An Audio Dispatch from Saratov, Russia
The "Great Land"---clear air for hundreds of miles, and, in winter, a big river flowing under the nearby ice. A city of one million people that extends from the river's bank out across the hills. This is the Russian city of Saratov, located 600 miles from Moscow on the eastern bank of the river Volga, which, near the city, is 1.8 miles wide.
Saratov is also a city of students. We have a Medical University, Technical University, Academy of Law, State University, State Conservatoire, and many colleges. Around us for hundreds and hundreds of miles are fields of wheat. Our region is famous for being the first in the Russian Federation where you can buy and sell land. In other regions, you can't. And we have a crazy climate: from -30 to +40 degrees Celsius, which means 80-proof vodka during the winter and ice cubes in the summer---both on face simultaneously!
Downtown, what was once the pride of Soviet Military Science, the Desyatka Research Institute, now flashes a bright sign: "CESAR: The Hi-Fi Supermarket." Sounds attack from everywhere: a wall of TV sets blaring the words of various showmen; a mini-audio center drilling right through your ears with its harsh radio; big loudspeakers controlling your breathing with powerful bass; and a guy in a uniform asking, "Che nado, moozhick?"---"Vot da ya need, man?" All of the symptoms of a provincial Russian hi-fi shop.
Most Russian hi-fi shops are now filled with Japanese equipment: Sony, Technics, Aiwa, Yamaha, Pioneer, Panasonic, JVC, Denon. These are the trademarks stamped on any audio or video product you'll see. Here, outside of Moscow, it's hard to find anything else, and Moscow never looked like the rest of Russia.
The main factor for Russian hi-fi buyers is price. As far as components go, they want a radio first, then a CD player, and then a tape deck. A radio in Russia used to be a luxury, but now, the new generation is captivated by nonstop music programs. For Russians, who have a habit of listening to the radio until midnight, finding music all night long is a fantastic adventure. The most popular are stations with contemporary music.
People wanting something different from a mini-system must start with modest choices when trying to find something other than Japanese hi-fi. We have a number of hi-fi magazines here: Stereo & Video (a Member of EISA), published by Larkfield Corp.; Salon Audio Video, published by R.A. Industries, Ltd.; The Hi-Fi Journal and Audio Shop, published by MMA Ltd. in cooperation with A&T Trade; and Hi-Fi & Music, from PIDP Publishing. We are quite thankful for these issues; they keep us in the audio stream.
Unfortunately, here in Saratov, we can't listen to a majority of the components mentioned. Of course, Sony, Technics, Pioneer, and others from Japan are widely present, especially their CD players, amplifiers, and loudspeakers---any model you want under US $500
For different brands from other manufacturers, for under US $1000 we have: CD players from Marantz, Arcam, and Rotel; amplifiers from Rotel, Musical Fidelity, Arcam, Marantz, and Cambridge Audio; loudspeakers from Paradigm, Infinity, MB Quart, JBL, Tannoy, and KEF; and cassette decks from NAD and Sherwood. But if you're looking for a turntable or phono preamplifier, you'll have to travel a thousand miles. We have very few choices in cables, with only two brands available in our city---Oehlbach and Monster---and only a few models of each.
Two of our hi-fi shops have a specialized room for preview listening, but equipment choice is limited---most of the components are still packed. You must buy them first, then audition them afterward. And forget about shops having demo CDs for listening. If you want to test something, it's a good idea to bring some CDs from home---maybe you'll recognize their sound, who knows . . .
All experiments are welcome, since the sellers usually know nothing. Their recommendations start with the word "Maybe." All basic knowledge is compiled from the magazines listed above, most of which began publishing around 1994-1995. As a result, our knowledge is not too deep.
To explain the Russian approach, we have an old adage: "It's better one time to see than one hundred times to listen." So it is. We are a very traditional people. I think contact with the world's culture of music listening is still lost---for now. Maybe it is more true to say our high-end connection is not yet fully established---the proper cables are still to be delivered.
Leonid can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com. He assembles computers and helps companies market their products.