The Salt Cellar System
Stereophile|March 2020
The image above is not a modernist oil painting. It’s an airport x-ray of my friend Jeffrey Jackson’s backpack.
HERB REICHERT

Can you identify its contents? Did you notice the red rectangle alert-ing the inspector of a suspicious object? Do you know what that suspicious object is, or what it’s worth?

That ominous-looking black silhouette is a 1930s-era Western Electric 555W “receiver”—ie, a compression driver for use with a horn. It’s about 10" in diameter and weighs around 15lb. It requires a 7V DC/1.4A power supply for its field-coil magnet and would cost about $8000 to replace.

In the compartment to its right are some old tubes: The large ST-size (“Coke-bottle”) tube is an Elektromekano S6, made in Copenhagen around 1941. The round tube is the storied Western Electric 205D “tennis ball,” which was engineered to be a superlinear audio-frequency amplifier for applications “where power outputs of 1 watt or less are required.”

The three other (T9-size) tubes are 6EM7s, scheduled for delivery to a German tonearm designer we all love and admire.

In the third compartment is a measurement microphone and an Apogee Duet audio interface for Mac computers.

A friendly explanation got Jeffrey past the people with blue nitrile gloves. The traveler behind him, reel-to-reel tape guru Charlie King, was not so lucky. He had a Stellavox recorder and a bag full of antique magnetic tapes that had deteriorated into nitro-something-or-other, which apparently set off some bomb-sniffing dog. My other traveling companion, Dave Slagle, passed through easily—despite carrying an over-the-weight-limit collection of transformers, coils of wire, and a platoon of curious-looking homemade phono cartridges.

My backpack rolled through easily despite numerous bottles of suspicious-looking fluids and a cast-iron throat for a Western Electric 24A horn.

Dave Slagle, Jeffrey Jackson, and I were flying to Paris on our way to the 2019 European Triode Festival (ETF) in Bellême, France. Jeffrey and Dave were planning to construct an improved version of the Salt Cellar System they demonstrated at ETF 2018, named for the room in which it was demonstrated (see below). I described that radical creation in an AudioStream article entitled “Secret Societies of the Audiophile.”1

For me, that 2018 system was unforgettable. It took listening to recorded music to a place where artist-humans like Miles Davis and Mississippi Fred McDowell upstaged the powerful, otherworldly look of the bulky speakers they were playing from. It took listening to a place that was all engagement and zero critical thinking. That original Salt Cellar System did exactly what Art Dudley described in his description of Jeffrey Jackson’s horn system in the Experience Music demo space back in the states.

“In this setting, as in [Jackson’s] basement in Rhinebeck, it seemed to me that Jackson’s playback gear succeeded in finding the humans in the recordings, in a manner that rendered everything else less important, at least at that moment.”

Art elaborated: “It was eerie, hypnotic stuff, creepy yet carnal and addictively relentless: a mix of nearly overwhelming sensations, and an experience almost anyone would pay for if they knew such a thing could be had for mere money. This was music playback at its best and most essential, and for the rest of the day, the list of attributes I’m paid to listen for was crumpled and discarded, as from the open window of a car headed some-where better.”

I thought the 2019 Salt Cellar System delivered an even more tangible experience of “humans in the recordings” than last year’s system. Therefore, I’m devoting this entire Gramophone Dreams to describing the humans behind the sound and engineering of both systems.

Listening in the salt cellar

The ETF 2019 system was constructed in situ in a corner recess of a low-ceilinged room in a 15th century, heavystone, arch-and-column building—a place where, for centuries, locals stored their most valuable commodity: salt. As you read this story, keep in mind: These systems only ever existed inside the Bellême, France, salt cellar. They are not commercial products.

The Teo Macero–assembled collage elements in “Yesternow,” from Miles Davis’s A Tribute to Jack Johnson (LP, Columbia KC 30455), fit together perfectly in some marvelous but inexplicable way. The only thing for sure is: Recorded instrumental texture was the glue Macero used to construct this masterpiece, yet almost never do box speakers (with dome tweeters) convey enough palpable instrumental texture to reveal the armature of “Yesternow”’s construction. The Salt Cellar horns did. The unique “tweeter” in this mono speaker preserved the leading edges of transients (and the inner-dimensionality of texture) in a way that made Miles’s trumpet, Herbie Hancock’s keyboard, and Billy Cobham’s drums feel substantially present and conspicuously intelligible—with no phasey mishegas insinuating themselves between my ears and the artist’s instruments. Miles’s high-octane inventions appeared fully accessible. Unclouded. Uncompressed. With headphone-like transparency.

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