The Search for Musical Ecstasy

Every once in a while, some mainstream journalist discovers the audiophile underground.

It happened again this past summer, when Washington Post writer David Segal introduced his readers to some Washington, DC audiophiles and the stores that stoke their mania ("Sound Crazy?"). The theme that unites all such journalistic forays into audioland is an unwavering astonishment that grown adults can lavish such time, attention, and money on the experience of recorded music. The bemusement evokes a favorite bumper sticker: "Pray for me: my husband collects baseball cards."

In "Sound Crazy?," Segal meets Hugh Campbell, a 70-year-old consulting engineer and former Navy pilot whose passion happens to be listening to music at home at the highest level of resolution he can attain. Segal admits that Campbell's system—replete with room treatment, power conditioners, and exotic cables—sounds "amazing," but he can't let the epiphany overcome his astonishment at the price: $140,000, apportioned, his host tells him, over several years.

Such a sum for a music system is beyond the conceptual limits of Segal's middlebrow readers, as he knew from the outset. Segal admits that the listening experience was a revelation, then states pointblank that music-lovers can find perfectly adequate systems for a few hundred dollars at any Circuit City. With his Consumer Reports mentality, he would probably suggest that an aspiring cyclist could achieve the same results riding a heavyweight K-Mart clunker instead of a sleek performer like a titanium-alloy Litespeed. They both have two wheels, don't they?

The maligned Mr. Campbell, of course, would have had no appeal as a newsworthy eccentric had he instead poured his money and time into restoring an old roadster or a wooden sailboat, or had he spruced up his home and his portfolio with paintings and sculpture. Audiophilia, you see, has a credibility problem: It's got neither stature nor visibility outside the reach of this journal and the few others like it. As the rest of the world perceives us, we are hi-fi loonies.

Care to do a little comparison shopping?

Instead of dumping your money on music and electronics, you could be tossing it by the bucketful at contemporary art. Let me assume the middlebrow stance for a moment and introduce Jeff Koons, my favorite charlatan, who last year enjoyed renewed critical acclaim by coaxing some flowering plants in Rockefeller Center into the shape of a giant puppy. Like many artists, Koons got his big start riffing on Marcel Duchamp's notion of the "readymade"—an ordinary object taken out of context so that it can be seen anew. One early Koons trick was to turn vacuum cleaners and other household devices into many thousands of dollars simply by placing them in vitrines. His New Hoover Deluxe Shampoo Polishers (two in a Plexiglas box, illuminated by fluorescent lights) debuted in 1980 and, 19 years later, was auctioned at Sotheby's New York for $365,500. From the perspective of a middle-class wage earner, that's insane. For the billionaire collector who bought it, it's a lot of fun—and an excellent investment.

British minimalist Gary Hume has enjoyed critical and financial success with some faux industrial doors coated in glossy beige enamel. They initially sold in the high five figures and quickly multiplied in the secondary market, according to a conversation overheard at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, which earlier this year devoted considerable space and many weeks to displaying this staggering work of genius.

Not your idea of an entertainment bargain? A San Francisco gallery can supply something more affordable: Para Usted, a 12-minute video by Argentine artist Lilliana Porter. Guaranteed to amuse children and adults alike, the characters in Para Usted are all antique toy windup animals, which variously strike ironic poses or walk a few steps and fall over. The soundtrack, appropriately enough, is tinkly tunes from a windup music box. The price? A mere $15,000. That new amplifier with the two-grand price tag doesn't look like such a silly expenditure now, does it?

But forget art. It's too easy a target. There are plenty of other, more commonly accessible fantasies you can try on for financial size. Like to travel? You could buy a motor home. Many would-be adventurers take the plunge every week: thousands down, hundreds per month, six miles to the gallon, years to pay off the loan. Financing a luxury model might require a second mortgage and an extra job. Your purchase will probably sit idle 350 days per year, but at least it can double as guest quarters and a refuge from domestic strife when the bills are overdue. Music-lovers' bonus: Some come equipped with very nice sound systems.

Then there's the sailboat, the archetypal example of the fantasy exceeding the reality. Ah, the sailboat: handmade, stunningly beautiful, ungodly expensive, and a maintenance nightmare. On the few days each year when you're actually zipping along with the spray in your face and the sun in your hair, you'll probably need to check the time on a fancy "chronometer," starting price in the mid four figures. Unlike the hi-fi, which no one else ever sees, your superbly crafted timepiece will inform your sailing companions that you are a man of substance.

After braving the elements and berthing your rig, you might wish to visit a gourmet restaurant, where you can wait an eternity to drop a load of cash on some delicious trifles that, quite literally, will soon be flushed down the toilet. If you happen to be a cigar aficionado, you can then take pleasure in applying ritual fire to a carcinogenic object of affection—maybe one smuggled in from an embargoed nation, the illicit cost adding a flavor all its own. Wash it all down with a rare scotch and call it a night, you bon vivant. You've got money to burn.

Most human interests, esoteric and otherwise, make no monetary sense—or sense of any kind—outside their own guarded borders. How boring it would be if the bottom line were the sole abiding constraint. It's a wacky world, and a vastly more entertaining one for its wackiness. For us hi-fi loonies, music is the glue that holds it all together. It's the oldest and most transcendent art form, and we'll spill blood, sweat, tears, and our children's inheritance to make it sound better.

If, in the classic science-fiction scenario, we are visited by members of some incomprehensibly advanced alien civilization, what evidence could we present that we are anything more than aberrant blobs of self-mocking protoplasm in need of quick eradication? For my money, Franz Schubert's Ave Maria is the best argument we could offer for our continued existence. Life is full of fatuous pursuits, but the search for musical ecstasy isn't one of them.