Listening #51

My plan was to begin by revealing the highest sum I've paid for a wristwatch. It wasn't very much, and that would have been the point.

But when I sat down to think, as I often do while writing, it occurred to me that I've never actually paid for a watch: They've all been gifts. Working backward in time, there was the Swatch that my travel-agent wife brought back from a trip to the Virgin Islands; the very convincing fake Rolex that my mother bought for me during a trip to Bermuda; and the beautiful vintage Wittnauer that once belonged to my great-uncle Jack Dunphy, and which is now one of the three material things I've inherited.

The watch I'm wearing today is also a gift. It's a neat-looking, chunky sort of thing, made of black-anodized aluminum, with extra-large numbers in luminescent green: just the right thing for aging eyes. The crystal seems unusually clear—perhaps because my other watches are so scratched up—and the band is made of black rubber. Best of all, it isn't weighed down with a lot of subdials or toprings for calculating the phases of the moon or the time difference between here and the casinos of Monte Carlo: useless information, much as you get from the meters on the fronts of some amplifiers.

And depending on what time it is, I can just make out two superfluous words on my new watch's dial: Musical Fidelity.

Antony Michaelson, owner and managing director of Musical Fidelity, sent me this watch a couple of months ago. At first I was reluctant to wear it, for fear that a great jagged bolt of puritanical righteousness would come out of the sky and burn me to a crisp. But I tried it on anyway. Nothing bad happened. I came to like it.

So I did what I usually do in these situations: I asked my wife. She told me not to send it back, because Antony Michaelson would almost certainly take that as a slap in the face.

"Do you think he's trying to influence my opinions?"

"No," she replied. "If he'd wanted to do that, he would have given you something really valuable. Not that this watch isn't nice. It's a nice, inexpensive watch from a generous man who likes watches, and who likes having watches made so he can give them out to friends. I'm sure Mikey and Wes and Sam got one, too. So enjoy it. And while you're busy enjoying it, go buy me some earrings, you cheap bastard."

My Musical Fidelity wristwatch keeps the time very well. Right now, for instance, I see that it's time to call Classic Records' Michael Hobson and shake him down for copies of all his new LP releases. And when I visit Primedia's Home Entertainment 2007 show in New York City this spring, my Musical Fidelity watch will remind me when the dinner hour rolls along: Time to visit some exhibitor and tag along for an expensive meal and a nice drink afterward.

I'm kidding about the records and the meals. I'm impressed with Hobson and the work he's done over the years, but the only times I've asked him for free records were the times I planned to write about a specific title, for publication. (In fact, until recently, the computers at Classic Records seemed incapable of retaining my address—I couldn't even get the LPs I'd paid for.) And while I gratefully acknowledge the meals I've enjoyed on one or another manufacturer's dime, I've also tried to return those favors whenever I could. (And, no, I can't help but contrast that with my earlier experience on the staff of one of this magazine's would-be competitors, where dinners at three-star restaurants were routinely and overtly demanded—not to mention rare wines, ancient Armagnacs, and the occasional shipment of other consumables, delivered to my desk only because the magazine's owner felt that signing for and opening cartons was beneath him.)

Press junkets? I think they're perfectly all right, as long as the trip has something to do with the recipient's professional duties—which, by the way, isn't always the case with our elected officials, who would do well to stay home and serve the interests of Americans rather than those of various foreign powers (footnote 1).

But for a journalist who writes about audio products to accept a free trip to the factory where those products are made seems reasonable enough. God knows I've done it a few times—such as 16 years ago, when Naim Audio's managing director, the late Julian Vereker, wanted me to write about his newly expanded factory in Salisbury, England. I was just getting married at the time, and my bride and I were planning a trip to the UK. Julian offered two nights at a lovely inn, and, in exchange, I added a small detour to the honeymoon itinerary. (See why Janet thinks she deserves all those earrings?)

But the hour has moved on: My Musical Fidelity watch says that it's time for Somber Reflection.

Something old
Now I'll tell you about my equipment dealings in recent years: the products that are here on loan, the products that I've bought and paid for, and, yes, the gifts that I've accepted. But first, I'd like to tell you another story...

Back in the mid-1980s, while still working for that other magazine, I bought a new preamplifier direct from the manufacturer, at an industry accommodation discount. The owner of the company approached the transaction with extreme seriousness and caution—as was his right. Before approving the deal, he interviewed me to make sure that I was buying the preamp for all the right reasons, and that I would carry on owning and enjoying it for a very long time. It was like adopting a baby.

Coincidentally, that transaction came toward the end of my job. I was asked to do something that I felt was wrong, and I responded by abruptly quitting. Then, as so often happens in those situations, a new job was long in coming, and I almost ran out of money. Sorry to say, I had no choice but to sell my new preamp. But for obvious reasons, I wanted to do it discreetly.

I put the word out among a few friends—it was an expensive piece, so tacking an ad on the bulletin board at the laundromat was not an option. Within days, I received a call.

The prospective buyer was a well-known employee of a New York audio salon, whom I won't name for the simple reason that he has since passed away. He'd heard that I was selling my preamp, and said that he wanted to have it—but for considerably less than my asking price. I declined.

He then enlightened me as to how things were: "Let me have it, and I won't mention to certain friends in the industry that you've sold it." He understood my dilemma all too well, and was trying to use it to his advantage.

Since that day, I've felt uncomfortable—often to the point of indignation, I admit—whenever someone outside of my family thinks it's their business to know about the material goods I've bought or sold for myself, and how much money has changed hands in the process.

If I were buying review samples at less than wholesale and selling them for a profit, people would have a right to know. Likewise, if I were inclined to keep review samples for myself—or to give them to people whom I wanted to impress—I ought to be outed.

I don't behave that way myself—nor do my friends on this magazine's staff—but I'm sorry to say that, nonetheless, those things do happen. Just recently, a manufacturer friend noted that one of his most expensive review samples had turned up for sale on eBay, presumably by the (non-Stereophile) reviewer to whom it had been loaned. (I've also heard a rumor—though that's all it is—that the reviewer in question has defended himself by saying he loaned the product to an acquaintance, and that the acquaintance sold it "by mistake.")

But friends: If I were that sort of person—materialistic, acquisitive, and, above all, arrogant—wouldn't you have seen some evidence of it aforehand? I would think so. That's why it's especially sad when a writer has to make a special point of telling you he's not a thief, simply to keep your trust. It means that he has failed twice.

Let me offer the following information in the spirit of openness—without too much sanctimony on my part, I hope, and in the interest of reassuring you that the things I use are mostly the things I own. From the source forward, here are the audio components I have bought and paid for, still own, and regularly use. Some were bought new at retail, others were bought as review samples at accommodation prices, and others were bought secondhand. Others still were acquired when I swapped things for them. (Consider my Lowther drivers, for example: Over the past nine or ten years, I've bought PM2As and PM6As from the importer; then, just a short while ago, I made an even swap of both pairs of drivers for a single pair of PM2A Ticonals.) So, then:

Something owned
Naim Armageddon turntable power supply
Linn LP12 turntable
Naim Aro tonearm
Rega Planar 3 turntable
Rega RB300 tonearm (in addition to the one on the above)
Rega Elys cartridge
Supex 900 Super cartridge
Lyra Helikon Mono cartridge
Audio-Technica OC9 cartridge
Audio-Technica AT-F5 cartridge
Sony SCD-777ES SACD player
Fi preamplifier
Naim NAC32.5 preamplifier
Fi 2A3 Stereo power amplifier
Naim NAP-110 power amplifier
Quad II monoblock power amplifiers
Lamm ML2.1 monoblock power amplifiers
Component supports (various, but mostly Mana)
Quad ESL loudspeakers
Lowther PM2A Ticonal drivers
Lowther Medallion cabinets
Speaker stands (various)
Audio Note AN-Vx interconnects
Naim interconnects (too many to count)
Homemade silver interconnects (various)
Nordost Flatline Gold speaker cables
Audio Note AN-SPx speaker cables
Naim NACA-5 speaker cables
Homemade silver speaker cables

Of those items, the oldest purchases are the Audio-Technica cartridges and the extra Rega tonearm, which date from 1986 (footnote 2). The most recent purchases are the Quad II amplifiers, which I bought four nights ago on eBay. (I guess you can see what's coming in this column.)

Footnote 1: I would gladly make an exception in the case of any US official who might wish to visit the Netherlands to see how well-conceived, well-engineered, and well-made are their solutions to the challenges of living below sea level, which make the efforts of our own Army Corps of Engineers in the state of Louisiana appear rather weak by comparison.

Footnote 2: I used them with an original Roksan Xerxes turntable—which I miss!—as part of a very nice-sounding system. The system I owned just before that, in late 1985, was downright awful in every way; the ones before it were all good in their ways.