The Entry Level #1: The First Time Page 2

I've gone from futile attempts at maintaining order in my living room to futile attempts at reconfiguring my listening room to accommodate all my new vinyl. The television is long gone. The turntable is Rega's P3-24, in high-gloss white, the latest iteration of a timeless design. Although Art Dudley's classic Denon DL-103 moving-coil cartridge is waiting patiently to be installed, my current cartridge is Rega's Elys 2 in Rega's RB-301 tonearm, the latest version of a similarly enduring piece of art. John Atkinson has loaned me a DB Systems DBP-10 phono alignment protractor, an indispensable tool and winner of our 2010 "Accessory of the Year" award. The 'table is tricked out with Boston Audio Design's Mat 1 graphite platter mat and Rega's own drive-belt upgrade, which I discussed in November 2010. I own an Exposure 2010S integrated amplifier, the one Art liked so much, with a moving-magnet phono card, but also on hand is NAD's budget-priced PP 3 phono preamp. I own Exposure's 2010S CD player, an overlooked gem, but it doesn't see much action these days. A Sony PlayStation 1 is on the way.

The speakers, believe it or not, are a pair of a one-off version of John DeVore's Gibbon 3, with pretty bamboo cabinets and cherry baffles, sitting happily on 24" Target stands—some things, thankfully, haven't changed very much at all. John says I fall in love too easily. He could be talking about women or loudspeakers. I just think I know what I like. All of this stuff is tied together by Furutech Evolution cables and interconnects and plugged in to a Furutech e-TP60 power distributor. My components sit on a Polycrystal equipment rack given me by our erstwhile senior contributing editor, Scull Communication's Jonathan Scull.

I sit exactly 7' from the speakers, on the same orange couch, almost always alone. Still, every now and then I imagine a pretty, compassionate woman sitting beside me. When I'm not imagining her, I like to invite friends over for informal listening sessions.

So let's listen together. Gemini is over, and I'm now playing Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab's recent reissue of the Pixies' Surfer Rosa (LP, 4AD/Elektra/Rough Trade/Mobile Fidelity MFSL 1-296), one of the greatest albums of all time. I've listened to this record hundreds of times, but it has never sounded this good and alive. I first heard it during a memorable summer vacation in Isabella, Puerto Rico. I was sitting beside a couple of strangers in the back seat of a beat-up white Nissan. My cousin was in the driver's seat, taking us along some violent roads that would, he promised, eventually lead to a beach. We raced along, branches from low-hanging trees and tall blades of wild grass relentlessly sweeping against the car's side panels, creating percussive sounds that seemed to play along with the tape. And when Black Francis sang, in his strange way, "Vamos a jugar por la playa," we all sang along. Suddenly we were friends, forever united by this moment. You know how it is.

I had never heard music quite like it: David Lovering's charging drums locked in tight embrace with Kim Deal's thumping bass; Joey Santiago's guitar, screeching like some possessed power tool; and Black Francis's signature yelp painting circles on top of it all. For a while, there in that white Nissan, I wondered what the hell was going on. What kind of music is this? But my new friends loved it, and I loved it, too, and nothing else mattered.

Back home in New Jersey, I spent many late nights committing Surfer Rosa to memory, as if its songs were an ex-girlfriend's dazzling blue eyes, or the sunlight running its fingers through the Caribbean Sea. I was 17, still five years away from becoming Stereophile's editorial assistant, and I had never heard the word audiophile.

I'm a long way from that time. Listening to Surfer Rosa again now, on the hi-fi, is not the same as hearing it in the back seat of my cousin's car. It's better now, because I can be both here and there at once. As my friend Michael Lavorgna wrote in his provocative "As We See It" in the October 2010 issue, part of the power and beauty of hi-fi is that it enables us to listen to whatever we want whenever we want. With hi-fi, we are time travelers who are never really alone.

We have to start somewhere—everyone does—and "The Entry Level" will focus on beginnings. I want to hear about your first times. How and why did you get into hi-fi? What components made up your first system? Do you remember the first album you played? The first song? Who were you with? This is intended to be a conversation, a journey, a listening party. We'll share music and stories, we'll discover truly affordable pieces of gear, we'll remain open to change, and with fingers poised above Play and Record, we'll grow, separately and together.

Share your stories.

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Drtrey3's picture

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

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
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

$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 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

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

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 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

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

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

smittyman's picture

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

volvic's picture

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

Renoite's picture

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

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

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

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 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

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

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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