I Am an Audiophile
I was fortunate enough to be raised in an environment where music of many kinds was played often. I lived with my mother in small apartments in Washington, DC, in the 1960s and '70, and most of the time, music was playing. Chopin, Wagner, Beethoven, Coltrane, Miles, Sonny Rollins, Streisand, Baez, Dylan, Miriam Makebaeven the Doors, Hendrix, and Janis Joplin.
We went to a record store near Dupont Circle quite often. I don't know how my mother found out about new recordings, but she always seemed to be picking up something to listen to. I had a record player in my room and listened to everything from children's records to Strauss, from the Beatles to a copy of Isaac Hayes' Hot Buttered Soul that somehow ended up back there.
For many years, sound quality never really occurred to me. I listened to music, and if I could hear it, that was good enough for me. You must understand that this is a very long time agowhen you're young and working at a minimum-wage job, high-end audio might not be at the top of your list. I also know that there are many hi-fi hardcores reading this right now who toiled ceaselessly at various places of employment, in conditions wrenched from the dank pages of a Dickens novel, with a single-minded determination to get precisely those speakersand for that I salute you.
In those days, I was buying records with all the extra money I had; playback wasn't as important as getting the records. I have no regrets on that point. Many of the records I bought for a few dollars then I now see selling on eBay and in other places for astronomical amounts. I am glad I always went for the records.
All through the '80s and into the early '90s I had only the most rudimentary of stereo systems, if I had one at all. Those were lean yet eventful times for me. I was, for the most part, on the road touring, or writing, or recording. I had gear accumulated from here and there. Again, as long as I could hear the records, I figured I was doing okay.
That began to change when I started spending more time in the studio and hearing playback on the huge pair of Altec Lansing speakers that were at a studio we worked at a lot. I started thinking of how great it would be to have something like that happening in my room. In those days, I didn't even have a room, but I would daydream about a great listening environment.
My bandmates and I bought most of our gear at a place called Russo Music Center, in Trenton, New Jersey. It's still there. Russo's was the pit stop for our endless laps around the world. Our man there was Dan Brewer. He and I had a running joke that if I ever made some money, I would call him and he would set me up with some burly stereo gear.
In 1991, I got a small publishing advance and called Dan. I told him that I had some funds and it was time to make the move. I ended up with a pretty good systemperhaps not the most sonically sweet, but one that lasted me for many years and rocked pretty hard: a pair of Tannoy 12-inchers with an 18" sub, a Carver rack-mounted preamp, and a Rane crossover. Don't laughI told you it wasn't audiophile. For me, it was more than I ever thought I would have.
About 13 years ago I started to upgrade. I ascended steadily with great enthusiasm as I discovered what was possible. As you know, once you have heard a truly well-considered and balanced system in a good room, you compare all listening experiences to that one.
There were many of those jumping-into-ice-cold-water moments when I found out how much one can pay for a cord. If audiophile retailers could have only a dollar for every time someone looked at a cable in their hand like it's a black mamba and asked, as the blood drains from a face that is now a fright mask of horror and disbelief, "How much did you say this costs?!" There was a lot of that.
I have five systems in my home. The one I spend the most time in front of is perhaps amateur hour to hi-fi heavyweights like yourselves, but I like it very much: Wilson Audio Sophia 3s, McIntosh amps and preamp, Rega Planar 3 turntable, and Rega Valve Isis CD player. At the end of 2012 that system will be moving to a different room, and Brian from Brooks Berdan Ltd., in Monrovia, California, will come in with his sturdy crew and we will start all over again.
Okay, that was the autobiographical. Now, here's the philosophical.
Why spend so much time and money to achieve optimum playback? For me it is simple, perhaps brutally so: Life is short, and music is humankind's ultimate achievement. Michelangelo, Picasso, Einstein were all unfathomably brilliant, but I would toss any one of them off the center spot of my couch when I put on this pristine copy of Hawkwind's Doremi Fasol Latido I got a couple of months ago. As soon as that music starts, every dollar becomes well spent, time becomes precious, and there is no place I would rather be.
Listening to music is perhaps the greatest and most profound source of happiness I have ever known. It has been this way since I was a teenager. I live in a house with over 30 years of accumulation from all over the world: music, posters, flyers, set lists, clippings, photos, etc. All of the albums and the people on them are existential family members. I am often on the road for long periods of time: Africa, the Middle East, Southeast and Central Asia, Australia, Europe, etc. In the taxi on the way back to the house, I am already lining up what I will listen to that night.
These admissions fairly beg for criticism, and perhaps analysis, I know. One could fairly wonder if the obsession with ultimate playback could be seen as a cart leading a musical horsethat one is more interested in the mechanics than in the actual music itself.
To that I say, spare me your cynicism. When you think of what some of these artists sacrificed to put this music across, what trends they pushed against, all those nights in the middle of nowhere, bringing it to the stage, what incredible misery and misfortune they too often encountered, just because they were burdened with a staggering talent and the courage to share it with the world, the least you can do besides buying their records is pay the respect due them by giving their music the best possible means to fill the air. Feel free to use that one any time.
High fidelity is like any other rarefied interest. If it moves you, then you move to it; if not, you go elsewhere. I do not waste time trying to convert anyone to the higher levels of audio. They don't know what they're missing, but to each their own. Thankfully, my road manager and I are both audiophiles and record-collecting maniacs. We travel all over the world and spend countless hours on the topic.
People can hurl any epithet they want about the snobbishness they think audiophiles retain. Let them drink their wine from boxes. The sound of my Bob Ludwigmastered pressing of Led Zeppelin's Houses of the Holy coming through my system cuts through their contempt like Toshiro Mifune's katana blade!
As well as being an audiophile, Henry Rollins is a singer, a songwriter, a poet, a spoken word artist, a writer, a publisher, an actor, and a radio DJ.