The Entry Level #7

Around midnight, Natalie decided to move the party from her and Nicole's apartment (see last month's column) to our favorite local dive, Lucky 7, just a few blocks away on the corner of Second and Coles, in Jersey City. We threw wide the old red door and stepped into the stench of stale beer, the sound of cheap speaker cones tearing at the seams. I love Lucky's as much as anyone, but the music there on a Saturday night is always too goddamned loud.

Luckily, I'd brought along my Hearos Xtreme Protection earplugs—the best earplugs I've tried. They have a noise-reduction rating of 33dB, and their supersoft foam is light and comfortable in my ears. More important, they manage to preserve enough of the music's tonal color and dynamics, lowering the perceived volume without destroying the sound. A pack of 14 earplugs with a small carrying case costs about $6. Every audiophile (and anyone concerned about their hearing) should keep a pair of earplugs on hand at all times—you never know when you'll find yourself in a dangerously loud environment. Being the only one wearing earplugs in a crowded bar made me feel like a dork, but whatever. My career, and my love of listening, are far more important to me than looking cool. The DJ was spinning a mix of familiar 1980s pop and more recent indie rock, and, after a few $5 vodkas, we were all moving to the music.

At one point during the set, Nicole noticed that, instead of using an iPod or laptop, the DJ was actually spinning vinyl.

"Is his turntable better than yours, Stephen?"


"Is the DJ's turntable better than yours?"

Sometimes I wonder about Nicole. Her sweet exterior camouflages a devilishly pointed wit and cunning. She's always leading me somewhere. I smiled and considered my response. How do I answer this question without sounding like an elitist audiophile? Luckily for me, I didn't have to answer at all. Natalie jumped in and rescued me, as she so often does. Moving to the beat of the music, she shouted, "I love the Music Hall turntable!"

Natalie was talking about the Music Hall USB-1 (discussed in the May issue), which had done an admirable job at her party as the dedicated music source. I was extremely happy—and relieved—to hear that she loved it. I smiled and gave her a hug. What else could I do?

We laughed, drank, and danced until 3am, when the music was replaced by the muscle-bound bouncer's awful nightly alarm, a strangely high-pitched wail: "Let's go, let's go, let's go! Let's go, let's go, let's go!"—my least favorite sound in the world. So we went.

It always happens just like this: I walk Natalie and Nicole back to their place. Along the way, we laugh about the time we had, and maybe make plans for later in the week—promises and reassurances for more good times in the future. There, at the steps of their building, we hug and say goodnight.

But there's no satisfying way of saying goodbye—my farewells always feel awkward, rushed, incomplete. Knowing that the girls are safe inside, I turn and walk away. Somewhere along the angled stretch between First Street and Third, beneath the pale yellow light of streetlamps, I'm reminded of my loneliness. I wish I had somewhere else to go, I wish there were someone there for me. (Sometimes, you don't realize how thirsty you are till you've had a sip of water—or, in my case, five vodka tonics.)

In the middle of these dim reflections, usually around Hollywood Fried Chicken, my mind is flooded by the last song of the night at Lucky's: Sir Mix-a-Lot's "Baby Got Back," which will surely corrupt my thoughts for days. I walk again past Lucky's, weaving through tousled partiers as they're spit out onto the rainbow-puddled street. "Let's go, let's go, let's go! Let's go, let's go, let's go!" I turn left, onto Third, make my way to the old glass door of my apartment building, walk into the putrid green light and gingerly up two flights of stairs, and into my empty home. Maybe I'm sober enough to play a record and scribble some notes before I surrender to sleep. Maybe I'm not. It always happens like this.

It happened like that just a few hours ago. It's now 8am and I shouldn't be awake. I'm sitting on the orange couch, staring into this gray Sunday morning, hoping I didn't say anything stupid last night. I'm extremely tired, but at least my ears aren't ringing.

Nicole had sent me a text message a few nights earlier, I remember now.

NICOLE: Are your ears ringing, Stephen?

ME: No.

NICOLE: They should be.

I didn't know what she was talking about and I didn't know how to ask, so I decided not to respond. Sometimes, not knowing is fun; it's good to be surprised every now and then. And now it's time to listen to two very different integrated amplifiers—one cubical and tubed, the other rectangular and solid-state. It'll be at least three hours before Natalie and Nicole are awake. I hope they'll call and ask me to brunch.


philipjohnwright's picture

May I suggest Frank Sinatra's 'In the Wee Small Hours' album. It's melancholy personified, drawing you deeper in, painful at first but then you begin to wallow in your feelings, eventually reaching a different state, one where calm prevails.  

So I've been told  :-)

Stephen Mejias's picture
markgurney's picture

Frank Sinatra's 'In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning' was playing as I scrolled down to the comments of this article. Weird.

drumguy48's picture

Out of curiousity, I googled your "local dive" - It looks like the loud music you mention may be detrimental to the structural integrity of the building itself!

Stephen Mejias's picture

Lucky's is a little rough around the edges, but it's in fine shape. I think there are also plans to expand upstairs with a game room.

ack's picture

I ended up getting gifted a really nice bit of Marantz equipment but the NAD C 316BEE
 was top of my list for amplifier before I happened upon my bit of luck. 

Reading the above makes me want to hear that NAD in action so bad.  Are you going to keep the Cambridge and other equipment or are you going to settle in on a reference system based off the equipment you reviewed?

Stephen Mejias's picture

Congrats on the Marantz.

The Cambridge belongs to my uncle Omar, and it's back in his system now. I like the NAD more and more every day and I think it will join the PSB Alpha B1 loudspeakers as my longterm reference.

augustobbs's picture

The Music Hall A15.2? Seems to be nice, with a lot of power, and an integrated phono preamp. Or the Cambridge Audio Topaz AM10 (nice price and phono preamp!)?

Stephen Mejias's picture

I'm not sure about the Music Hall stuff.  I would like to hear it in my system, but Sam Tellig reviewed the a15.2 integrated and cd15.2 CD player in our December 2010 issue, and, with so much great, affordable stuff out there, I'm anxious to get to things we haven't reviewed.  The Topaz integrated and CD player are definite possibilities.

augustobbs's picture

I didn't know that Sam Tellig reviewed the a15.2, I will try to look for that issue. But I'm looking forward for the Topaz integrated review!

sgibson389's picture

Kudos' to you Stephen for recognizing the long term effects of loud music. After a youth of power equipment and loud music, I have made every attempt to preserve what hearing I have left for the last 25 years or so. It is really disheartening to play a test frequency cd and watch the power meters go up and not be able to hear anything! There are also high fidelity ear plugs that lower the sound 20 db but let all the frequencies through for about $15, but in this day of cheap power, sometimes only the max reduction will do. Thanks for the great Entry Level articles.

RevMen's picture

As an acoustical engineer and audiophile, I am very conscious about protecting my ears and am often the only one in the room wearing earplugs.  I was self-conscious about it for a little while, but I got over it pretty quickly.  I no longer have any friends that would care about that kind of thing, anyway.

An audiophile should have audiophile-grade earplugs.  My suggestion to you is to an audiologist and get fitted for a pair of custom musician's earplugs.  You will spend about $130 but they will last you for as long as you take care of them and you know will know they're worth the price the first time you hear clear vocals at a rock show.

The ER-15's are what I have and they're just the right amount of attenuation to let the rock through while still allowing me get as close to the stage as I like.  In fact, loud concerts sound better to me with the plugs in than with them out, as the distortion from over-driven cilia is eliminated.  It's also fairly easy to understand conversation with the people around you.

I tried many of the audio earplugs you can buy at music stores, and most of them were good.  I used the original Hearos with the stems sticking out your ears for a long time.  But the custom plugs are on another planet in terms of sound quality and comfort.  Also, they can be whatever color (or combination of colors) you want and they don't stick out of your ears, so they can be pretty discrete if you're conscious about being the only person wearing earplugs.

NYC_Bill1001's picture

Do not EVER buy anything from Jolida. Two capacitors went bad and they kept my amp for over TWO MONTHS and charged me almost $300 to fix it. NO APOLOGY whatsoever except to tell me their "systems weren't the best". $300 for two capacitors. Two months. No contact from them. EVER.

Their stuff is just rebranded Chinese crap anyway.