The Pursuit of Audio Excellence
At the time of my August 2011 "As We See It," I was using a Wilson-McIntosh system. That system is still with me and still gets quite a bit of use. Its location, however, has changed. In its place is a system that I can't see switching out or needing to replace: Wilson Alexandria XLF speakers with VTL Siegfried Series II Reference monoblock power amps, TL-7.5 Series III Reference preamplifier, and TP-6.5 Signature phono stage. It might take a small army of people to move it, but beyond that, I think I'm good to go.
This system has taken my listening sessions to an entirely different level. Over the many hours I have spent sitting in front of it, I have been trying to articulate what that means.
I think that when one climbs to the more rarified air of the audiophile environment, the reasons for that ascent become more varied, intense, sincere, and sometimes ridiculous. Only those who remain ignorant of hi-fi's power would contest the fact that a certain pair of speakers, the right cables, or stylus can bring a listener closer to the Playback Promised Land. All you can do is pity their box-wine-grade appreciation skills and move on.
Like many music fanatics, I have had a stereo system of some kind from a very early age. It wasn't until I got a bit older, heard better systems, found myself on both sides of a PA, and started spending incredible amounts of time in recording, mixing, and mastering studios, that I understood that the more optimal the playback, the more of the source tape and its intent would be revealed to me. This is what started a fairly obsessive journey, seconded only by my fascination, curiosity, and love of music itself.
Perhaps the single thing that inspired me to switch out gear and upgrade was listening to multitrack mixes through reference monitors during recording sessionsfollowed several months later by the frustration of getting the eventual LP of the sessions, playing it, and being so incredibly underwhelmed by what was coming out of the speakers. It's not as if you can snap your fingers and suddenly be in an acoustically tuned room cranking a mix from the 2" master tape, sharing what you heard with someone else. It was this dependable sonic bummer that was the catalyst for me to improve my listening environment whenever possible.
As a far more astute audiophile than I could ever hope to be, the average Stereophile reader can appreciate the following: My evaluation of playback has been influenced by the audio systems of my youth. No matter what setup I am experiencing, I am listening for the same things every time: clarity and complete realization of the lows, mids, and highs, and the ability to hear the full sonic bouquet of the source, without having to turn the system up loud to get there. If loud is the only way you listen, you often miss out on some of the best aspects of the music. Basically, since my 20s, I have been seeking the perfect blend of warm, listener-oriented enjoyment and nothing-but-the-facts-ma'am reference values for an immersive, persuasive, yet somewhat forensic listening experience. I want to be swept away by the overall sound, but still be able to hear the edits and punch-ins.
You're perhaps thinking I could save myself a lot of time and effort by merely hanging a pair of Altecs from the ceiling and calling it a day. Many years ago, I actually considered that.
My first pair of "real" speakers were handmade for me by Dave Levine, of the now-legendary Rat Sound, in 1986. They were two large boxes with 12" woofers on their bottoms, a mid and a tweeter on their fronts. He made them out of parts he had around the shop. It was all I could afford. I gave them away only a few years ago, and would have kept them if I'd had the roomthey were great, and I got a lot of use out of them in the hovels I was living in around the Los Angeles area. A few years later I upgraded, and have been doing my best to ascend ever since.
This pursuit of sonic excellence was due not only to my time spent in the studio and live-music environments, but also to the rapidly expanding diameter of my appreciation for music. I found that systems that "rocked" didn't necessarily treat acoustic recordings very well. As my affection for jazz went from strength to strength, the frustration I felt at my system's relative boneheadedness became a distraction.
Initially, when acquainting myself with my new setup, I listened to records I was very familiar with, to allow my brain to make contextual evaluations of the sounds. Led Zeppelin albums were perfect for this. Like some of you, perhaps, I have spent literally well over half my life listening to those records. A deeper emotional connection with them I could not have imagined. The new system not only makes this possible but fairly inescapable. The attention to detail, the energy and depth that the Wilsons and VTLs never shy away from, provide a listening experience that is so completely immersive, you can forget your life before the record begins to play. There is nothing between me and the music. It is simply that damn good. This system blows my mind on a regular basis.
A man was at the house earlier today, making a repair in the kitchen. He looked at the Alexandrias and asked me, "What are these?!"
"Robots," I replied.
It is this that I have been after for decades: to have the music become part of my DNA, to lock in to music as I have while onstage, where there is nothing else on earth happening but that moment.
Music has not lost any of its awesome power. I used to sit transfixed in the small apartment bedrooms of my childhood, listening to records over and over again. Friday is still my favorite day, a holdover from high school. After classes were over, I would have two days of no teachers, no uniform, and nothing to keep me from listening to music for hours undisturbed. As I get older, the place that listening to music holds in my life only gets larger and more intense. Most of the people I speak to on a regular basis are music fanatics, and we talk of little else.
I would hope that, in part, your pursuit of audio excellence is an attempt to get closer and closer to the music, not to merely accumulate items to impress others. Music should be at least one place where we can suspend our cynicism. The many audiophiles I have spoken to, their unguarded joy when they describe what they have been listening to, how it moves them, and the excitement rendered by the technology meeting the perfect humanity of music, is quite heartening.
I think it's necessary to have at least one thing in your life that leads you to say: "This is what it's all about." For me, that's music. I think we should all feel quite lucky that we found it. Listening to the jams, whatever they may be, is the most perfect use of time I know.
Henry Rollins is a singer, a songwriter, a radio DJ, and an author. His new book, Before the Chop, is available now.