The Entry Level #30

A small subset of audiophiles (always men—the especially old and joyless ones, I suspect) are sick of reading about my adventures in domesticity: They've been there, done that, and managed to do it far better than I. Good for them. Really, I'm glad they're so wise, mature, and experienced that they would spend their free time pounding out frenzied letters to the editor, caps firmly locked, disparaging my taste in music, my relationships with women, my choice of loudspeaker.

But I do wonder whether their energies could be better spent in sharing their experiences and wisdom, in humbly passing along to younger generations—their children, their grandchildren, possibly even me—their enthusiasm for music, sound, and quality, so that we might actually learn from our missteps and move on to more beautiful things. It almost seems they'd rather tread the same well-trampled ground (tubes vs solid-state, musicality vs accuracy, analog vs digital, love vs lust), forever taking only the smallest sideways steps, until the hi-fi hobby finally does die, nothing to show for its sufferings but an obsolete source component, a test CD, and eight linty balls of Blu-Tack. I wonder, again, whether these are the same fathers who, even after several scathing letters to the editor, remain baffled by their sons' and daughters' indifference to hi-fi, who blame that indifference on MP3s or Facebook, and who've turned their listening rooms into torture chambers complete with head vise, hot seat, and blinding blue lights.

Those, at least, were disciplinary measures my father never employed. He wasn't around much when I was a child, and when he was, his behavior was unpredictable and often frightening, like that of a hungry dog. It wasn't until fairly recently that I overcame my fear of the sound of a man's raised voice. He was too young to know how to be a good dad—it took him 34 years to confess that to me, over rice and beans one Sunday afternoon—and so I grew up fast and mostly alone. For comfort, he turned to alcohol and strange women; I closed my bedroom door, turned on the radio, and idolized my mother. There was nothing in the world my father could have shared with me then except embarrassment, anger, and regret. Hi-fi didn't exist. I never heard the word audiophile until, in August 2000, I took the job as Stereophile's editorial assistant. I lucked out. Every day is like the first day of school: I have plenty of catching up to do—as an audiophile and as a son.

Nevertheless, I can't blame anyone for a lack of interest in cats—they're a thankless species—and I know that my stories of Natalie and Nicole are often painfully awkward, and at times have been downright icky. This, too, is sort of old ground. Stereophile once ran a column, "Astor Place," whose author, a more or less normal woman, detailed domestic life with an obsessive-compulsive audiophile—in theory, a subject that should fascinate our readers. But did you ever read it? At least this is not that.

I kid. This is totally that, albeit somewhat skewed, inverted, revised for the 21st century. I live in an apartment building filled with beautiful women and their crazy animals—an inescapable circumstance of my present life that greatly influences my listening habits and priorities. Ms. Little and I are on the first floor with our two cats, Avon and Stringer. Yes, our cats: Along with Ms. Little's flat-screen TV, high-speed Internet connection, and lump-free mattress—wonderful luxuries, all—I guess I'm finally accepting co-ownership of the stinking hairballs. (Ms. Little will be as thrilled to read this as I am reluctant to write it.) Natalie and Nicole share an apartment on the second floor with a dog and two cats. Beth and Kristen occupy adjacent apartments on the third floor, Beth with two cats and Kristen with a dog. And on the fourth floor lives KB, with an apparently charming but actually vicious and psychopathic cat-monster named Oliver. I rarely go up there.

Anyway, the girls have abandoned me. They're vacationing in Buenos Aires for an entire week. I was invited to join them, but, out of a sense of obligation to this magazine's production schedule or something similarly ridiculous, I declined. That's right. Asked to spend a week in subtropical paradise with six beautiful women, I said no. Actually, Kristen, too, has stayed behind, but she's in a new relationship, and I suspect she and her guy will be busy doing new-relationship things: sitting primly on Kristen's velvety blue couch, discussing current events as Ra Ra Riot's The Orchard spins on her Music Hall USB-1 turntable. (Interestingly, her new guy, like me, is ginger-haired, favors plaid shirts, and is into hi-fi. Hmm. The mind drifts . . . ) Nevertheless, I could be strolling through magnificently landscaped gardens; admiring gorgeous, neo-gothic architecture; watching impossibly attractive people dance the seductive tango; stuffing my belly with lovingly fried milanesas, perfectly baked empanadas, and moist cakes slathered with dulce de leche. Instead, I'm enduring another week of winter in New Jersey. Alone.

Thanks to all the practice I got when I was a kid, I have no problem with being alone now, nor do I mind being the only guy at a party full of women. But I figured it'd be good for the girls to do their own thing. Plus, I'd already spent all my disposable income on records. (Among other things for which my father is known, some more admirable than others, his propensity for addiction has manifested in me, albeit in gentler, mostly safer forms.) In the weeks leading up to their trip, I was almost looking forward to being on my own again, to freely indulge in the sorts of things I typically spare my dear girlfriend: endless bouts of Ultimate Fighting Championship, obscene amounts of Scotch, long nights spent listening to experimental music, hours whiled away in the subtleties of speaker placement. Guy stuff. My stuff.

But now that the girls are gone, I can't wait to have them back. This has been the longest week of my life, each day passing as if it were three.

"Oh, Stephen! Now's your chance to move their furniture around!" John Atkinson keeps telling me. "Enjoy your freedom!"

Freedom? Ha. Most of my free time has been spent scooping kitty litter. I, too, am sick of this shit.

Fortunately, I've had the Music Hall Marimba loudspeakers to keep me occupied (footnote 1).

The love of a lifetime
Get excited, grumpy old audiophiles: I'm going to write about hi-fi now.

Late last year, when I first heard of the Marimba, I was happily surprised: One of my favorite hi-fi manufacturers had finally introduced its first and (so far) only loudspeaker—and it was seriously affordable at $349/pair. I wanted to review the Marimbas right away, but grumpy old Sam Tellig beat me to them (see our December 2012 issue). My first chance to hear the Marimbas came last October, at the 2012 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, where they highlighted a refreshingly small and simple system comprising Music Hall's MMF-5.1SE turntable with Cruise Control 2.0 power supply, and a Creek Evolution 50A integrated amplifier. The cost of the entire rig, including cables and accessories, was around $3500—modest by most audiophiles' standards—and it sounded awesome: big, lively, detailed, and, most of all, fun.

While I was entirely impressed by the system's sound, I was slightly disappointed by the Marimba's appearance: Its boxy, black cabinet gives it an undeniably humble, completely unpretentious look, and though I can appreciate that, I want a little more style—something to set the Marimba apart from the countless hi-fi phonies lining the shelves of big-box stores and plastered all over In terms of appearance, the Marimba is only slightly more attractive than the Dayton Audio B652, which I reviewed in January; and, while the Dayton, too, has a rather anonymous, generic look, that's something I can more easily accept in a speaker that costs only $40/pair.

Whatever. One evening, while Ms. Little was out, I replaced my beloved PSB Alpha B1s ($299/pair) with the Music Hall Marimbas, setting them exactly where the PSBs had been. After Ms. Little had gotten home, I asked her if she'd noticed the new speakers. Her eyes went wide. Her gaze drew an arc from left speaker to right. Her face expressed complete bewilderment, as if to say, "What new speakers?" As far as she was concerned, the Marimbas were the Alpha B1s; so while the PSBs strike me as being far more attractive, it stands to reason that most normal people wouldn't notice a difference.

Roy Hall, Music Hall's founder and "president for life," is responsible for both the Marimba's visual and acoustic designs—a fact that will keep certain audiophiles (those especially old and joyless ones again) from ever listening to the thing. Hall's got a reputation for being a bit of a potty-mouth. And he likes Scotch. Audiophiles who are afraid of obscenities and alcohol are therefore afraid of Roy Hall, but I've had the pleasure of speaking with the man on a number of occasions, and he strikes me as warm, intelligent, and reasonable—frank when it comes to business, and rather romantic when it comes to life.

Footnote 1: Music Hall, 108 Station Road, Great Neck, NY 11023. Tel: (516) 487-3663. Web:

gsnorris's picture

Does the love of music and the accurate recreation of its performance really have to descend into all this psychoanalysis?

I don't visit these articles very often, and now I'm less inclined to do so.  I'll admit I was drawn in by the absurdity of the latest $107k speakers.  Seeking a little sanity, I checked in to "Entry Level."  Bad move.

I'm ecstatic with my second pair of speakers in 36 years.  Seems to me many of you need some perspective.  Lighten up - get lost in Nefertiti, then come back and read all these pointless musings.  Hopefully it will clear some heads.

catachresis's picture

to misapply a classical axiom, "De gustibus non est disputandum." Perhaps your championing only two pairs of speakers in 36 years says as much about your special reverence of _Nefertiti_ as anything else. You might -- *might*, mind you -- want to try out more things. Or not. As you like.

mrd745_2000's picture

I will pay extra for the magazine if you bring Stephen Mejias back.


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