Listening #6 Page 2

By the time you read this, the war may be over and done with, or it may be showing signs of dragging on forever—or some possibility in between. Whatever the case and whatever your point of view, feel free to modify the reason for having a Road Box at all—whether fire, flood, or fear of John Ashcroft.

Beer and Tone Controls
Beer, often associated with obesity and meanness, has also been known to enhance some people's enjoyment of music. That's one of the appeals of listening at home.

Unless it's a nightclub or an outdoor music festival, beer isn't usually a part of the live music experience. But that hasn't stopped me from enjoying beer while listening to such varied fare as Elgar's Nursery Suite, the sacred music of Heinrich Schütz, and the endearingly fey Belle & Sebastian: A nice cold brewski goes with all of them. Of course, so do coffee, tea, those little goldfish crackers, incense (my favorites are coconut and African violet), slouching, looking through photo albums, leaving the television tuned to the Weather Channel, and going barefoot. None of those things goes down well with the ushers at Carnegie, or so I'm told.

Forgive me for avoiding—forever, I hope—the question of whether the "correct" goal of a home audio system is to transport me to the concert or the concert to me. That debate has never interested me—not just because it's tedious but because it's irrelevant. I know that hi-fi and live music don't have anything to do with one another: They're completely and utterly different. Vive la whatever.

Here's the real heresy: Sometimes live is better than canned, but just as often it's the other way around.

Hi-fi is all about listening to music on my terms. My terms include where I am, what I'm wearing, what I'm consuming, what or whom I'm looking at, and whether or not I choose to hum, whistle, or sing along.

My terms also include what I want the music to sound like, and that includes whether I want it big or small, dark or bright, soft or loud, and so forth. (Englishman Jimmy Hughes has long been one of my favorite audio writers, although I don't hold to his dictum that every recording has one loudness setting and one only at which it may be properly enjoyed: I agree only in the sense that the "right" setting will be different for everyone—which is not how he means it, I'm sure.)

Now: Tony Rice, the bluegrass guitarist whose work has influenced more flatpickers than anyone since Clarence White, is also an audio enthusiast, record collector, and avid jazz and classical music fan. Tony's preamplifier of choice is a Marantz Model 7 he's owned for years—a tubed component noted for its popularity with purist audiophiles and those of us who often wish our expensive stereos had more in the way of features.

What kinds of features? In a recent conversation with Tony, he mentioned to me a few things he thinks every preamplifier or integrated amplifier needs in order to give serious record-lovers a reasonable degree of control over their listening sessions. The first things on his list were tone controls. Vinyl lovers might ask for switchable RIAA curves, so our old Columbias, Blue Notes, et al can be played back with the correct EQ settings—and hats off to those contemporary phono-preamp makers who actually offer such things. Absent such refinements, however, two or three humble tone controls can go a long way toward increasing our enjoyment of our records through our expensive, fancy-ass gear.

I thought about that recently during one of those rainy-afternoon rambles through my pop collection while Janet and Julia were off someplace. Cutting the upper bass on the second Electric Light Orchestra album, or maybe boosting the treble just a little bit, might help me cut through the murk. I'd listen to that first Moby Grape album a lot more if I could tame the highs. The Concert for Bangla Desh needs some help in the highs, too (not to mention a mute switch for the Leon Russell numbers, but that's another matter). And so on, through literally thousands of pieces of lovingly collected and preserved imperfection.

The case against tone controls? Apart from the idea of simply not wanting any such thing—and that point of view is, of course, as legitimate as any other—there's the loss of transparency, clarity, and presence that results when you have something in the signal path that you don't "need," especially when that something is a potentiometer, primitive examples of which are, in essence, junky resistors. Then again, newer pots are better than that, and even so, when they're centered out, that wiper just goes "harmlessly" to ground...

The objection cited more often than that is the fact that, once activated, tone-control filters introduce significant amounts of frequency-dependent phase shift. You can see it on a 'scope, where the complex waveform will no longer resemble its old self. More important (to some people), you can hear it in your audio system's spatial performance: The stereo imaging goes all to heck.

That don't bother me none, as Lynyrd Skynyrd used to sing, because right now I have something in my hi-fi that dispenses with all my imaging woes with a single touch. That something, which also happens to be the No.2 oughta-have feature on Tony Rice's list, is...

The Mono Switch
As in, You need one.

If you're a vinyl enthusiast, you may even need a mono phono cartridge. But if you're a music enthusiast, you certainly need a mono switch. I'm not just saying that to be cool or to go against the grain: I like stereo. A lot of stereo recordings sound wonderful, and the spatial artifacts of stereo recording technology can enhance the listening experience. (See paragraph 25, above, the essence of which is: If something makes music sound better to you, it is better.) But I often find that stereo effects make things sound wispy, fussy, and washed-out, and they can otherwise distract me from the music.