Poetic License

I’ve been writing since I was 6 and probably developed some sort of oral tradition before that. I wrote stories and poems in high school and college. My current career is progressing from technical writing to managing a team of writers. Throughout my life, writing is what I find myself doing when I’m in need of a change. I have even written notes to myself for aesthetic and spiritual understanding. Sometimes the best way to start to understand yourself is to write a letter - to yourself.

From a writer’s perspective, I’ve always been fascinated with music. It’s such a challenge to express the musical experience in writing outside of musical notation. Movies are much easier to describe because everyone can relate to visuals. How many conversations have you heard where the subject was television commercials?

But how does a writer describe a jazz recording to someone who has not heard it? The writer has to compare it with other, more familiar recordings and use metaphors to express the recording’s inner qualities. This is where creative writing skills come into play.

The Audiophile Ego

In my dismayed note to The Man in the Moons himself, I realized that I had developed an audiophile ego, full of opinions, break-in horror stories, and passions:

McGroarty's Pub in Donegal, Ireland
"Srajan - OK. So at the end of your 47 Labs integrated amp review you relegated your YBA Integre to Isle of Elbe, to spend eternity monitoring the copying of discs for other amplifiers to play. Ouch! I wondered why you put the French kit so close to the computer when you gave us the tour of your house. Now I know.

As an owner of the Audio Refinement Complete integrated amp and CD player, which you favorably reviewed many moons ago, I was surprised. Not so much in the opinions you've expressed, because you have discussed the way your tastes in "what sounds musical" have developed over the years, but in how my ego felt. I didn't realize that I had developed an audiophile ego!

It has been a little over a year since I took the plunge and bought my first system, and it hasn't stopped making music in my home.

I have had a few nervous moments when I've invited friends over to listen, but none of my friends who have "audiophile" systems have complained about the reticent bass, the dry detail, or the fact that some recordings don't get up and dance like a free-range chicken. Maybe they were being polite. Maybe they couldn't hear it. Maybe their own audiophile egos felt justified. At least they were polite.

So, bruised ego in my breast pocket, my next step is to reaffirm what I'm listening for, and how I think music should sound. Yes, it's time to tweak and upgrade. I like the ideas presented in your column, and I've even heard a friend's system that was very lively and exciting to listen to, without sounding tubby in the bass, hyper-detailed, digitally harsh, or like "Safe sex - over the phone." He's a DIYer and has been selling a tubed preamp design over the Internet, so I may take yet another plunge.

As far as my ego's concerned, I'll get over it. I've enjoyed your reviews too much to let my audiophile ego get in the way! I'm not giving up my Complete equipment, although my wife may yet have her wish to have the "good system" downstairs where everyone can enjoy it. Have you noticed how women seem to respond to a smooth midrange, subtle details, and non-fatiguing highs?"

Like Fitzcarraldo (played by Klaus Kinski in the movie of the same name) who wanted to build an Opera house at any cost, my audiophile ego manifested itself in a fanatical desire to possess a truly inspirational music system. I used the web as a form of therapy, to post questions and develop opinions, while pursuing my “Opera house.” When a certain Audiophile publication printed reader comments from their website, three of my comments made it into the magazine, one of which was the question, “What do you wear when demoing equipment?” Yes, I’m that nut.

Sand-filled Speakers

I can trace it back to around 1998. The mini-system I owned for 16 years wore out. I loved that system! I made hundreds of tapes for myself and friends. I fed it thousands of records and CDs. Heck, I even took it to the beach twice when I was in college! After all that time, the tape player finally locked up and the turntable gave up its ghost. But as long as the amp and CD player kept chugging along, I remained in complete denial of the situation . . . until the woofer surrounds finally crumbled while playing "bib" from the Ioara Tahiti CD by Mouse on Mars. I’m the kind of guy who can’t remember what he did yesterday morning - yet he remembers what music was playing when his woofer surrounds disintegrated. Let’s just say it was a pivotal moment in my life. Once the speakers went, I had no choice but to start thinking about a new music system.

For the record, it was my wife who suggested that I “get off the pot” and set up a savings account for my dream system. She actually encouraged me not to compromise for price, but to save for the system that could do what I wanted. You can't get something for nothing. No kidding.

Over the next few years, I listened to friends’ music systems; checked personal and professional equipment reviews on the web; demoed equipment at Hi-Fi stores,; subscribed to a classical music magazine and a high-end audio magazine. I wanted to hear what was possible at different price points. Now I can make an educated guess at what a $1K, $5K, $10K, $20K, and $SillyK system will sound like - without hearing it. Scary, huh?

Sounds good to me

I expect that the readers of 6moons will learn more about this as I start publishing my reviews and experiences. My stereo system has its share of faults, but I gave it a home because of what it does right. It presents my recordings in a pleasant non-fatiguing way, yet it offers a significant amount of detail when compared with mass-market equipment. The midrange is gorgeous and very accurate; a piano sounds like a piano (albeit smaller in scale). This system has brought me closer to the truths captured on CD. For some reason, it is also able to make older, unremastered recordings sound good.

The weaknesses I already mentioned in my letter to Srajan point to possible upgrading opportunities. Reticent bass, dry detail, and a certain lack of excitement can all be remedied (so the publications say). So what’s next?

The Nebula

In space, nebulae are places where matter and energy combine to form stars. Well, lets compare our audio systems with these nebulae. At any given moment, one component could collapse under its own specs and thoroughly disrupt the harmony of the spheres. And at other moments, we could introduce new components to create music that's truly stellar. Here are some of the choices I am considering for upgrades/changes to my audio system. While I have chosen one area to work on first, any of these other areas -- including the space between my ears -- could demand immediate attention by “going nova”.

  • Fear of Outlets - Music sails across currents of electricity. Can we stop the tsunami and calm the whitecaps with power components? How effective are power surge boxes, power conditioners, shielded power cables and even conditioning power cables? Do they really offer any advantages over just plugging the damn thing into the wall?

  • Jitterbugging - I’ve been curious about jitter-reduction devices, including the Altmann Micro Machines JISCO and the Monarchy Audio DIP. Then there are also questions about the different sonic signatures of outboard DACs (like the Musical Fidelity A24 or the Bel Canto) which may or may not require one more reclocking of the digital data. Any choice in this area will also require more cables (the heartworms of audiophiliacs).

  • The Subwoofer Question - Is the sound emanating from your loudspeakers vaguely reminiscent of weightlifters with incredible upper-body strength but toothpick legs? Will adding a subwoofer create shapely thighs and tight calves? Or just a big bottom? Ha. I’m interested in testing subwoofers by HSU research and REL (the new Quake looks cute). I am skeptical about whether a sub can disappear as successfully as the loudspeakers.

  • DIY - Yes, it can be less expensive but is it worth it? DIY is for fun, not resale. Like a permanent tattoo, my concern is what happens if I change my mind. A friend of mine has asked me to build a tubed preamp. That would be my first non-solid state acquisition. I’m in the early stages of investigating this.

  • The Analog Kid - To do it right, your analog source should be twice is expensive as your digital source. I love records and wouldn’t have much trouble “listening through” the deficiencies inherent in analog recordings (like this never happens with digital recordings).

  • The Padded Cell - Room treatments can cause some audiophiles to go into denial, complacency, or complete madness.

  • Hearing Things - Now why did I buy those Signature RCA Caps? And why am I keeping the thousand-dollar “rattlin’ bog” equipment rack? Why indeed! I would like to offer some advice to fellow “newbies” in this degenerative hobby. Discussions of purchasing decisions, when to put up or shut up, and what to do when you catch yourself listening to test tones. A lot of this will come from the reviewing experiences.

  • "Der Geist der Liebe" - Where music starts and the responses of my family. I expect these to pop up in the regular reviews. Random asides from singing in the kitchen to discussions about why “Daddy’s music” should be played with the doors closed. After having our first child, my wife’s hearing became much more sensitive to loud noises. Mine went deaf to anything but loud noises. This might also provide the opportunity to discuss the constraints weighing on family ‘philes.

"Plant that seedling in the ground . . . watch it grow . . . hear its sound."
-- Joanne Shenandoah Eagle Cries (Red Feather Music 7002) --

Wherever this journey takes me, I shall always return to the simple pleasure of listening to music. While we can develop our systems to create the sonic equivalent of a footprint (or thumbprint) that is unmistakably our own, the point of the journey, ultimately, is what is communicated along the way. Does a French chanson sound like a beautiful feminine voice in a bouquet of orchestral flowers? Can you hear the urgency in a ‘60s folk recording? When you play the Ramones, do the buzz saw guitars make you wanna dance?

These communications are the things we take with us. They become part of us. They are experiences we can share with others. To help prevent my small system from turning into yet another ivory tower (birdseye maple veneer, actually), I invite the readers of 6moons to tag along. You’ll have to bring your own beverage, of course, but there’s plenty of room on my futon - so take a load off your feet! Hey, you're not gonna listen dressed in that, are you?

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