I've always been what you might call a social user of stereo. I used to spend many happy hours shopping for records, which I played on my "record player." I did have one friend who owned, and proudly showed off, her "components." I was dubious, not to say appalled. "You mean you have to shop for three or four different things, decide which are the best, and then connect them so they'll all work together?"
I did what any sane person would: found a friend of a friend of a friend who was in the business, and sought him out in the basement of a midtown electronics store. He asked what I wanted (something to play records on), how much I wanted to spend ($200---this was the mid-'60s), and what kind of music I listened to (folk, primarily---this was the mid-'60s). He recommended a KLH system, which I bought on the spot and used happily for some 15 years.
During those years I met only one person who was really into stereo. Since he was also really into the Grateful Dead, I was willing to play along, as it were, with his interest. To my disgust, I discovered that otherwise perfectly good recordings were---due to warps, scratches, or other defects---unplayable on his supposedly incredible system. Proof enough that my KLH was just fine---better than his setup, in fact, since I could play those records!
Then I met my husband-to-be. His stereo, of which he was, of course, inordinately proud, was just another overly complicated set of components. But when he took me over to a friend's place and sat me down in front of a set of Quads, my jaw dropped. Instead of music coming out of two speakers, it was spread between them---the musicians, and the music, were right there in the room with me. The Quads were expensive, but I understood why someone would want them. I wanted them. Of course, I learned, you couldn't just buy Quads---you had to have the right components to plug them into.
I became familiar with words such as amp, preamp, and tuner. I discovered that what was needed for my records was not a record-player but a turntable, with a tonearm and a cartridge---each with price tag attached. And I tried not to embarrass my husband by talking about the "needle" rather than the stylus attached to the cartridge (do I have that right?).
Now, after 14 years of marriage to an unabashed and unrepentant audiophile, I have a few words of advice for those of you who find yourselves wedded to or living with not only a person, but also an ever-changing set of components:
First, learn how to operate the volume control. The rest of the system can remain a total mystery---you may never touch any other knob, dial, or switch, or may never even put a CD in the player. But if you want any peace and quiet in your home, if you value your hearing, if you want to stay on friendly terms with any of your neighbors: turn down the volume! After many years and much struggle, my husband not only allows me to turn down the volume as soon as I get home, he'll occasionally even do it himself. Of course, he turns it up just before he expects me home, on the theory that I'll only turn it down so far, and it will still be at a level he finds acceptable. (Thought I hadn't figured that one out, didn't you, Wes?)
Author's note: Joan Manes is also known as Wes Phillips's better third.