The Entry Level #25
There I was, sitting on the orange couch, with just a few hours to kill before my scheduled departure to Denver, ColoradoI'd been invited to the eighth annual Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, where surely I'd be moved to tears by some of the greatest, most advanced, most expensive hi-fi systems known to manand I could not believe the awesome sound coming from my modest little stereo.
The song was "Lunacy," the opening track of Swans' latest masterpiece, The Seer (3 LPs, Young God YG45), a brutal and uncompromising epic of an albumand my very favorite album of the year (see sidebar).
The stuttering, fragmented electric-guitar chords emerged from somewhere far behind the plane of the loudspeakers, deep in the corner of my listening room, and grew slowly but steadily in volume and size. The electric guitar was joined by tight, tinkling sounds, made perhaps by striking a dulcimer or by carefully plucking the strings of an acoustic guitar above the nut. Strummed acoustic guitar entered the fold, it, too, growing slowly and steadily in volume and size, churning and churning, seeming almost to move closer to where I sat with each stroke of thick, nylon pick across worn brass strings.
Then the voices came inat first soft and slow, easy to mistake for whispers, but in fact approaching from some great distance, heavy with the promise of something more. Neither moaning nor humming but wordlessly chanting, the voices gave way to a rapid, military-style snare pattern, which in turn gave way to a rush of brilliantly controlled guitar feedback. Again, the dulcimer sounds. The electric guitars. The voices.
The song, whole now, grew larger and larger and larger still, expanding like a balloon into my listening room, and as it did, I became at once rapt and discomfited. I felt a tension bordering on fearSwans' intended effect, I imagine. Unable to withdraw, I accepted it, reveled in it, felt a part of it.
All this and then, at 2:09, a voice came from nowhere"Wah!"like a signal to release the pressure, to prevent the balloon, and the illusion, from bursting. The music withdrew, settled down, made room for more voiceseach one distinct, true, clearly focused in the space between the speakers: I recognized Michael Gira of Swans, Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker of Low, their special timbres and textures easily identifiable.
In the mind / of no one
Forming sun / forming love
Break the chain / hide within
Innocence / not innocent
The voices grew slightly, almost imperceptibly louder, their tone more urgent and intense.
Innocent / in no sense
Eat the beast / keep him in
Take the blame / speak the name
Lunacy! Lunacy! Lunacy!
And here I heard thin and graceful ribbons of sound, flute-like in tone and motion, loosely but distinctly drawn and emerging from the left channela beautiful flourish, a slender finger beckoning me to follow, the mark of intelligent composition. It was almost too much to take.
Lunacy! Lunacy! Lunacy!
Turning my focus from music to sound, I noticed some hardness in the highs, some softness in the lows, and the overall picture wasn't as big or as clean as I'd heard it before. But those flaws were easy enough to forgive and forget. The music remained intact.
I felt troubled, disoriented. It was almost time to go. The song ended, the stylus followed the groove into the space between songs, and I heard a soft, shuffling tick. With a rush, I pulled myself from the orange couch, walked to the turntable, lifted stylus from groove, and shut down the system. The words spun over and over in my mind.
Lunacy! Lunacy! Lunacy!
How could this be? How could I have been so moved? Did it have something to do with the system?
I was using my four-year-old Rega Research P3-24 turntable and tonearm, and a Rega Elys 2 moving-magnet cartridge with about 35,000 hours on it. (I exaggerate, but yes, the thing is well worn.) These were augmented by Rega's drive-belt upgrade and outboard TT-PSU power supply, and a Boston Audio Design Mat 1 carbon-fiber platter mat. The entire rig would have cost around $1500 when last available. The signal from the turntable went into Parasound's ZphonoUSB phono preamplifier ($349) via Kimber Kable's PBJ interconnect ($110/1m). A second run of PBJ delivered the signal to my NAD C316 BEE integrated amplifier ($380). Finally, the amp was connected, via 8' runs of RadioShack's 14AWG, braided Flat Megacable speaker wire (catalog #278-1273, $24.99/50' spool), to the plastic spring clips of Dayton Audio's marvelous little B652 loudspeaker ($39.80/pair, footnote 1).
In case you didn't catch that: The Dayton B652 costs $39.80/pair. That's the price of Chinese takeout for two, a pair of back-to-school-sale Levi's 501 jeans, or 20 classical LPs at Iris Records. Where does Dayton come up with that odd 80õ? Who cares? I've got a couple of dimes in my pocket. Call it an even $40/pair, and let's say I used about $8 worth of my 50' spool of cable. That would bring the total system cost to around $2497. And it's only that high because I splurged on the turntable. I imagine I could have found similar success with Pro-Ject's Debut Carbon ($399) or Rega's RP1 ($445) 'table, dropping the total system cost to under $1500.
By audiophile standards, my system is undeniably, unambiguously, freaking totally . . .
With such an inexpensive system, how can I be so powerfully moved and, even crazier, still have so much good, old-fashioned fun? The mind boggles.
I'm being silly now, but the question has been raisedseriously, unfacetiouslytime and time again. In a recent post to the popular Audio Asylum Internet forum, "Bill the K" commented, "It's amazing that Stephen Mejias . . . seems so happy with his budget system. . . . I get the feeling that as a music lover, he can immerse [himself] in the musicality in spite of such [a] low-priced start-up system. Perhaps . . . we all tend to upgrade in search of the musicality that we do not hear."
Forum member "tmsorosk" chimed in: "What your [sic] saying is likely true, but lets [sic] not forget he's being paid to listen to, evaluate and write about lo-fi gear. One day he may be qualified to evaluate hi-end gear. . . ."
Footnote 1: Dayton Audio, Parts Express, 725 Pleasant Valley Drive, Springboro, OH 45066. Tel: (800) 338-0531. Web: www.parts-express.com