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Positive Feedback ISSUE 42
march/april 2009


Sonic Satori - The Music is the Best Salesman
by Michael Mercer with guest David Weber of Torne Brook Films


The world of hi-fi is fragmented and mysterious, and its devotees are equally so. Like any subculture (and it is that) it has its fair share of snake oil salesman, as well as some of the best ambassadors of a particular art form. There are also plenty of individuals who have a deep love for music that know nothing about hi-fidelity, or what it means to get honest pleasure from the visceral experience of a killer home stereo system. They have experienced concerts and other live events, but unfortunately they (people outside the hi-fi community) don't get to have that sort of fun at home; where they spend most of their time!

My dear friend David Weber and I met at a party, and when the discussion turned to music I quickly learned that he was not afraid to share his opinions about the industry and the artists he's passionate about. That was over ten years ago, and in that time I have helped him build a splendid reference system, both for music and for movies. Two channel playback is the main priority though, as music is what David loves most; filling his apartment with good tunes.

He is also a film maker, so having the surround sound system brings him closer to the actual experience, and gives him a broader scope of the possibilities in re-production when shooting and recording in the real world. We talk about new music all the time (when we do get a moment to actually speak, geez, Twitter anybody). While discussing new albums he's bought he always ends up expressing sincere appreciation for my forcing him to spend more money than he ever would have dreamed of on his stereo system! He always kids around and says that I'm a "great salesman" and "who else could have convinced me that I needed to spend a thousand dollars on a two channel amplifier" (yeah, it's not five thousand, so what)?

But this experience required open-mindedness and full cooperation on both sides. I knew that once he heard my reference system, and then walked back to his house after a few late night listening sessions he would be infected forever. Once the virus took hold it was only a short time until he was inquiring about the kinds of deals I could negotiate for him, and where should we start. Twelve years later, we're still talking about music and our systems. Recently David had a friend over his apartment, and the woman told him she "had never heard a stereo system sound like this, it's almost like the performers are right in the room with us" and he proceeded to tell her about this "gift" that I had given him.

He called to tell me the story and honestly, I was touched by his words (yeah, I'm being a Sally here, it was an emotional moment). After our talk I thought the story behind his road to hi-fidelity would make for a decent article, and perhaps others whom have yet to step into the sonic breach will be inspired to do so. We are going to do this as a sort of Q&A (and we say sort of because there may be short stories/vignettes throughout this virtual discussion). I hope you enjoy it, and if so feel free to infect others!

Here we go...

Michael Mercer: I know you were bitten by the hi-fi bug shortly after we spent some time listening to my reference system. The prospect of spending a fair amount of money was intimidating I'm sure, as we spent a great deal of time discussing your options and what it would cost. What was the deciding factor, the thing that propelled you to take a chance and purchase new gear that you had not even heard?

David Weber: You mean aside from the fact that you were a dangerously good salesman? Well, upgrading had been on my mind for some time as all I had going really was my uncle's twitchy old Kenwood receiver. After sitting with you and your gear for a while, my entire perspective began to shift regarding how music could sound through a pair of speakers. I realized that for years I was a slave to ubiquitous equalization and sonically speaking, really only aware of half the story. Listening is of course about what you hear, but I learned it's also as much (if not more) about what you don't. The ability to hear the use of unoccupied space on the soundstage was something I had never experienced before. I was not only hearing every note reproduced the way my most beloved artists intended when they stepped into the studio, but the spaces in between. That blew my mind! It was like someone handing me a bottle of Windex after looking through a dirty window my whole life. I thought if you were offering me the opportunity to have a similar experience in my living room I'd have to grab it. So I dipped my toe in the water with a solid integrated amp (Denon) and pair of good speakers (System Audio 1230). The ol' "loudness" button and EQ were in my rearview mirror and I wasn't looking back.

MM: After we got your new equipment set up and dialed in there was a period of time where you were seriously contemplating whether the sound was "better" than your old stereo, or if it was all in your head. We had many late-night phone conversations about this. Those doubts soon evaporated. When did the worm turn for you?

DW: You're talking about when I upgraded from the entry level system you originally set me up with (which I loved for years) to separates. Yeah, I think that angst was symptomatic of what I experienced listening to my uncle's hand-me-down for so long. As capable as the new system was, there was still a kind of finger print that the integrated amp and entry level cables left on the music. Of course I wasn't aware of this because I had nothing to compare it with. I had gotten so used to that pleasant "signature" cast over all my music, that when I heard a system capable of truly getting out of its own way in that regard, I had an artistic freak out. For the first time it was just me and the music, from the disk through the speakers; a pure, unadulterated kind of naked. I wanted my blanket back.

MM: You've always been a music lover; actually it's how we met (discussing music at a barbeque). There are people who think the world of hi-fi is strictly for gear lovers and hobbyists. This is far from the truth, but it's difficult sometimes to convince them that some of us got into this out of a sheer love for music. We discuss this often when we speak about our systems. Do you have to be a gear head in order to appreciate hi-fidelity?

DW: Not at all. I'm not a gear head. In fact I think some of those guys are so up their own asses regarding their systems that the music takes a back seat entirely. Articles dripping with bravado, written by reviewers at least as impressed with the look and cost of their gear as the music playing through it seem more than less common in many of the hi-fi mags I read. What some of them don't get, in my opinion, is that a reference system isn't about its owner. It serves as a conduit, a pipeline to the artist and their vision; their statement, not the ego of the guy whose mug is at the top of the column.

MM: You stated that I had given you this "gift of music" and that I taught you how to listen, critically, to music. Hearing this from you was both humbling, and admittedly, very exciting for me. Please explain these statements.

DW: What I meant was that before meeting and working with you I had never considered the act of deconstructing a recording before. I've heard and loved music my whole life, but in many respects never listened. Once I was able to do that through a system capable of playing the notes and all that marvelous space in between it was like going down the rabbit hole. A new world was opened to me. The funny thing is that it was there all a long. I just didn't have the inspiration or facility to tap in.

MM: Do you think critical listening detracts from the emotional impact of the musical experience?

DW: I think it can. Maybe I'm not skilled enough to allow both those experiences to occupy my mind simultaneously. But there are certainly occasions when I have to consciously disengage the thinker if I'm going to embrace the music on a purely emotional level. If I'm listening to some of my loves like Patty Griffin, Brandi Carlile or Damien Rice at the time, and I start making good use of the shirt sleeves, I know I've disengaged.

MM: Having a decent reference system is a double-edged sword in a way. While a system set-up with care and precision can give you a more accurate picture of the recording, sometimes the recording is crap like anything else. In a way these records sound worse in a good system, as it exposes all the inherent flaws in the recording process. My wife is a perfect example of this, as she will point out the faults in other peoples systems when we're out at a party now, or at a concert. How do you deal with that?

DW: What a wonderful problem: Having to "deal" with a system so finely tuned it exposes mistakes made in the recording, mixing and mastering process. I will say there are certain CDs I find difficult to drop in the tray because they sound so sonically flat and dimensionless. But I think most culprits are those original transfers done by the labels back in the day when the format was in its infancy. What I do appreciate is listening to the work of a skilled engineer who takes the time to record and master properly, in spite of knowing their work will most likely end up a cannibalized and compressed file on an MP3 player.

MM: We spend a good deal of time talking about hi-fi now, especially when we discover new music, or if our systems do something that surprises us. While you recognize there will always be advancements in technology and there will always be the "next big thing" you seem content with what you've got. Again, another assumption is that once you get into this game you'll be continuously spending money in order to stay current. Do you feel that way now?

DW: That's a loaded question knowing me as you do Mike. Sure there's always "stuff" I'd love to add or swap in my system. But really it's not about having the latest and greatest. For me it's really about trying to get closer to that perfect, pure place where the artist is breathing the same air as you, in your listening space singing only to you. I get there every now and again and I'm happy with what I've got. The grass is plenty green in my own backyard.

MM: To further your thoughts on critics out there, and the magazines that you do read or articles that you happen to find: Are there any writers out there that you feel are driven by a seeming love of the music?

DW: Harry Pearson. That guy has run every component, cable and gadget on earth but at the heart of all his reviews is the spirit of someone who you feel puts the music first. He's the same way when it comes to video gear and film I think. You can also tell by the way he writes that he's got a wonderful mind, but he's not so insecure that he feels the need to show you how smart he is. He is a highly regarded, sort of founding father within the hi-fi community, but he doesn't use that pedigree as a license to get preachy or high handed with his material. I've learned a lot from him.

MM: You mentioned that graduating to a system comprised of "separates" got you closer to the music. I hate to make this a gear lovers corner piece, but there are certain components that will undoubtedly make a mark on a system. What changes or addition in terms of componentry made a discernable difference for you? Is there a piece in your system that you can no longer live without?

DW: Well, the introduction of the Sunfire Signature stereo amplifier was a really exciting moment for me, sonically a huge boost on all levels; lots of warmth and musicality with audacious power. The difference that Nordost speaker cables, interconnects and Thor power distributor made on my listening experience was really profound as well. Their cables love music and pass the signal in a pure and unassuming way. When you close your eyes it's as if there aren't any cables at all. Their stuff is off the charts!

MM: Finally David, what would you say to a person who is thinking about getting a hi-fi system? Where should they start?

DW: Educate yourself but don't obsess with the trade mags. What you'll find is that there's always a brighter, shinier gadget on the next page. Some companies (like Nordost) are the real deal, but lots of product lines I think offer more LEDs and flashy marketing than innovation. A good integrated amp and pair of speakers really doesn't have to cost a fortune, and can take you a long way down the road to hi fidelity. Bite the apple! You'll be amazed at how much you've been missing through your ear buds and MP3 player!