In my column for Stereophile's March issue, I criticized a handful of records for combining very good sound with very bad music. A few readers expressed dismay, wondering what gave me the right to call music good or bad, especially since virtually all music is loved by someone (its mother?). But as far as I know, the magazine received a total of zero letters wondering what gave me the right to call sound good or bad. Hmmm.
I've spent six-odd years in a sort of hi-fi counterculture, playing with things like mono cartridges, one-box CD players, and cheap, homemade cables—and, of course, owning and listening to single-ended triode (SET) amplifiers and horn loudspeakers. But before all that, I owned components that, while more mainstream, did the job just as well in certain ways. That category included solid-state electronics (Naim, BEL, Spectral), dynamic loudspeakers of middling efficiency (ProAc, Epos, Magneplanar), electrostatic loudspeakers of very low efficiency (Stax), and even "high-end" accessories like Tiptoes and Shun Mook Mpingo discs (which I still have, although my five-year-old daughter has more or less permanently co-opted the latter for playtime use).
I'll spare you my thoughts on the matter—they're guessable anyway—and simply say that the war with Iraq has given me and my family the jitters, just as it seems to have done with millions of other people. But rather than giving 10 more dollars to Henkel Consumer Adhesives, my wife and I have taken a different tack: We made up a Road Box. A Road Box is a cardboard box full of things for us to take from our home if we have to leave in a hurry. We keep it near the door that leads to the garage.
Moderation, like a natural death, is what most thinking people roll toward, if only because extremism requires too much energy: Extreme points of view are hard to hold without a certain amount of self-delusion, and the brighter you are, the harder your self-deluder has to work.
The best tonearm I ever heard was a second-generation Mission Mechanic, ca 1986. It was mounted on a Roksan Xerxes turntable, and I spent several happy hours listening to records on that combination (with a low-compliance EMT cartridge) in two very different systems: one with solid-state amplification from DNM and Roksan's own dynamic Darius loudspeakers, and the other—my home system of the time—using tube amplification from Conrad-Johnson and a borrowed pair of Stax electrostatic speakers.
We were having trouble with the power in our home—the wall current, I mean, not the dynamics of our marriage—so I called the local utility. While the technician was here, he let me watch what he was doing. I had a chance to look inside our meter box, which is the junction between the utility's power lines and the circuit-breaker box in the cellar.
Back in 1984, when I still had all my hair and began listening to digital audio (wait a minute...), I was disappointed with the compact disc. Most of that disappointment came from the format's musical performance, which was poor, but a portion of my dismay came from realizing that my days as a hands-on hobbyist were numbered: I was used to selecting and setting up my own turntable, tonearm, and cartridge, but a CD player defied such involvement. Plugging it in and playing it were all that I or most anyone else could do.
If I wrote a column for a car magazine and I learned that the magazine's readers were using their cars to run over kittens, I would be deeply troubled. I would beg them to stop. Failing that, I would find another line of work.