The Entry Level #7
Luckily, I'd brought along my Hearos Xtreme Protection earplugsthe best earplugs I've tried. They have a noise-reduction rating of 33dB, and their supersoft foam is light and comfortable in my ears. More important, they manage to preserve enough of the music's tonal color and dynamics, lowering the perceived volume without destroying the sound. A pack of 14 earplugs with a small carrying case costs about $6. Every audiophile (and anyone concerned about their hearing) should keep a pair of earplugs on hand at all timesyou never know when you'll find yourself in a dangerously loud environment. Being the only one wearing earplugs in a crowded bar made me feel like a dork, but whatever. My career, and my love of listening, are far more important to me than looking cool. The DJ was spinning a mix of familiar 1980s pop and more recent indie rock, and, after a few $5 vodkas, we were all moving to the music.
At one point during the set, Nicole noticed that, instead of using an iPod or laptop, the DJ was actually spinning vinyl.
"Is his turntable better than yours, Stephen?"
"Is the DJ's turntable better than yours?"
Sometimes I wonder about Nicole. Her sweet exterior camouflages a devilishly pointed wit and cunning. She's always leading me somewhere. I smiled and considered my response. How do I answer this question without sounding like an elitist audiophile? Luckily for me, I didn't have to answer at all. Natalie jumped in and rescued me, as she so often does. Moving to the beat of the music, she shouted, "I love the Music Hall turntable!"
Natalie was talking about the Music Hall USB-1 (discussed in the May issue), which had done an admirable job at her party as the dedicated music source. I was extremely happyand relievedto hear that she loved it. I smiled and gave her a hug. What else could I do?
We laughed, drank, and danced until 3am, when the music was replaced by the muscle-bound bouncer's awful nightly alarm, a strangely high-pitched wail: "Let's go, let's go, let's go! Let's go, let's go, let's go!"my least favorite sound in the world. So we went.
It always happens just like this: I walk Natalie and Nicole back to their place. Along the way, we laugh about the time we had, and maybe make plans for later in the weekpromises and reassurances for more good times in the future. There, at the steps of their building, we hug and say goodnight.
But there's no satisfying way of saying goodbyemy farewells always feel awkward, rushed, incomplete. Knowing that the girls are safe inside, I turn and walk away. Somewhere along the angled stretch between First Street and Third, beneath the pale yellow light of streetlamps, I'm reminded of my loneliness. I wish I had somewhere else to go, I wish there were someone there for me. (Sometimes, you don't realize how thirsty you are till you've had a sip of wateror, in my case, five vodka tonics.)
In the middle of these dim reflections, usually around Hollywood Fried Chicken, my mind is flooded by the last song of the night at Lucky's: Sir Mix-a-Lot's "Baby Got Back," which will surely corrupt my thoughts for days. I walk again past Lucky's, weaving through tousled partiers as they're spit out onto the rainbow-puddled street. "Let's go, let's go, let's go! Let's go, let's go, let's go!" I turn left, onto Third, make my way to the old glass door of my apartment building, walk into the putrid green light and gingerly up two flights of stairs, and into my empty home. Maybe I'm sober enough to play a record and scribble some notes before I surrender to sleep. Maybe I'm not. It always happens like this.
It happened like that just a few hours ago. It's now 8am and I shouldn't be awake. I'm sitting on the orange couch, staring into this gray Sunday morning, hoping I didn't say anything stupid last night. I'm extremely tired, but at least my ears aren't ringing.
Nicole had sent me a text message a few nights earlier, I remember now.
NICOLE: Are your ears ringing, Stephen?
NICOLE: They should be.
I didn't know what she was talking about and I didn't know how to ask, so I decided not to respond. Sometimes, not knowing is fun; it's good to be surprised every now and then. And now it's time to listen to two very different integrated amplifiersone cubical and tubed, the other rectangular and solid-state. It'll be at least three hours before Natalie and Nicole are awake. I hope they'll call and ask me to brunch.