Listening #51 Page 2

Now let's talk about loans. As I've mentioned on a number of occasions, I usually keep review samples 60 to 90 days, depending on what my schedule looks like and how much running-in the product requires. Right now there are some interesting things on hand, waiting to be written up—including integrated amplifiers from Simaudio and Musical Fidelity, cables from JPS Labs, a newer and less expensive version of the Audio Note AN-E loudspeaker, and a new Rega turntable.

Some readers have a sharp and reasonable interest in products that are here for more than 60 to 90 days: long-term loans, whether or not they were planned that way. In the past, and from my point of view as both a writer and an editor, I've had a dim view of such arrangements, having observed the behavior of certain reviewers whose entire systems comprise costly "loaners" (which, in some instances, nudge-nudge, wink-wink, were the same as "gifts"). When a reviewer enjoys the free, unlimited use of an exorbitantly expensive audio system, more than just his sense of propriety is diminished: His sense of value is corrupted entirely. Oscar Wilde be damned: It's absurd to think that the person who has paid for nothing can possibly know the worth of anything.

Judging by the cud that gets chewed on the Internet, a number of people share my feelings about long-term equipment loans. Then again, the same gabsites are filled with people—often the same people—who cluck derisively if a product is tested with what they consider to be an insufficient number of associated components. Except in cases where the reviewer is independently wealthy—itself not unheard of, particularly among the audio e-zines—I'm not sure how the thing can be done, if it weren't for the occasional long-term loan.

So, like everyone else I know in this field, I sometimes keep individual review samples a lot longer than 90 days—even though it makes me feel guilty. (Do I get extra points if my conscience keeps me from enjoying the thing to the fullest?) I recently returned the excellent Linn Akiva phono cartridge to its distributor, along with the LP12 turntable I'd borrowed to use for power-supply and tonearm comparisons against the LP12 that I own. Naim just got their CD5x CD player back after a helluva long stay in my system. And when Joe Reynolds of Nordost visited last year, I sent the Valhalla speaker cables back with him—even though it just about broke my heart to do it.

As of this writing, a few things remain. Some are products that I've written about recently but haven't got around to returning yet; others linger because I plan to write about them again, or to review some other product whose use the long-term loaner will facilitate. For example, Linn has suggested that I hold on to their Ekos tonearm, to compare against their forthcoming berarm.

And so it goes. Thus:

Something borrowed
Linn Lingo power supply and board (early version)
Linn Ekos tonearm
Graham Robin tonearm
RS Laboratory RS-A1 tonearm
Naim Aro armtube (spare)
Exposure 2010S CD player
Linn Linto phono preamplifier
Lamm LL2 preamplifier
Musical Fidelity Stable-1 equipment platform
Audio Note AN-E Spe loudspeakers and stands
Nordost Heimdall interconnects and speaker cables
Nordost Valhalla interconnects
Ayre AC cords
Cardas AC cords

Special mention should be made of all the Audio Research Corporation screwdrivers that remain in my possession, long after the amp or preamp with which they were packed has gone home. I suspect that every audio writer in America has at least two or three of these on hand, and that if the good people of ARC ever ask for them back, the audio-reviewing community at large would be paralyzed for at least a week.

On a related note: Some products have stayed with me because the company that owned and supplied them—typically a distribution company—is no longer in business. These are things that I use only occasionally, if at all—and which, in any event, I don't think of as my own:

Rega Planar 9 turntable
Rega Exact cartridge
Tubaphon TU2 cartridge
Goldring Elite cartridge
Roksan turntable platform
Base-1 amplifier platform
Inexpensive interconnects and No-Namo AC cables (too many to mention)

Consider this list the audio equivalent of the folding table that appears outside the principal's office each spring, covered with hundreds of mittens and scarves: If you see something here that you think might be yours, just knock politely and ask.

And now I return to the topic with which I began: gifts.

When I began writing for consumer magazines a number of years ago, I decided not to take gifts from the companies whose products I wrote about. I don't think I'm the least bit special in that regard: People who would risk bringing dishonor to their profession out of sheer rapaciousness are actually quite rare, even in high-end audio. More to the point, the well-intended majority are smart enough to remain vigilant, and to prevent themselves from being corrupted.

I'm no more sure than anyone else where my good intentions will lead, but the road has had its share of expansion strips and badly patched ruts. Eleven years ago, the brilliant John Watson of Mana Acoustics sent me a specially sized stand to use under my guitar amp, and he wouldn't take a penny for it. (It's one of two, the other having been commissioned by Pink Floyd's David Gilmour!) When I offered to pay for the Emission Labs VV45 output tubes I received a number of years ago, the distributor generously declined—and I didn't push the matter, although I know I should have. To the best of my knowledge, Grado Labs has never requested the return of a single cartridge sample, and I've gone along with that willingly enough. (Otherwise, those of us in the reviewing community would be forced to use our Audio Research screwdrivers to uninstall them.)

Not long ago I accepted a few sets of Myrtle Blocks from Ayre Acoustics, thus forcing some readers to confront the very real dilemma of wondering whether I continue to recommend them because they're worthwhile, or if I continue to recommend them because they're free. And Sound Organisation recently gave me a leftover wooden plinth that I could refinish and use with the Planar 9 that doesn't belong to me.

The biggest one of all is a whopper—although I didn't know it was a gift when I accepted it. In summer 2000, I received a Miyabi 47 cartridge from Sakura Systems, to write about in Listener magazine. Quite by accident, I broke its cantilever before I used it to play a single record, and I returned the cartridge to the distributor—who returned it Haruo Takeda of Miyabi, who repaired it and sent it back. I tried it, loved it, raved about it, and kept it longer than I should have. When I finally, meekly tried to give it back, I was told that Haruo Takeda wanted me to keep it, and that it was important to him that I do so.

So here it remains. And while the Miyabi 47 is, in fact, the finest cartridge I've ever used, I've hesitated to say so—hesitated even to mention the thing more than in passing—for the same reason that I hesitated to try on my new watch. Zzzzt!

But I'm no longer sure whom that reticence is meant to serve. Not me—although I suppose I've used it to construct a nobler image of myself than I deserve. And not the readers, given that the people who would most object to such a gift may also be the ones who are least inclined to believe me under any circumstances. And certainly not Haruo Takeda—although I'm sure he didn't give me a cartridge just so I could mention it in every issue and thus publicize his work. Takeda is an artist, not a publicity hound; to project such intentions on him would be like thinking that Picasso had given me a painting only to keep me from writing about Modigliani. Hell, even I'm not small enough to think that way.

There is, of course, another gift I've accepted—one that's more valuable than all the rest, yet has slipped past most of the hens in the foxhouse. That's the gift of friendship, which I've taken freely and gratefully from various equipment designers, manufacturers, distributors, and salespeople. The people who make and sell the EAR 912 preamplifier, which I recommended, are my friends. The people who make and sell the Rega Apheta phono cartridge, which I didn't recommend, are my friends. I've written about products from Naim, VPI, Fi, Nordost, Halcro, and many more, all under the influence of my affection for the people who've supplied them. And I will never change my ways.

Now my Musical Fidelity watch, which keeps time very well, suggests that I go and listen to some records.