The Art & Science of Sound

Stereo - A Novella

By Jack Sharkey, October 31, 2018


So, I was sitting in a bar last night. 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 in sight; I was out of my element but I’m a trouper. It was a business meeting of sorts and the conversation found its way to music – one of the last conversations a person can have without worrying about getting decked (or doc’d depending on where the conversation takes place). As we spoke, I explained my continuing infatuation with that quaint technology – stereo.

I got that look and realized 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. If I had a time machine I would have no interest in going back past Monday night when I ordered that Chile Relleno for dinner. But I digress.

“I listen to music on my [Bluetooth personal assistant device] and it sounds great. Why would I need two speakers? I just don’t get it,” said my conversation partner as he sipped his Great Pumpkin Ale. 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 while I secretly wished I was eating a pretzel and drinking a Coors Light. As much as I think I can fake it when I’m out of my element, I don’t think I pulled it off.

“Well, you know, stereo just sounds better,” I started to say as I realized that would be 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 connection.

I paused in quiet reflection. Was I this out of touch? Was I this…old? Sure, I still have a landline, but I need it for work, I swear. I use Uber. I have a Google assistant I argue with when she refuses to turn on a light. I often find myself standing right next to the switch I could easily just flip but I just want her to cooperate. I post pictures of my food to my Facebook account…oh wait, not a good example of how hip I am. Nevermind.

Was this guy looking at me and 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 in the same way it did when I was his age. Music mattered to me back then – just like it matters to him, so the reasons we listen are the same we just do it differently. How the heck do I explain that something so old and unhip – like stereo – might actually be better than what he was used to? I mean, who doesn’t know that?

Time slowed down as I thought about this. Maybe he simply didn’t know what I assumed he knew. He looked at me wondering if maybe I was having a minor seizure as the conversation ground to a halt. In my attempt to draw an analogy for him, I thought about what was better in 1988.

Food? Definitely worse. We had all-you-can-eat shrimp, that’s about it.

Beer? One word: Lowenbrau. That’s a ‘no’ unless skunk is your preferred taste.

Music? Motley Crue and spandex came to mind. If that’s the best defense of 1988, then no.

Cars? Even the 380ZX was a crap car. Again, no.

Fashion? No. Global Warming is actually the result of all the Aqua-Net that got sprayed in the air.

Television? ALF was king of TV in 1988. Enough said.

The Way Music Sounded? Well, no. CDs were new and they sounded really bad.

I couldn't think of anything else.

Eureka! I yelled silently to myself while he watched and wondered if he should call 911. 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 more than okay?”

More than okay. He was intrigued.

What if it could be magical? I went on my engineering jag about spatiality, soundstage, diffraction and bass response. I noticed he was glazing over. Had the Great Pumpkin Ale caused him to partially blackout or was I that boring?

I talked and talked. I went on about all 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 stereo, I ended with a smug, ‘makes sense, right?’

“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,” he replied with the exhausted look you get when you’ve just spent fifteen minutes politely listening to someone talk about something you’re not interested in. “I’m not going to fill my house up with gear just to listen to a song when I can get the same thing super-easy from the speaker I’ve got.”

Could it be possible? Could my earnest musical evangelizing be falling on deaf and disinterested ears? I wondered how many times have I gone on my audiophile jag only to be thought of as some dude with logorrhea? Everything I believed in crashed around me like so many small plates being tossed in the trash.

I had no words. Could it be I had been defeated by indifference? But 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. “My office isn’t 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 further driving home the point I was not as hip as I thought I was. On the way over, he talked slowly and purposefully to me about Draft Kings while I used hand gestures and Will Ferrell smiles to explain how Fox Sports' strike zone box ruined baseball for me. We were two tourists in an equally foreign country trying to communicate with each other.

I turned on the speakers and let the music do my talking. I hit the app on my phone and called up Chris Cornell’s live cover of Nothing Compares 2 U from Tidal. The guitar sweetly set the foundation for Cornell’s amazingly plaintive reading of the song. The cello soared in goose-bump inducing glory. Every nuance of Cornell’s voice came through as if we were lucky enough to still have him here. There’s not much to the recording – acoustic guitar, a cello and Cornell with just enough natural reverb on his voice to make him larger than life. Pure beauty.

All of the words I could have conjured couldn’t compete with what the music sounded like and the emotion it conveyed.

That’s more than okay, he said as the track finished, with the understatement one uses when words are as useless as a logorrheic audio engineer trying to explain why great sounding music is such a lift to the soul.

For the rest of the evening we searched Tidal and Spotify – plus some of the treasures I have on my local disk – and we just listened. I grabbed some Coors Light from the fridge. The listening became the experience. The height, width and depth of the music in plain-old two-channel stereo became an epiphany as the music soared beyond commodity. The music itself became the reason we were there.  

If you’ve not heard true stereo coming from a system that has been designed to do it justice, it’s just not possible to conceive of what you’ve been missing. Allow yourself the opportunity to hear what a favorite piece of music sounds like coming at you in all its power and glory. Music is much better listened to than spoken about, especially when its larger than what a single little speaker can offer.

But…maybe there’s a way to have both – a super-convenient small system that delivers everything music can offer.

It’s a thing. Seriously. Check out KEF's new LSX.

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