Turntables Wanted

"Wanted: Linn Axis turntable or similar, 555-1234."

I'd poured my first cup of morning coffee and opened the paper to the classifieds. Though my eyes were hardly open, the word "Linn" set my groggy neurons a-sparkin'.

Here's my chance! I'll pick up an affordable used LP12 and spend the next few weeks comparing it to my aging VPI ET 'table. Maybe I'll upgrade it and become a devoted Linnie. Yes, it's time for a change!

The reverie dissolved with my first sip of coffee. Oh, it's an Axis. The Axis is the discontinued little brother of the LP12. I already had one.

Wait a minute—this is a want ad!

Hmmm. I thought of my poor Axis, on loan for over a year to my friend Cameron and now sitting atop his equipment rack, its dustcover sagging under the weight of—what else?—stacks and stacks of CDs.

Why not? I thought. Sell it. Give it a new lease on life.

I finished my coffee and called the number. A machine picked up.

"Hello, you've reached..." An older woman's voice—someone's grandmother, for sure. She sounded just like Gilda Radner's Emily Litella character from the original Saturday Night Live. ("Now what's all this about the presidential erection?" Was Gilda clairvoyant?) Last time I checked, high-end audio was still a "guy thing." Had I dialed the wrong number? Evidently not: "If you've called about the ad in the paper," the message continued, "please call 555-5678."

Okay. I dialed again and got another answering machine, this time a middle-aged man's.

"You've reached the office of Dr. Robert Barnes. I'm not available right now, but..." The usual drill. I went on record:

"My name is George Reisch and I have a Linn Axis that I'll sell for about 70% of the Blue Book value, whatever that may be, blah blah blah. Call me back."

I hung up, thinking Jeez—if this guy's a medical doctor, why doesn't he go all the way and buy a new LP12? Why bother with the classifieds? And why is he using his mother's phone number?

An hour later, the phone rang. It was Emily, who, it turned out, had caller ID.

"Hello? Is this George Reisch? You called my number while I was at the store, but you didn't leave a message." Her voice was kind, but I still flashed back to Mrs. Barry's not-so-kind sixth-grade classroom: "George Reisch, you turned in your writing exercise early but you still can't script a capital F correctly. Now do it again."

"Well," I apologized, "I didn't leave a message because I called the other number on your answering machine's message..."

"What other number?" She sounded a little alarmed.

Huh? Doesn't she know what's recorded on her answering machine? Did I dial the number incorrectly after all? Did the newspaper misprint it? Is her caller ID working right?

I could see a gathering avalanche of confusion, all caused by me: Somebody's grandmother was wondering why I'd called her, and what greeting may or may not be on her answering machine. Somewhere in Chicago, in a bright operating room, Dr. Barnes—about to gingerly remove a brain tumor—is distracted by an assistant who figures that a "Linn Axis" must be some hi-tech surgical device. "Dr. Barnes, Dr. Reisch called—the Linaccess is now at 70% in the blue room!" Who? What? OOPS!

I gave up. "I'm sorry," I apologized. "I must have dialed the wrong number..."

"Do you have an Axis for sale?" Wow. It really was her ad. "What kind of arm does it have?" she continued.

"Um...let's see...the Linn Basik, I think."

"Is it in good condition? And how old is it?"

I gave her all the information I could and hung up in amazement. I had just met a true-blue female audiophile—and she was probably 75!

Judging from the letters to the editor in my stack of old Stereophiles, there are roughly two points of view in the ongoing debate about women in audio:

1) Yes, high-quality audio is mostly a "guy thing," and that's the way it will be. Guys like gadgets, wires, and technical stuff. Gals don't.

2) Yes, it's a "guy thing," but that's bad for the industry. We need all the help we can get to promote high-quality audio. Besides, as the Grateful Dead put it, women are smarter. There should be lots of them in the clubhouse.

I lean toward the second view, but I don't like the "guy thing" terminology. That makes it seem as if the issue is biological. It's not. It's about the cultural definitions of gender and the various behaviors and sensibilities that make up each of our individual personalities.

More important, it's about the gender traits that others expect to see in us. Families, schools, and the economic powers that be mold us very effectively. Just try to find a listening-room accessory pack for your daughter's Barbie doll.

From this angle, the women-in-audio debate is much like debates about women in science. You don't have to be a feminist to admit that the institution of science is saturated with gendered concepts and phrases. Nature, after all, is "Mother Nature." When Francis Bacon and Robert Boyle promoted the advancement of science back in 17th-century England, they spoke of nature as if they were co-captains of the football team, and as if nature were the queen of the prom. Here's Boyle:

"There are two very distinct ends that men may propound to themselves in studying [science]. For some men care only to know nature, others desire to command her...to bring nature to be serviceable to their particular ends, whether of health, or riches, or sensual delight."

Bacon rose to power as an attorney who specialized in witch trials. His methods in the courtroom, at least in word, were somewhat medieval. So were his views about how nature is best studied or—better—interrogated:

"For like as a man's disposition is never well known or proved till he be crossed...so nature exhibits herself more clearly under the trials and vexations of art [ie, instruments and devices] than when left to herself." (footnote 1)

According to Bacon and Boyle, science is indeed a "guy thing." And it's been so for a long time—until 20 or 30 years ago, scientists routinely referred to themselves as "men."

What if science were a "gal thing"? The main questions of feminist epistemology (as it is called) ask if there are less macho, less confrontational ways to think about nature. Do men and women tend to structure and analyze scientific problems in different ways? What would science be like today had 18th- and 19th-century women been encouraged to pursue it?

If there are masculine and feminine ways to study nature, then perhaps there are masculine and feminine ways to listen to music and audio equipment. Visual perceptions are shaped by one's training and mental habits, as Thomas Kuhn argued in his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (University of Chicago Press, 1970). Maybe one's perceptions of sound and music are similarly shaped by one's personality and gender. I've never been female, so I can only guess.

But I doubt that the women-in-audio debate has much to do with how different people perceive sound. I think the issue is simpler. Almost everyone loves a good musical performance, but most women, I suspect, are just not as willing as men to be fooled by the illusion of a live performance that an elaborate, high-quality system can create. They understand the game being played, but don't find it all that interesting—at least not interesting enough to turn a living room into a dedicated listening room.

Whatever is going on, gender is social, not biological. As a result, there is bound to be as much diversity among music-lovers—of all genders—as there is among art-lovers, news junkies, or sports fans. Running into a 70-ish woman suffering from Audiophilia nervosa shouldn't really have surprised me.

As for Emily, the pieces of the puzzle soon fell into place. The doctor is indeed her son, he's an audiophile, and he does have an LP12. He suggested that she replace her ailing Dual turntable with a simple, high-quality 'table like the Axis. Since it's no longer in production, the classifieds were the way to go. (And the mystery phone number? Emily had forgotten that, some months before, she'd referred callers to her son's number regarding a different ad.)

But Emily was not merely acting on advice. She was a natural audiophile.

Emily, her son, and I met at Cameron's apartment to see the turntable. I expected that she'd be most interested at this point in its cosmetics and design, but no. She was concerned with the arm—"Is it a Basik or a Basik Plus?"—and with the cartridge, a cheap Grado that I'd installed to replace its old K9. "Why isn't the K9 on it? Isn't it any good? Why did you switch them?"

I explained how cantilever suspensions harden with age, and that the Grados are a great value, but she cut to the chase:

"How bright does it sound?"

"You tell me."

She brought along an early-1950s LP of Harry Breuer and his Magic Marimba Orchestra (or something like that). It was mono and in mint condition. I positioned Cameron's listening chair for her (a vintage Mies van der Rohe armchair—slouching ist verboten!), cued up the LP, and the audition began.

As the hollow, watery sound of marimbas flowed into the room, she sat facing the speakers, clutching her purse as if riding the subway. She wore a vinyl raincoat, white canvas sneakers (the same kind worn by another famous audiophile), and vintage cat's-eye glasses studded with rhinestones.

"Can you turn it up a bit?"

"Sure," I replied. It was loud and sounded great.

"A little bit more?"

I was certain that my Axis and I were sharing our last moments together. But after a couple of tracks, Emily had more questions. She gestured at Cameron's speakers and integrated amp.

"But at my house I've got different speakers and different...all this stuff. So you can't really be sure how it will sound at my house, can you?"

The doctor and I nodded in agreement, humbled by a 70-ish marimba headbanger who had just plucked out of thin air one of the main maxims of audiophile wisdom. Emily was a quick study, but she still had some thinking to do.

"Do you have the box and instructions for it?"

I didn't. She wasn't thrilled about that.

"I'll call you back."

In the meantime, I brought the turntable to my place. If I didn't hear back from Emily, I figured, I'd put an ad in the paper myself.

Mistake! She called three days later, and once again I flashed back to elementary school.

"You mean you moved it?! But you didn't have a box for it! I hope you were careful."

Clearly, the bug had bitten. She wanted that turntable. As for the scolding I received, I stood my ground.

"Of course I was careful with it, Emily. But I'll move it whenever I want to—it's my turntable."

"Yeah, well, only for a few more hours."

That evening, she and her son arrived to pick up the turntable. Emily soon spied my VPI ET rig.

"Oh my. So this must be your turntable. It looks very fancy—I guess your junk is my treasure."

"I wouldn't call it 'junk.' Your Axis is a great 'table, and I'm sure Harry Breuer wouldn't call it 'junk,' either."

As I closed the door behind them, I wondered: Would Emily go home, place the Axis on an antique chest, and surround it with Hummel figurines? Does she have audiophile-approved speaker cables thick as a firehose, stenciled with flowers and pastoral scenes? Are there doilies atop her speakers?

No matter. The thrill she gets from cranking up Harry Breuer and his Magic Marimbas is no doubt familiar to any middle-aged male audiophile with a copy of Kodo or Kind of Blue.

Footnote 1: A classic introduction to the feminist history of science is Carolyn Merchant's The Death of Nature (Harper & Row, 1980). These quotes are from pp.189 and 169.