With KIH turning 50, I needed a memorable subject. Not that this 50th anniversary took that many years. On the actual clock, this column is a mere 4-year old infant. But with DAR main man John Darko celebrating his 1st anniversary of becoming a Berliner—talk about baby—I spotted a chance. Personally, I knew the expat thing well. As a young man, I’d moved from Germany to the US. Decades later, well after I’d launched 6moons into orbit above Taos/New Mexico, my wife and I did the Club Med dream on Cyprus. Just before the island’s bank crash, we headed for the Swiss dream. Eight years later, we woke up and moved to Ireland. That returned cost of living to normal. Still, I didn’t know emigration from John’s perspective.
Just so, his move applied a familiar mantra. “Have keyboard. Will relocate. Just give me a good reason, punk.” What were John’s good reasons? What was it like to transform himself into ein sprechender Deutschländer? When I suggested that we collaborate on an issue, our man was game. Though in Latvia at the time then back in Berlin, he had that magic keyboard. Here’s the outcome. Incidentally, I know of one other colleague who presently considers a half-way-around-the-world move and has already canvassed out his final destination. Perhaps this KIH feature will entice a few more to exchange their spots for stripes or some other wicked pattern and reshuffle the neat order of things?
To kick off, I wanted to know how John had isolated Germany from presumably multiple contenders; then the city of Berlin; and finally the neighbourhood. What was it on his list which Berlin ticked off best? What other countries and cities had been in contention? And what had been the major deciders: location; weather; economy; language; culture; cost of living; quality of life; local music scene; perhaps even record shops and audiophile dealerships? Certainly not German cars. Living in inner Berlin with great public transport means no car. Take that, BMW, Daimler, Volkswagen & Sons.
“DAR had grown to a point where I needed to be more central to the world’s hifi scene; where manufacturers wouldn’t baulk at dispatching a review loaner because of the high shipping costs involved; and where I wouldn’t have to wait several months for stock to arrive at the Australian distributor’s door. On a more personal note, I felt the need for change and challenge – for somewhere less ‘comfortable’ (read: family friendly) than Sydney whose summer heat is the enemy of clear thought and good writing and whose housing market had long since priced me out.”
“The USA’s bounty of audio shows, several of which I was already covering each year, would have made it the obvious choice for relocation. However, visa limitations wouldn’t give me more than three months on the ground without a good deal of additional paper work and patience. A desire to learn another language kicked it permanently in the teeth.”
“Japan might also have been interesting for a while. A handful of trips to shows in the area had left me with good friends and colleagues in Tokyo. But again, visa restrictions only give UK/AU passport holders three months before the uncertainty of visa extension applications are compounded by cultural and language barriers; not to mention the stifling humidity of Tokyo’s summer as something I was trying to get away from.”
“All signs pointed to Europe. Barcelona was in contention for a while but I’d never been and its climate is too similar to Sydney’s. I needed somewhere that enjoys a proper winter – dark and cold which is more conducive to indoor pursuits like listening to music through loudspeakers. A big city, preferably a capital, would likely find manufacturers better inclined to cover two-way shipping on review loaners. Western Europe also would put me in closer proximity to the region’s bigger audio events. And they don’t come bigger than Munich High-End. But Munich connotes too much of Sydney’s conservative vibe. I was in need of more grit.”
“That shifted my focus on Berlin, the up-and-comer of Europe during the 00s and supposedly still affordable and drenched in history. Heading on foot in various directions from the cafe in which I write this, I can reach the German and French cathedrals at Gendarmenmarkt in two minutes, Checkpoint Charlie in five, remnants of The Wall in seven, the Brandenburg Gate in ten and the Reichstag in fifteen. I can see a whole lot of history inside an hour.”
“Berlin’s edges remain sharp ‘n’ pointy too: the now derelict former NSA listening station at Teufelsberg; Mitte’s shell-damaged Nazi bunker turned nightclub turned Sammelung Boros art gallery; the dilapidated 1980’s vibe of Alexanderplatz’s transport hub. Meanwhile pulling us back to the future, Berlin is the world capital for techno. Few cities have attracted such a concentration of DJs and electronic music makers. To the east of the DARhaus 15 minutes by U-Bahn, nightclubs thump continuously from midnight Friday to sunrise Monday. Those years are behind me but local record stores like Space Hall and Hardwax keep me abreast of new music. Techno is so popular here that it has even infected the music policies of some cafes and bars. After fourteen years in Australia where century-old buildings are as scarce as the audiophile community’s tolerance of electronic music, Berlin feels like another planet.”
What was it about Australia, and perhaps Sydney in particular, that for you had run its course to initiate desire for emigration in the first place?
“The urge to move away from Sydney had been quietly brewing since 2012 when I first foresaw how DAR might become a full-time gig. I just didn’t quite know when or where. I visited Berlin in May 2015 just prior to Munich High-End. Three months later I took the plunge and quit my day job. Once the site had proven itself as a full-time income earner for a full year, I’d be ready to look seriously for a new home beyond Australia. By June 2016, DAR’s first year as my only income earner, a Brexit vote that potentially put my EU passport on the clock made it time to go. Within two months I’d sold or given away my furniture, put a half- ton vinyl collection and some audio hardware into storage, terminated the lease on the Sydney apartment and found myself at the airport with a one-way ticket to Berlin via Denver and Tokyo. My worldly possessions had been boiled down to two suitcases and two carry-on bags – physically heavy but psychologically light.”
Having arrived in Berlin with a few suitcases and a one-month lease on an Air B&B, briefly describe how you ended up with your first German digs and what surprises, frustrations and disappointments may have come along the way. How did you settle on what area in the city you wanted to be in? Was the cost of renting a suitable place what you had expected? Has the general cost of living in Germany met with your notions of what it would be like? Relative to Australia, are there any noticeable differences?
“The first month in Berlin was spent in a AirBnB rental in the wide streets of Charlottenburg. The apartment was a real looker: two bedrooms, vintage furnishings, wall-to-wall parquet flooring and five-metre ceilings. Soundwise it was a no go. Every footstep from the upstairs neighbour was transmitted downwards. Before I left Sydney, I’d commissioned a Berlin-based realtor to help source my first long-term rental once I’d arrived. She thought my self-imposed four-week deadline “exceedingly optimistic”. By the time I landed in Berlin, I’d already been on the audio show trail for three weeks. Another four weeks away from home-based reviews whilst I found a permanent pad was already pushing it.”
“Piling on the pressure was that 90% of Berlin’s inner city housing stock was Altbau: old buildings with sonically piss-poor insulation. Spying the number of neighbour noise-related posts in a Berlin Expats Facebook group, I wondered how on earth this loudspeaker-loving audiophile would take up residence without upsetting his neighbours? I’d require a Neubau (new building) if I intended to listen to anything above minimal volumes as part of my 9 to 5.”
“Tightening the schedule screws even further down was the number of people reportedly pouring into Berlin to put groups of 15+ people on the pavement ahead of each apartment viewing. Thankfully my agent had the inside track on private viewings to help me secure a Neubau in a central location in Mitte and within three weeks at that. The first sting came in the monthly rent: not much less than I was paying in Sydney. The second compromise was location: tourist central Mitte. So ist das Leben! However, once a healthcare plan had been factored in, a legal requirement for all German residents, my monthly outgoings in Berlin began to outpace those left for dead in Sydney. Berlin’s price shock on groceries and especially takeaway coffee did nothing to assuage my gut feeling that those who tout Berlin as a highly affordable destination no longer live here.”
Talk about your experience of culture shock, a new language, new bureaucracy, a different mix of races and peoples and what your sense at this time is of a perhaps ‘German’ or at least ‘European’ perspective versus Australia. Has your world view changed? Are your interactions with people different? Has anything about the quality or focus of these interactions changed?
“For the first six months, the very first thought to enter my head upon waking each day was “oh yeah, I’m in Germany now”. It’s as if my subconscious was struggling to keep pace with the move. That I arrived in Berlin on the cusp of winter–my first in fourteen years–and into short days where darkness would eventually fall before 4pm only added to a sense of discombobulation. Time has definitely been in shorter supply in 2017. When you arrive with only suitcases, everything must be bought again. This opens up a major black hole on time when starting from scratch with orientation: who sells what? Where to shop on price? Where to shop on quality? Where is the store? How do I get there: U-bahn, S-Bahn, tram, bus or on foot? These questions have to be answered often by Google but sometimes message boards and Facebook groups – for everything from socks to speakers.”
“Then there’s the challenge of managing a constant stream of deliveries with only high-school German to fall back on. All up, it took three months to kit out the new apartment with just the basics. Even first-world problems require attention. The time wiped out in handling personal admin could be counted in weeks, not hours. I called hired help to set up bank accounts, medical services and government registration. Like finding a flat and filling it with furniture, those are one-time deals. It’s the ongoing small stuff that pressurized the DAR work schedule. When you’re starting from zero both culturally and linguistically, daily tasks that would me take an hour in an English-speaking country might still take three in Germany. Every piece of German correspondence requires translation. Google helps with emails but the important stuff always comes via snail mail for which third-party help is once again called for; not only for translation but for penning a reply. More often than not, that means a trip across the city. Reading a single letter can wipe out an entire afternoon. If a reply is called for, that’s the day gone.”
“Europe’s sense of cultural depth can have a profound effect on one’s psyche. Like looking up at the Rockies from Boulder, Colorado, one feels smalls and insignificant not in the physical sense but in the temporal. When the building next door dates back to the 16th Century, you don’t just see it, you feel it; probably why Berlin is a major draw for tourists. World view changes are as you might expect. I’m no longer plagued by the feeling that I’m living on the bottom of the world where a small population of 24 million and large distances between state capitals (1’000km sit between Sydney and Melbourne alone) make Australia less attractive than Germany from a sales figure point of view. One thing I do miss is living ‘only’ a nine-hour direct flight from Tokyo.”
“Less expected: dogs permitted in cafes and restaurants and a higher percentage of cigarette smokers as confirmed by Wikipedia. Interactions with people are more to my liking in Berlin. Whilst not quite as extreme as Japan, there’s a sense of formality for first encounters that’s even prescribed by the German language. A formal version of ‘you’ for business and an informal ‘you’ for family and friends. I’m just not one for high-fiving chumminess especially when it comes to interacting with audio manufacturers and their distributors. A little like Australia but for different reasons, the biggest challenge I face in Berlin is one of perception. I lived in Australia but never intended DAR as an Australian publication. The move to Germany didn’t suddenly make it German. Being a webzine keeps DAR as borderless as the Internet itself. The majority of manufacturers tend to see a compartmentalized world that is subdivided according to product distribution territories.”
How do you find the process of slowly becoming bilingual? Do you notice any unexpected changes having to think also in German; having to switch back and forth to English which is how you write for DAR? How much daily time do you spend conversing in German? Is the German ‘thing’ a comfortable fit or do certain aspects of it require more getting used to?
“No doubt about it: learning German is fun but extremely challenging. The key ingredient is time. Lesson time and then out-into-the-street for practice time. It also requires one to rewire one’s sense of sentence construction – verb at the end. All are at directs odds with DAR’s call for me to be home alone, listening to and then writing about audio gear… in English. I started German classes in March but having to set aside four afternoons per week for classes proved untenable. I dropped back to two per week in June, netting a far better teacher in the process. Applying lessons learnt to real life is a challenge. Official written correspondence is generally conducted in German but out in the Berlin streets, almost everyone speaks fluent English. Make a mistake or pause too long whilst speaking German in a cafe or shop and the assistant will cut over to English in a flash. Practice over. Consequently, some days I’m lucky to try more than a few sentences. Over coffee with a German friend, I’ll probably net an hour’s proper practice.”
As a publisher/reviewer, how has your business been affected by the move over this first year?
“The Berlin move’s biggest impact has been on international show attendance. This year, no RMAF or Fujiya Avic. That’s partly down to the time vice of setting up in a new country and learning the language; and partly a desire to keep DAR’s show coverage a step apart from the US mags. Having two hitherto unvisited shows on my doorstep with IFA and CanJam Europe and another a two-hour train ride away in Hamburg sees them enjoy priority over events covered elsewhere in years past. Every audio journalist and his dog turns up to RMAF. That’s a great way to connect with colleagues and friends, less so when it comes to publishing show coverage with a difference.”
“For journalists attending audio shows at a faster clip than the average manufacturer’s product development cycle, the hotel vibe and the hardware itself can become very samey very quickly. One way around that is to work extra hard to maintain reader excitement when nothing new is being introduced. DAR sidesteps this hurdle by seeking out new shows in different countries; especially non-English speaking nations. Audio shows are as much cultural events as they are opportunities for manufacturers and distributors to show off their wares. In previous years, regular trips to Tokyo kept DAR’s show coverage from becoming too Anglocentric. Next year, in addition to RMAF or AXPONA, I’d also like to hit up at least one of the e-earphone or Fujiya Avic headphone events in Tokyo. Yet with so much going on in Europe, it’s probable that The Netherlands and France will also get the nod. Before we click over into 2018, I’ll be hitting up November’s Warsaw Hifi Show which I’m told is utterly superb.”
Describe the process of having to rebuild your system beyond whatever few pieces you brought with you. After 7 years of experience at the DAR helm, did your selection process of what you now wanted to own for both pleasure and business change ? Did specific changes in technology and product availability impact your final choices? Did you give yourself budgetary constraints to keep your work gear at a certain level which you find most reflects your core audience?
“The hardest selection process took place prior to leaving Sydney: what I’d put into storage, leave with friends or take with me. The idea was to leave with nothing but a range of IEMs from Campfire, Noble and Fitear, power them with a Chord Mojo and build from there. Within a week of landing in Berlin, I purchased a pair of Sony MDR-1000X Bluetooth headphones, Schiit put a Jotunheim headphone amplifier w/ phono module on my doorstep which was joined a day later by AudioQuest’s NightOwl Carbon headphones. Rounding out my AirBnB-based vinyl system was a cheap ‘n’ cheerful Pioneer PLX-500 direct-drive turntable which would tide me over until I could get my hands on the real deal: a Technics SL-1200G.”
“Once I’d found a permanent pad, Devialet’s Australian distributor Interdyn would ship out my Expert 200, Vinnie Rossi his LIO review loaner with Sonore power umbilical added to the DAC module and Aqua had the La Scala and La Voce DACs picked up from Sydney storage and sent directly to Berlin. AudioQuest then hooked me up with a full suite of cables, PS Audio with a full reference rig and Hifi Racks came through with furniture on which to place it.”
“Lastly but perhaps most significantly, Alan Langford at DEQX in Sydney would work his magic with hard-nosed German customs to get a smorgasbord of indispensable miscellany to me: in two boxes I’d managed to cram a pair of small Genelecs, a Wyred4Sound modded Sonos Connect, an AURALiC Aries Mini and a range of USB widgets and IEMs. This all trickled in between November and May but to get myself up and running with loudspeakers after signing the lease, I dropped cash on a pair of Elac Uni-Fi F5 floorstanders and a Rotel RA-06 integrated. Once reviewed, the Elacs were supplanted by old faithful: the KEF LS50, snagged without thinking as they were apparently one of the very last pairs of the limited Racing Red in Germany. Maintaining some semblance of consistency with my prior Aussie setup, the LS50 were underpinned in the literal sense by a pair of Atabite-filled Atacama Nexus 6. Arriving simultaneously were their active brothers, the LS50 Wireless, which point to one growth area for high-end audio aka Future-Fi. As one reader opined just this week via email, “the KEF LS50 Wireless are a hardware answer to streaming culture”. And after just over nine months back in KEF land, I’m now on the lookout for a more luxurious loudspeaker as one more befitting high/er-end amplifiers, DACs, servers and streamers. I’m looking to push upstream in 2018 whilst still covering the affordable stuff. The occasional $10-20K item will hopefully pull the curtain back on exactly what the extra cash buys and just how steep any diminishing returns might be. Coming next to DAR will be a review of the multi-thou Innuos Zenith SE music server. After that I’ll be looking at Schiit’s US$750 Vidar power amplifier. After that, €10K active loudspeakers from Dutch & Dutch. After that, a $60 DAC HAT for the Raspi 3 from Allo Digital. Somewhere in-between those reviews, I’ll need to take a closer look at Chord’s latest disruptor: the Poly.”
Since your relocation, you have focused on more reviews and fewer show reports; and you’ve added some members to your staff. Talk about those shifts and that growth.
“Indeed I have. The need to stay home in Berlin to set up life here and to start learning the language has seen me handle more reviews than ever before. Doing so at the expense of the usual audio show beat reminded me just how little one can discern from a show audition. What we hear at Munich High-End or RMAF is the exhibitor’s ability to extract maximum performance from a complete system in a hitherto unknown room. In other words, the exhibitor’s talents at setup. Teasing out the contributions made by individual components is just wishful thinking. The most we can hope for is a sense of the loudspeakers’ audible personality. How so? Imagine an object sitting behind ten upright panes of glass all wrapped in a perspex box. In trying to view the object, we must look through the side of the perspex box, through the first pane, then the second, then the third etc. Removing one or more panes breaks the system. Taking a sideways approach breaks the rules.”
“Firstly, this system tells us that the object itself–the music–must always be viewed through glass. The source can never be seen naked. Its shape and colour will always be an unknown, giving immediate lie to claims made by pane manufacturers that their glass is “true to source”. Everything is coloured to some degree. Therefore, to discern a pane’s colouration magnitude and type, we must swap it out with another pane: A vs. B. Then another pane to hopefully triangulate: A vs. B vs.C. Audio show rooms rarely present the opportunity for an A/B, let alone the time to do it justice. The home-based reviewer can conduct these comparisons at his/her leisure. 2017 has taught me that a show report is little more than a glorified show and tell; fine for what it is but as you once said, it’s the sizzle not the steak. And DAR cannot nourish its readership on sizzle alone.”
“2017 also saw the addition of fresh blood to DAR’s review team. I’m probably overly fussy about who writes for DAR but 1) an ability to engage readers with proper insight into how something sounds and 2) not just toss off a conclusion (“competes with products two or three times the price”) are of paramount importance. Inner Fidelity’s John Grandberg had been consistently ticking those two boxes for several years. When I first approached Grandberg in 2015 to write for DAR, he was tied up with other commitments. Two years down the road and he’s now a DAR staffer. The man’s thorough dissection of audio gear using the aforementioned A/B/C method as well as a lean toward headphone listening have proven well worth the wait.”
Do you sense a difference in review culture between Australia and Germany?
“I’ve only met a couple of the local guys and reading reviewer output in print mags and online goes well beyond my current grasp of German, especially technical German. Impossible therefore to comment on how reviewer culture compares to Australia but I guess if a reviewer in Germany must work double duty as hifi store salesman or PR agent like some lesser-known scribes Down Under, then I doubt I’d see the possibility for the like-minded connection that I enjoy with Michael Lavorgna (AudioStream), Stephen Mejias (Stereophile, AudioStream) and Brian Hunter (AudioHead) over in the States.”
You’ve also eliminated the blog-type WordPress feature which, underneath each review, allowed readers to freely post and comment/critique on that review. Explain what prompted said decision and how that change has affected you as a writer and publisher.
“That was a tough decision over which I agonised for many months. Contrary to inquisitive emails, I didn’t close the comments section because of rude behaviour. Only one thread has been locked in DAR’s seven-year history and that was down to abuse thrown at a reader by another reviewer! In trying to keep pace with demand for a broader selection of reviews, I now handle roughly one review per week. Review time is therefore limited. But it’s also gear limited. In an ideal world, I’d have the time for A/B/C/D/E commentary. Reality holds me to A/B/C. That means not all potential rival products are compared to the review item at hand. What goes live on DAR is the result of the intersection of available time and available gear.”
“It’s a distillation of all I have to say about a product, nothing held back. If it’s not mentioned in the review, I didn’t do it. And if I didn’t do it, it isn’t mentioned in the review. Still, the glass remains half full. Despite injecting these scope limitations into reviews during the front half of 2017, commenters continued to ask “how does A compares to X?” or “What about Y?”. Did they not read those sentences on review scope? Repeating in the comments section what I’d written above made me sound repetitive and added nothing to the discussion. Over time, these exchanges distracted from the review content. Perhaps reviews were best left naked as per 6moons?”
“And that got me to thinking about: 1) how many reader comments advanced the conversation and; 2) how many attempted to draw more from me even though I’d already said all that I intended to in the review? When the latter began to outnumber the former, I began to doubt the value of DAR’s comments section. Digging deeper into WordPress, I learnt that 90% of commenters represented less than 1/10th of one percent of the 180’000 folk who click to DAR each month. The implication as I read it– and since proven true–was that killing the comments section wouldn’t dent visitor stats. Into the bargain came a sense of liberation from pseudo accountability. Readers properly intent on giving feedback do so via email. The upshot is that I’ve since diverted comment moderation/response energies into writing reviews. The calls via email for more content (“can you review this?” or “how about looking at that?”) far outnumber the calls to bring back the comments.”
And there we have it – some backdrop to John’s Oz-to-Berlin move exactly 1 year after it happened. Jetzt bist Du ein Berliner.
[See more of how Berlin intersects with John’s audio world over at DAR’s Instagram.]