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 system—it 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 TV—hardly 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 song—maybe 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 tasks—listening, playing, recording, building—the 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 today—wet with reverb, touched by nostalgia and a hint of melancholy, but nonetheless hopeful—then 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.

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Drtrey3's picture
The first time . . .

for me was at my friend Kevin's apartment. Kevin and I were pals in college. We first met the first or second time I smoked marijuana. It was not his first or second time! He worked summers at a hifi store in the Raleigh, NC area. It was 1979 or so.

He asked me and my buddy Tandy to come over to his place for some respiratory cocktails. What he served up was even better than I was expecting. Not the weed, silly, the music.

He had Marantz electronics, big ass EPI speakers, and a Linn. He dropped the needle on DSOTM, the mofi pressing as I recall, and my life was changed. The spatial info was killer, and the bass moved my pants leg. I was hooked. Not on weed, on listening to fine playback.

Kevin talked me into buying the same speakers, which I used and loved for a decade, he talked me into a Rega turntable, the old one with the curved, silver arm, he talked me into a nice cartridge along with a little Audio Technica battery powered head amp. I think that is all he talked me into, and he did not have to talk long or hard.

So here is to you Kevin! Decades later, I still have the MoFi's you turned me onto, and I still grove to a fine system.

Trey

volvic's picture
Iron & Wine/Calexico and Pixies

Both those albums are oh so fantastic, good taste Stephen. Would love to have them on vinyl but alas the CD's are cheaper to buy. Shame my VPI is dying to play them.

Stephen Mejias's picture
Iron & Wine/Calexico
Cool story, Trey. Kevin sounds like a good friend.

volvic: The Iron & Wine/Calexico album only costs $10 at the Iron & Wine site, the same price as the CD. You NEED it.

volvic's picture
Iron & Wine/Calexico album

$10.00??? Wow! it's 20.00 (before tax) here in Montreal as are the Arcade fire albums, Belle and Sebastien, Cold Cave etc. Will order from net!!! I NEED it.
Nick

smittyman's picture
Nick, we burned big time for

Nick, we get burned big time for vinyl here in Canada. When Springsteen's "The Promise" was released in November, HMV was charging a hundred bucks for the 3 album vinyl set. It has since come down to about 45, but I think we canucks are getting jacked.

ccvalentino's picture
Nice Story

Stephen,

Great story. Depending on how you define Audiophile I'm either dead on our way off. Based on your definition I feel like I'm dead on. Over the last 10 months or so I'd say I've really stepped up my audio experiences. I've found it fun to experiment with different types of defile including amps, pre-amps, and turn tables. I've posted a few videos of my systems and vinyl collection on YouTube at http://www.YouTube.com/ccvalentino that may beof interest to the entry level world.

Take care and thanks for the post and focus on "affordable" gear!

Chris

monetschemist's picture
on becoming an audiophile

My wife and I have this wonderful friend. She is interested in many wonderful things; she is a designer and !@)#* good at it - she can see subtle colour differences that no one else could, she can pick out perfect fabric and paint and all that stuff all the while being down to earth and lots of fun to be around. She's a great cook.

Bottom line, she is a fully-formed person with depth and appreciation and understanding for much that is wonderful.

She also has some coin and has probably spent more money on wiring her brand new beautiful house for sound than most audiophiles will every spend on their gear, but it's on mediocre "background" sound and cinema and "sound distribution" and horrible wretched S**T like that.

Why am I telling you this? Well, simple - here is someone that has both the capacity to appreciate wonderful music of all kinds, wonderfully reproduced, and also the financial means to do so, and yet she prefers to have sound distributed throughout the house played back through "ceiling pot" speakers, and finds BBC Music Magazine "too audiophile".

So, what's going on here? Is there a moment, to which Our Fearless Leader Stephen refers, where someone is an incipient audiophile, worried that the new speakers won't go with the kitchen décor, and then a moment after where all of a sudden the décor becomes servant to the delivery of music?

If so, I think that is a really wonderful moment, our very own "audiophile tipping point". I think it's the crossing Our Fearless Leader Stephen writes about in his blog above, and I think we, dutiful readers of This Magazine, have all crossed it in some way or the other (deciding that we really don't care if the speakers match the ashtrays, or deciding that we can put off that new car purchase one more year in order to buy that turntable, or whatever).

I've crossed over, and I'm glad that my sound system is in the living room and that we often turn it up and that we sometimes even move the furniture and dance with our kids.

And, I'm sad for our dear friend who has spent more on drapes than pretty much anyone else I know has spent on audio gear and has decided she's "not audiophile enough" do actually have a music room or a real stereo in the kitchen instead of that crap in the ceiling.

smittyman's picture
In Alex Ross' "Listen to

In Alex Ross' "Listen to This", he refers to a gap in the audiences for live orchestral music as "Culturally Aware Non-Attenders." I don't know if he coined the term but they are basically people who attend plays and films, go to art galleries, probably can name more than a few composers and even own some 'classical' CDs and so on but who never, ever, go to hear live orchestras. (I'm one of them). The situation that monetschemist is describing seems similar; people who appear to be a natural market for a good sound system but aren't inclined to get one. They can usually hear the difference but don't care enough to bother. Price usually isn't the barrier, as you point out they might spend more on bad sound than it would cost for something much better. Basically, readers of this magazine and website are a niche market and, like many members of a niche, we sometimes don't understand why everyone doesn't share our priorities.

red_partizan's picture
Dad's hifi

My dad had a quite decent hifi when I grew up. Big ugly Jamo speakers that sounded wonderful. He also had a fine LP collection out of which DSOTM was my favourite - I was 4-5 at that time. It was so interactive in that sense that my dad and I used to play police and robber using DSOTM as a soundtrack. I always had in the back of my mind that I'd get my self a hifi system when I grew up. That didn't happen before I was 29, just over a year ago. Marantz amp and cd with DALI speakers. My ancient urge for hifi was re-triggered when I was at a nice little concert with a greenlandic singer; Nive Nielsen and her band. The music was something I had not heard before - at least coming from any artist up here. It was a revelation that hit me really hard, and I think that I was in tears everytime they began a new song. I was enjoying music at a level I haven't been on since I was a kid.
The Dali's were sold just 2 days ago. They are too big in my new apartment and I'm getting standmounts which I still haven't decided on. In the mean time I'm listening with my headphones. Reading this blog entry reminded of Nive's cd, which I'm listening to as I type.

volvic's picture
SMITTYMAN You is right

This is why I am moving to the United States : )

smittyman's picture
Wow, that's a major life

Wow, that's a major life decision just to get cheaper vinyl. ;-)

volvic's picture
Hah!

She's the perfect catch!!! Loves music and adores analogue. :)

Renoite's picture
Great read! I was 17 when I

Great read!

I was 17 when I first heard Surfer Rosa, and in a car. Blew me away. Had Black Francis been more camera friendly I think the Alternative Scene would of happened much quicker.

I'm also with you on the vinyl thing. Bought a Yamaha AV and a Sony USB Turntable several months ago, and now have more records than I ever owned in my life. At about 100 now.

I'm going to upgrade to the Rega RP-1, but just bought an Oppo BDP-93 and I'm not sure if anything can beat a Blu-Ray audio. I never really dug Tom Petty that much, but his Blu-Ray release blew me away. Hopefully the people in charge start doing more of the Blu Ray Audio. I bought Inception just because it came with the Blu Ray Soundtrack.

Anyway, many thanks for the good read, and hope to see more.

JeffD51's picture
First Hi-Fi

The first really good system I heard, was my good friends house in high school, I was 17 and was blown away by the sound. Phil Harvey's dad had Marantz tuner , you know the one with the tiny osciliscope, a turntable w/horizontal tracking arm, don't know which one. Also, Klipsch corner horns, some kind of Marantz Power Amp. We listened to the Doors double album, it was brand new never opened until that day. As I said previously, I was blown away, we listened to it at what could be called reference level. I was hooked, my first system was a Sansui integrated amp, an AR turntable w/ Thorens arm, and Advent Mini-3's, bought a tuner much later. If I remember right it was a matching Sansui AM-FM. ,Stephen, what a wonderful subject, brings back many fond memories!

Ajpoag's picture
Iron and wine/calexico

Thank you so much for reminding me about this album. I bought a digital copy several years ago but hadn't listened to it in a while. I found a vinyl copy in my local record store for $12 and grabbed it. It has to be hands down one of the nicest sounding records I've heard. I've only listened twice so far but both times have been a treat. My dad is going to love this. Thanks again.

Stephen Mejias's picture
Re: Iron & Wine/Calexico

Glad you like it, Ajpoag, and I think it's great that you'll be sharing it with your dad.  I hope he enjoys it just as much as you.

paugustinos's picture
Dear Stephen, As a young

Dear Stephen,

As a young audio enthusiast, I very much enjoyed reading this column.  I love your writing style and all your stories.  You've inspired me not only to learn more about music but also to start my first blog!  I really identified with your idea about the audiophile not wanting to be alone and searching for someone to share with and I suppose the blog is part of that search for me.

Speaking of which, you're welcome!  It was an honor to help you complete this article :)

DetroitVinylRob's picture
Iron & Wine, Calexico and Pixies

Nice choices.

...and maybe even, Friends of Dean Martinez -The Shadow of Your Smile.

Killer album titles in your leading pic and for that matter both groups have an excellent and deep discography to dig through.

I would love to hear them all on vinyl, on the DeVores.

Happy Listening!

Jive Samba's picture
Re. Friends Of Dean Martinez...

I'm a noobie here. I was sent a link to Stephen's latest Entry Level (#15 - reviewing the Parasound Zphono preamp) post by an audiophile friend who is responsible for giving me the recent stereo upgrade fever that I now suffer from. I am currently enjoying going back and reading the previous blog entries that I have missed here. Great writing and loads of great products that I now am enjoying researching.

All the above aside, I wanted to share a quick story about the above-mentioned Friends Of Dean Martinez album. I used to drum with a blues/rock band some 20 years ago and in 1995 we found ourselves spending a week of studio time in Daniel Lanois' Kingsway studio in New Orleans. One day while the other dudes were working on overdubs or some such, I decided to wander about the huge 3-story mansion in the french quarter. In one of the rooms there was a DAT component player with a set of headphones attached to it. I noticed that there was a DAT inside the player and an empty DAT case on top. I slipped on the headphones and pressed play. Boy... was I blown away by what I heard (I live for natural room sounds)! I looked closely at the case in my hand and all it said was "Friends of Dean Martinez" in ball point chicken scratch. This meant nothing to me at the time. I was wondering if it was a band name? Was it a mis-labeled case? Did it belong to some friend of Dean's? etc. At the time I was working at a local record shop in Jackson, Mississippi. When I returned to my "day gig" a few weeks later and new release Tuesday rolled around, I was shocked to see a Sub-Pop CD with the title- "Friends Of Dean Martinez - The Shadow Of Your Smile". I then realized that the amazing sound that I had heard at "Danny's" was in fact a piece called "All The Pretty Horses". It still blows my mind to this day!

That's it for now. I just had a nice memory of that when I saw your mention of this album. I have no idea why a pre-release DAT copy of it was floating around Daniel Lanois' studio? Could be a variety of reasons I guess (future production hunt, label shopping, etc.). I'll bet that disc would sound great on the Miniwatt N3 and the Audioengine P4s that I currently have on loan from my audiophile friend. My ears are now truly spoiled. If you've made it this far, and you are interested... I had the forethought to bring a couple of reels of super 8mm film with me when I was at Kingsway. You can see the results here: http://vimeo.com/13738505 and here: http://vimeo.com/13738552

Thanks,

Denny

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