to be missed.

Arriving at the multi-billion dollar Berlin train station, the train arrived exactly on time. Have you ever been at an international airport and tried to make out the p/a announcements. They invariably sound like someone garbling into a tin can from 20 meters away. It’s a total waste of time. Not so at Berlin central railway station. I heard every German word that was spoken very clearly, and then amazingly in English too… ahh the Germans… they’re good engineers.

The train glides into the station and just as quickly moves on again. And at top speeds, cars on the nearby autobahn just looked like they were standing still. The train was rock steady for most of the journey too. Germany has a terrific asset in its railway system, it is definitely the way of the future and it was great also to see it being fully utilized and people respecting this valuable asset.

By sad contrast our rail system in NZ is an absolute shambles. Having long bowed to the motorcar, the sad legacy of our train system is left to pick over the bones that no one else wants to cater for - logs and heavy-containerized-freight. I liken our system to a eunuch network which as long as it remains in company ownership they will ensure that every last ounce of profit is sucked out of it and transferred overseas.

Bring back state control of essential assets, power, railways, telephones… as what we have to endure today must be accompanied by the sad symphony to the chorus of billions of dollars being constantly sucked out of the country by international operators lording over a largely mute public.

Nürnberg was a lovely break from the hubbub. I was well taken care of and shown around the old city etc. I was interested to see the place where the Hitler rallies took place all those years ago. Close by was Nürnberg’s gleaming new football stadium. Germany had recently hosted the world cup football and it was hailed as a great success by all. Germany underwent an upsurge in nationalistic fervor which was very good for everyone’s morale and pride. Pride and passion in ones country make an interesting study. Too much and you are accused of being arrogant and over the top, conversely too little and your country tends to disappear from view. Hence, one of the reasons why so much emphasis is placed on sport today.

And there you have it in a nutshell. The difference between being on top or underneath is up to us. Your country wins the world cup and you are bulletproof. As it turned out Hitler and his cause proved to be fatally flawed, but to see old German pride rise up again during the world cup gives fresh imputis for the need for countries to rally behind all that they are as a nation.

My beloved NZ has just spent the past 20 years tugging its forelock at the hands of those who have tried to close our eyes, bend us over, make us touch our toes all the time attempting to rewrite our history and create their rose tinted version of a utopian society.

Still, it felt good to be home again…”

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