The Entry Level #1: The First Time
It's probably impossible to pinpoint the moment at which I became an audiophile. I'm tempted to say it happened when I heard in my home, for the first time, a true hi-fi: an Arcam Solo CD receiver driving a lovely little pair of DeVore Fidelity Gibbon 3 loudspeakers.
I remember the event clearly and fondly. John DeVore had come over to help me set up the systemit took only moments, simple as this system was. We didn't put much effort into speaker placement. I was naïve and even more stubborn than I am now, even more resistant to change, even more afraid of losing the illusion of control, and I had told DeVore that I didn't want the speakers to interfere too much with my living space. He quietly acquiesced, and set the speakers a few inches from the front wall and a few inches to either side of my big old TVhardly the optimal positions. At the time, because I didn't know him very well, I couldn't have imagined how much it would hurt DeVore to make this sacrifice of his speakers' performance capabilities. (His heroic efforts to rearrange my furniture to best accommodate his speakers would come much later.) But John DeVore, as much as anyone, knows that sound isn't everything. He looked at me kindly and asked an important question.
"So what do you want to hear?"
It was a delicate moment. I had a monumental decision to make. The first song played would have to be something special, something capable of impressing my guest while highlighting the system's resolving abilities. "Something with horns."
"Okay," he replied.
I looked through my relatively modest collection of CDs, feigning consternation, as if I didn't know where to begin. In fact, I already knew that the first song had to be "A History of Lovers," from In the Reins, the brilliant collaboration by Iron & Wine and Calexico (CD, Overcoat OC 28).
"Do you know it?" I asked DeVore.
He did not. I felt I had won a small victory.
We sat down side by side on my orange couch. The jaunty guitars came from nowhere, the rollicking piano pounded away, those majestic, happy horns swelled into the night, and I knew my life would never be the same. Damn.
A week later, I felt some strange relief when John DeVore sent me an e-mail with an image attached: a photo of him holding a vinyl copy of In the Reins. He had enjoyed the album enough that he had to have it, too. So I wasn't the only one who'd been affected by that night. Something was going on here, for sure, but I couldn't say what it was. Only now, five years later, is it clear that a friendship was being built through shared enthusiasms for music and sound and gear.
But this is all too easy and romantic. It's much more likely that my transformation into an audiophile came about slowly, the result of innumerable circumstances, events, and encounters that transpired over many more years. It almost certainly has something to do with late nights spent alone in an abandoned house on my college campus, capturing on tape the most violent and beautiful sounds I could strangle from my electric guitar. It also has something to do with early mornings spent alone in my bedroom listening to Casey Kasem's Top 40 Countdown, waiting anxiously for a certain songmaybe it was Human League's "Don't You Want Me," maybe New Order's "Age of Consent"my index fingers poised over the Play and Record buttons of my little GPX boombox, a Christmas gift from an aunt when I was five years old.
It clearly had something to do with being alone and not wanting to be alone. Who was I playing guitar for? Who was I making tapes for? For myself? Yes, for myself, but not entirely. No audiophile wants to be alone. No music lover, no musician, no recording engineer, no loudspeaker designer wants to be alone. Yet we are consumed by these solitary taskslistening, playing, recording, buildingthe completion of which require an audience or friend, someone to share with.
As I write these words, I'm sitting alone in my listening room, aware that this piece will not be complete, despite my strongest writing efforts, until you've finished reading it. (Thank you in advance.) It's important that you know that as I write, I'm listening to Wild Nothing's full-length debut, Gemini, from the very fine independent record label Captured Tracks (LP, CT68). If "The Entry Level" sounds a bit hazy todaywet with reverb, touched by nostalgia and a hint of melancholy, but nonetheless hopefulthen you know why.
Five years removed from that first time with John DeVore, I now listen almost exclusively to vinyl. But don't blame the Arcam Solo, which is a very capable component for a first, or any, system. My introduction to LPs was another life-changing event, one I'll discuss some other time. In the past two years I've amassed a collection of over 1000 LPs. I struggle daily with managing my finances while feeding my habit. Too often, I can be found flipping through the racks at Other Music, steps away from In Living Stereo, home of so much Shindo and Leben gear it can make a man mad, and just blocks from the Astor Place subway station, near St. Marks Place and too many blurry memories to count.