"Vat do you zink of all my toops?" Page 3

As a piece of art, the Krell looks appropriately threatening. Hollywood has been cultivating this big, dark, take-no-prisoners look for a while now. First there was the mysterious monolith in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Then came the dusty, post-apocalyptic look of things in Road Warrior. The KSA-250 would be right at home on those sets. In fact, Krell takes its name from the advanced race of creatures in the old sci-fi movie Forbidden Planet.

But the real analogy here is to Star Trek. If my chromed and twinkling Mark IIIs are a couple of Federation starships bringing justice and progress to all corners of the galaxy, this new invader of my listening room must be the Borg—that huge, dark cube of high-tech destruction that roams the universe, absorbing everything in its path. Even a peek at the battalion of power transistors lining the Krell's innards suggests the Borg's regimented, militaristic world. Here, the familiar tale of the lost electrons gives way to the physics of lattices, holes, quantum-tunneling, and other mysteries of semiconduction. It's no wonder the Borg have assumed control. I surrendered on first listen—the Dyna IIIs went into storage at warp speed.

Dieter and the other vacuum-tube artists at the Navy Pier show explored the aesthetics of the visual dimension of electronic technology—a dimension that most audiophiles pretend to ignore. The official ideology of high-end audio, after all, is that sound quality comes first. Everything else, if it matters at all, is secondary. Reviewers go on and on about transparency, soundstage, and bloom, only briefly mentioning a component's "fit'n'finish" or whether or not it's "built like a tank."

But such he-man talk just hides the art-lover within us all. I bet most audiophiles pay more attention to the visual aspects of equipment than they're willing to admit. After all, the sound-first ideology doesn't hold up too well. Audio's little secret is out in the open: Looks count. A lot (footnote 2).

Here's the test: Imagine finding the sonically perfect preamp. It measures better than all others, sounds indistinguishable from a bypass, comes loaded with options, and costs only a hundred bucks. Will you buy it? "Of course," says the purist. But what if, for some proprietary technical reasons, it has to be built in the shape of, say, a human head, complete with facial features and an uncanny resemblance to Don Rickles? See? Audiophiles and artists unite! Stamp out ugly equipment!

So we may have to trash an ideology, but look what we get in return: No more guilt! Now that Dieter has opened my eyes, I've stopped worrying about my tendency to like certain pieces of equipment just for their looks. My old Transcriptor Hydraulic Reference turntable, for instance, used to see a lot of time in my listening room, even though my VPI 'table sounds much better. That Transcriptor was just beautiful. It had that futuristic-but-still-dowdy quality of British modern design.

Nor would I be less of an audiophile if, for no particular sonic reason, I crowned my equipment rack with an Oracle Delphi or some other great-looking 'table. Whatever component it is you're lusting after, it's okay to admit the aesthetic side of the equation: You like it for its looks. And why not? We all spend more time looking at and living with equipment than we do actually listening to it.

This may explain why some audio debates are so unresolvable. If Bob wants a huge rectangular power amp sitting on his floor like the Parthenon overlooking the Acropolis, while Bill prefers the gentle glow of Gotham City, there's probably more at stake here than imaging and bass response. It's probably about other things as well, and it's not likely to be settled soon.

But by far the greatest gains are to be had on the domestic front, especially if you're a tubeophile. Art, after all, makes a great gift—find a gallery representing artists like Dieter and take that special someone to see the latest trends in contemporary art. (Don't forget to wear black.) This way you'll set the stage for a big, generous surprise later on:

"Here, Honey! Just for you—a matching set of brand-new vacuum-tube amplifiers, just like those sculptures we saw! And you know what? I think there might be enough space to display them right between the speakers in the living room!"

Footnote 2: It's happening already. As I wrote this column, the November 1996 issue of Stereophile arrived. It included 1) two advertisements that compared components with works of fine art (Proceed, p.24, and mbl, p.132), and 2) an "Industry Update" piece by Barry Willis (p.33) describing Paul de Marinis's audio-sculptures.