By the time we got to the Von Karp phonograph room, people were queuing down the corridor to hear the latest sweet sounds from the Michigan-based company. The night before, in what is now an annual ritual, several of us had been privileged to have dinner with the great man himself at Barney’s Clam Chowder House on Comme d’Habitude Street – that man loves his chowder! In between courses and beer he dropped quite a few hints about what we were going to see today, and as the evening wore on he took no prisoners, lambasting the manufacturers who are promoting discs rather than his highly-refined wax cylinders, and becoming positively animated when discussing the “dinosaurs” who want to take the industry back to the “electrical dark ages” as he put it. In an industry full of colourful characters, Doctor Von Karp is one of the most colourful; and so-compelling was his company that it must have been one o’clock in the morning by the time I staggered back to my hotel room and sank into blissful sleep in anticipation of what was to come.
The Von Karp room itself was one of the medium-sized ones; large enough for the equipment to breathe, but not so large that a purely mechanical reproduction system would struggle for volume. At the far end, Doctor Von Karp had set up a large horn made of what looked like some sort of dull green plastic. Von Karp caught my quizzical expression and smiled broadly. “Chitin.” he said. I looked even more puzzled. “We use four thousand five hundred crickets to create each one” he said, and patiently went on to explain that crickets (yes, the insect) have the ability to generate disproportionately loud chirps for their size, and also have exceptional hearing, and so it was natural that a resin produced by pulping an elite species of cricket would have fantastic acoustical properties. I have a basic grasp of physics, but Von Karp – in common with many other high end designers – is unaware of the magnitude of his own genius, and his explanation rather went over my head. The new Krikket horn may be cutting-edge technology, but Von Karp Research have lavished very traditional levels of craftsmanship on it and it is finished to a standard that would befit any fine home.
To the right of the horn, on the largest gimbal-mounted energy-absorbing rack I have ever seen, was a mouth-watering array of Von Karp’s latest cylinder players and pneumatic amplification equipment. This needed some serious air power, and so fifty feet of high-end semi-synthetic rubber tubing with silver-plated reinforcement mesh had been fed from a large compressor in the hotel basement, sufficiently distant to be almost inaudible. For the show, the compressor runs off mains electricity, but obviously for the ultimate audiophile refinement it should be steam, and Von Karp Research can supply high end fuels, water, and steam conditioners.
Doctor Von Karp took great delight in showing me the new titanium worm screws and miniature air turbines that have virtually-eliminated wow and flutter in his players. Complex and incredibly expensive, it is this attention to detail that sets Von Karp Research apart from some of their rivals.
Great sound also needs a great stylus, and Von Karp have gradually refined the Kaktus Mk III that so-revolutionised phonograph reproduction at its launch in 2094. Von Karp Research has its own greenhouses where they grow genetically-modified cactus bushes that provide, as Doctor Von Karp modestly puts it, “the stylus of the gods”. Each thorn is laser-trimmed by automated equipment more advanced than that used in robot brain surgery, and it is capped with a beryllium plug that facilitates the industry’s slickest automated stylus replacement system – it is even possible to swap to a new stylus while the phonograph is playing! Von Karp phonographs are also compatible with the industry-standard diamond stylii that rarely require replacement, but Doctor Von Karp is adamant that the cellulose-based system is more musical.
But I know what you are thinking: how does it sound? You may feel you are familiar with the musicality of phonograph-based reproduction equipment, but I can assure you that Von Karp’s latest developments take it to a whole new level. Doctor Von Karp had brought a fine selection of audiophile-quality baroque chamber music cylinders that played to the system’s many strengths. But don’t run away with the idea that this is just a single-genre system: he also wowed the crowd with cylinders featuring acoustic guitar, solo voices and small vocal ensembles, light jazz and even unplugged rock music. The system can handle all audiophile music with aplomb.
Then Von Karp turned to us and generously asked “Any requests?”. This was my moment: from my briefcase I took out a compilation cylinder, created by my good friend Gary on his state-of-the-art 3D printer. But this was no ordinary compilation cylinder: Gary had made it at 100 TPI (threads-per-inch) in super-high res. Doctor Von Karp took the cylinder from me and examined it carefully. I think he was impressed. “I’ll have to change the worm gear, and we only have a couple of suitable stylii, so we can’t play it all”, he said. But it was enough. Twenty short minutes later, we were treated to some of the most exciting girl-and-guitar music ever heard at an audio show. The sound was coloured, gaseous, and above all, musical. We hardly even noticed the stylus-swap two minutes in, and when it was all over two minutes later, we felt certain we had witnessed a milestone on high end audio’s road to sonic perfection.
Sure, the electrical-revival boys have got bass and volume. Hell, they’ve even got stereo, low distortion, inaudible background noise and convenience, but to a trained audiophile’s ears, it just ain’t refined. Von Karp’s phonographs have got musicality and character in spades, and in answer to the system’s reputation for compatibility issues, they promise a complete turnkey solution from boiler to horn. A few years ago, many of us predicted the demise of the steam-powered phonograph industry when a Philadelphia audiophile’s cellar was blown to smithereens, but it turned out that he had been doing unauthorised modifications in the hope of increasing pressure. Audiophiles may rest assured that steam powered phonographs are safe and, from what we heard at WAXFEST this year, are set for a tremendous future. Light acoustic music in mono has never sounded so good!