Today's feature is inspired directly by Marc Mickelson's excellent SoundStage! Editorial for October. In it, the veteran reviewer and editor muses over reviewer systems as tool boxes and what he'd listen to were he not a professional reviewer. He goes on to recommend a system assembled from components he's heard and which, while not inexpensive, are deliberately selected for price, ergonomics and performance that regular music lovers and not merely completely committed audiophools would embrace and enjoy.

What a great idea. Audio magazines are often asked to review and recommend complete systems. For numerous reasons, that's a logistic nightmare of the first order. But Marc just
aptly demonstrated how it could be done in a less formal while equally serious fashion that takes into account first-hand experience (or even ownership past or present) by simply beginning with the question "what would I own if I didn't do this for a living?" and then culls from the kind of insight that only comes from doing it professionally and for a long time.

As with everything else on the moons, participation of our writers in a new feature is completely voluntary. I won't promise that you'll see future installments of Royal Flush by each and every one of our writers. But I dare imagine that the sheer prospect of playing (good) audio dealer for a few moments might inspire more than a few of them to contribute their own complete system recommendations. For today, I'll pop the cork on this cherry. Saludos! Just one disclaimer - Royal Flush Systems will, by necessity, reflect the cost and sophistication level of whatever a particular writer is most in touch with. The less-than-flush portion of the header does not specifically suggest a particular budget. Instead, consider the less-than-flush part at least as much relative to size and aesthetic as financial considerations. Still, the intent is firmly on value and sanity rather than excess and exclusivity.

Marja & Henk's The Future Is Now system
If we were in the position to do it all over again but in a different way, the following is one of the more plausible scenarios. A few years ago, we wrote a piece on the ultimate uncluttering by starting a more or less virtual life (see below). Now five years have passed and technology has developed to a point where many of the ideas we had back in 1999 are not only very feasible but affordable as well.

Let's start with the software that mandates all this audio equipment. The price of CD software just went up in the last few years while quality went down because roughly 99% of all the youth -- the largest target market for the record companies -- is perfectly satisfied with the castrated sound of MP3. So buying CDs is completely out of the question.

A few ugly Euros get us a one-year membership in Rotterdam's public library - and we don't visit for the books alone. This library has a collection of 300,000 CDs and 300,000 LPs. That is more than half a million titles. Let's say just 5% hold our interest. That equates to 30,000 titles, more than 6 times our current collection.

Now we need the hardware to play with. First up is a great laptop. This enables you to work and handle the musical software. Thus we need an Apple, preferably a PowerBook G5 with a 17-inch screen. Add 512MB of extra memory, a 1 TB spare hard-drive for $800 and an external Plextor PX-712 CD/DVD reader/writer with a Fire Wire connection. For the high quality ripping of CDs we borrow from the library, we need Exact Audio Copy. Bummer, that's a Windows-only program. Therefore we need Virtual PC to emulate a Windows PC on a Mac. Works like a train wreck - perfectly. Next we need a stack of writeable CD blanks from Mobile Fidelity.

Copying a few thousand CDs to CD/R is of course not the cleverest of propositions. We simply need another storage medium. We now focus on our Internet provider, XS4ALL. These girls & boyz have been into the Internet thing practically from the beginning by starting out as hackers. That means they know security and safety by heart. We approach them to rent the requisite storage capacity on their servers. To start with 5000 CDs will require around 5000 x 650 MB = 3.25 TB. Next we need a connection fast enough to up- and download our records - an 8 MB DSL line is affordable and will work just fine. To tap into our now virtual music collection, the coolest gadget of the past decade offers a helping help. With two 40GB iPods, we can make this thing work. We always prepare our listening sessions in advance, so downloading tomorrow's program can be done overnight from server to PowerBook to iPod. Did you know that
fashion couturier Karl Lagerfeld owns a whole collection of iPods, with every single one loaded with a different kind of music?
Listening to an iPod with the standard earplugs provided is of course not really state of the art. Enter two pairs of UE-10 Pros from Ultimate Ears. At $900 a piece, they aren't the cheapest solution around but they are custom made and provide a 26dB background noise reduction. What do you think of a 3-way headphone system with a frequency response of 20Hz to 16KHz? At a total of roughly $8,000, we arrive at a completely mobile system with access to a few lifetimes' worth of music.

Living a real life, virtually: From Materialism to Virtualism (first published in 1999)
Uncluttering is rapidly becoming a buzzword. You cannot enter a book shop without running into a display full of practical self-help guides on how to unclutter your home and life. The Martha Stewarts of this world all desire your getting rid of unnecessary stuff and sloppy habits in exchange for a happier life. Throw out those cute but dust-gathering figurines and replace them with a how-to-unclutter manual. Alas, you can unclutter much more than you think as we enter a new millennium. Let's visualize how Less Is More was never more true than today.

The doctrine of materialism began around 500 BC with Democritus of Abdera who hypothesized that all matter was built out of very small indivisible units called atoms. These atoms have fixed properties such as size and shape and are the building blocks of the physical world. The physical world and all its atoms are located in the Void, i.e. that which we call space. Democritus considered all changes in the world to be the result of rearrangements of atoms in the void. Centuries later, Newton published his Principia in 1687 still based on the old Greek Atomists' idea of matter being passive and inert.

With the help of steam and iron, that very matter built of "solid, massy, impenetrable" particles became the new Mammon in the Industrial Revolution. The more raw matter one could call his own, the more power one had. In the past 2.5 centuries, this materialism now known as capitalism has conquered the world. Even relatively long-term experiments like Communism have finally surrendered to the power of the atom.

But just 50 years ago, a new movement surfaced. It was fired by the inexorable evolution of controlling matter according to our will. This was the creation of the computer, which has been rapidly miniaturized to where it now fits comfortably within the palm of your hand. With computers everywhere, individuals can acquire more power without performing any hard labor. This power, materialized in bank notes and credit cards, enables us to purchase goods spit out by highly automated factories and plants.

By being unequally spread over the world, all of this material wealth is now clogging up the societies of greatest affluence. Commuters leaving from their nice urban residences to work places to gather yet further wealth are blocking our roads almost day and night. In order to pay the upkeep for those controlling agencies known as governments, all material goods are more or less heavily taxed. Certain non-material goods are even censored to protect the common wealth. Calculate for yourself how much tax you pay even after tax. We are caught in the spiral of matter: The more money we get and gather, the more money we need to store that matter. Let's get out of this spiral and enter the new millennium.

Just after WWII, we learned about a new school of thought called Existentialism. During the period of rebuilding Europe and remembering the dead, writers and philosophers like Albert Camus, Karl Jaspers, Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre fought their own wars. Their conflicts were based on their strong beliefs in living; the free will of mankind; life as a series of choices leading to stress where few decisions are without any negative consequences; and the maxim that "if you make a decision, you must follow it through." All the foregoing can be considered the basic tenets of Existentialism. Just as all the apostles of existentialism died during the 1960s, so too did the movement they created. Other new philosophical and social movements came and went but never lasted. Remember the 60s students and Provo, the 70s hippies and the 80s punks? We hardly can suggest a 90s group other than some weak echoes of all that came before. The attention span is shrinking and shrinking.

In the period starting in the second half of the 1980s called the Information Age, values placed in material goods were superseded by services and knowledge as the new matter of importance. Since non-materials are much easier to carry and protect, the adage of Knowledge is Power had become reality. More workers are using Internet features to perform their jobs but they are still commuting and their acquisition of goods continues. In the beginning of the century, illiteracy was a major problem. Now, computer illiteracy marks the dividing line between the new haves and have-nots.

Modern times also enable us to make new choices. One of these could be an adapted form of Existentialism - Virtual Existentialism. The old existentialists put the emphasis on freedom & free will even though interpretation of these two values vary from person to person. With these freedom issues comes personal responsibility, another basic value in the old existentialism. Every decision is a personal decision. All consequences thereof are to be expected as are the associated risks and liabilities. On the other hand, personal risks taken in any decision should not affect others without their consent.

The translation of these old concepts to Virtual Existentialism creates a very important new role for the Internet. The Internet and its related Worldwide Web are the only truly global places where both individuals and groups can communicate and freely exchange ideas. The absence of censorship should be protected as the highest value. This entails accepting ideas that might be offensive, discriminating but remain a basic expression of freedom. Freedom also means freedom of materialism. In this regard, the Internet also gives us an opportunity to express our freedom.

Our homes have become places to stash worldly goods. Not so long ago, a house was merely a shelter to contain the most essential elements of living such as a fireplace, some cooking utensils and some form of a bed. Actually, this is not so very different from homes in certain Southern countries where many of us love to spend our expensive holidays. There, we feel good about being away from the rat race and dream about owning a place just like this once we're retired. After the holidays conclude, we fly back to our overpacked and heavily mortgaged urban hiding places.

All of this could be very different and much more enjoyable even before you retire - today. Why not just shed all the excess and live like the Southern Mediterraneans? At this juncture, let's take a look at the unclutter-your-whatever books. Go to a Barnes & Noble during lunch break -- it could be your last if you succumb to these writings -- and browse through any of these books. What is the basic idea they advocate? It's that you can ditch almost everything you have not touched, worn or even thought about for the last year or even 6 months. It's that simple. Go through all your cupboards, shelves and what have you and clean out all the excess weight. All you really need is a roof, warmth, clothing, food, accompanying utensils, one or more PCs or lap tops and some entertainment like books, records or videos. For sentimental reasons, you may keep your photos and such. Your kids can hold on to some real toys like a box of building blocks. These reductions constitute step #1 on your way to entering the world of virtual living

The next step involves more work but will be very satisfying since you no longer need to watch television to find out what other junk to buy. Remember, the basic purpose of TV is to sell you more stuff. Because the Internet is accessible from all over the world, it is the ideal place to store your personal belongings in a virtual way. Set up a personal website to contain all your virtual stuff. When you use a free Internet service provider, you get all those commercials you don't want so be sure to choose a provider you have to pay for. Competition is intense. This gives you the opportunity to choose the best for a very reasonable price. More important, security, speed and availability are better served when you pay for an ISP.

After your photos have been digitized and put safely on your private website, your record and CD collection must be next. Unless you are a purist audiophile, converting your CDs into MP3s and storing them on your website is great fun and highly effective. For the real audiophile, options like headphones powered by small tube amplifiers can be an ideal solution. Storage of CDs can be simplified by removing the crystal boxes and using paper sleeves instead. This way, you can store 2500 CDs in just one Rimowa trunk. This leaves your books. At the beginning of the year 2000, Xerox will be coming to market with its so-called e-paper. According to Xerox, this is "a thin sheet of plastic in which millions of small beads, somewhat like toner particles, are randomly dispersed. The beads, each contained in an oil-filled cavity, are free to rotate within those cavities. The beads are 'bichromal', with hemispheres of contrasting color (e.g. black and white) and charged so they exhibit an electrical dipole. Under the influence of a voltage applied to the surface of the sheet, the beads rotate to present one colored side or the other to the viewer. A pattern of voltages can be applied to the surface in a bit-wise fashion to create images such as text and pictures. The image will persist until new voltage patterns are applied to create new images." When e-paper printers or even e-paper-books become available, the need for all those books on your shelves disappears. You simply have them scanned and put on your website. Now doubt new books will eventually be e-published.

After having taken all these virtual steps, you will now see a lot of empty space around your house indicating that you are ready for the next level: Why pay a mortgage? Wouldn't it be nice to unchain yourself from this big monthly burden? You would no longer have to be kind to the bank and utter an obsequious 'thank you' to the bank manager. You are free and in charge of yourself. But where to live? Since you have now cleared out a lot of stuff, you can do with a much smaller rental apartment or house. Or how about a hotel? You think that's too expensive? Hotels have everything at hand. You do zero housework, cooking or cleaning. Something breaks, you get a new room. As long as you have your Internet connection, you're all set. Sure, you will have to make deals with the hotel management regarding long-term room rates and telephone charges. But if you indicate you want to stay for an extended period, you will be surprised at the rates you can negotiate. We once managed to have a bridal suite paying only the weekly rate for a whole month. And you can swap hotels whenever you like.

When you have settled into your hotel room(s) of choice, you are now ready for the final step to freedom: Virtual living. You are going to work for yourself and not for a boss. Everybody has special skills. Determine for yourself what you can do to make a living as John Smith, Inc. What are you doing for your boss now? Could you be a company providing that same service to your former boss and others? Make yourself into a brand instead of a corporate rank and file. Because you no longer need to work so much to sustain your prior material bondage, you can afford to work at highly competitive hourly rates.

You used to go to work on a highly scheduled ritual. Now you can start and stop working whenever you feel like it from your 'own' home. Simply begin working remotely via the Internet. There are very few clients who will mind your working at night as long as the job gets done. You can even work from the park. And what goes for you goes for your significant other as well and even for your kids. Quality education via the Net is very feasible.

Living the virtual life is not just a futuristic idea-- it is a vital jump forward. As this article has shown, our society is caught up in an ever-accelerating, ever-deepening spiral. It took 2200 years to get from Atomism/Materialism to the steam engine and the Industrial Revolution. One hundred years after that, computers emerged. And 30 years thereafter, the Information Age began. We are now in the third millennium and it is time for further new incentives.

For 100 days, a popular Dutch television program called Big Brother puts nine people aged 18 to 47 in a house surrounded by 40 cameras to watch them from everywhere 24/7- in the bedrooms, in the shower, in the bathroom. There is no privacy at all. The inhabitants do not have television, radio or any other contact with the outside world - just each other and a few books. Twenty-four hours a day, pictures and sound from the house are broadcast either by television or via the Internet. Though in Dutch, you will still get the idea if you log on to their site. The TV program is watched by one million people every day, around 20% of the Dutch workforce! Every week, one of the participants has to leave this wired- up house based on the other participants' nominations and the viewers' votes. The last one left in the house gets the show's grand prize of $110,000. This is the ultimate real-life, real-time soap opera. This is indeed virtual living - but not our kind.

We want to be active, free and living our own life, not somebody else's. Modern technology combined with an up-to-date interpretation of existentialism could be the answer. For the last five years, the author and his significant other have been implementing just such changes and they work. We swapped a big country house full of stuff for a comfortable and efficient high-rise apartment in the city. Getting rid of a mortgage and all that stuff feels amazingly good! Working from home most of the time gives us freedom and is very efficient to boot. More work gets done when you can concentrate without any distraction. The time saved by not having to commute equals a complete working day. And instead of working five days to have a weekend, our weeks are much more flexible. Our clients like it as much as we do.

Truly, less is more when you try to live the virtual life.

Copyright 1999, Musicule - Henk Boot & Marja Vanderloo, All Rights Reserved