By Jack Sharkey, December 5, 2013
My first stereo was a green GE record player with two separate speakers that I got as a Christmas present when I was thirteen. It was the iPod touch and cheap earbuds of the day. Money being what it was when I was thirteen, my parents were exceptionally proud of this gift, as was I. It really was a big deal. I also got three 45s I played over and over again listening to the sweet plastic and ceramic cartridge sounds of my most prized possession.
Later that week, the first album I bought was the Beatles Revolver, which I really didn't like, but what with being the youngest kid in the family and all, I had no choice but to proclaim its awesomeness.
The second album I bought was Allman Brothers At the Fillmore East. I bought it because I loved the song Ramblin' Man, but of course I didn't bother to read the track listing and only realized the song wasn't on that album after I got it home and played all four sides. My cognitive skills have grown substantially since then.
Two things happened that Christmas: I became a long-haired teenaged disciple rock & roll and I began a life-long obsession with listening that sparked a Quixotic quest for the ultimate sound.
Before long I was removing speakers from old TVs and wherever else I could find them and wiring them up to that poor little GE stereo. I had speakers strung up in my room like dark gray Christmas lights. Impedance? Wattage? I wasn't even vaguely aware. I just wanted more sound, and obviously the quickest way to get more sound was to have more speakers. It was around this time that my mother started refusing to go into my room for fear of being electrocuted.
Later that year, I determined that two pennies taped to the tone arm made the needle stay in the grooves of the Who's Odds and Sods much better, so ascribing to the more is better theorem, I taped a nickle to it. After a while I started noticing that my albums were filled with scratches and little pops and crackles, so I asked my dealer (enabler?) at the local record shop for a cure. He sold me a can of acetate and a special little applicator and told me to treat all of my albums with it, so I spent a rainy summer afternoon in my room restoring my records by spraying acetate on all of my vinyl...
After my parents brought me home from the Emergency Room, I was informed by an uncle who happened to be visiting that spraying acetate on vinyl to restore the sound was about the stupidest thing a person could do. Not to mention the respiratory distress it might cause. My uncle was one of the first Marines to land on Iwo Jima, so pretty much if he said something was stupid, I went with it.
But besides all of that, I didn't really hear what bass sounded like for a long, long time. I knew it was in there somewhere but I'd be darned if I could get it out and into my ears. In high school I built a pair of speaker cabinets using Radio Shack components and plywood, and designed my own crossovers (I didn't have a lot of friends in high school, in spite of my current number of Facebook friends).
I worked as a sound engineer – front of house and monitors – I worked in recording studios, I actually studied this stuff in college, I collected stereo components at such an alarming rate I had to take a second job at a stereo store just for the employee discount. I bought so many records and components that I eventually had to take a job in the soul-crushing and dream-killing computer industry to support my habit, even though I knew nothing about computers (I knew what transistors did and apparently that was enough). My ears were abso-frigging-lutley awesome, and I was, as far as I knew, someone who knew alot about sound.
Then I Met My First Audiophile
It was then that I realized how unworthy my life had been. My problem was, I liked music for music's sake and I was fascinated by the physics of sound, but I was not opinionated about it. Heck, I learned how to listen to music on a $39.00 GE stereo made of plastic and purchased at Two Guys. Who was I to be anything other than egalitarian when it came to music? I liked Black Oak Arkansas for crying out loud! And to this day, I still think Joe Strummer is a way better singer than Diana Krall. Joe couldn't sing and Diana has the voice of an angel, but Joe made me think and feel, and that is why I listened. I was distressed to find it had all been for naught. I was also distressed that this particular audiophile friend of mine was making me listen to Barry Manilow records, but that's a story for my therapist and I'd rather not go there right now.
I also never had the money to buy what I really wanted, but that never stopped me from enjoying the experience of listening to music wherever I found it.
I've been very fortunate during my career to listen to and work on stereo systems costing upwards of $300,000, and I've worked on million dollar commercial installs. I can say with all sincerity that there is a huge difference between a $39 GE record player (the iPod and earbuds of its day) and a $300,000 stereo system. At the same time, there is a lot of financial space between $39.00 and $300,000 and I am absolutely certain an incredible measure of musical enjoyment can purchased in that space.
But Back To The Acetate
In the 1980s we were told that buying a special green felt pen and drawing on the edges and centers of our CDs would make them sound better. The theory being that the green pen dampened the extraneous laser light from bouncing around and cancelling out certain sound datum. Here's a quote I happen to love:
"But the scattered laser light does not simply cease to exist! Rather, it reverberates and echoes around in the medium, much the same way that ambient sounds persist in any real world space except the anechoic studio. This cumulatively produces the 'airy,' 'spacious,' 'cloying,' 'harsh,' concert-hall feeling that the audio engineers try so hard to eliminate when they produce a 'dry' sounding master." - Marketing schpiel from a company that is no longer in business
By the way, this is utter non-sense, and even if it wasn't, your CD player has error-correcting circuits that would nullify whatever extraneous whatever whatever blah blah blah...
However, I do suppose if you inhaled enough green pen fumes your mom and dad would have to take you to the Emergency Room, but as far as changing or enhancing the sound of your CDs? Not so much.
In the 1990s I was told that special ebony disks manufactured from trees that grew only in a small little section of forest in Gabon would cancel standing waves above the audio frequency and make my stereo sound better. I heard it happen during a demonstration but I've never met anyone who heard it happen on their own stereos, so yeah, you can take from that what you will. The best one was the ebony disk you put on the spindle of your LPs to cancel something or do somethng to something I wasn't sure about for only $149.99.
I heard that 1980s-era Russian vacuum tubes sound sweeter than US ones. Having seen 1980s-era Russian Ladas driving around East Germany, I had my doubts but I purchased them anyway, even though they were considerably more expensive than plain-sounding American ones. They made about the same difference as green markers and Gabonese ebony.
I've heard that some interconnect cables are uni-directional and may damage your equipment if reversed. While there is some debate about the directionality of cables as pertains to what end of the cable is grounded, I have not heard a difference based on the direction I had my cables hooked up. I've also been told that you have to rid your speaker cables of "old electrons" and replace them with "new electrons" from your high-end amplifier in order to fully enjoy listening to music. No Stephen Hawking am I, but from what I've learned, electrons don't work that way. Milk does, and that's why my wife makes me drink from the old carton first.
What Does This Have To Do With Audiophiles?
A true audiophile doesn't buy into magic potions and cures, but he or she (okay, mostly he) does concern himself (seriously, not a lot of lady audiophiles out there, but that's an industry problem not a gender problem) with what his equipment is doing as it plays his music.
This is akin to a serious car enthusiast being able to tell me what the torque in foot pounds of my posi-trac rear axle is when I drive through curves real fast. I like to drive real fast when I can, but for the most part, I'm not interested in how that happens. The point is, it doesn't matter what you know about the equipment making your music. What matters is how enjoyable the music you listen to is. I love audiophiles. I work for a company that manufactures things audiophiles buy, but besides that, audiophiles also drive manufacturers to build better musical mouse traps. But I am also of the opinion that the generation of audiophiles that came up during the salad days of audio innovation have done a good job separating themselves from the riff-raff who just want to listen to music on as good a sound system as they can afford. This is not meant to be a positive statement.
There is a perception now that unless you are prepared to spend the money intended for your kid's braces as well as draining your mom's retirement account on stereo components, you are not worthy of the hobby. If you can afford a $50,000 stereo system, enjoy it and congratulations! If you choose to go with a system because it sounds great to you and you can afford it, I'm still positive that the last two minutes of Ray LaMontange's Devil's In the Jukebox, when played real loud, will make you go out on your back porch and flip the world off as you tell it to go to hell. That is what music is all about.
That being said, there is also a generation of music fans out there who have been conditioned by late-night infomercials to be satisifed with clock radios or headphones that some rich guy has told them are the bomb (in spite of the over colorization of the bass and weakness of the mids, but that's just me).
A Ferrari drives better than a Kia in the same way an expensive set of audio components sound better than an iPhone and a pair of earbuds or a clock radio with some sort of dark art waveguide. In the automobile world it's called common sense. In the audio world it's called snobbery. That's a shame, because at the end of the day music is (to me) something that makes the BS of life worth the effort, so it stands to reason that the better the music sounds, the better my perception of my life will be. We can all get where we're going in a Kia, but if you're seriously going to tell me, if given the choice, you'd pick a Kia over a Ferrari, I'm not buying a word of it.
There Is Also Another Problem...
Besides the fact that the experts in the audio world have, over the past thirty years, made high-fidelity somewhat unapproachable to the regular person who just wants to come home and listen to music without spending their lives learning about how that happens, there is another problem.
Every time somebody markets a pair of blackout goggles specifically designed to enhance your listening experience by removing the interruption from your visual sense ($14.95, guaranteed to work), and the rest of us in the legitimate end of the business don't make fun of it, we all suffer. How can you take a hobby seriously when it's filled with gimmicks and tricks that don't work?
Music isn't going away and the appreciation of quality sound isn't going anywhere either, but for a variety of reasons, the high-end audio world has entered a bit of a Dark Age, in spite of the fact that components are better and more cost-effective than at any other time in history.
Long after audiophiles (like me) die off, music is still going to be important. So is how music sounds. Maybe those of us who can actually remember buying Clash albums (great music, sounded like crap) should share what we know with those of them currently buying Strokes albums (great music, sounds great in a New York rock and roll sort of way).
At the end of the day, it's all about the music. Or at least, it should be.