My journey to hi-fi

Step 1. When I was in my mid-20s, an older editor at the Dutch current-affairs magazine I worked for told me he wanted to write a piece about audiophiles: He had been bitten by the audio bug himself. Because I often wrote about rock and pop music, he asked if I had a quality hi-fi system, and if so, would I be willing to be interviewed for his article

I should have demurred. I owned a modest system: a Nakamichi cassette deck, a Technics turntable, a Mission Cyrus One amplifier, and Dutch-made BNS 482 speakers. But I thought it sounded fantastic together. In a fit of misplaced pride, I agreed to be quizzed for publication.

Thus, one evening, my colleague ascended three narrow flights to my Amsterdam apartment. Still puffing, he entered the living room. I watched him draw a sharp breath.

To his credit, he was too polite to point and laugh, but years later I understood what had flustered him. I'd placed the 482s where I had space, with zero thought to soundstage or imaging. One tower stood just right of the television 12' in front of me. Its twin was nestled in the cranny between my Lundia LP rack and the kitchen door—some 4' behind my prime spot on the sofa. I could maintain that this was an early experiment in surround sound, but the fact is that I had no clue what I was doing. Whether I and my pitiable rig made it into the article, I don't remember.

Step 2. About a dozen years later, after I'd moved to the US and begun writing for Wired, the editors at Rolling Stone asked me to do a feature article on high-end hi-fi. I'd been loosely following the audio press for a couple of years and found it all immensely interesting, but also a little wacko. $30,000 tube amps? $50,000 speakers? Mpingo disks to tame wayward frequencies? Painting the edges of CDs with a special green marker to improve the soundstage? I set out to write a moderately snarky article.

But a strange thing happened. While reporting the story, as I met more and more audiophiles, I found I liked them, or most of them. Endearingly, they were in love with music. No different from me, really, except maybe for a bit of extra obsessiveness and unflappability about spending sums of money that made my wallet hurt just thinking about them.

One source, an audio writer, told me something I'd never considered and have never forgotten: "Almost nobody scoffs at people who buy expensive art. For me, a million-dollar painting...that's just one picture that you can look at only so often. But a high-end sound system reproduces all the sonic art you can throw at it." When I wrote the article, I toned down the snarkiness, because that made complete sense.

Step 3. Not long after, I visited the Long Island home of a mild-mannered audio enthusiast named Ernest. Ernest was a bit OCD when it came to sound. He'd hardwired his components together—cut and crimped all his cables from output connections to input connections, obviating the need for connector plugs that might degrade the sound. He played only records, so he'd snipped the wires off his pricey preamp's selector switches except the ones for the phono input. In an even bolder move, Ernest had taken an honest-to-god saw to his $20,000 Alón Phalanx speakers and mounted the parts that housed the tweeters and midrange drivers on home-made, acoustically decoupled stands.

I'd been ready to write him off as a not-all-there eccentric, but when he fired up his system, I was instantly cured of my supercilious skepticism. Electricity seemed to course across my skin. My eyes misted. This was the best sound I'd ever heard, and I had auditioned a six-figure system at Sound by Singer, the Manhattan high-end store. Ernest's equipment seemed almost to disappear, reproducing Muddy Waters and Elvis Presley without strain or effort. More than that, it sounded like they were there, in front of us. My host wasn't on a quest for prettified sound. He was looking for something much grander: the soul of the music. And he found it. I couldn't imagine getting tired, ever, of listening to great records on gear that good.

I never did learn to take the Mpingo snake-oilers seriously, but when the check from Rolling Stone arrived, I happily spent it on fancy speakers and an amp.

Coda. Writing about sound and technology for Wired, Music Maker, the New York Times, Rolling Stone, and Enjoy the Music, as I've done for many years, has been a blast. So was interviewing some of rock's outsized talents: Elvis Costello, XTC's Andy Partridge, Pete Townshend, Tom Waits, Frank Zappa, others. I've come to realize that for me the two fields—music and audio—are not separable. Breathing life into great music requires the judicious use of exceptional equipment. The destination—perfect music reproduction—so often seems almost within reach, like a mirage, just a few steps away. It's a good thing the journey is so very enjoyable.

COMMENTS
Wavelength's picture

Rogier,
Nice article, I always loved audio systems but couldn't afford them. In my freshman year at college after pretty much flunking out of Anthropology and not doing well in music a friend said... Hey you could make audio equipment it's not rocket science :)
BTW good friends with Andy Partridge. I make his guitar amps and designed his recording studio. Meet Pete Townshend ounce, but just for a second.
Thanks,
Gordon

James.Seeds's picture

I remember Ernest, he either listened to records through his molested speakers or through his headphones only, I wonder if he mellowed out a bit perhaps embracing digital or is he still defiant as ever?

PeterG's picture

Great piece! You've captured the essence of being an audiophile--one part knowledge, one part mildly amusing obsessiveness, one part love

Jack L's picture

Hi

"Exceptional equipment": How exceptional ? For price or technical design ?

Jack L

Mark A's picture

I still think the word audiophile makes most folks cringe, but, at least for me, it's nothing more than a word to describe someone who actually cares about not only music as an art form, but also about how well it sounds.

To my way of thinking, if you appreciate music it seems that it should be important to hear and experience it as well as possible. I've always massaged my music listening habit with the best I could afford at that time, which has varied greatly over the decades. I'm not embarrassed to have had inexpensive equipment... it's what I could afford.

And I KNOW it makes a difference. My wife has learned that music playback can sound incredible when massaged with good equipment. But perhaps the best understanding of this habit came from my father-in-law for whom we recently purchased a new turntable to replace his dead record player. I also gave him a nice slimline Marantz receiver and Def Tech bookshelf speakers I had tucked away. He's already told me he has heard things in his albums he never heard before... and I put this down to the fact all of his previous stereo's were cheap & inexpensive (there is a difference). He is coming to understand my hobby, if you will, and how it can impact one's relationship with music.

Jack L's picture

Hi

Yes & no.

Many music lovers, even musicians, still go without HiFi.

My elder son, for example, was graduated from my city Royal Conservatory of Music (founded 1886) with first class honour in
Classical Piano in theory & practice before entering university.

Yet, he never yet owns any audios, & yet he enjoys his music from his labtop minispeakers & iPhone earbuds, big-time.

That's said, he is still a sorta 'perfect pitch' as he can size up what pitch of the classical music being played from my HiFi within a few seconds without error !!

Jack L

PS: I envy you for your better half being a music lover. My wife dislikes music though she loves cooking health food for us.

Jack L's picture

Hi

Me too. Instead, I am very proud of it as I managed to get "breathing life into great music" (quoting R v Bakel above) from my home audios without wrecking my wallet.

Thanks to my engineering background, my design/built homebrews can
bring me home music performances closest to live, IMO, very very affordably. Ultimately music matters! Do I care whatever brandnames or makes as long as they deliver music right ?

Listening is believing

Jack L

barfle's picture

Some folks might call me that, but I’m sure I fall short of the green felt pen crowd. I try to buy good quality gear and keep it for decades. One thing that’s becoming clear in my 70s is that my hearing doesn’t justify special cable blocks or titaniium speaker stands. I’m not saying that the people who claim they make a difference to their listening experiece are lying, but that sort of stuff has always been out of my league. I can usually tell the difference between a FLAC file ripped from a CD and its MP3 counterpart, but my needs are my needs, nobody else’s.

I enjoy listening to good music, well-played, on decent gear. If that makes me an audiophile, fine. If not, that’s also fine.

HalSF's picture

I’m filing away this excellent essay as exhibit number umpteen for my feeling that the word “hobby” is a crime against the beauty and majesty of what hi-fi delivers.

Jack L's picture

Hi

Per Cambridge English Dictionary, "hobby" defines as an activity you do for pleasure when not working". Also Collin English Dictionary quoted music is a hobby.

So how come enjoying reproduced music at home as my hobby could be
a "crime" ????

So what is the "beauty & majesty" of what HIFi delivers?

Music good to our ears or eye widening "beauty & majesty" display of the HIFI equipment ?

Listening is believing

Jack L

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