By Jack Sharkey for KEF
Once I got turned on to music, everything became a quest to miss nothing. In succession it was Southern rock. British metal. Punk. The Clash changed everything. Then came New Wave – skinny ties, Miami Vice jackets, and the unfortunate mullet. Martha Quinn was (and still is) my favorite vee-jee.
Even though I was a committed social contrarian, music was the supreme life force. At the dawn of the 90s flannel came back in style and since I was already terminally morose, I was right in stride with all that trendy Pacific Northwest detachment. Mind you, being an eminent hipster and abandoning each new trend before it became popular was exhausting (and expensive). But regardless of my state of presumed hip at any given time, the music was what mattered. Fortunately, all this hipsterism had worn me out by the time I reached my forties and so I fell into a comfortable groove of not caring anymore. Except for the music – I still cared about the music and how it sounded.
This all started when I got my first stereo – an olive-green GE record player with two separate speakers I got as a Christmas present when I was fourteen. Money being what it was, my parents were exceptionally proud of this gift, as was I. I also got three 45s I played over and over again listening to the sweet plastic and ceramic cartridge sounds of my most prized possession.
My life permanently changed that Christmas: I began a life-long obsession with sound. Before long I was removing speakers from old TVs and wherever else I could find them and wiring them up to that poor little GE stereo. I had speakers strung up in my room like dark gray Christmas lights. Impedance? Wattage? I wasn't even vaguely aware. I just wanted more sound, and obviously the quickest way to get more sound was to hook up more speakers.
Later on, I determined that two pennies taped to the tone arm made the needle stay in the grooves better, so ascribing to the more-is-better theorem, I taped two nickels to it. After a while I started noticing my albums were filled with scratches and little pops and crackles, so I asked the cool dude at the record shop for a cure. He sold me a can of acetate and a special little applicator and told me to treat my albums with it. I spent a rainy spring afternoon in my room spraying acetate on all of my vinyl...
After my parents brought me home from the Emergency Room, I was informed by an uncle who happened to be visiting, and who also happened to be a chemical engineer, that spraying acetate on vinyl to restore the sound was about the dumbest thing a person could do. Not to mention the respiratory distress it might cause. My uncle was one of the first Marines to land on Iwo Jima, so pretty much if he said something was dumb, I went with it.
That summer I borrowed my friend’s Koss headphones. Plugging them into my little GE record player, the bass line in the Eagles’ Midnight Flyer became a revelation of what I was missing. But besides that one instance, I didn't really hear what bass sounded like for a long, long time. I knew it was in there somewhere, but I'd be damned if I could get it into my ears.
After college I got a cool job in the recording industry, but I collected stereo components at such an alarming rate I had to take a second job at a stereo store just for the employee discount. I bought so many records and components I eventually had to take a job in the soul-crushing and dream-killing computer industry to support my habit.
My life had purpose – seek out the best sound and capture it. Sadly, even though I’d captured some amazing sound, I still felt like I was missing something. That’s the driving force pushing most audiophiles – trying to get to the point where nothing is missing. It can be quite maddening. Technology is always one step ahead of us.
My ears were in-tune man, and I was, as far as I knew, someone who knew a lot about sound.
Then I met my first audiophile and realized how worthless my life had been. My problem was, I liked music for music's sake, and I was fascinated by the physics of sound, but I wasn’t opinionated about it. Heck, I learned how to listen to music on a $39.00 plastic GE stereo purchased at Two Guys. Who was I to be anything other than egalitarian when it came to music? I was distressed to find my life’s purpose had all been for naught. A young person shouldn’t have their hopes and dreams crushed like that.
I've been very fortunate over the years to listen to some of the finest commercial and consumer audio gear on the planet and I can say with all sincerity that there is a huge difference between a $39 GE record player and a $350,000 stereo system. At the same time, there is a lot of financial space between the two and I am certain an incredible measure of musical enjoyment can be purchased within that space.
This brings me to a business-meeting-turned-off-topic-conversation I had a few months ago with guy who is about 25 years younger than me. We were in a bar, where there were other people, and noise and well, life! Actually, it wasn’t a bar, it was a super-trendy micro-brewery with steel barstools and lots of exposed pipes and things. There wasn’t a dart board or pool table in sight. Eventually the conversation drifted from the music business to just music and I explained my continuing infatuation with that quaint technology – two-channel stereo.
His look made me realize I was coming across less like Yoda and more like an aging hipster-doofus who insists everything was better in 1988. For the record, pretty much everything was worse in 1988. Way worse. If I had a time machine, I would have no interest in going back past March 14, 2020 – the last time I went out to dinner.
As he sipped his Great Pumpkin Ale he looked at me and said, “I listen to music on my [popular Bluetooth personal assistant device named after a girl] and it sounds great. Why would I need two speakers? I just don’t get it.” I took a bite of the avocado toast we were sharing and washed it down with the elderflower beer the bartender recommended. I tried to keep my face from contorting like a kid eating Brussels Sprouts for the first time as I wished I was eating a pretzel and drinking a Coors Light.
“Well, you know, stereo just sounds better,” I said as I realized I sounded like my dad telling me not to breathe deeply as the teenaged me left for my first Pink Floyd concert. Decent advice, but somewhat wide of the mark in terms of inter-personal connection.
I paused in quiet reflection. Was I this out of touch? Was I this…old? I have a Google assistant I argue with when she refuses to turn on a light. I will continue to argue with her even if I am standing right next to the light switch. I am modern. Maybe he simply didn’t know what I assumed he knew. An awkward silence fell across the table. My thoughts turned to a dinner party I’d attended a few months before.
It was a convivial gathering of a few friends on a visit back to my hometown. Everything was going great until my most pretentious and insufferable friend cornered me into a conversation about audio. I really hate when he does that, but this time was the worst. He’s a few years younger than me and way smarter than all of us – just ask him. A few minutes into the conversation he hit me with the greatest insult since a girl in a seventh-grade assembly stood up in front of the entire cafegymatorium and flipped me the bird when word got to her I had a crush on her.
He called me a dinosaur.
He implied I was extinct. He asserted my way of life was now passe de mode. He hit me right in the only thing I ever felt comfortable with – music.
I’ve literally spent my life chasing three-dimensional bass that was light and airy yet still hit me square in the chest. I’ve been on a Quixotic quest for the percussive sound a stick makes when it hits a cymbal – not just the ring of the cymbal. Like Ponce de Leon, I searched every bit of swamp music I could find for the delightful fullness of a Gibson ES-335 hollow-body electric guitar. I was an ephemeral Indiana Jones in search of the three-dimensional Holy Grail of a properly recorded kick drum. I lived to hear every subtle breath of light and shade in every song I listened to. I thought it a noble quest.
But according to my most pretentious and insufferable friend I had wasted my time. He was telling me I was an ostentatious dinosaur. “Technology, man, it’s about technology and convenience,” he said as he smiled at a much more interesting person somewhere across the room. “You don’t need all that dinosaur crap.”
I drove back to the hotel pondering my place in the cosmos. Could it be true? Had my life been lived in vain? Was I a dinosaur? Or was my most pretentious and insufferable friend wrong?
A few days later, when I got home, I poured a glass of my favorite rum and switched on my pre-amp and mono-blocks before grabbing my Mobile Fidelity 180gm vinyl copy of Dark Side of the Moon. I took stock of my life and came up with a list of things that might possibly qualify me as a dinosaur.
- I saw the original line-up of Lynyrd Skynyrd (by original I mean the line-up featuring Ed King)
- I never let the few girlfriends I had back in high school touch my vinyl
- I consistently warn people when a cool sound or riff is coming up in a song
- I’d rather wait and watch a movie at home because my system is better
- I can explain slew rate to someone who doesn’t care
As Dark Side faded into oblivion I snapped back into the moment and took a sip of my overly-hoppy elderflower beer.
My guest was looking at me and obviously thinking – “Oh man, the things I do for my job. I mean, this geezer is nice enough but yikes, how old can one person be?” Then it dawned on me – music doesn’t exist the same way it did when I was his age. Music matters to the both of us, so the reasons we listen are exactly the same, we just do it differently. How the heck do I explain that something so old and unhip – like stereo – might be better than what he’s used to? Nothing came to mind.
Eureka! I exclaimed silently to myself. That’s it! “You don’t need two speakers. Music is perfectly okay coming from one little Bluetooth speaker. But what if it could be magical?”
Magical? He was intrigued.
“What if it could be more than okay?” I went on my engineering jag about spatiality, soundstage, diffraction, bass response and I noticed he was glazing over. I forged ahead and mentioned the things I knew were at the root of why what I listened to sounded so much better than what he listened to. Flush with my triumph and the knowledge I had just won another convert in the fight to get people to rediscover high-fidelity stereo, I ended with a smug, ‘makes sense, right?’
He replied with the exhausted look you have after you’ve just spent fifteen minutes politely listening to someone talk about something you’re not remotely interested in. “Not really. That’s stuff for people who know what to listen for. I really can’t be bothered. I just want to come home, throw on some tunes and go about my business, I’m not going to fill up my house with gear just to listen to a song when I can get the same thing super-easy from the speaker I’ve got.”
Everything I believed in crashed around me like so many small plates being tossed in the trash. I had no words. I had been defeated by indifference. Yet he wasn’t indifferent, he was as enthusiastic about music as I am. “I’ll tell you what,” I said in a last-ditch effort to make my point. “I don’t live far from here, let’s grab an Uber – I want you to listen to something.”
“Ahh, I don’t do Uber. Let’s take Lyft,” he said, driving home the point I was not as modern as I thought. On the way over, he talked slowly and loudly to me about Draft Kings – like an American in Rome looking for the Coliseum, while I used hand gestures and vacant Will Ferrell smiles – like an Italian in New York City looking for Nathan’s – as I explained the merits of not showing the strike zone with every pitch. We were two tourists in an equally foreign country trying to communicate with one another.
In Part 2 - Music beomes magical.