March 7, 2006

In This eNewsletter:
• Heavy-Metal Syndrome, by Wes Phillips
• This Month's Audio URL, from Wes Phillips

Heavy-Metal Syndrome, by Wes Phillips

As Eugene and I undressed, we talked.

Don't get any ideas—we have adjacent lockers at the health club and we work out at the same time. This, as anyone who spends much time at the gym knows, is a universal law: If there are only two people in the locker room at 5:30am, they will have adjacent lockers.

"So, have you bought that bike yet?"

"Nah," Eugene said. "You know how it is—I laid out my budget and I began looking into bikes. I had a couple of models chosen, so I looked at the next models up in the line, just to see if they were really better. And you know what? They were, so I looked at the next level up, and they were even better."

"Well, sure, but after a while, you've doubled or tripled the price of the bike. How much can you afford to spend?"

"About $2000, more or less."

"Gosh, Eugene, for two grand you can buy a really good ride."

"Yeah, but I rode a carbon-fiber frame and I really could tell the difference. Now I'm thinking I might want to go titanium."

"You better be careful—before you know it you'll be looking at $6000 bikes."

"I am looking at $6000 bikes—and I can't afford one, so I probably won't buy anything." He saw my shocked expression. "Oh, don't pretend you don't know what I'm talking about. I call it heavy-metal syndrome, because when I started looking for a better hi-fi, every time I thought I found one good enough, I saw another one that had deeper bass or more watts or lower distortion."

"So you finally picked one that you liked and it all worked out okay, even if there are better rigs out there, right?"

"No, I don't have a new hi-fi either. And don't look at me like that—you make your living exploiting insecurities like mine!"

That's when I really wished I'd had my trousers on.

He who can properly define and divide is to be considered a god
I pondered Eugene's last remark as I did my hamster impersonation on the elliptical trainer. Is that really what I do? Obviously, some folks think so—I've seen the letters to the editor complaining about Michael Fremer's glowing review of the Continuum Audio Labs Caliburn turntable. Well, heck, I'd probably have written a rave of it too, had I been lucky enough to live with it for a while. I'd reckon you ought to be able to make a pretty nice turntable system for a hundred grand.

The thing is, had I reviewed the Caliburn, that's all I could have told you: that it was a pretty nice turntable. Mikey is the analog expert, so he's heard a lot of the pricey competition, and a tremendous amount of the midpriced and budget competition as well. As a result, Mikey's opinion of the Caliburn carries a lot more weight than mine would. My opinion would be gossip; Mikey's done the research.

Does the fact that the Caliburn exists make the turntables I can afford any less attractive to me? Not really.

Here's what I don't understand about Eugene's heavy-metal syndrome: Had he bought the bike he could afford, he'd already have been riding it for about six months by the time I asked my question. I repeat: He would have been riding. And riding beats not riding any day, as far as I'm concerned.

When I'm out on my bike, I do pay attention to the other cyclists I see, but I'm not judging their bikes (maybe a little—it's a guy thing). What I'm really wondering is whether I can drop 'em on the next hill, taking the next downhill corner, or sprinting through the flats (my wife tells me that's a guy thing, too). To quote Lance Armstrong, it's not about the bike. Heck, I've dropped guys riding $10,000 Eddy Merckx AXMs—well, one guy. And I've been smoked by messengers on $650 Bianchis—happens all the time, unfortunately.

Unlike bicycling, hi-fi is not a competitive sport. Yes, I know that for some people it is, but I think of dueling hi-fis as akin to showing people my unedited copy: Not the sort of thing a gentleman would do.

Not that I've never indulged. I once invited over to my house an erstwhile audio critic who proceeded to tell me, in excruciating detail, everything that was wrong with my system. His criticism would have bothered me more if I hadn't heard his system first. (Meow!)

I've visited audiophiles whose systems cost far more than I will ever spend on electronics in my entire lifetime. Most of the time that's pretty cool, and once in a while the experience is mind-altering, but usually I'm happy when I go back to my rig. That's just as true about hearing systems that aren't all that costly. Sometimes, I'm completely gobsmacked by how good such a system sounds, sometimes it doesn't do much for me, and a lot of the time I think, "I could live with this."

But except for a few purely professional auditions, I don't really "visit" hi-fi systems at all. I visit people, some of whom are audiophiles. Nor do I tend to listen to systems. I listen to music.

That's not to say that I'm immune to audio envy. If one of my friends gets a new component, of course I'll hie myself over and "listen" to it. That means a little listening, a lot of jawing, maybe a wee dram of something, and a lot of "Hey, have you ever heard this one?" That's really as much an "audition" as going to see your new nephew is charting his genome.

I love going to John Atkinson's house and hearing his system, built around his Mark Levinson No.30.5 DAC/No.31.5 CD transport front end, No.380S preamp, No.33H monoblocks, and his speaker du jour. However, as much as I admire and envy JA's ability to own such a pricey system, and as much as I'd love to have one as nice, when I'm not at his house I never give it a thought. It doesn't matter that somebody else has something better—my Musical Fidelity Nu-Vista preamp and Nu-Vista 300 power amp completely satisfy me.

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The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend
Okay, I know I'm not normal. I'll use another friend as an example. My friend Ruben is an audiophile and a musician. His system—Linn LP12 turntable, Ayre CX-5 CD player, Conrad-Johnson Premier Three preamp and MV-55 power amp, and ProAc Studio One SC speakers—sounds pretty tasty in his live-sounding living room. Mighty fine, in fact.

I've known Ruben for almost 20 years now, but his hi-fi hasn't changed all that much over the years. He's upgraded his turntable with each new development from Linn, and he bought the Premier Three to replace his C-J PV-5. He bought the original ProAc Studio Ones, and upgraded to the SCs only after he'd auditioned them side by side with his originals and decided the difference was worth the money. It took him almost a decade to replace his California Audio Labs CD player with the Ayre because CAL kept offering affordable and demonstrable upgrades of his old one, and every time he auditioned new CD players, he couldn't hear a difference in performance that justified the money he'd have to spend for it.

In other words, as audiophiles go, Ruben is reasonably sane. He wants better performance, but it has to actually be better, and it has to cost what he's willing to pay. Ruben reads the audio magazines to see what's out there, and keeps a short list of products he's read about and thinks might make his must-audition list. Some years he might buy nothing but a cable or a new cartridge—neither of which is a negligible expenditure, but, you know, stuff wears out.

What it really comes down to is that Ruben has other things he'd rather spend money on. Like new lutes, for instance—or his apartment. On the other hand, when confronted with a definite improvement over his trusty CAL CD player, he didn't hesitate to invest in the Ayre.

A prudent question is one half of wisdom
I may seem to have drifted a tad from the subject, but I've only taken an elliptical path. The difference between my friend Ruben and my friend Eugene is that Ruben committed himself to something he knew was less than perfection—and has enjoyed his last 20 years of listening to music, as well as performing it. Eugene, presumably, is still listening to his college hi-fi. As much as I enjoyed my own hi-fi at college, I could no more have spent the last 25 years listening to it than I could have living with my college girlfriend. My standards have changed; they're higher now.

Is the purpose of what I do to make people unhappy with their present hi-fis? I don't think so. I recently Googled my audio career, and I didn't see anything I gave a good review to that I wouldn't still be happy to live with. In fact, a lot of what I've reviewed favorably I do still live with. The stuff I could afford, anyway.

Besides, I don't see audio reviewing as handing down the final verdict. It might be my verdict, but it sure ain't final. Remember my audio-critic friend who so nicely told me everything that was wrong with my system? One of the things I found so fascinating was that he and I could discuss the same piece of gear and, as long as we stuck to specific descriptions of its sonic properties, we used almost precisely the same language. However, when it came to assessing the component's worth, we usually disagreed completely. We heard the same things, but we didn't value them equally.

I'd like to think that I tell the truth and I entertain. If I hate something, which happens—albeit infrequently, because I preselect gear that interests me—I say so. Usually, I like stuff, so I try to describe what it's like to live with it. I try to place the gear under review in the context of the other components I have experience with, both at similar and extremely different price points. I also try not to bore the reader.

That's the really hard part, of course. I remember telling John Atkinson, shortly after he'd hired me, how proud I was of a review I'd just written. I thought it was intellectually rigorous, well-crafted, and—dare I say it?—pretty classy. I told him I'd hit my marks on that one because I was working very hard to get enough ahead on my deadlines to spend three weeks in Spain, and so had eschewed my postprandial drink for the entire period I was trying to work double shifts.

"Really?" John asked. "You were teetotaling when you wrote that?"

"Yes," I said proudly.

"Then by all means have a drink tonight."

Ouch. I re-read the review when I got home—and I had that drink.

Don't get me wrong. By being entertaining, I don't mean playing the clown—although heaven knows I'm not above that. But reading about hi-fi isn't supposed to be work. It ought to be fun. The best hi-fi writers—Sam Tellig, Kal Rubinson, Mikey Fremer, and John Atkinson—make it look easy. I get pretty close sometimes, but easy reading is damned hard writing, as Nat Hawthorne said.

It is the theory that decides what can be observed
A reader once wrote, in Stereophile's "Letters" column, that he kept his copies of the magazine for three years before reading them, then shopped the classifieds until he found the stuff that had gotten good reviews. He got great gear at his price, he said, and was seldom frustrated by the "latest and greatest" syndrome.

Had Eugene done that with hi-fi or bicycles, he would have had some great rides—instead of spinning his wheels and getting nowhere.

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From Wes Phillips

The World's Largest Subwoofer:; scroll down to Sub Horn Building.

I do not want to live next door to this.

For more of Wes' amazing links, go to his blog at

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