Listening #46

"It's a series of tubes."—Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK), explaining how the Internet works

When I bought my first car, in 1976—a secondhand Datsun B-210, which rusted to a shambles before I even finished paying for it—my stepfather advised me to have it insured by the friendly agent who wrote all of his own policies. The two men played golf together on the same course, played cards at the same Elks Club, and went to the same cookouts. They were friends, and friends give friends the business.

My stepfather's agent worked hard for his money: He played golf and gin rummy and ate scorched meat, during which activities some or another friend would invariably say, "Don, I need some insurance for that new Oldsmobile," or, "Don, you'd better bring my homeowner's policy up to date." Don would respond by saying he'd have the girls in the office call and take care of the details, and that was that.

I was too smart for my own good, so I called Geico, an underpublicized, 40-year-old company that sold policies directly to consumers rather than through local insurance agencies. They gave me a quote that was only a few dollars less than Don's. I was a little disappointed—until the person on the line asked about the duration of the policy: It turned out that Geico wanted a little less money for 12 months than Don wanted for six. Friends give friends the business, all right.

My stepfather blew a fuse. He told me that Geico wouldn't be there when I needed them—certainly not the way good ol' Don would. And I suppose that might have been true. I hadn't yet committed to Geico, so I changed my mind back to the old way of thinking and let Don's girl write up the policy: "We'll leave out the full glass and bump your deductible up a little bit, so you can save 20 bucks a year compared to the original quote. Geez, Artie, if you'd told us in the first place that money was a problem..."

A couple of years after that I moved downstate and started getting interested in high-end audio. I became friendly with a salesman at an audio salon in the suburban city where I lived, and he sold me a Rega Planar 2 turntable. I didn't regret paying full price because the Rega was unambiguously wonderful—I still think so—and I was grateful for all the good advice.

Early Rega tonearms were made in Japan by Lustre, and they weren't very good: I could see lots of friction in the bearings of mine, and I began to get nervous about the condition of my records—rightly so. More than anything else, the desire for a better arm motivated me to bring my Planar 2 back to the shop and trade it in toward a Planar 3. But before I did, paranoid audiophile that I was, I put a tiny, discreet mark on the tonearm pillar. Sure enough, when I got home, I saw that the arm on my new Planar 3 was just as sticky—and when I looked, there was the mark. I'd paid a couple hundred dollars to get my old arm back on a different plinth.

I called to complain. My new friend yelled at me—quite loudly, in fact—for being a paranoid audiophile, and for calling him about such nonsense on a busy Saturday afternoon. The funny thing was, I was living in Manhattan by then, and outsourcing my masochism to a smaller city. I was way ahead of my time.

Then, in a final twist to a strange story, I went back to my friend the audio salesman a few years later, and he gave me a modest discount on a new Linn LP12 turntable. (I set it up myself.) And I still like him.

The best deal is the only deal
Modern consumers want all kinds of crazy things. We want low prices. We want the latest technology, too, not to mention the latest styles. And we want choices—whether it's a big selection of colors to titillate our uninquisitive minds, a big selection of sizes to encircle our big bodies, or a big enough selection of music recordings so we can buy something new every week and not hear the same shiny noises twice.

To some extent, audio consumers follow suit. These days, all but the most rapacious or delusional hi-fi enthusiasts accept the fact that high prices, in an absolute sense, are inevitable when it comes to products made largely by hand in very small numbers, so we're happy just to get the best reasonable deal. But we still want to know we're getting the latest technology and styling, and we still want a big enough selection that we can audition all of the products we're interested in before making The Cash Commitment.

Add to that mix our own special request: The best hi-fi shopping experiences are the ones where we can hear the audio products and the music systems of our dreams being demonstrated in a comfortable setting by a salesman who isn't a sociopath. Coffee would also be nice.

Fewer and fewer audiophiles have local dealers that can satisfy all or even any of those requirements. More to the point, fewer and fewer audiophiles have a local supplier at all. Audio enthusiasts who live in Pierre, South Dakota or Mapleton, Maine—two nice cities that have not, to my knowledge, outlawed audiophilia—can drive from sunup to sundown and still not reach a store where they can audition Cary amplifiers, Thiel loudspeakers, or Rega turntables. Hell, there aren't even any stores left in Manhattan that sell Quad electrostatic loudspeakers, or stores in Las Vegas that sell Audio Research amplifiers. A damn shame, no matter how you spin it.

This is the petri dish from which a whole new strain has, spontaneously and innocently, developed: audio manufacturers who sell direct to the consumer, either through a website of their own or through a single mail-order retailer.

My reviewer colleagues and I have written about products from many such firms in these pages, including PrimaLuna, Sonic Euphoria, and Moscode. Now another one has hung its shingle in the ether: a northern California–based maker of tubed electronics called JuicyMusic (footnote 1).

I admit that when I first heard about this company's bread-and-butter product, the BlueBerry preamp—sorry for mixing my food metaphors—I assumed that the electronics themselves are built in China, and that JuicyMusic exists solely to name them and sell them. I mean, really: a full-size, all-tube preamplifier, line and phono sections under one roof, with balance controls, a mono switch, and a solid wood cabinet—for $1500? It sounds unlikely, but the BlueBerry is all that and more, and it's made right here in the USA.

Footnote 1: JuicyMusic, 1551 Grizzly Bluff Road, Ferndale, CA 95536. Tel: (707) 786-9736. Fax: (707) 760-3505. Web: