Listening #196

The world’s a place of horrors
Because each man thinks he’s right
—Loudon Wainwright III

As a teen, I loved spending time in musical-instrument shops. Now, with exceptions, the experience is reliably depressing.

Last Saturday was exemplary: I walked into my local supermarket of sound to buy a set of guitar strings, and was at once assaulted by the racket of two gunslingers trying to outshoot each other. Combatant No.1, a fiftysomething male with an elaborate dye job, had hold of a new Martin dreadnought acoustic guitar, on which he aggressively demonstrated his repertoire of Stephen Stills licks. Combatant No.2, a younger and more reserved-looking male, also armed with a new Martin, alternated between playing along with No.1 and trying to drown him out, the latter no easy task. It was impossible to tell if either player was any good, because both were wielding music not as art but as truncheon.

It occurs to me that many audio enthusiasts do the same.

Man the Lifeboats
Between 2004 and 2010, my family and I made three trips to Florida, primarily to visit Walt Disney World. During our stays there, which I enjoyed, I spent idle moments watching the anoles (footnote 1) that lived in the palmetto trees outside our lodgings.1 The adult males, typically a brighter green than the females, would challenge one another by inflating their dewlaps—pouches of strawberry-red skin that extend from their throats—and performing a stationary dance that made the animals look as if they were doing push-ups. The one with the smaller or less-red dewlap, defeated, would slink away, presumably toward permanent bachelorhood. There are worse things, I suppose.

In more recent years, I’ve been unable to look at male customers in music stores without imagining them as anoles with denim and hair. Sadly, a disproportionate number of male audiophiles seem destined for the same transformation—sadly because, unlike their guitar-wielding cousins, the far greater damage done by those audiophiles is to themselves. They conceive, assemble, and adjust their systems not to find the colorful truths hidden away in their records but to do battle with other men. They do this on a playing field defined by two axes:

1) My soundstage

2) My bass

The man whose soundstage is more impressive—typically defined in terms of its detail, the wholeness of the images therein, and, most of all, its depth—is the winner. Similarly, extending and enlarging one’s bass range is literally indistinguishable from doing the same to one’s dewlap. Redness may also play a role.

The real loser in these scenarios, daily played out in the virtual listening room of the Internet and at numberless audio shows, audio stores, and audio-society gatherings, is music itself. Otherwise, the players do little harm—again, except to themselves.

Less harmless are those audio enthusiasts who are least secure: those whose toxic rage at a world that does not accept the authority of their opinions—a world that persists in enjoying recorded music in ways of which they do not approve—accomplishes nothing other than making our hobby seem repellant. Their playing field also has two axes:

1) My dick

2) My dick

In a recent thread that showed up on my Facebook feed, I saw a number of posts from an evidently well-known audio maven who stated, without apparent irony, that it is his “duty” to educate audio enthusiasts in the foolishness of preferring LPs over CDs or music files, and to save them from spending money on expensive electronics. “Wire makes no difference,” he wrote: “It’s all about the speakers and the room.”

The question that would enter the minds of most intelligent, well-adjusted people is: Why should he care? If, as a consumer, he’s satisfied with digital sources, op-amp–based electronics, and lamp cord, then he’s a wise man to avoid buying anything else. But I can’t work out how consumers can or should be “saved” from buying perfectionist-quality goods that they have either auditioned at length or purchased with a home-trial policy—things that currently seem to characterize most purchases of audio gear. It’s not as if these people are being asked to blindly spend a three- or four-figure sum on a bottle of wine to which a reviewer they’ve never seen in public has awarded a 91—something that happens every damn day.

Again: Why should anyone care? Again, the answer is: They should not.

Unless, of course, such a person is a male who believes it’s flatly, unacceptably wrong to enjoy certain products, and who considers the work of every prancing, preening, purple-prose-penning audio reviewer who extols the virtues of such products to be an assault on his rightness. I mean—how dare they?

Girl Talk, or, The Chicken Curse
In the December 2018 issue of Stereophile I wrote about the evening when a review sample of a power amplifier caught fire and filled my little house with acrid smoke. It happened just as I was about to put a chicken in the oven.

Today, a Sunday in January, was the first time since then that I’d set about roasting a chicken. I put it in the oven at 4pm, then went upstairs to take a shower. While I was in the shower, the power went out. Swear to God.

I came downstairs and conferred with my wife and daughter, the latter home from college, who shared my suspicion that ours was not the only house affected. I stepped outside and found a couple of neighbors wandering the sidewalks with dazed, expectant looks on their faces. By the time I came back inside, my daughter, Julia, had used her phone to visit the local utility’s website, and learned that ours was one of perhaps 20,000 households affected. There was nothing we could do.

Footnote 1: Anolis carolinensis, aka the American chameleon, which made a surprise cameo appearance in the February 2018 issue.

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