My name is Karsten Hein. I am the founder and owner of the crossXculture.com Language School in Frankfurt am Main, and I am also a passionate pastime audiophile. In the 20 years of my active experimentation with HiFi audio gear, from 1986 until 1996, and again from 2010 until today, I have noticed that valuable information on how to set up a good system and make sure that it delivers top performance is hard to come by. Genuine information is rare and often mixed with irrelevant content with the intent to sell a certain product. Sadly, I feel that this is more true today than it was in the 90s. The ultimate effect is that the audiophile community has begun to distrust any statements made about the merits of products.
Luckily, I have had good friends who have helped me to regain my footing on this difficult terrain, and over the years I have been able to set up two affordable HiFi systems that truly merit the term High Fidelity. Other than my own company, the crossXculture Language School as sponsor, I have no intention of selling anything. My aim is instead to empower more people to find a true appreciation of music in the way it was meant to be played. If I can help you along on your journey to good sound, this will be my absolute delight.
In March 2020, Covid 19 legislation in Germany forced our crossXculture language school to change from 100% in-house training to 100% online classes within a few weeks. Webinars and recorded content became ever more important. Our first large diaphragm condenser microphone was actually bought for the recording of training content and not for conducting interviews or recording music. The second microphone was then acquired by eiaudio. Used in combination, our set of large diaphragm mics has made some interesting explorations possible. The ON AIR sign signals to the other members of the household when a recording or live-session is in progress: training, music, or otherwise.
When we bought our first loudspeakers, a pair of Canton Vento 890 DC floorstanders from a private seller in Günsburg, Bavaria, we were informed that he was selling them because he and his wife now had young children in the household. While he seemed certain of our approval, Sabina and I explained that we were going the opposite direction, by purchasing ours for the same reason. For many people, the idea of having children has become synonymous with sacrifice, with couples shedding what once was dear and valuable to them for the sake of raising their little rascals. In an eager attempt to do the right thing and be role models to their young, it is all too easily forgotten that the ability to experience joy is an important part of leading the way.
Since Sabina and I were spending far more hours around the house, we thought it best to invest where we spent our time. We wanted to create moments of happiness and leisure for ourselves and to share these with our children. We felt that letting them see some of the benefits of setting to work on a daily basis was as important a message as seeing the work itself. We hoped that our kids would be raised to respect both the people and the material items in our household, before ever feeling the impulse to dismantle anything. This appeared to be more reasonable than keeping joyful things away from our family.
We have since employed all our gear for family entertainment, as well as audiophile listening events. We have literally taken our children on long trips down the road of audio exploration. And, although they both still care very little about the quality of sound, they have spent many an evening dancing and singing in front of our loudspeakers and watched many a movie on our system. I hope that, as they grow up, at least one of them will feel inspired by my interest in the subject. But I am also going to accept it if this should not be the case. In the meantime, I enjoy Sarah lending me a hand in setting up a system and goofing around with Max, our youngest, pretending to conduct a headphone test (which would be my preference) or be airplane pilots together (which, at the age of three, is more preferable to him).
The headphones we are wearing on the photo are a pair of Beyerdynamic DT990 Pro on me and a pair of Sennheiser HD 580 Precision on Max. Interestingly, the DT990 Pro did not sound particularly 'professional', and the HD 580 Precision were not particularly 'precise' in comparison to what is available today. Lucky for Max, he did not mind so much.
After our daughter Sarah was born, we spent more time around the house, doing chores and listening to music. One night, as Sabina was showing me her impressive CD collection, I was reminded of my Denon midi system. I pulled it off the bedroom shelf in order to set it up properly, along with speaker stands and proper distance from the walls. Listening for a few minutes, we were surprised to find that the sound was pretty disappointing. While I could see the potential in the music that Sabina was showing me (Jazz, Blues, Folk, etc.), it also became clear that most of the splendour was lost in our Hi-Fi system. I told Sabina about my former interest in audio equipment and asked her if she would be interested in setting up a proper system with me that we could once again listen to music in the way it was meant to be played. She agreed that this was something she would also enjoy.
After nearly 20 years of absence from my Hi-Fi adventures, there was not a lot of expertise that I could start from. I could also not be sure that advances in technology had not made my former findings obsolete. Since our financial means were still somewhat constrained at the time, I had to scan the market for the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothes. In order not to exceed our budget, we decided to buy separate units and to purchase our system one unit at a time. This would also make it easier to correct any mistakes or to change direction in the event of new discoveries. I promised to myself that this time around I was not going to be deterred form reaching the pinnacle of Hi-Fi listening.
The first items on our list were loudspeakers. We first looked at speaker kits but decided that building speakers by ourselves would be too risky an undertaking, given our limited (and perhaps outdated) experience. Finished speakers offered the benefit that we could first audition them in specialist shops. We spent some time in Hi-Fi showrooms and were amazed by the relatively high prices but also by the tonal differences between speakers that all claimed to be of linear frequency response. To us newbies, the German speaker manufacturer Canton sounded the most revealing when compared to the similarly priced competition. At the time we did not know what else to listen for and therefore felt this to be an asset. Especially Canton’s larger Vento series floorstanding speakers seemed to offer a good balance of bass punch and transparency.
To keep within budget, we ended up purchasing a used pair of Vento 890 DC from their original owner near Günsburg in Bavaria. Listening to these speakers was a major step up from the small Denons, but it also highlighted the shortcomings of our small Denon amp. To fix this, we thought it best to follow the path of professional studio equipment. We figured that professionals would be less impressed with audiophile promises and rather follow what works. In our search, we came across APart Audio’s CHAMP-2 amplifier. This was marketed as audiophile amp with convectional cooling and offered 200 watts RMS per channel into 8 Ohms. APart Audio built equipment for bars and restaurants and featured a solid design with toroidal transformer and dual-mono layout.
While the CHAMP-2 amplifier served to upgrade the agility of the Cantons, we were still far from an audiophile system. The Canton’s revealing treble seemed out of balance with the rest of their presentation and lead to us purchasing an active Subwoofer from the Canton Karat series. When this broke shortly after, I contacted Canton directly and was surprised to find them located in the mountainous region called Taunus, near Frankfurt. I just had to drive a few kilometres to the small village of Weilrod and received instant technical support. The subwoofer’s built-in amp was replaced in less than 15 minutes, and I was on my way again.
From my experience with the Vento 890 DC I learned not to listen to isolated aspects of loudspeakers, but rather to judge their musicality as a whole. Transparency, if it is not also based in homogeneity, will sound off-balance, analytical, or too technical over time. The subwoofer helped to cover up this impression to some extent, but it brought new issues of phase alignment, crossover adjustment, etc. For audiophile listening, it is therefore best to focus on loudspeakers that offer a solid tonal balance and to build our system around these.
Following Sabina’s initiative on Facebook, we exchanged mobile numbers and spent the evenings talking to each other. Our first private meeting, following the brief introduction at the concert, was in Würzburg, Bavaria. The city is located halfway between Frankfurt and Bayreuth, which meant that each of us only had to drive halfway. I waited at the fountain of the 18th-century Residence Palace, until I saw her walking up to me. I had a lump in my throat when saying 'Hello.' It was the 21st of June, the meteorological beginning of summer. On our walk through town, we stumbled into an open-air festival by the telling name of “Umsonst & Draußen”, which translates into: 'For Free and Outside'. This was the perfect venue for us, me still putting every penny into my language school, and Sabina having to deal with some major changes in her own life. We listened to the bands perform and strolled around the many booths of handmade goods.
Just a few months later, Sabina left her tumbling family business and moved into my apartment in Frankfurt with me. And since we both enjoy putting our thoughts into action, I asked her to be my wife in 2013. At the time of writing this, we have two children and a flourishing family business of our own to run. Luckily for me, and for the crossXculture language school, Sabina knows about accounting and is perfectly capable of organising this side of the business, whereas I have been able to concentrate on organising the operational side of it. I am grateful for how we have both been carried in this way. It is good fortune that Sabina also understands and is passionate about music, and that she has given me full support in my return to audiophilia. Although it was strictly by coincidence, it does not come as much of a surprise to me that we should have scheduled our first private meeting at a music festival right at the start of summer.
In my pastime, I still enjoyed photography and had just purchased a new Nikon DSLR camera when, in spring 2008, I was asked to take photos of a friend’s Bayreuth cover band at their first gig. Hearing about the opportunity of combining music with photos, I asked my friend Thomas Kubalsky, if he would be interested in taking a little trip with me. Since we were both in proud possession of classic 50cc Aprilia and Piaggio motor scooters, I thought it might be fun to take the 300km journey to the concert, sitting on the back of our small lawnmower engines.
We made it to Bayreuth in a single 11-hour ride, of which 5 hours were in pouring rain. Our motorcycle clothes took two days to dry at my former English professor’s house, and I had to walk around the city in his jacket. But, to my good fortune, I had wrapped the Nikon kit in some additional plastic bags. All equipment had stayed dry and was ready to use. After a good night’s sleep, we arrived at the concert early. The newly formed cover band by the name of “Basement No. 1” performed in the factory hall of a local stone mason business. Although the crowd consisted mostly of family, friends, and acquaintances of the performers (most of which I did not know), I was positively surprised by the quality of music they performed.
I had originally been invited to take photos of the event by their lead singer but soon noticed the band’s background vocalist who had a crisp and unpretentious voice and looked absolutely stunning to me. I took so many photos that night and later noticed that nearly half of them were of the pretty background vocalist. They say that music can serve to connect people, but there was more than music in the air that night. As the concert came to an end, I was quickly introduced to the band and, while shaking hands with everyone, felt there was a moment of mutual approval between the pretty singer and me. And yet the moment passed me by quickly, and the next day we were on the backs of our scooters again, heading towards our next stop in Thuringia.
Our long and slow scooter journey took us across nearly 900km of eastern German country roads and through vast forests and numerous villages, towns, and cities. When we finally did return to Frankfurt, I found a Facebook message on my PC that simply read: “At a glance. — Sabina”. My heart skipped a beat.
The sale of my Mainhattan Acustik 425 transmission line loudspeakers to a friend in 1995 was followed by many years of absence from my explorations in audio. I spent my time studying English Literature, Linguistics, and Philosophy in Bayreuth. I tutored English to school children and worked as a bartender three nights a week to shore up my student funds. While I still enjoyed listening to music, doing so made me feel sad to have abandoned HiFi at the height of my enjoyment. Having the time and money to return to my beloved subject appeared to be lightyears away.
My music companion during this time was a a Denon UPA-F07 midi system that came with its own dedicated set of 2-way speakers. I had purchased it straight after selling my original system and remember the salesman at HiFi-Point Bayreuth being excited about the sound it produced, while I was thinking: “It’s a small apartment. It’s only for a sort time.” The sales argument for the Denon UPA-F07 was not so much what it got right, but what it did not get wrong. The CD laser had a limited tolerance for bruises or dirt on the disk, but when it did play the disk sounded rather elegant. More so than my grainy sounding JCV player from the 80s. The JVC had been special in its musical character, whereas the Denon stepped out of the way of the music. The weakest part of the Denon UPA-F07 midi system was the amplifier. Coming from a Dynacord PAA 880, the small Denon’s specified output of 40 watts per channel sounded thin and feeble at best.
In 1998, I moved to Norwich to study in England for a year. I attended a combination of European and Development Studies classes and did not think about setting up a system. Instead, my music came from a Panasonic S-XBS auto-reverse Walkman. I had borrowed my dad’s Panasonic studio monitors, and found that the combination of David and Goliath worked surprisingly well for low-volume listening. Aside from learning about international economic relations from DEV guru Chris Edwards, I was pleased to find some time for serious photography again. I met wildlife photographer Go Yamagata on the Development Studies classes and began a series of shootings with him. Go had a deep understanding of photography technique and helped me to develop my own further. I also enjoyed running university photography and darkroom courses to freshmen new to the subject.
I finished university at the turn of the millennium and took a job as technical editor at the German television manufacturer LOEWE in Kronach, Bavaria. I wrote operating manuals for the American television market and was tech-savvy enough to enjoy this for a while. However, feeling increasingly out-of-place in the Frankenwald, I handed in my resignation and moved to Hamburg in 2004. I hoped to become a journalist with one of the many newspapers and journals in Germany’s publishing capital. Sadly, this also became my first brush with the shameful experience of “generation internship” that followed the installation of the common European currency, the Euro. Having studied the common market at length, I would have expected some foresight and leadership from German industry, but instead the corporate leaders of this rich nation found themselves in a shameful cost-cutting competition fought on the backs of their own youth.
With everyone talking about internationalisation, I found myself back in underpaid freelance positions teaching English, but this time to adults. And here was the other shameful truth about the professional market in Germany a the time: Freelance work was a mere steppingstone to being hired. The wages reflected this conservative mind-set. Something had to change; or rather, I had to change something. I moved back to Frankfurt in January 2005, a full 10 years after originally leaving the city to start my studies, and worked as freelance English trainer in order to start my own language school. One that would pay trainers fair wages to assure their long-term availability in the market. The crossXculture language school was officially founded in January 2006 and, at the time of writing this, teaches 700 students in many languages each week.
Having been able to sell my Orbid Sound kit speakers for a reasonable price, and adding to this the funds I had received for my birthday, I once again had some money to spend on an audio project. From my previous experience in building speakers, I had learnt not to trust so much in other people’s promises, but rather to follow my own intuition on speaker designs and to audition them first, if possible. I also spent some time speaking to friends with a personal history in HiFi-audio to collect some worthwhile recommendations. By following this path, I came across Mainhattan Acustik, a small loudspeaker manufacturer based in Hainburg, not too far from where I was living at the time.
On my first ever visit to the company, I remember driving through a typical German residential area of one-story buildings, thinking: “Can this really be the correct address?” — Back in the days of paper roadmaps, placed on the lap while driving, one could never be quite sure about such things, actually. — In the end, I was delighted to find that Mainhattan Acustik operated a proper showroom, warehouse, and repair shop, all inconspicuously placed among the family homes. This made the company appear more approachable to me, and I found it easier than usual to relax and to enjoy the experience.
Mainhattan Acustik offered a full range of loudspeakers, from small 2-way bookshelves to floorstanding speakers for which they manufactured the drivers, crossovers, and cabinets. Their speaker designs were also available as kits, both with and without the necessary wood. Having already built some larger speakers myself, I was mostly interested in Mainhattan’s floor-standing designs, and among these, especially their transmission lines. After being led through some listening tests, I was impressed with the musicality and bass-extension of their 4-way Fidelity 425 model, as well as an even larger speaker with D’Appolito top-end, called Fidelity 645. Both Fidelity models came with titanium tweeters and a midrange section divided between a titanium dome and a paper cone midrange-to-woofer driver. Both models offered additional paper cone woofers to drive the folded transmission lines.
I ended up purchasing the more affordable Fidelity 425 drivers and crossover, and had the 19mm MDF boards cut to spec at a local hardware store. With my own design in mind, I flanked the sides with 40mm kitchen counters and covered the front with black felt foil. I even had an aluminum sign made that read: “Fidelity 425 Titanium” in reference to the fancy new material used on the tweeter and upper midrange. I was happy with the look and weight of 35 kilos, although the latter did become an issue later when I went to university and had to move apartments several times. As you can imagine, my friends were not really that eager to help me carry these bulky speakers around.
I remember that the Fidelity 425 were forgiving speakers, as long as they had lots of power to drive them. In search of more power, I traded in my 120 watts Dynacord amp for its larger brother, the Dynacord PAA 880, which pumped out 240 watts RMS into 8 Ohms from 14 MJ 15023 transistors. This was a real beast, capable of sucking 1,800 VA from the power grid at peak. This was exactly the type of amp to make the 425 sing. In combination with the Dynacord, the speakers sounded both powerful and relaxed. Somehow, the paper cone midrange driver blended in well with the titanium top-end to create a mixture of musical detail and pleasant harmonics. Due to the transmission line concept, the lower bass frequencies were extended and magnificent.
On the downside, and there always is a downside, the Fidelity 425 did not offer lots of bass-punch from its frontal 3-way section, which made it sound a bit too relaxed at times. This was especially true when driving it with a smaller amplifier. It is well possible that the larger D’Appolito top-end of the Fidelity 645 would have performed slightly better in this segment — however, at nearly double the price. Having just come from two disappointing DIY projects, I was exuberantly happy to see this project become a success. Unfortunately, I found myself forced to sell the speakers, due to weight and size, just four years later when changing between university apartments in Bayreuth. This also marked a sad turning point in my life, a time in which I believed that I had to say goodbye to my childhood dreams to become successful as an adult. What a misconception that was. If you ever find yourself in such a scenario: get help.
Returning to Germany in the early 90s was a culture shock. I found that Germans not only expressed their thoughts far more directly, but also had strong convictions about almost all matters of life. Communication on any subject could turn into an impromptu debate over a meal or a cup of coffee. Among these convictions was the idea that big business was generally evil. The more successful a corporation was, the more animosity my German friends harboured towards it.
A small loudspeaker manufacturer, based in Balingen, had made this sentiment its unique selling point by circulating brochures in which the company proclaimed that most audio equipment was more about advertising and corporate profits than actual sonic virtues. In one such little booklet on loudspeaker design, Herr Beyersdorffer explained how his company, by the name of Orbid Sound, managed to invest the bulk of its revenues directly into making world-class loudspeakers with high-quality components at affordable prices, chiefly by not advertising in high-street magazines, but also by making cuts on cabinet design. For customers who wanted to spend even less money on speakers, Orbid Sound offered its designs as kits, either with or without the necessary building wood for the cabinets. Such ideas sounded very promising to teenagers on a small budget.
Following the recommendation of a friend, I ordered a kit of Orbid Sound drivers consisting of one soft-dome tweeter, one midrange cone driver, and four cone bass drivers. According to Orbid Sound, four smaller drivers offered a more linear performance when compared to a single driver featuring the same surface area. This sounded convincing to me. I decided to purchase the kit without the wood and asked Orbid Sound for the recommended cabinet size. I then set to work using 19 millimetre MDF board as base material. Due to the four holes to be drilled for the bass drivers, I decided to increase the thickness of the front wall to 38 mm for greater stability.
When the speakers where finished, I was deeply disappointed to find that they sounded flat and plain. The small bass drivers were capable of some upper bass attack but they did not extend very low. The midrange sounded harsh and did not blend in with the bass very well. I was still driving the Orbid Sound speakers with my smallish JVC amp that I had brought from the US, and some of the mediocre first impression may have resulted from its lack of power. Looking back, it seems that not as much attention had gone into the making of the four separate bass drivers either, and somehow they ended up in competition with the midrange driver. It was a real mess. And since the crossover was encapsulated in resin, I cannot say for certain that there weren’t quality issues as well.
To solve the problem of the feeble amp, I bought a Dynacord PAA-460 amplifier that was capable of producing 120 WPC into 8 Ohms, but, upon hearing no major improvement from my Orbid Sound kit speakers, I decided to sell them in order to start a new DIY project. Reflecting on my low success rate in building loudspeakers, it might seem surprising that I would once again attempt to build speakers by myself. But if you factor in my non-existing student income in the 90s and the limited availability of used loudspeakers and forums at the time, you will see that I really did not have much of a choice.
The 80s were arguably my most formative years. I found myself between the horses of a teenager‘s struggle for independence and the all-too-close family bond that had developed from having to start life over in another country. At thirteen, I was lacking geographic and social awareness of our new surroundings, as well as the financial means to go out into the world and to explore it on my own. We found ourselves stuck together in many ways.
At our local school on Partridge Road, I had a classmate who understood more about audio than your average teenager. Oliver had taken it upon himself to maintain the school’s audio system which was all installed on a single movable PA rack. He showed me how to properly connect loudspeakers and run interconnects. I enjoyed learning from him and was more than a little surprised about this geeky side of myself. I had become enraptured, wanted to explore the possibilities out there, and my next step was going to be the setting up of a Hi-Fi system on my own.
I vividly remember sitting on the backseat of my father’s Oldsmobile station wagon, driving home down Mamaroneck Avenue from a trip to Crazy Eddie’s, with the whole family in tears over my cravings for Hi-Fi gear and my father’s reluctance to spend money on this. The fact that I did not have the income to match my desires, meant that I needed to convince my family to support me in this. This was easier said than done.
From what I remember, Crazy Eddie in White Plains was stacked to the roof with consumer electronics. There was a strong stench of plastics, electronics, resin, and glue, and I loved every minute of being in this store, despite feeling deeply sick on the way home each time. Crazy Eddie sold many famous brands from entry-level to semi-professional audio. JVC products were marketed as having a decent quality-to-price ratio, and so my first system consisted of a JVC turntable, CD-player, and receiver, as well as a Sherwood double tape deck with auto reverse. I later added a Sansui 10-band equaliser and a power-level meter. With these components I managed to bring the Crazy Eddie smell home with me. I loved it.
Not having the means to buy decent loudspeakers inspired me to build my own. I went to Radio Shack and bought a soft-dome tweeter and 16cm polypropylene woofer that I built into a small pine wood cabinet with a slanted front wall and 3cm slit in the bottom of the back wall. It only featured a single capacitor to protect the tweeter from low frequencies and some wool stuffing to dampen internal resonances. I was lucky, and these speakers sounded better than most I had heard until this point. The photo above shows my brother at the age of nine posing in front of my second set of DIY speakers. Although they were of 3-way design with a large midrange dome and conventional crossover, they sounded muffled, sluggish, and generally much worse than my first.
My father was born in Litzmannstadt in 1940 and grew up in Germany during the aftermath of World War II. With his family having been displaced and moved about, his start in life was rocky, and material possessions were few. During his early adulthood, he happened to live in a part of Germany that was occupied by the British, and he enjoyed listening to the radio stations of the British forces. In the early 1960s, from some of the first money he ever made, he bought a Grundig TK20 reel-to-reel recorder. This came with an external mic and featured built-in loudspeakers for direct playback. It was his prized possession. My father recorded “The Monkeys” and other music on the five reels he owned.
I was born in Frankfurt in 1972, and my first memories are of my parents being very busy doing construction work on our house and making sure there was enough money to feed the family. My father was at work for long hours each day, and when he was home, he was either doing renovations or too beat to do anything at all. Opportunities for us to connect on a subject of common interest were few. In the early 80s, I was around 10 years old and in process of recording radio music with my small Watson cassette recorder, when my dad remembered his own recordings and introduced me to his Grundig TK20. I could sense his excitement as he was showing me his more than 20-year-old machine and his recordings, and I finally recognised genuine joy in him for the first time.
Here was a man who had hardly allowed himself to ask for pleasure in his life. As for many people of his generation, his primary focus was to assure the well-being of his family. This had resulted in a personality of self-restraint and sacrifice that proved to be rather distant to himself and to others. Our shared moment sitting in front of the Grundig TK20 remained the rare exception to this rule and showed me the importance of honest joy in life. Perhaps it was this early moment of spiritual bonding that has kept my interest in audio gear alive until this day.