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Positive Feedback ISSUE 17
january/february 2005


My Audio: The End of the Audiophile Road?
by Gary Beard


In the not-quite-immortal words of audio writer Srajan Ebaen, "Agonizing over audio minutiae is a bloody luxury." ( I agree. I was born to fret over minutiae, and I am damn good at it. Nevertheless, while I spit blood and money to develop my former system into something special, my trek up the mountain of audio bliss recently came to an abrupt halt. It's not that I reached Enlightenment, discovered the holiest of systems, and wrapped myself in prayer flags to give audiences to the faithful. Instead, I found myself at the borders of the audio End Time—a time in which the vagaries of global economics and college-bound children cause an extravagant audio system to become expendable. Shortly after completing my review of the Yamamoto CA-04 preamp, I committed audiophile suicide with a quick flick of the Audiogon dagger, and my system became a thing of the past. It is a time of introspection and change, as well as a time to remember the words of those anonymous near-immortals who coined the phrases "Shit happens!" and "Life's a bitch and then you die."

Agony and XTC

In agony there is opportunity, and though my high-end days may be over for now, the current circumstances give me the opportunity to deal with audio demons that have always plagued me. My ride on the audio merry-go-round has never been completely comfortable, and self-inflicted saddle sores have been my constant companions. Being prone to self-medicate, my loss might become a valuable experience. And while I enjoyed my system immensely—it served the music admirably, with beauty, power, emotion, and technical correctness—over time I came to recognize that audio gear would never be the means to an end for me. My semi-terminal case of allergy-related ear pain (thankfully somewhat alleviated by the prescription drug Flonase), along with a Federal Reserve-like belt tightening, made my decision to climb down the high-end ladder more palatable.

Over the last few years, I have formed my own opinion of what constitutes good sound. Even though my listening appendages can be painful at times, and I cannot claim to have the "golden ears" of some, I do believe my head flaps can discern subtle differences between components and recordings. Getting the chance to review audio gear has been exciting, and I have enjoyed it, but reviewing is far more difficult than I anticipated. No matter how fab or expensive the gear, reviewing is a lot like work. Even totally subjective reviews like mine are difficult to write, and all the unpacking, packing, plugging, and unplugging is only fun for a while. Regrettably, after only a few reviews, it seemed that "reviewer's roulette" began creeping into my listening habits, causing me to have difficulty sitting through any complete musical work, no matter how wonderful. To add insult to injury, my love of audio gear quickly turned to addiction, and I became so caught up in the never-ending quest for "perfection" that I couldn't stop looking for that next improvement that would send my system over the top.

The human side of audio has been even more problematic. After firm negotiations with my wife (fur coat, diamonds, spa treatment), I gained the use of a semi-dedicated space for my system. Once properly set up, I spent the better part of two years mostly alone in a darkened room, listening to wonderful music. During that time, there were many moments when my system disappeared, music blossomed, and the results transcended any other reproduction of recorded music I had encountered. But in the end, the fact that my audio system could do this did not seem to be enough. My discontent had nothing to do with my gear—I simply missed the interaction of others. With so much time, effort, and care, not to mention greenbacks, invested in my system, I began to feel guilty when I didn't come home each night to sit and listen for hours on end. I tried to get others interested, but most had only a mild curiosity, and my (very) few audiophile buddies were stuck in the black hole of musical track jumping, just like me.

Joe Walsh's I. L. B. T. and swimming in the awful truth

I had been going through these aural gyrations for some time. PFO Editor Dave Clark, being the long distance (we've never met face-to-face), friendly guy he is, pulled me back from the precipice once. But the rubber truly met the road in late August of ought-four, when after spending a few days in Las Vegas, I had an experience that distressed me greatly. Generally, I am not a public-pool guy. I don't like bobbing around like an apple in two square feet of oily blueness surrounded by one hundred others with whom I've never made acquaintance. That said, when staying at the Mandalay Bay Hotel, one absolutely must go to the pool. I think it's a law. Each day, I put on my Indiana University golf cap, dark glasses, and number 30 sunblock, then settled into a mist-cooled lounger with drink in hand and watched coyly as the seemingly never-ending parade of beautiful, silicone-implanted women sauntered by. It's one of the best "free" shows in Vegas (rooms and drinks not included!).

While this seems unrelated to my audio pain, it was at this very locale where the depth of my misery first manifested itself. As I sat there sucking in my stomach and attempting to look macho while trying not to roast like a lobster in the 110-degree heat, I realized that I was groovin' to a Joe Walsh tune being played through dozens of pole-mounted outdoor speakers. All day, music of every conceivable genre floated gently on the air, only to disappear like mist in the sizzling Nevada sun (it's a dry heat, you know). Even as I made rude jokes about some of the selections, I had to admit it was enjoyable. I never once thought about soundstage, imaging, tonality, or transient response. My God, how liberating! My wife sat next to me reading a novel (probably a mystery about how some woman knocked off her audiophile husband ogling the girls at the pool), oblivious to the music, yet we were spending precious time together, and you know what? I liked that, too.

I thought about my experience all the way home on the plane. It made me uncomfortable to think about the implications of my response to the Mandalay stimuli. (No, not THOSE stimuli. Sheesh!) A couple of weeks passed, and I still could not shake the feeling of relaxed enjoyment I had while listening to music in Lost Wages. Of course, It could have been the endless stream of Strawberry-Pineapple Volcanoes, but I also wondered if I hadn't become accustomed to too much of a good thing. Suddenly, a strange feeling came over me. It was as if I had realized the awful truth about the weird guy down the street. (No, not THAT weird guy.) Could it really be that a high-resolution audio system is not all there is? I thought long and hard, and after considering the issues, I came up with the following analogy:

It seems to me that the reproduction of audio can have effects on the listener similar to that of a ride on a roller coaster—it is exciting and intensely emotional, but leaves the affected person craving more. When I was a kid, I went on my first roller coaster ride at Coney Island in Cincinnati, Ohio. Clickity-clacking up that first hill scared the hell out of me while capturing my imagination forever. In a crazy sort of way, the mind-numbing excitement of reaching the apex before falling off the face of the earth is not totally unlike the reaction I had the first time I heard Led Zeppelin on a "real" stereo as a teenager.

Eventually old Coney closed, replaced by the "bigger and better" Kings Island, which had a terrific new roller coaster, the Racer. The Racer was cool, scary fun, allowing the rider with a taste for adventure to let go of the bar, raise their arms in the air, and float in zero Gs on the humps. The unbridled success of the Racer gave way to new and even more sinister thrills. Each successive generation of coaster was ever higher, faster, and scarier than the last. A couple of years ago, I rode the latest of the Kings Island monster coasters—Son of the Beast. It was fast, high, bumpy, and breathtaking. My stomach was in my throat, and my arse was glued firmly to the seat. Did I raise my arms, you ask? Hell no! I was hanging on for dear life. The G-forces were sometimes so great that my petite wife, sitting on the inside seat of the car, nearly crushed me on the turns. It was a spine-tingling, sphincter-tightening ride, one that had taken the thrill to a level that was nothing less than astonishing, yet as exhilarating as the Son of the Beast was, I found myself drawn to the joyous pleasure of riding the Racer again and again. So it is with audio. My high-end system was quite incredible at resolving inner detail and revealing a tapestry of emotional ups and downs, yet just as with roller coasters, when in the right frame of mind (drunk, perhaps), modest audio systems can be just as enjoyable as those capable of spotlighting the infinitesimal.

Just a splash of tonic in that Bombay, please!

Sadly, and at least partly due to circumstances beyond my control, my fabulous two-channel system is gone. I, on the other hand, have not become extinct, but have regressed to an earlier form—not quite as drastic as Monoerectus, more like a short, fuzzy, big-footed resident of Middle Earth. For the time being, I will be placing much less emphasis on the process and much more on sharing the gift of music. My old mid-fi equipment has been resurrected from its banishment to the closet. A wireless music server has taken root on my rack—the subject of an upcoming article, perhaps—and a cool little low-cost multi-channel system has replaced my computer speakers. The quality of reproduction may have taken a quantum leap backward, but music once again played softly in our gathering space on Christmas Eve. As it swirled, smiling faces were bathed in the warm glow of the fireplace (okay, it's a gas log, but it does glow), and as glasses of Merlot were held high, ready to toast friendship and family, I realized how truly blessed I am. With my one true love sitting next to me on the sofa, we reminisced about days long gone and spoke enthusiastically about the promise of the future. And as we talked, there was a little bit of conversation about music, too, and that, I believe, is the ultimate tonic for what ails me.

Is that all there is? No way, baby!

It has taken me nearly seven years to get to this point in my audio education. Perhaps like Icarus, I flew too high too fast, getting a little too close to a really humongous class-A tube amp, thus melting my audio wings. While I may have fallen from high-end grace, I am not abandoning my audiophile status. My love of music won't allow it. There is certainly some silver lining within the clouds of change, and I would be lying if didn't say so, yet it would be an even bigger fabrication to say that I don't miss my dearly departed mega-system. I do—badly. For a time, I considered giving up my audio pen as well, since it seemed my new situation allowed for little audiophile-grade content for PFO readers. I have now decided that I was also wrong about this. I know that I am not the only audionut who has struggled mightily with issues of money and great-sounding gear versus music. Even as my days of owning a true high-fidelity audio system become nothing more than a fond memory, I recognize that my audio journey is far from over. I still have a few more equipment-related desires, and have asked PFO to allow me to continue documenting my musical roller-coaster ride. You may laugh, you may cry, and you'll certainly question my intelligence. It should be fun. I hope you'll join me.