(Un)healthy Obsessions

During a ferocious storm one recent Saturday, firefighters knocked on my door and urged my family and me to evacuate. The gale had smashed loose a neighbor's large propane tank and plunged it into the choppy waters of the fjord we live on. An explosion was possible, we were told. Five minutes later, our teenage daughters, our dogs, and my wife and I were in the car on our way to safety. (No blast occurred.)

Coincidentally, the last thing I'd read that turbulent morning was the Washington Post's front-page story about the late Ken Fritz (above), a diehard audiophile who'd spent 40 years creating "the best stereo system in the world," and, as I wrote in the April 2024 issue's My Back Pages, alienating members of his family in the process. Both the evacuation and the Fritz tale put me in a pensive mood. If you'll pardon the triteness, each reminded me that life is precious and fragile, as are our relationships with loved ones. We can't afford to take either for granted.

But the newspaper article and its aftermath proved exasperating at the same time. Many of the 3500-plus reader comments were cruel. An impromptu posse sneered and jeered at the "miserable" and "pathetic" dead man who had supposedly "wasted his life." Perhaps those commenters forgot that Fritz was an entrepreneur who'd built a successful business and provided for his family until he died. Who the hell were they to judge his entire earthly existence? It's true that Fritz divorced his first wife, who the Post article said was an alcoholic, and that he severed ties with his oldest son after a terrible argument. But he seems to have had a loving bond with his second spouse, who was by his side until the end. His daughters helped him operate his turntable and remotes when ALS destroyed his fine motor skills.

A father and son becoming estranged is grievous indeed. But let's be real: Billions of familial relationships are weighed down by quiet grudges and resentments. That's as regrettable as it is common. Who doesn't have a skeleton or two in the family closet, or dirty laundry they'd rather not see aired in, say, the Washington Post? How many of the backbiters in the comments section were on their second or third marriages when they wrote those snide, spiteful assessments?

I was also mystified by the schadenfreude over the man's million-dollar stereo system fetching only 15 cents on the dollar when it was sold off. No audiophile I know believes that his or her equipment is a future fount of money. The dividends our stereos pay are in the here and now—in how satisfying the ownership experience is and how deeply it pulls us into the music. Why is it sad that Fritz didn't get all his money back after he was dead? No one in their right mind would apply that logic to smokers, drinkers, or people whose hobbies are travel, gastronomy, gambling, boating, personal aircraft, or luxury shopping sprees.

Like other passionate pursuits, the quest for perfect sound carries the virus of obsession. Remember Takeo Morita, the Japanese audiophile who spent $40,000 erecting a utility pole to ensure clean power? Online, scads of fixated 'philes brawl over MQA, R2R vs Delta Sigma DACs, and the ideal shape and weight of $5000 tonearms. I've heard hi-fi devotees sort-of quip that they'd find it hard to choose between their stereo system and their romantic partner (footnote 1). Among evergreen audiophile tropes is the one about sneaking stereo purchases past a spouse who is kept in the dark about the product's sudden presence, especially its cost. "Isn't that the same," my friend Justin Hunting asked rhetorically, "as alcoholics hiding bottles around the house where their significant other won't find them?"

Justin ought to know. A 40-something cinematographer who lives in Norfolk, England, he's been bitten deeply by the audio bug. Maimed, perhaps. He calls himself "literally a junkie." In the span of a few minutes, he can go from "High-end equipment makes me very happy" to describing it as an oppressive yoke. "It's a type of hoarding," he ventures, something that stems from "abandonment and loneliness."

Years ago, Justin promised a girlfriend a romantic weekend abroad and ended up taking her to a fleabag hotel in the UK because he'd spent all his money on an amplifier. A man of wry wit, he used to call his stereo PAM, an acronym for People Avoidance Method.

Here's a conversation we had just last month. Justin, jokingly: "I'd sell my grandma for some Focal Grande Utopias." Me: "Now I'm worried about your grandma." Justin: "She's dead." Me: "How are the Grande Utopias?"

We laughed, but there remained a certain heaviness. Justin has spent so much on his audio system, and so fast, that it's now worth triple what it was 18 months ago—around $200,000, he reckons. Movie jobs notwithstanding, this profligacy is unsupported by a steady income. A few years ago, Justin made a lot of money in cryptocurrencies, but he says it's pretty much gone now. Meanwhile, his elderly dad is in a care facility that almost doubled its price earlier this year. Justin pays the home's monthly bills, but his finances are precarious. "If my dad's life insurance doesn't cough up, I'll be in serious debt," he told me.

He knows that the pace and level of his stereo purchases aren't sustainable. One recent Tuesday, he texted me in an apparent state of elation, saying he'd stepped off the hedonic treadmill (footnote 2). "I'm done buying gear. Talking to you has cemented it. I'm out. I'm free." He then sent me a GIF from The Shawshank Redemption with Tim Robbins as Andy Dufresne smiling quietly after his prison break.

Twelve days later came another text. Justin, who owns three subwoofers including a $7000 REL No.31 and a $10,000 Perlisten D215s, had decided he needed a fourth. "The Perlisten D15 is $6000, but I think I can get it down to under 5k," he explained excitedly. At best, it sounded like a pyrrhic triumph.

People like Ken Fritz and Justin Hunting, though intelligent and colorful, serve as reminders that we should probably stay within the zone between "far out" and "too far."

Or, as liquor ads remind us, in small type so as not to spoil the fun: Enjoy, but consume responsibly.

Footnote 1: See shorturl.at/ilPS5 for an example.

Footnote 2: See psychologytoday.com/us/basics/hedonic-treadmill.

PeterG's picture

Nice post, and the original article was world-class. There's no excuse for the bitterness/jealousy present in certain comments, they are kind of pitiful. All of us in this hobby spend/devote a whole bunch more to this that a rational person would. I don't tell my wife about the stereo $, not because I think it's wrong, but because it's kind of embarrassing to spend as much on a power cord as a normal person spends on an entire system. I do not think there is anything wrong with that...until it becomes a destructive addiction. Sadly, it seems to have cost Ken more than he should have allowed

sw23's picture

If you find yourself scrambling to feed your high end habit you really need to become acquainted with the used market. High end manufacturers have been making incredible equipment for the past thirty years and much of it was extremely well built. Pay a reasonable price and that value will largely be retained when the time comes to try something different. After an initial investment, this hobby doesn't have to be particularly expensive.

cgh's picture

I found the Fritz video via this website and, after watching, found the whole thing a bit depressing. His path seemed quite different than some of the arguments you mention, often online, that I regard as primarily identity politiking (MQA, tonearms, etc.). The thing about Fritz was he wasn't trying to convince anyone of anything, which is probably maddening for some. He also wasn't after immortality. I suspect that's an element of what grates at people and creates this sense of unease - either he was completely content hermetically sealed in his bubble, or the reality was that he was intensely unhappy, and maybe a symptom of this was his relationships. It seems the consensus was that it must be the latter. He also loses in the court of public opinion if it was the former, since many would regard this as a life not lived.

The path of an audiophile like Fritz runs almost perfectly counter to the zeitgeist - humanity craves connection and recognition these days, as if a life not observed in spectacle is not a life lived, and is evidenced by what would seem to be the biggest thing humanity has going for itself these days: social media. People may take swipes at, for example, the lonely mathematician who toils alone for years (eg Grigori Perelman who solved Poincare but shunned the recognition) but on some level people like the discovery and immortality aspect of dude like Perelman and they still write glowing articles about the person despite there being this perceived element of solipsism. You don't get that with a guy like Fritz.

DaveinSM's picture

Fritz’ system fetching fifteen cents on the dollar sure doesn’t surprise me. He had a very idiosyncratic vision of what constitutes “the world’s best system, possibly confusing “best” with “extreme”.

He had no formal training or manufacturing experience with loudspeaker design. Were there measurements and verified specifications on his speakers? What sounds good to him may not sound so good to me or anyone else.

Plus, his casual approach to the actual music and source material - buying used LPs indiscriminately and in bulk from estates- makes me wonder how much he actually liked music, compared to how much he loved and hoarded gear.

He didn’t even seem to have a passing interest in the various musical genres of which he had collections so big that he would never listen to it all. He was like a completist hoarder who lost sight of the things that really matter - the beauty and emotional involvement of great music, not just extreme gear.

His system and sound room seemed geared towards maximum effect and impressiveness. I’m sure it could play loud, and with grand scale. But did it even sound that good? I have my doubts.

There’s a reason why the best gear made by longstanding, reputable brands sells for more than $.15 on the dollar. They have in some cases decades of pedigree and design philosophy. You’re paying for a well known, well documented entity, for tried and true designs that have been refined over the years. Here you have none of that. Just a massive line array seemingly assembled for maximum SPL and low bass, as well as a turntable larger than many systems. All of it made by some guy in his garage.

I bet the value in his self made designs lies in the components (drivers, tonearm, etc), and not the finished components themselves.

Glotz's picture

Sad guy for sure and all of the points you hit on... spot on. I question the veracity of his claims purely on his 'moth to the lightbulb' myopia. I heard he just listened to the same lp over and over, not to mention his own son wanting him to die painfully. Sheesh. He needed to find another audiophile to go crazy with. Smarter than damaging your family until you are dead.

David Harper's picture

This guy apparently wasted his life on what may be the most unimportant and assinine pursuit imaginable. At least if it was women or politics or money or physical fitness or anything else it might make sense. But home stereo? How stupid was this guy?

ChrisS's picture

...you, David.

But he had more cash.

Yup, sad.

RvB's picture

Whether you understood it is another matter.