August 10, 2006

In This eNewsletter:
• Why Dontcha Come Over and See Me Sometime? by Wes Phillips
• This Month's Audio URL, from Wes Phillips

Why Dontcha Come Over and See Me Sometime? By Wes Phillips

If you're an audiophile, chances are you've hosted, or made, an audio visit. You know the drill: You meet some guy, somehow or other the two of you realize you both dig hi-fi, and sooner or later one of you says, Wanna come over and listen to some music?

You know what happens next. Minutes before your new audio pal shows up at the door, your carefully assembled audio system, which has been functioning perfectly for months, develops a catastrophic glitch.

Maybe not always. Sometimes you try to gild the lily and end up sabotaging yourself. I remember a guy I didn't know very well making some remark about electrostatic speakers' compromised dynamic range, especially when driven by distortion-generating tube amps. I invited him over to hear my Quad '57 electrostatics and Marantz 8B tube amps.

"I think my system sounds pretty good," I said. "It's exceptional at all the things I value most, and it doesn't suck too bad at everything else." The more fool I—I should have undersold the experience—but the Force was not then strong in me.

In anticipation of the visit, I cleaned the house, which left me looking at the system and thinking Maybe I should clean the system, too. I turned everything off and thoroughly cleaned each and every RCA, spade lug, and banana plug until it gleamed, then tightly cinched everything back down just before Ken was scheduled to arrive.

I turned the system on and had just registered that all the tubes were softly glowing when the doorbell rang. I stalled, using the old hospitality ploy to let the system warm up as I sorted out drinks and comestibles. I sat Ken down in the sweet spot, cued up Granados' Goyescas as performed by Alicia de Larrocha, and sat against the right wall, watching Ken's face for shock and awe.

Instead, he said, "Why is there absolutely no center fill whatsoever?"

"What are you taking about? The one thing this system definitely does is float a holographic soundstage between the speakers—well, for the one person lucky enough to sit in the sweet spot!"

Ken stood up and waved me into my own comfy chair. I sat down. There was music to the right of me, music to the left of me—and, in the center, a huge honking hole that stretched from one speaker to the other. I'm sure you're ahead of me on this one: In my last-minute cleaning frenzy, I'd reversed one speaker's leads; the left and right speakers were now out of phase with one another.

It didn't make Ken think I was too sharp, but it was a great ice-breaker. We pulled out all kinds of strange music and had a great listening party. When that got old, we started trying all kinds of stupid audiophile tricks. For example, I've said that I was using a Marantz 8B to drive my Quads, but that's not technically correct: I was using two, connecting just one channel of each to a speaker. My listening had convinced me that I got better separation from that setup than from any of the other configurations I'd tried.

Ken was dubious. First he wanted to hear a single amp driving both speakers, then one channel of each. Then he wanted to hear the two amps in bridged mode. He was willing to believe that two mono amps sounded better than a stereo singleton, but he was of the opinion that the extra control from bridging would outweigh what he termed my "perceived differences" between unbridged and bridged modes.

In the end, he heard all three variations the way I did, and grudgingly allowed as how I wasn't completely deaf. It turned out to be a great audio night in, but man, I wasn't sure my attack of flop-sweat and the mortification I experienced on discovering my hookup error was worth it.

Visits always give pleasure: if not in the arrival, then on the departure

The human mind, however, has poor recall of intense pain or humiliation, and in the years since, sure enough, I've invited other audiophiles over to my house.

I think my dream audio date was actually a non-hi-fi outing. I met my friend Ruben when I was working audio sales and sold him a Counterpoint SA-20 power amplifier—his unit neither exploded nor caught fire, so he doesn't hold that against me. In the course of several auditions for the SA-20 and a few other components, Ruben and I discovered quite a few points in common, ranging from music to literature to fino sherries. When he invited me over to his house, I warned my wife, "I only know him from the store, honey, so we might have to listen to his hi-fi and talk about record pressings most of the evening."

"Will there be liquor?"

When we showed up, we were escorted to several rows of folding chairs occupied by about 20 other folks, sat down, and were treated to an evening of guitarist Anna Maria Rosada, who was finalizing the program for her We've Got (Poly)rhythm (CD, Albany 087). Wowsers! Rosada is the real thing, and the pieces on that disc will very probably not duplicate anything already in your collection. Now that was a great audio evening—it wasn't audio, it was what audio is all about.

As you may suspect from my account of Ken's visit, I find the whole visiting-audiophile thing immensely stressful, so it's ironic that I make my living in a field in which I not only have to endure quite a few such events, but also in which the audiophiles who come over—my fellow hi-fi reviewers and the manufacturers of the gear I review—are some of the pickiest folks on earth.

Every time I mention that such-and-such a manufacturer visited my house to set up a piece of gear, Stereophile gets letters protesting that "regular folks" don't get such treatment. Darned right you don't—I suspect that particular torture is banned under the Geneva Convention. Here's the bird's-eye lowdown on such visits: They ain't treats, they's warfare.

Stereophile has a policy that I am required to adhere to: A manufacturer must be allowed to assure himself that his component is operating properly in my system if he requests it. Many don't, but some do. Most of the ones who come to my house just want to reassure themselves that their components have been properly set up and are operating okay. A few, however, are looking for plausible deniability in case I pan their product. The reviewer, too, is being reviewed.

If you still think a manufacturer visit is a fun date, consider this: It doesn't take a negative review to trigger a manufacturer's attack. Sometimes a positive review that's not quite sufficiently appreciative brings out the heavy armament. I once reviewed a compact two-way monitor in terms so glowing that John Atkinson asked me to ship him both speakers for measurement so he could listen to them before publishing the review. Yet the next time I saw the speaker's importer, he greeted me with a sniff of disapprobation and muttered, "Well, I guess you had your own agenda."

One audio visit stands above all the rest in my memory. That was the first time JA came to my house. I'd written a few published audio reviews and was working for a fairly prestigious hi-fi journal, but that magazine's masthead was already full—and every one of those writers had lots to say. I was fairly certain I needed to find some other outlet that could really use an (I hoped) up-and-coming reviewer. As it happened, one of my published reviews was of a component that JA had also covered, and he very nicely complimented me on it. I [gulp!] suggested we get together the next time he was in New York and have a talk over drinks.

"Super," John said. "I'll be there for the AES Convention next week. Why don't I drop by your house?"

"Drop by"? You mean, as in "an audio visit"?

"Oh, and I'll have Robert Harley with me. Is that okay?"

Oh man, oh man, oh man! The Editor and Technical Editor of Stereophile want to come to my house and hear my hi-fi! What do I say?

"Uh, sure. Okay."

Keep in mind that, as far as I was concerned, this would be no casual visit—as if a visit by those two guys could be considered casual by any audiophile. I had it in mind to hit JA up for a job. Talk about pressure.

When in doubt, panic!

I made up playlists. I tweaked the soundroom. Blinds up? Blinds down? Does the room sound better with a carpet pad under the throw rug? (Yes! ) Can I use a glazing point to keep that windowpane from rattling at 50Hz? (Yes! )

The day before John and Bob arrived, disaster struck. I turned on my system, the Conrad-Johnson Premier Eleven stereo power amp gave off a flash of orange light, and one of the 6550 output tubes glowed dull red and went out.

I called Gat at C-J and explained my situation to him, asking if he knew anyone in New York who stocked the same brand of 6550s they used. "Oh, I have plenty of them here. I could FedEx four of them to you. You'll have them by noon tomorrow."

Yes! Of course, the paranoid little killjoy who lives inside my brain was screaming What if the tube took something out when it blew—like the electrostatic panel on your MartinLogans? I reckoned I'd burn that bridge when I got to it.

The tubes arrived, and everything seemed ready for prime time a few hours before John and Bob arrived. I checked everything twice: Linn LP12 suspension in tune? Check. CD player? Check. Walkman Pro? Cassettes? Are you crazy?!? Well, check, just in case everything else goes south. Speakers in phase with one another? Check. (I can learn from my mistakes.) Did I remember that the preamp inverts phase? Check. Oh crap, I forgot that the phono preamp inverts phase, too—did I change the cartridge leads to compensate for that? Check.

Took a shower, changed shirt. Sweated through shirt. Changed shirt again. Doorbell rang—Bob Harley and John Atkinson were here at my house.

And after that, it was completely normal. We had drinks and snacks and listened to music and talked while waiting for my wife to get home. Then we found a restaurant—the search essentially consisted of our standing on a corner in Prospect Heights and choosing the single restaurant of the three facing us that offered live music.

Dinner was great, relaxed and friendly—although periodically John and I would lapse into silence as the guitarist, drummer, and organist worked through some rollicking Jimmy Smith-style organ-trio jams. We drank Guinness and chewed the fat for a few hours before returning to my house.

My wife went to bed, leaving John, Bob, and me to our own devices. We turned down the lights and started mining my record collection. I must have been feeling pretty easy with them by that point, because I remember pulling out some Gypsy music recorded by Béla Bartók and some African guitar jams performed by a Malian who had collected every Jimi Hendrix record he could find—not your usual audiophile fare.

And, when we were shaking hands and saying goodbye, John said, "You know, you really seem like our kind of guy. Would you consider writing for Stereophile?"

As overreaching as it seems to me even today, I had prepared myself for this. I'm going to play it cool, I'd told my wife. Not that he's going to ask, but if he does, I'll say I'm going to have to sleep on it. I will not make any commitments on the spot.

I looked John in the eye and shook his hand. "I'd love to."

And indeed I have.

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From Wes Phillips

Great site for tube basics:

For more of Wes' amazing links, go to his blog at

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