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Tales from the Dungeon, Part 1

07-21-2016 | By Tom Gibbs | Issue 86

Dungeon

"The more things change, the more they remain the same." - Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr

What a load of crap! Sometimes, when things change, they seriously change, and things are nowhere nearly the same as they were!

What I'm referring to here is my personal situation, where, in the space of a couple of months, we bought some land, took out a construction loan to build a new house, then promptly sold our home of thirty years, ending up homeless in the process. Well, we're not exactly homeless, we're living in my brother's basement, which we have recently begun to affectionately refer to as the "Dungeon." Affectionately? Hmmm…. that might be a bit of a stretch.

This started back in February, when my wife Bambi spotted a couple of scenic acres nearby and promptly fell in love, and the roller-coaster ride has been virtually non-stop ever since. After putting in a contract on the land, then going through a mind-numbing construction loan process—I think at last count, I had to provide them with somewhere in the neighborhood of ninety five individual pieces of documentation. I darn-near killed our scanner from overuse. And then, of course, we had to get our current home ready to sell, which also came as a great shock: thirty years of domestic bliss tends to pile up in every nook and cranny of two stories and a full basement. 

What exactly does this have to do with audio, and audiophila, you're probably asking yourself. Actually, in this case, it probably has more to do with the absence of audio, as that shrew-of-a-real estate agent¹ of ours demanded that in order to show the house to maximum effect, all—and I mean every single piece—of the stereo equipment had to go into storage. I spent an entire weekend sorting and packing and transporting—lots of heavy lifting, which ultimately left me with only my computer; the HRT Streamer HD, and a twenty-plus-year-old Mirage/Sony HT receiver setup that was pulled out of mothballs and eventually sold with the house. Everything else was gone—turntable, amplifiers, records, et al. No joyous sounds coming from the basement, no PS Audio, Zu, Emotiva, Rega, REL, Maggies—all gone. I've been essentially stereoless for 90 days now.

And it's been like that since mid-April; the house sold in just three days, and we had to be out by July 1. Fortunately for us, my brother Harold offered to let us stay with him in his basement, which is really very accommodating by most anyone's standards. And it's actually been nice to veg there for a few weeks, with no daily regimen of packing and heavy lifting to go through, which had been going on for seemingly weeks (months?) on end—it's been a really nice break for Bambi and I.

But now that we've been here for almost a month, we've started to recover our faculties and get on with life while we wait for the new house to be completed, which is tentatively mid-November or so. And we've developed new routines that we've slowly begun to fall into. For example: my commute to work was 58 miles round-trip; now, it's 125 miles round-trip. Yes, you guessed it: Harold's basement is way the freak out in freakin' West Bumble. And it's not that we're such dazzling urbanites that we can't cope with the idyllic peacefulness of country living, but we're very far from bars, restaurants, there's not even a freakin' Starbucks that's less than a thirty minute drive. Bambi is seriously stressed to say the very least, by not even being able to jump in the car and drive five minutes at midnight to Dunkin' Donuts should the urge hit us. The only thing that's even remotely convenient to us is a toilet of a convenience store called the Smart Mart, and it has gas, beer, lottery tickets and biscuits in the morning. Now, I'm never one to complain about the availability of beer, but that's about the extent of their offerings, and even the biscuits aren't really that great. It's truly tragic, but apparently gentrified rural living is not as exactly to die for as all those infomercials would have you believe.

And Harold and his wife, Pam are fitness freaks; they go on a daily walk, and on my days off (I work a three-day-a-week schedule), I've been asked to join them. The walk is approximately four miles, and has an elevation gain of about 250 feet—the hills are about a five-percent grade and are absolutely killer! I most definitely did not get the memo that slumming it in sub-suburbia was going to be so physically demanding. At least I'll be in better shape when we finally (please, Dear God!) get the heck out of here and back to civilization.

030-Gene-WilderAnd it's not like we're living in a rustic hobbit hole, the house sits in a gated community that encompasses 8,000 acres, with golf, tennis, swimming pools and kayaking on a 500-acre lake that's among the largest private lakes in northwest Georgia. It couldn't be nicer—it's just really freakin' far out of the mainstream (back in the seventies, I thought a term like "freakin' far out" was a true compliment—how things change!). I just want my damn stereo back, which, of course, is buried in a 15 x 30 x 10-foot-tall climate-controlled storage locker, which is packed, rather, crammed  tightly to the gills—and it's all the way at the very back. Even when we move into the new place, it'll be the very last thing to get unpacked.

In the Dungeon, I only have my computer, the afore-mentioned HRT Streamer and a pair of Monoprice headphones—the Sennheisers got packed along with everything else and are out of my reach at the moment. Fortunately, the Monoprice phones have acquitted themselves very admirably; they really raise the bar significantly for what you would logically expect from a product that retails for about $14—the sound is pretty remarkable. Harold says he has a pair of "really nice" Audio Technica Studio Monitor headphones around here somewhere, perhaps when he scares them up, I'll give them a listen.

The "living room" space in the Dungeon has a flat-screen TV with a newish HK receiver hooked up to a pair of JBL monitors, but even that is—at this point—inaccessible to me for anything other than sound from the television. I tried running a feed from the HRT to the 3rd aux input on the front of the receiver—no dice; apparently buried deep within one of the onscreen menus for the receiver, all audio inputs are apparently set to "HDMI audio" only, and I've yet to find the setting or even crack the code to allow me to play some of my own music through this rig. Harold is a techno-automation freak; It's truly mind-numbingly difficult to sift through the layers of menus and commands in his system to figure out what is controlling what else. I don't mean to sound like a techno-neophyte, but aside from digital music files, I'm much more in tune to a pure-analog approach to equipment setup. And since we're guests here, I don't want to overstep my bounds by futzing unnecessarily with his setup.

Now, I totally get the triviality of my predicament; it could be much, much worse—we could be paying rent for some dump and paying for the storage unit, and Harold and Pam won't accept one dime for anything—they're being very generous. There are all kind of worse situations in the world with bombings, and mass shootings, and Donald Trump, of course. But we humans are creatures of habit, and all Bambi and I want is something approaching our usual routine—is that so much to ask for? With any luck, it's only a few months down the road, and barring any unforeseen cost overruns, will leave us in a much better position when all is said and done. And I'll finally have the dedicated music room of my dreams, which, at least by its dimensions, is going to be darn-near Cardas golden proportions—I won't even begin to know how to act or even think about things from a sound-reproduction standpoint. Whether I can outfit it with all the necessary accoutrements to achieve perfect sound  is waiting to be seen – gotta try and keep that builder tightly within his budget, which is already proving problematic.

While the new dedicated listening room is going to be as pure analog as possible, I'm definitely wiring the new house so that there's a main server/NAS available that will allow all music and other data files to be accessed by anyone from anywhere in the house. Everything will be controlled by a tablet or any other android device. We've cut the cord in terms of cable tv, and we'll definitely have a couple of audio setups on the main level that will allow music to be played through both of my Audio Engine speaker systems or the basement big rig at any given time, and hopefully the experience will be an effortless one for everyone. We're already calling the new place the "Mid-Century Marvel"—it'll be a real change of pace, as we've basically spent the last thirty years in a relatively dark bungalow. In the new house, one entire side is going to be floor-to-ceiling glass—which will be quite the change for us, and you know what they say about people who live in glass houses!

I'll post updates on the new house and listening room as progress is made, plus I've been observing some interesting audio-related trends online that I'll probably want to chime in on periodically. It's not all darkness here in the Dungeon; I just got deliveries recently of a couple of headphone-centric review opportunities. The new AudioQuest Red and Black DragonFlys are inhouse, as well as the Centrance DACport HD, which I've been listening to for the last couple of weeks and am highly impressed with, to say the least. Reviews will be forthcoming.

Happy listening to all of you!

¹ I mean this in the nicest way possible, she's actually a very nice and highly professional person and comes with our highest recommendation—her first class efforts sold our home in only three days! And for almost $20,000 over the asking price!

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