The Fifth Element #69

I've been reading a fascinating book, Leonard Shlain's The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image (New York: Viking, 1998). Shlain's thesis is that the invention of the alphabet was the cause of immense changes in primitive society, upsetting previously widespread norms of gender equality and horizontal (rather than hierarchical) social relations in general.

Shlain believes that the very way people thought was transformed by the alphabet's demands to break concepts down and express them reductively, linearly, and abstractly, rather than perceive them concretely and holistically through images. Shlain claims that the alphabet's success caused the brain's abstraction- and linear-oriented left hemisphere (which is also the seat of speech) to dominate the right hemisphere, which is oriented to intuition and images. He claims that the alphabet's dominance led to what he calls the "inventions" of imageless gods, written codes of law, patriarchy, misogyny, and intolerance. (The opposites being gods that can be represented by images or sculptures, unwritten customs and traditions, gender equality or matriarchy, and tolerance.)

Of course, such broad-brush ideas can't be proved or disproved, but Shlain is not afraid to bite off huge swaths of cultural history and chew them rather thoroughly. I hasten to point out that Shlain—who, after all, writes books—is not anti-literacy. He merely offers his observation that elevating book literacy to the most revered—and, in some cases, exclusive (footnote 1)—way of perceiving and representing reality had immense consequences at the outset that continue to resonate today. Shlain believes that the invention of the alphabet (as distinct from the invention of writing, say, hieroglyphics) is second only to the development of speech in making humans and society what they are today.

The relevance I find to music is this. As I write this, I have no idea what peoples' reactions will be to my avowal, in the November issue's "As We See It," that Beethoven's music at times strikes me as repetitive, excessively rhetorical, or argumentatively dialectical. I expect that quite a few readers will be upset, and quite a few may be condescending or perhaps even pitying. But it just came to me, as I was listening to some Debussy, that perhaps what I sometimes find uncongenial about Beethoven is that his music can be not only stereotypically "masculine," but also "left-brain," "linear," and "reductive." Not all of Beethoven's music, of course; the slow movement of the Violin Concerto, the slow movements of the piano sonatas, and the slow movements of the string quartets are full of priceless moments of quiet beauty. On the other hand, Beethoven's position in the pantheon of Western classical music is somewhat analogous to that of the Old Testament deity.

Beethoven's most famous musical motto is, of course, the opening of his Symphony 5: Da-da-da-daaah. Isn't that a bit like someone who thinks he has something important to say to you jabbing his forefinger into your chest? And isn't what follows at least somewhat abstract, linear, and analytical?

My point is not to make people have heart attacks or froth at the mouth. I am trying to grope my way to an explanation of my statement in November that "Mahler is the new Beethoven." Aided by Shlain's book, I might be getting a glimmering that "Mahler is the new Beethoven" because Mahler's music is not so stereotypically masculine left-brain, linear, and reductive.

Think for a moment about the nebulous, numinous quality of the opening of Mahler's Symphony 1. Can anything be further from the opening of Beethoven's Fifth? I'm not prepared to say that Maher's music is more "feminine," but I do think it is plausible to claim that Mahler's music is concrete and holistic, and that it is not rhetorical or argumentative—and so perhaps Mahler's music better fits our times. Trivia bit: The opening section of Alexander Courage's theme music to the original Star Trek TV series—the numinous bit before the rhythm section literally begins the beguine—borrows from Mahler's Symphonies 1 and 7.

I'd appreciate anyone else's thoughts on why "Mahler is the new Beethoven." The e-mail address is at the end of the column.

Grace Design m903 D/A Headphone Amplifier
I have long been a fan of Grace Design's headphone amplifiers. In fact, I have long been a fan of Grace Design. Like many of the pioneering companies of the hi-fi era (Klipsch, McIntosh, Marantz, and Fisher, to name a few), Grace is the result of a single person's conviction. Michael Grace was working for the Jeff Rowland Design Group, and wanted to design a microphone preamplifier that was as good as the stuff Rowland was building. Rowland was unwilling to expand into the pro audio field, so Grace departed to pursue his dream.

After getting his microphone preamplifiers well established (users include Skywalker Sound and the band Phish), Grace built a one-off headphone amplifier for a customer. Friends who heard it wanted their own, so he made 50 of them. Those soon vanished, and the rest is history. You don't have to look too hard to see that Grace Design's products have some of the same design aesthetic as Rowland's, even though Grace's products are not quite the same level of "audio jewelry."

It's a bit hard to believe that Grace's first headphone amplifier, the model 901, debuted 10 years ago (my coverage of it ran in Stereophile's March 2003 issue). Two years later, in June 2005, I wrote about the 901's replacement, the m902, which added a new DAC capable of handling 192kHz inputs, unbalanced analog outputs, a blue LED numerical display, a crossfeed circuit for headphone listening, and a USB 1.0 input. The m902 used the same transimpedance amplifier circuit as the 901, however. It's fair to sum up my reaction to the m902 as "Same great sound, more features." I think that, for many listeners, the most important new features were the line-level analog outputs, which allowed the m902 to function as a DAC and preamplifier.

Back in 2005 I paid little attention to USB connectivity, for two reasons. First were my own listening experiences, which were overall not very positive. Indeed, Wes Phillips found the m902's sound via its USB connection to be "murky." The second reason was professional snobbery: none of my colleagues who were professional recording engineers used USB to record. Such snobbery was not groundless: USB 1.0 is bandwidth-limited. Furthermore, when professional musicians are playing or singing their hearts out, you don't want your recording rig hiccupping because some arcane internal function decides it's high time to make sure that its internal date and time are exactly what the mother church in Cupertino, California, says they should be. So, back then, many engineers used only digital-audio computer interfaces (such as RME's Hammerfall) that tie directly into the computer's system bus via the PMCIA slot or via a FireWire link. Today, with the advent of USB 2.0 (and lots of lessons learned), the situation is different. One of the most respected digital interfaces is Sadie's LRX2, which uses USB 2.0 to store 16 channels of 24-bit/96kHz PCM on a Windows laptop, and is the preferred location-recording rig of Peter McGrath.

Grace has now replaced the m902 with the m903, which, unlike the m902, is pretty much new from stem to stern (except for its industrial design and ergonomics). New are the m903's DAC, USB module, transimpedance amplifier circuit, and volume control. The power supply, balanced current-to-voltage converter, headphone crossfeed, and s-Lock PLL digital lock all are improved. The m903 comes standard with balanced analog outputs, although to save rear-panel space these are on ¼" TRS phone jacks rather than XLR jacks. (Balanced outputs were first offered late in the m902's production, as an extra-cost option.) The numeric display is now white rather than blue. Despite all these improvements, the m903 remains reasonably priced at $1895. (Infrared remote control remains an extra-cost option.)

Footnote 1: To varying degrees and at different times, all three "Religions of the Book" (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) have been "anti-image." There is a continuum, of course. For the most part, Christianity has embraced iconography. However, many strands of Reformation Christianity totally renounced images. To take one example, the Auditorium of the Third Meeting House of the First Baptist Church in America entirely lacks not only icons and images but also symbols: there is not even a cross. Shlain's notion that totally banishing images from the social sphere will change how people perceive reality and think about reality does not strike me as far-fetched.

Mortsnets's picture

I got the Howard Leight Sync headphones for Christmas and you can actually listen to music while mowing the lawn, or while your son watches cartoons, or your wife watches reality TV!

Appreciate the lower cost audio gadget coverage.

John Marks's picture

I thought that they were nifty, and, a great bargain.


pacinnovative's picture

Anyone considering using the Grace M903 as a control center for their A/V media center and wants to use remote controls, had first better test their existing equipment's remotes compatibility with the Grace M903.

I made the mistake of assuming that Grace would use discrete remote command coding for the M902 that I purchased a few years ago. After first having to return the remote control for repair, I then set up my system only to find that the commands for my Toshiba TV and DVD Recorder/Player would cause all manner of reactions in the Grace. The Grace's remote volume commands would cause the Toshiba TV to change Inputs and Set-up settings!

I contacted Grace and they politely explained that I was screwed and they had no plans to change their remote coding. After the M903 was introduced, I contacted Grace to find out if they had corrected this (in my opinion) engineering faux pas, and was told that they had not addressed any issues with the remote control system.

I ended up having to eat the $100+  remote and physically block the Grace's remote sensor so that I could use the Grace with my A/V system. 

I like the sound ( I also own the Benchmark DAC-1), and agree with John Marks assessment of it's character.

Ralph D. Skelton

John Marks's picture

Perhaps the reason Grace can't do anything about "their" remote under the current arrangements is that they purchase their remotes from the Jeff Rowland Design Group. I had no idea this problem existed, so, thanks for the warning.

The 9000 series is as close as Grace gets to a "prosumer" product. The next step up , their component-sized monitor controller, has an optional wired remote control, which is the usual full-professional way of doing things.

I did find the 903's sound a step up from the 902's.



benleo's picture

I had a Brick, read this review of the M903, needed a headphone amp and thought how could I go wrong.  Here is how: I was provided a Wavelength Cosecant, It completely and totally blows away the M903.  The soundstage and life-like qualities of the Cosecant are in a different, and better universe, than the M903.

Don't misunderstand me.  THe M903 sounds ok, and Grace is wonderful company and was very helpful to me regarding a driver issue, but if you have the $$$ buy a Cosecant.   

I have no idea who listened to these two DACs and put the M903 in the A group and the Cosecant in the B or C.  They must have had a bad head cold.

Just this man 's opinion, but one that is deeply felt.

Good listening to everyone.