Elements of Our Enthusiasm

At the end of August, we watched as the number of registered users in our online forums quickly ticked past the 10,000 mark. Ten thousand registered users! While it might prove interesting to learn just how that number breaks down into men and women, old and young, subjectivists and objectivists, or any of several other demographic and philosophical divides, that would only obscure the point: In our online forums, there are over 10,000 members who are eager to share their enthusiasm for music and hi-fi. What a beautiful thing!

Among the 10,000, there will doubtlessly be some who have been at this game for decades, who have swapped their fair share of tubes, and who have worn out as many phono cartridges as pairs of shoes. The dedication they've put into the hi-fi hobby has rewarded them with vast and varied music libraries and the experience necessary to troubleshoot any problems that may arise. But it is not so easy for the newcomer. The most common issues for our more-experienced enthusiasts may seem completely insurmountable and just plain strange to those new to hi-fi, those who are accustomed to boomboxes, RadioShack cable, and red and black, plastic binding posts.

Such was the case when our 20 year-old summer intern, Ariel Bitran, went about setting up his new Usher S-520 loudspeakers for the first time. Ariel, you see, is new to hi-fi. Though he is an avid music lover and a fine musician, he had never even imagined speakers beyond his Bose hand-me-downs or an amplifier beyond his Peavey Bandit 112. He came to Stereophile as a completely blank slate, willing to learn and eager to enjoy higher-quality sound. You should have seen how excited he was about piecing together his system. First the Rega P1 turntable, then the Bellari VP129 phono preamp, the Oppo DV-980H universal player, the Cambridge Audio 540A integrated amplifier, and finally the sparkling white Ushers. Each time a new component arrived, Ariel's face would explode into smiles, his fists would clench into anxious bundles of energy.

With his system finally completed, Ariel left the office one Friday evening and raced home to listen to a few records. The kid was pumped. YES! Imagine his disappointment, then, when he discovered that something was wrong. He sent an e-mail that night: "One of the Usher speakers is screwed up. I've switched cables and channels on the amplifier and the same speaker sounded weird. . . It sounded wet, drowned-out, and simply bad." This was followed by an appropriately bad four-letter word. Ariel's elation had turned to despair.

What could be wrong? And how would it be fixed? On the following Monday, after a long, quiet weekend, Ariel returned to the office with his Ushers and handed them over to John Atkinson who had offered to take a listen and run some measurements on them. Meanwhile, Ariel would take his problem to my blog, which I have been sharing with him. Like our online forums, "Elements of Our Enthusiasm" exists to exchange ideas, share passions, and celebrate the many joys of music and hi-fi. I started the "Elements" blog almost exactly three years ago, and it has mainly traced my own journey into high-end audio: From a complete newbie like Ariel to a vinyl-loving hi-fi fanatic, one who'll never return to his Magnavox boombox.

Incidentally, it was Art Dudley who unwittingly came up with a name for the blog. I had mentioned to him our idea of starting a daily page on www.stereophile.com in which I'd document my very innocent impressions of hi-fi. I said: "It will be "The Making of An Audiophile," or something like that, and I'll go around visiting dealers and industry folk here in the City, getting to know more about the hobby. I'll post my thoughts onto the site, and eventually gain a better understanding of the audiophile heart." (Hear the innocence in my voice?) Art responded: "I think that's a splendid idea. It will also be something we older writers can learn from—to retrace those steps, so to speak, and remind ourselves of the elements of our enthusiasm." Hear the wisdom in Art's voice?

So it began and so it has been that "Elements" attempts to bridge young and old, straight-up music lovers and die-hard audiophiles, and even subjectivists and objectivists. (We can hope!) It worked very well for Ariel, in fact. Again noting the "muffled, wet, underground" sound coming from the left channel of his system, Ariel called out for help, and reader "Robin" came to the rescue: "Do the Ushers have bi-wire connections (two lots of binding posts)? If so, do both speakers have the metal connectors between the two sets of posts in place? If the left speaker doesn't, it's possible you only connected the woofer and, thus, muffled sound."

That was it! It was a painfully obvious solution to an exceedingly simple problem, but one that would have never occurred to someone as new to the hobby as Ariel. An important reminder to those of us who have been involved in hi-fi for some time: What is clear to us may be completely incomprehensible to a beginner. Audiophiles fall victim to many negative stereotypes: We have weak social skills, we are total techie dorks, we can't dance and we smell bad, etc. But the one thing that should never be overemphasized is the audiophiles' willingness to teach. We all began somewhere, and some of us were fortunate to have great mentors. Without them, we may never have had the will or confidence to tread into a hobby that at first seems to require such a high entrance fee—both in monetary terms and in basic technical knowledge.

In this month's "Listening" (p.37), Art Dudley explains how God makes audiophiles. We each get a certain combination of brain cells representing our loves and hates. I may put more emphasis on my love of stereo imaging, while you're more concerned about your love of female vocals, but the audiophile's greatest love of all (to borrow a phrase from Whitney Houston) is our love of sharing—not only knowledge, but passion. We love to teach, we love to mentor. Through this exchange of enthusiasm and information, we'll help to see that the joy of music, and our fascination with the gear that brings it to life, is preserved.—Stephen Mejias