Record Rooms 03 - Billy

Record Rooms 03 - Billy

Hi-Fi can be a daunting world for many, but not for our dear friend Billy! Starting his journey at the young age of 14, he's accumulated a wealth of knowledge, refined his tastes, and built up an amazing collection that runs deep in jazz. His home setup is the stuff of envy; very well thought out, with incredible pieces of kit, each purposefully chosen for its job. In this entry, we chat with Billy to nerd out at his setup and find out how it all began for him.

Hey Billy! Great to have you on the series! How are you doing these days?

Billy: Hey Nick! I’ve been doing great, thanks for asking. Just like the men in Singapore that came before me, I’m currently in the midst of serving the nation in green! But despite this change, the music never stops spinning; in fact, I’ve been spinning even more these days!

What have you been listening to this week?

Billy: For jazz, I’ve been really getting into Bill Evans and Monica Zetterlund’s 1964 collaborative album, Waltz For Debby. With Swedish chanteuse Monica Zetterlund’s icy vocals on top of Bill Evan’s scintillating chords, it’s an interesting listen for most of us who are used to hearing Bill Evans play in his distinctive style - he’s a lot more laid back here! Of course, I picked up pianist Mal Waldron’s Mal-4 Trio from you guys last weekend (can’t believe it was hiding at the back!) and have been enjoying that very much - it’s one of the more underrated Prestige/New Jazz records done from one of jazz’s most prolific sidemen.

The Japanese City Pop/Jazz Fusion collection ended off a bit esoteric this week! I started out with guitarist Soichi Noriki’s two albums; their self-titled from 1983, as well as 1984’s Dream Cruise. Both are summery, sun-drenched smooth-jazz masterpieces with great performances all round, featuring Yurie Kokubu on vocals early on in her career. Seeing Yurie Kokubu, I dug out her 1987 album ’Steps’, before ending off my Yurie Kokubu run on ‘Shambara’ - a jazz fusion supergroup from 1989 that she was a part of, alongside Kaoru Akimoto, and Jimbo and Sekurai of CASIOPEA no less!

As things slowed down towards the end of the week, I spun ‘ARAGON’ - an ambient, fourth-world ethereal experimental pop album from 1985. What’s cool is that the members of Aragon went on to collaborate with Geinoh Yamashirogumi, who of course, did the soundtrack for the anime Akira. How cool is that? Ended things off with Pizzicato Five’s debut from 1987 called ‘Couples’ - a languid tribute to 60s composer Burt Bacharach; it was a commercial failure that’s a stark contrast to their later work in the 90s. But it’s so good! I must bring my copy over to the shop for you guys to hear.

Tell us a bit about how you got started with vinyl, and your journey in sound - where and how did it all begin for you?

Billy: Growing up, I was surrounded my music from all ends of my home life - from my parents blasting oldies in their car, to hearing my Mum play Bacharach songs on her piano in the living room, it was omnipresent in my childhood. I distinctly recall being bored at home, fishing through my parents’ colossal CD collection from their 30-odd years of collecting - everything from 80s Canto-pop and Bossa-nova, to obscure Japanese new-age ambient music, these were accumulations of a life-well travelled.

Of course, the CDs went into my computer, got ripped into digital files and synced into a white iPod with a click wheel. Eventually, I felt something was missing - I wanted more with my music. I loved my jazz so much that having a mere file didn’t feel enough. It warranted a permanent physical manifestation in my house. I started to become enamoured by the iconic jazz album covers of Blue Note’s Reid Miles, Prestige’s Esmond Edwards and Columbia’s S. Neil Fujita, and also began to read up on the technical terms on the covers. What does ‘Stereo Fidelity’ mean; what does ‘high fidelity’ mean? Eventually, I discovered that they were technical terms for the actual vinyl records of the time. I figured - why not just get the records to experience the most authentic way jazz is consumed? I found an old beat up copy of ‘Kind of Blue’ - but I didn’t have a turntable.

The barrier of entry for analog these days are minimal; kids these days are so lucky. When I started out, the cheapest turntable you could get was an eye-watering $700 - a fortune for a kid who’s on a meagre allowance in Secondary School! So I saved, saved and saved - and walked into The Adelphi one Saturday morning, ready to enter a new hobby. The guys didn’t even take me seriously at first - who’s this 14-year old kid who wants a turntable?

Of course, as the collection grew, I became more and more discerning as to what entered the collection, and the quality of those that did. As the equipment changed, they reflected some of the old flaws of the records that were once wonderful. So that’s where the fine-tuning and upgrading came in. But the focus on loving music never strayed away - it’s still the most important!

Run us through your setup – turntables, carts, mixer, amp, speakers, everything! How did you come to decide on each piece of kit and what's the story?

Billy: For my turntable, I’ve been keeping my Pro-Ject RPM 5 Carbon for the past few years - because it looks and sounds great! The less metal parts you have, the less ringing and vibrations you’ll get. As this one has close to none, it’s a definite keeper for me. And it just looks damn cool! People that come over always ask - what’s that? The acrylic platter also looks gorgeous with a coloured piece of wax on top.

Pro-Ject RPM 5 Carbon turntable

I’ve really fallen in love with Hana (Excel Sound Corporation) and their line of moving coil cartridges. I had an Ortofon for many years, but it was always too polite and dark sounding for me. The Hana EL has got this really lovely midrange and upper end that makes jazz a delight to listen to, with lots of details and sparkle coming through. The phono preamplifier is a Pro-Ject Phono Box S. It’s got dip switches at the bottom to fine tune the loading and impedance of my cartridge, which many manufacturers overlook.

Hana EL MC cartridge

I actually have two amplifiers with me, but one’s in storage! I’ll talk about them both anyway.

Sansui AU-20000 amplifier

The first one, is my Sansui AU-20000. This 30-kilogram monstrosity was hand-carried back from Japan, and is from 1975. It’s widely considered the greatest amplifier ever made from Sansui during their reign as one of the top amplifier manufacturers in Japan. With over 170-watts, close to zero distortion and the ability to select cartridge loading and impedance, it was (and still is) one of my most treasured components. Even with offers from many folks, I’ll never sell it. It’s been rebuilt internally and set to run for another 30 years.

So why’s it in storage then?

Billy: I’m always trying out new things! So for now, I’ve got a Sony TA-A1ES amplifier in my main rig. It’s an interesting ‘sliding bias’ design where most of the listening is actually in class A, if the volume level isn’t too loud. Turn things up, and the amplifier compensates accordingly. Modern circuitry, parts and balanced connections are also a new thing. So far, it’s a different sonic experience from the Sansui, but it’s still too early to tell! I’ll report back soon once it’s more broken in.

Sony TA-A1ES amplifier

But the heart of my audio system, is undoubtedly my JBL L65As from 1978. These things are amazing.

The legendary JBL L65A speaker.

I liked them especially because of the tweeters - they’re horn loaded, crystal slot super-tweeters that have a very wide dispersion. So there’s less of a need of a ’sweet spot’ when hearing these. And of course, the sparkle, detail and shimmer of the high frequencies are splendid. I remember playing ‘Byrd in Flight’ by Donald Byrd and hearing Lex Humphries in my living room, courtesy of Rudy Van Gelder! The midrange drivers and 12” bass drivers are all alnico magnets from the 70s - they sound really nice and punchy. Once you’ve heard JBLs - there’s no going back from the West Coast sound. These things can be pushed to the brim and not break a sweat at all. What I love is how unassuming these two boxes look - most people will see them and dismiss them, until you turn things up and everything becomes startlingly realistic.

I’ve been keeping a Rotel RDD/RDP-980 compact disc transport and matching DAC combo for the past few years purely as a utilitarian device - for playing old discs. It’s pretty good, with a Philips mechanism and laser that absolutely refuses to die - depriving me of an excuse to upgrade! 

Krell KAV-300CD player

I’ve really started getting more serious with my CD collection and also preserving my parent’s discs - so I’ve recently gotten a Krell KAV-300CD player. It’s pretty good, sounds nice and full especially through the balanced XLRs going into the Sony’s balanced inputs. As with most things Krell, it is ridiculously overbuilt with hundreds of transistors inside. For what purpose - I don’t know, but it sounds good so why not?

I’m not too fussy about my cables - but they’re Western Electric cables. They do the job (for now at least!)

Are you planning on swapping out / upgrading any component in your setup or are you pretty happy with the way things are right now?

Billy: I’m more or less happy with everything, but I’m always looking to try out new things. I want to try out the Hana SL cartridge, but there’s a waiting list for it unfortunately.

As for the speakers, I’d like to change the 50-odd year old capacitors inside the cross-over to get better performance out of them. There’s a company in Japan that I visited during my Tokyo trip in 2018 who can do the job, but it’s a huge undertaking - I’d need to crate the speakers and send them over, the’ll have to take the woofers out and tinker around with the internals. Maybe someday when I’m more free I’ll do it myself!

We'd also like to hear more about your inspiration behind your setup. Do you have a philosophy with Hi-Fi gear and who/where do you look for guidance?

Billy: To me, the space and look is important of one’s setup. Walking into our house, you’ll notice that everything’s built in, kept away neatly from dust until it’s time to spin some music.

The power management and cables are all hidden away, with each component wired separately from the main circuit breaker for cleaner power. The turntable resides away from the speakers.
Visual engagement is as important as aural engagement. Some folks have six-figure setups, but they’re all crammed into a small room with a dingy carpet. You’ll hear a few tracks, but you wouldn’t want to stick around for long! And with nice light entering the room, it’s just a great place to listen.

My setup used to be a vintage setup all the way, from source to speakers. I’ve also tuned it a lot to the type of music I listen to, jazz mostly. So the high frequencies and mids are always the prime focus in my setup. But as things evolve with more modern equipment coming in, I’ve come to realise that the mix of old and new is even better - with the new electronics bringing out a sound out of the old speakers that I didn’t even know were there.

Of course, seeing is believing. More often than not, I’ll see something that catches my eye and then I’ll have a listen. There’s no point in having something that sounds good but doesn’t speak to you visually. For example, the thing that drew me to the Sansui were those huge green VU meters. And the whole imposing look of the device - the switches! Then the sound was equally as exciting and riveting.

It’s also important to note that everyone’s got different ears, likes and dislikes. There are fundamentals, but there’s no definitive ‘correct’ approach to sound - something that a lot of folks don’t get. So always trust your own ears - you’re the one who’s doing the listening day in, day out - not others!

I’ve always looked to research, and research alone when it comes to guidance. Finding out why some components are revered and why some require a bit more tweaking to maximise performance is important. Not everyone wants to tinker around with their kit, and that’s fair. As someone who’s had his fair share of vintage amplifiers and equipment, it’s even more important! Forums, reddit and searching will go a long way. I remember asking a dozen or so questions in a vintage JBL forum (yes, those exist) before pulling the trigger on my speakers - and when my Sansui had a fault, asking the vintage amplifier forums for troubleshooting tips.

Do you have a dream piece of kit?

Billy: If space and money were not an issue, I’d spring for some Focal speakers right now, with some Accuphase amplifiers running the show!

And of course, a Kuzma turntable. I’m a sucker for looks - and the brass on the Kuzma looks oh so fine.

Do you have a go-to record when testing out / calibrating new gear?

Billy: I’ll always hover between Steely Dan’s Gaucho and Aja, because they’re so well recorded and mixed! That’s probably why I have multiple copies of both just for different sonics.

But there’s also a general mix I have - Chicago Symphony’s Scheherazade for classical, Waltz For Debby for jazz, and Wish You Were Here for rock.
Rule of thumb here - the best album for testing out new gear is a record that you know obsessively! So, be it Taylor Swift or Tatsuro Yamashita, anything goes.

You have a knack for picking out great records and we learn something new every time you come through the store. How important is pressing / mastering to you in the vinyl world?

Billy: To me, mastering is always a bonus when it comes to the music. The music has to be great first! And it has to engage you emotionally and make you want to listen more. There are albums out there that are mastered poorly, but they’re some of the greatest performances ever recorded. Like King of the Delta Blues Singers by Robert Johnson. We don’t put down an album because they’re recorded poorly! Pressing is important when it comes to the basics - off centre, warps, noises and dirty stampers are annoying especially when the record’s a premium pressing. But as long as the basics are done right, anything better is a bonus!

Any advice for a younger version of yourself just starting out?

Billy: Take your time, don’t rush and pace yourself. Let yourself soak up the music first before getting too lost in the technicalities of the vinyl world. Make friends and share music with one another!