I Am an Audiophile

I was fortunate enough to be raised in an environment where music of many kinds was played often. I lived with my mother in small apartments in Washington, DC, in the 1960s and '70, and most of the time, music was playing. Chopin, Wagner, Beethoven, Coltrane, Miles, Sonny Rollins, Streisand, Baez, Dylan, Miriam Makeba—even the Doors, Hendrix, and Janis Joplin.

We went to a record store near Dupont Circle quite often. I don't know how my mother found out about new recordings, but she always seemed to be picking up something to listen to. I had a record player in my room and listened to everything from children's records to Strauss, from the Beatles to a copy of Isaac Hayes' Hot Buttered Soul that somehow ended up back there.

For many years, sound quality never really occurred to me. I listened to music, and if I could hear it, that was good enough for me. You must understand that this is a very long time ago—when you're young and working at a minimum-wage job, high-end audio might not be at the top of your list. I also know that there are many hi-fi hardcores reading this right now who toiled ceaselessly at various places of employment, in conditions wrenched from the dank pages of a Dickens novel, with a single-minded determination to get precisely those speakers—and for that I salute you.

In those days, I was buying records with all the extra money I had; playback wasn't as important as getting the records. I have no regrets on that point. Many of the records I bought for a few dollars then I now see selling on eBay and in other places for astronomical amounts. I am glad I always went for the records.

All through the '80s and into the early '90s I had only the most rudimentary of stereo systems, if I had one at all. Those were lean yet eventful times for me. I was, for the most part, on the road touring, or writing, or recording. I had gear accumulated from here and there. Again, as long as I could hear the records, I figured I was doing okay.

That began to change when I started spending more time in the studio and hearing playback on the huge pair of Altec Lansing speakers that were at a studio we worked at a lot. I started thinking of how great it would be to have something like that happening in my room. In those days, I didn't even have a room, but I would daydream about a great listening environment.

My bandmates and I bought most of our gear at a place called Russo Music Center, in Trenton, New Jersey. It's still there. Russo's was the pit stop for our endless laps around the world. Our man there was Dan Brewer. He and I had a running joke that if I ever made some money, I would call him and he would set me up with some burly stereo gear.

In 1991, I got a small publishing advance and called Dan. I told him that I had some funds and it was time to make the move. I ended up with a pretty good system—perhaps not the most sonically sweet, but one that lasted me for many years and rocked pretty hard: a pair of Tannoy 12-inchers with an 18" sub, a Carver rack-mounted preamp, and a Rane crossover. Don't laugh—I told you it wasn't audiophile. For me, it was more than I ever thought I would have.

About 13 years ago I started to upgrade. I ascended steadily with great enthusiasm as I discovered what was possible. As you know, once you have heard a truly well-considered and balanced system in a good room, you compare all listening experiences to that one.

There were many of those jumping-into-ice-cold-water moments when I found out how much one can pay for a cord. If audiophile retailers could have only a dollar for every time someone looked at a cable in their hand like it's a black mamba and asked, as the blood drains from a face that is now a fright mask of horror and disbelief, "How much did you say this costs?!" There was a lot of that.

I have five systems in my home. The one I spend the most time in front of is perhaps amateur hour to hi-fi heavyweights like yourselves, but I like it very much: Wilson Audio Sophia 3s, McIntosh amps and preamp, Rega Planar 3 turntable, and Rega Valve Isis CD player. At the end of 2012 that system will be moving to a different room, and Brian from Brooks Berdan Ltd., in Monrovia, California, will come in with his sturdy crew and we will start all over again.

Okay, that was the autobiographical. Now, here's the philosophical.

Why spend so much time and money to achieve optimum playback? For me it is simple, perhaps brutally so: Life is short, and music is humankind's ultimate achievement. Michelangelo, Picasso, Einstein were all unfathomably brilliant, but I would toss any one of them off the center spot of my couch when I put on this pristine copy of Hawkwind's Doremi Fasol Latido I got a couple of months ago. As soon as that music starts, every dollar becomes well spent, time becomes precious, and there is no place I would rather be.

Listening to music is perhaps the greatest and most profound source of happiness I have ever known. It has been this way since I was a teenager. I live in a house with over 30 years of accumulation from all over the world: music, posters, flyers, set lists, clippings, photos, etc. All of the albums and the people on them are existential family members. I am often on the road for long periods of time: Africa, the Middle East, Southeast and Central Asia, Australia, Europe, etc. In the taxi on the way back to the house, I am already lining up what I will listen to that night.

These admissions fairly beg for criticism, and perhaps analysis, I know. One could fairly wonder if the obsession with ultimate playback could be seen as a cart leading a musical horse—that one is more interested in the mechanics than in the actual music itself.

To that I say, spare me your cynicism. When you think of what some of these artists sacrificed to put this music across, what trends they pushed against, all those nights in the middle of nowhere, bringing it to the stage, what incredible misery and misfortune they too often encountered, just because they were burdened with a staggering talent and the courage to share it with the world, the least you can do besides buying their records is pay the respect due them by giving their music the best possible means to fill the air. Feel free to use that one any time.

High fidelity is like any other rarefied interest. If it moves you, then you move to it; if not, you go elsewhere. I do not waste time trying to convert anyone to the higher levels of audio. They don't know what they're missing, but to each their own. Thankfully, my road manager and I are both audiophiles and record-collecting maniacs. We travel all over the world and spend countless hours on the topic.

People can hurl any epithet they want about the snobbishness they think audiophiles retain. Let them drink their wine from boxes. The sound of my Bob Ludwig–mastered pressing of Led Zeppelin's Houses of the Holy coming through my system cuts through their contempt like Toshiro Mifune's katana blade!

As well as being an audiophile, Henry Rollins is a singer, a songwriter, a poet, a spoken word artist, a writer, a publisher, an actor, and a radio DJ.

Soothsayerman's picture

Right on man! Nicely put.

wgb113's picture

Like you, I spent my teenage years worrying about aquiring as much music as I could, not so much about good gear.

My question to you is, what can someone like yourself, in your position in the industry, do to help put an end to the loudness wars and bring great sounding recordings back to the masses?

The music and hifi industries depend on each other and over the past 10 years have experienced significant declines as music has become too loud (no dynamics) and a background activity while we're doing other things.

My other question is what can we, the audiophile community, do to help put an end to the loudness wars?

We can go backwards and buy vinyl or demand hi-res downloads but neither addresses the problem with 95% of mainstream recordings.


michaelavorgna's picture

> Listening to music is perhaps the greatest and most profound source of happiness I have ever known.

Thank you Henry Rollins.

jeffca's picture

Hi, Henry.

Gotta say that if you're looking for very many people to be outraged by your editorial, you probably should have placed it on AudioAndMusicSucks.com.

I think that your overall experience is quite similar to just about every reader who'll come here. Basically, I hear good sounds, love the good sounds & then do what I can to get as good a sound system as I can to enjoy them in my joint. Then, lather, rinse and repeat.

As to you're next upgrade, I have a few things for you to consider.

Not to start a whole digi vs. ana debate, but you will probably want to get a new shiny disc player. The new Sabre 32bit DAC's are off the hook. In the Oppo BDP-95, in the review at Hometheaterhifi.com, on 24/96 material, they couldn't measure distortion above a noise floor 130db below the main signal. Have you ever seen a review where that happened? In over 35 years as an audio geek, I've never seen that before. With the proper equipment, our recording technology (just the deck, not the chain on either side) is approaching perfection. At present, no one can hear that level of distortion. If its phase and deviation from amplitude linearity are that good, for all purposes involving what humans can perceive, it truly is perfect.

My second thought is to consider a truly active speaker system. You've been using them forever and a day in your live gigs. Done right, whether by DEQX, Wisdom Audio, Legacy Audio, Meridian or the host of other active (some done digitally) systems, it's a fact any loudspeaker done correctly as an active loudspeaker will always outperform it's passive version. That is indisputable. Sorry to bum anyone out.

My final thought, just to blow your freakin' mind, do a web search for "cbt-36 speaker" and check out the crazy, curved speaker designed by Don Keele. It's going to be available from Parts Express as a kit though it's not going to be as sexy or exactly like the sweeping metal enclosure shown in the photo (it'll be wood). It offers an almost perfectly uniform dispersion pattern throughout the listening space to above 10,000hz. It's quite revolutionary. At a demo, people were amazed how it imaged and sounded the same almost anywhere in the room in front of the speakers.

Henry, great to have somebody in the music biz actually being an audiophile. Now if we could just get any of the jack-offs who run the major labels to jump on the wagon.



System92's picture

That was a good read.  Nice to hear what motivates you to spend on expensive systems for audio playback.  I wrote my own journey (as short as it may be) on my blog a month ago for any people interested:

HeinzK's picture

When I was 13 I was given a couple of stacks of 75RPM's in 1963.  Not a scratch on any of them.  I would often play Curoso recordings with no residual noise, no hissing, just good sounds.  Those LP's still don't have any scratches.  Unfortunately I am disabled and on a fixed income as is my wife.  I put aside nickels, dimes and quarters, don't forget the pennies.  Last month I had enough money to buy a pair of KEF Q900's and two mono amps @ 200 watts from Emotiva. Not a lot of money, yet for the money, it cranks out some decent sounds. Just can't afford the $401K for the Reference Monitors.  When I hit the Lotto, I'll spend a $100k for some sounds. 8^)

soulful.terrain's picture


 GREAT post Henry. Terrific insight. I look forward to more of your writings on all things audio.

ack's picture

So there was this kid barely in his teens reading his comic books right?  And right there in the Avengers issue what-the-hell-ever was this almost full page ad in color of a Raymond Pettibon picture that is best described as the depiction of a murder suicide.  It was an ad for the Family Man EP. 

I believe the first time I heard Black Flag after that was off of the soundtrack tape from Repo Man or it was from the documentary "Decline of Western Civilization: The Hardcore Years".  It was very eye-opening.  I had almost given the hell up on hard sounded music. 

I thought music was becoming a choice between angular heady sounding postpunk or maybe light fluffy intellectual college rock bands.  But then there was this hardcore thing I was late to the party too. 

Because of Black Flag I listened to the Replacements and Dinosaur Jr and Husker Du and the Meat Puppets and finally Sonic Youth that led to Nirvana because they toured together.

Thnx a ton Henry since you were part and partial to my discovery of American Underground music that became the cornerstone of my listening for so long. 

The Professor's picture

Almost a lone voice in the wilderness, a true audio philosopher.

Long may he prosper.

MikeMercer's picture

AMAZING read from Mr. Rollins (his column in Outdoor magazine is also fantastic, I beliieve it's Outdoor anyway)!!  When I worked for Arif Mardin at Atlantic he gave me a copy of Black Flag on vinyl - that he had bought in LA when I was a kid!  Having worked at The Absolute Sound before that, I was always into music AND high quality audio.  It's so fantastic to read your piece here, and your system is nothing for ANYBODY to thumb their noses at!  and so glad you shop at Brooks Berdan! We moved to LA and are very close to their shop (shame about Brooks). 

Hey - I just set up a little hifi system up for Kevin Smith - and he loves it!  He didn't know that sort of sound quality was possible!  Good to have you speaking about the virtues of quality!



Melo man's picture

.......and we are still kneeling at its grave. http://www.ambiophonics.org/

donunus's picture

Awesome Read! Henry Rollins listening to Wilson Audio Wow! Nice!


I'm a Liar, a Liar! sorry about that hehehe the song just got stuck in my head when I thought about the evil Henry Rollins on that video :)

ciscokid's picture

Henry Rollins is the MAN!!! NOBODY has BALLS like him! People like this great man do not exist anymore. Great to hear he is a Audiophile! 

R Browne's picture

Henry Rollins has a weekly radio show that broadcasts on KCRW. Also available via internet. More show info including archives at: http://www.kcrw.com/music/programs/hr

Henry spins some great stuff. Enjoy!

PeterMooreSmith's picture

Thanks for the great post, Henry ...

It's awesome to hear from a fellow audiophile and music junky who has been on the same kind of journey. I was a peripheral member of the DC scene in the early and mid 80s and saw you performing several times at the 9:30 Club and DC Space, not to mention your pals Ian and Alec and Dante and probably a lot of other old friends of yours ... Anyway, I'm sure remember the dogma that went with being a punk back then. If you cared about musical fidelity you'd get laughed at. Even the notion of melody was considered anathema. A lot of us punks were secrets lovers of other music, from classical to jazz to (gasp!) progressive rock, but we seldom admitted it. My only requirement from a system in those days was that it was loud. Later, as my musical horizons expanded, I became more and more interested in the fidelity of the records I listened to, and I became less and less fearful of admitting that I liked ALL music. (Or maybe the people I surrounded myself with were simply less inclined to mock me for loving Chopin as much as I loved the Damned). And as my financial life became a little more comfortable I was able to invest in better and better gear. Like you, I started humbly with mid-fi consumer stuff, and eventually graduated to the system I have now — not the best, but live and sensitive and happy — Zu Audio speakers, a Mac amp, Doge 8 tube preamp, a Thorens turntable, etc. Nothing makes me happier than the part of the day when I warm up the system, pour myself a glass of wine, and put a great record on the deck. Lately, it has been the new Bon Iver and Washed Out, but it's just as likely to be your own Slip It In or Histoire de Melody Nelson.  Anyway Henry, I'm happy to see you here on Stereophile ... and even happier to see that you're still the brave, badass artist I've always admired.

All the best,

Peter Moore Smith

SpookyEars's picture

The best most emotional music I got was from a cheap Radio Shack headphone connected to a cheap Sony Turntable listening to 45rpm La Bamba song by Los Lobos.

Felt the brief rush, you know.   Never really got it from oddiphile equipment.

Have listened briefly to some high-end equipment, nice.  So, I'm not that snobby.  Jest say'n music is good to whatever level you like to take it!

Not sure if there is difference between a $1000 speaker or a $10,000 speaker.  So much little things can interfere with good judgment, from room placement, time of day, mood, head angle, global warming, did you pay the mortgage?, etc.

consoerj's picture

Good article and this statement really hit home: "As soon as that music starts...time becomes precious..."


Apman's picture

I salute you Henry Rollins. You said what I have been trying to explain for 40 years.

Non audiophiles do not understand the beauty they are missing. I have tried to tell people but to no avail.

Luckily my son gets it and has from an early age. Makes me so proud.

It started with me and a $99.95 8 track/AM/FM unit from Spiegel"s catalog.

I still remember how excited I was to go to the Post Office and pick it up. Probably broke speed limits getting home.

tonym's picture

Looking at where music has gone for the mainstream - monologue rants and booming bass for night clubs - it's no wonder there is no interest in audiophile quality music where you can hear every note. 


Personally, I'm glad that it is now getting much easier to rip to flac quality and play through decent equipment.  Not the same as vinyl, but a great balance between quality of sound and quality of life.

nunhgrader's picture

One ofthe best articles and from one of my favorite poets/ writers/ singers - excellent to see several of my hobbies collide in Stereophile (punk rock, Italy, France, political banter, fine dining, travel, europe, new music, new gear, computer products etc).

tmsorosk's picture

Well done Henry, keep it up.