Horch House – Back to the Masters!

Written by on February 22, 2016 in Latest Auditions, News - No comments

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Being a part of the Audiophile fraternity, a group of which I classify myself an astute member, from the outside often appears far rosier than reality may portray. Despite exposure to exclusive privileges such as cutting edge industry updates, presentations and demonstrations, we also get to regularly hear and test some of the latest and greatest equipment in our own systems. Unfortunately introduction to every advance of reproduced music is often not met with uniform excitement. Enlightenment can turn out to be equally disappointing when realizing how far behind even our very outrageous systems can be.

Over the years I’ve gone through several cycles directly related to such where I ended up more disappointed with what I have than appreciating it for its strengths. It went so far as to have caused me not to play a single piece of music, let alone switch my system on for months. I remember having gone through a low cycle that lasted several years even.

Having a good ear can be both a blessing and a curse all at the same time and living in South-Africa doesn’t make it any easier. Audiophiles in this country often find themselves more cursed than blessed due to the simple fact that our money just cannot afford the cutting edge equipment and recordings we would ideally love to own or aspire to. A fairly middle of the road system can easily set my fellow countrymen back the better part of one million Rand. For most this scenario is just stupendous or simply out of reach.

Just as recent as the last eighteen months I’ve begun finding myself descending into another low cycle of despair as I’ve become more and more aware that what I really want from my setup is just not entirely there. I’ve been trying to figure out what it is or what event it is that started the downward trend in my current cycle, but I cannot really pin it down to anything system related apart from having sold my turntable.

A subtle change in lifestyle did however also take place almost simultaneously, but it happened gradually and over an extended period of time. The irony is that this series of events are not at all related to my equipment or the changes I’ve made to my setup or listening routine. Reflecting back things started changing when my wife and I spontaneously began to attend live music performances with the defining aspect of them all being of acoustic nature and all performed by mostly world class performers and orchestras. On our doorstep we have the University of Stellenbosch’s own Endler Hall which is regarded by many as one of the best of its kind in the country. Over time I believe I’ve become more than a little disgruntled with the fairly second rate facsimiles of the beloved music we are forced to buy.

Choir (640x475)                                                       The Tygerberg Children’s Choir in the Endler Hall

To be absolutely truthful I believe music in the Endler Hall started a process of changing my perspective on a more permanent basis. It began reminding me of exactly what it is I am so bitterly longing for when listening to music, any music for that matter. In my early childhood I’ve been a member of the band of the clarinet school I attended. I’ve also sung in my school choir and despite never having made it into the world renowned Tygerberg Children’s Choir, my brother got accepted and so often we attended their breathtakingly beautiful concerts. Throughout my entire life as music enthusiast having been brought up with such a firm musical foundation, I’m now sure I was forever subconsciously and very consistently searching for this ultimate connection and intimacy with the live musical experience.

We all know it’s virtually impossible to get the same from reproduced music, but thankfully we have gifted engineers in the industry for whom the enthusiasm of ever pushing the boundaries closer to reality never seizes. Such initiatives should be celebrated and promoted from every possible platform because they serve as inspiration to an entire industry and pay homage to the music we hold so dear.

I think by now it’s clear I’m onto something of ethnic proportion here since not even my own somewhat negative cycle could quench new found appetite for inspiration once again. The initiative I’ve been introduced to is called, Horch House, from Austria. This fairly young company in the world of audiophiles have started a concern with the exclusive aim to get the music loving community closer to the source of beloved music than ever before in recent history.Reference to recent history is specific since the technology is as old as the hills and in its infancy can hark back as far as the second world war when the Nazi regime were the very pioneers of the art of recorded sound on nothing else than magnetic tape, the very technology Horch House is now bringing back to us.

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It was during the Second World War that those in the know were astounded by the continuity of symphonic orchestral broadcasts on Nazi radio throughout the long nights of the last few years of the war. How was it possible that an orchestra or orchestras could be performing nonstop throughout the nights for such extended hours they were all wondering? Live broadcasts were literally the only way back then, yet the war broadcasts sounded so good that people believed they were the real thing when in-fact Hitler’s regime were continuously playing back pre-recorded music of live events that have already taken place! All the performances of these broadcasts were recorded on a device that later became the father of the analogue reel to reel tape-recorder as we know it today.

Thilo Berg is a master recording engineer who’ve over the years stood in the employment of several big labels such as Sony, BMG, Universal and Columbia to mention but a few. Together with his partners at Horch House, Thilo’s new endeavour have set about the near impossible task of a complete resurrection of the reel to reel tape-recorder and the associated music on the deeply archived master tapes locked away within the vaults of the international music houses themselves. Through their partners Horch House is a very well connected recording label with deep routed engineering skills and it seems a steady flow of the very original master tapes of selected audiophile recordings are already finding their way to their studios for exclusive duplication and resale to the public.

In order to offer a complete solution Horch House further set about engineering and manufacturing a commercially available reel to reel tape-machine of similar or superior quality to the famed Studer machines of yesteryear. Indications are that these machines will hopefully become available towards the end of this year and they are aiming for a retail price of only 5000EUR which in high-end terms is quite modest.

image4 (640x480)                                      Thilo Berg of Horch House putting one of his reels on the Revox A7000

Thilo Berg owns several properties in South-Africa and as a result often visits our country. I was extremely excited and privileged to have been invited to one of his exclusive demonstrations and to have personally made his acquaintance. The event itself was even more meaningful due to the fact that our meeting took place at a close friend and colleague of mine’s house in Cape Town. The quality of the recordings Thilo brought with him was thus demonstrated on a system I’ve come to know as well as my own. We played the reels on a semi-professional Revox A700 machine fully refurbished and extensively upgraded by, Wessel van Oudtshoorn, a highly respected local sound- and electronics engineer.

We began with a piece of music I have come to know since childhood as my mother is probably the most dedicated Maria Callas fan I know. I often wonder if there’s another family who’ve also enjoyed such degree of exposure to her music as me and my siblings did! As a result I believe my observations of what the master tape revealed to us were as authentic and accurate as can be desired under any circumstance.

My 1st observation was one of teleportation. It felt as if we were there in the auditorium back in 1965 when the live event was forever captured onto a reel to reel master tape. The Horch House duplication of the original source tape sounded so far closer to any release of the opera, Tosca, recorded in 1965 on the Parlophone label that no shortcoming of the reproduction system could outweigh what made for an experience not dissimilar to something quite spiritual.

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Need I go into audiophile jargon when it’s this good? Everything we know about high fidelity was faultlessly presented in spades and then some; unparalleled dynamics, liquidity, acoustic space definition and an uncannily pure projection of the artists on a vast stage with lifelike proportions and scale. I can categorically state that what we get when we buy CD’s or vinyl records, by comparison, is a watered down reduction with everything that’s not high fidelity serving as masking agents.

True, at the very top of the commercially available mediums they are genuinely very good, both digital and analogue and I must say I’m enjoying my digital music more than ever since the arrival of my four-box dCS Paganini stack. I also find it utterly pleasurable to listen to my friend Leo Bishoff’s Clearaudio Master Reference record player with its matching Goldfinger cartridge. Yet considering the cost of such just to retrieve as much as possible from already weakened source materials is something only the most dedicated audiophiles can and will justify.

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Five thousand EUR doesn’t sound like much for an exceptionally engineered modern tape-player, but unfortunately obtaining the recordings is another matter altogether, especially when in our country we need to buy in Euro and spend in Rand. Prices vary from 250EUR to 550EUR per album often consisting of up to four reels.

As any audiophile will happily admit though, it’s all about the experience and if this new venture from the heroes at Horch House can make for a thrill unmatched by anything out there bar the real thing, how can it be questioned? The music world should be rejoicing!

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About the Author

Audio Engineer, Critic & Retailer twenty years in the making.

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