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My Journey Into Audio - Pandora Pang

07-12-2019 | By Editors at Positive Feedback | Issue 104

Original version published Feb 20, 2015. Revised after stumbling onto Positive Feedback's Carol Clark's recent post, My Journey into Audio

Pandora, Carol Clark (image by David Clark, Positive Feedback)

It looked like Carol recently had a similar experience as I did in 2015 that "left [her] stewing." We have been friends with Dave and Carol for years with shared interests outside of audio: wine tasting, child-brain education, and of late, art. I adore Dave's smarts, his dry humor with quick wit, and his meticulous attention to subjects he is interested in, while Carol's quiet and calm intellect captivates me. Reading Carol's article prompted me to fish out my old article to include some recent thoughts.

Four years ago, I was on LinkedIn and saw a post in a group I belonged to, mentioning how over 50% of a line of speakers this gentleman retailed was purchased by women. That piqued my interest. For years, I have been hearing rumblings in the high end audio industry that "we need to bring both the younger generation and the women into the hobby."

I scrolled down but saw the conversation degenerate with a male audiophile explaining how WAF (wife acceptance factor) really meant "Tiffany for her and high-end audio purchases for him." Much like Carol, that struck a nerve…

What this article is not about

This article, even when originally published, was not meant to explain why women audiophiles may or may not be growing in numbers, nor was it about how the headphone market may have been the impetus in attracting the younger generation into the the high-end audio hobby. I had no intention to discuss whether the headphone market boom is truly high-end growth, or is vinyl the holy grail. Last but not least, I surely do not want to spark a debate over music resolution and format nor am I asking self-serving or rhetorical questions like "is audio objective or subjective?"

It's about inclusion + participation

What I initially wanted to talk about 4 years ago was how I fell in love with the products my audiophile husband curated into our listening experience and to introduce to North American music lovers.

The word that came to mind was "inclusion."

More I thought about it, it's "participation."

We audition products together with music we know and love. He made me feel I had as much to do with those decisions as he did.

My original article aimed to encourage the inclusion of this passion, and rightfully gave my husband a lot of credit in the way he shared music and embraced, or gently tweaked my selection criteria. He showed me how any component in the chain can worsen or make better the way music connects in its playback.

He cultivated my ears and nurtured my interests and in our joint exploration, I became quicker to pick out the means (the components and the links in between) to my end (for the music to emote both my intellect and my heart).

It's about the music

In Carol's Women in Audio in Positive Feedback, published 2009, she said, "I'm a woman that likes music and acknowledges that components make a difference in sound."

Wham, that hit me. I completely echo that.

As of this current writing, we have a brand new pair of Graham Audio LS5/9 in Rosewood being broken in, playing in our smaller listening room 24/7 with a solid-state amp. It is our plan to plug in our coveted Luxman MQ-88 (not the 88u) when we listen. In anticipation of the critical listening session—I have accumulated a mental playlist to savor the mid-range at its best, and am really looking forward to it.

Our first audition of this line was with a pair of LS3/5's in the same room. This listening room, though smaller than our main listening room, is a good sized room with an open floor plan, so we had to set them up almost like a near-field listening setting with an equilateral triangle. Recently I read up on LS3/5A's, I found out from a 1977 article on Stereophile, the recommended speaker set up is 6' apart and 10-12' from the listening area, each with about 5 degrees toed in. I can't wait for our demo pair to return so I can compare the experience with the near-field set up we did initially.

Carol went on to say, "The fact that I've been exposed to all things audio for the last twenty eight years makes me realize that it isn't just the loudspeakers, it is every component in the chain right down to the interconnects and cables."

Case in point, our good friend George Vatchnadze, concert pianistprofessor and dealer in Chicago is great friends with Georgian composer Giya Kancheli. Mr. Kancheli re-scored a collection of his movie theme songs into piano solos specifically for George. They put together a set of recordings and George gave Philip access to it.

I like Kancheli's theme songs, and am mesmerized by George's piano performance, so I am really looking forward to it. However, I want to feel George and his piano in the room and thought I would wait a couple months for the show season to end so we can properly set up our room with a dialed in Gryphon end-to-end experience. In that sense, my perfectionist self allowed me to be patient with delayed gratification.

So it is about the music after all. Except, I still felt unsettled and dug deeper to find more answers.

If it's all about music, then why do we love music in varying degrees?

I believe the seed for the "love of music" was sown in each of us.

As a mother of two, I dived deep into child brain development research among other "how to" subjects early on, and I have not stopped reading. The brain is one of the slowest organs to reach full development and it's "plastic." Synapses continue to make new connections when we stimulate them, and they die off when we don't.

That's a layman's explanation of why some of us stay open to music, some can't live without it, and some shut that window (or had that window shut on them) but never re-open it. For some lucky ones, myself included, there was "life support" along the way to extend that fire during our life's journey and it took the right person, right time, right place to ignite it to full form.

My personal journey started with dad, the quiet and soulful entrepreneur… .

Mom and dad

I have always idolized my dad. Growing up, I knew him as the entrepreneur with a big warehouse and a busy schedule. For this family man, solitude time came sparingly. He'd seek refuge in his reading and music, spinning Chinese opera LPs on his vintage turntable.

He would sit in the corner in the dark (nope, he never sat at the sweet spot) and we would know to leave him alone, giving him respite to rejuvenate.

I followed some of his footsteps, listened to his music when he was not around, trying the whole time to find that direct connection to this quiet but soulful man.

Primary school years and my older sister's music curation

My sister on the right

When my older sister sprung full-fledged into puberty, she and her friends would throw parties, and I would join their music curating sessions, trying to time dance music, but never forgetting to create some romantic moments in between.

We listened to the radio every Saturday to catch their release of Top Ten. Our allowance was tight so we always weighed between the 7" singles and the 12" full albums. Music stores back then had cassette tapes we could sample to decide if we loved enough of the album to take the dive into the 12" LPs.

This sister has been my best friend through my life, and that was one of the connections we had. Six years my senior, she didn't need me to tag along, but she "included" me and let me "participate."

Music curation in dance

Music always ran in the background of a purpose, as a means to an end. Since the age of 10, dancing to music gave me a lot of joy. Ten years of ballet, Chinese classical and folk dance training, and performances made music a "supporting role" to my passion. Gathering to pick out the next piece of music for a competition, or a performance, was always fun. Images of how we would move on stage and what tricks we got to show off would flood our heads during the music selection.

Music ran a utilitarian vein during childhood…

Making friends with talented musicians whose music mesmerizes me

One of our favorite singer / songwriters during middle school and high school happened to be Ms. Lori Lieberman. We sang her tunes of heartbreaks and love. They were like road-maps guiding us to examine our raw emotions that steeped deep into our all-embracing young selves. You can imagine how thrilled I was to have met her years ago at the Mirage when we hosted her and her husband, Mr. Joseph Cali at our Presidential Suite turned exhibition room at CES.

Meeting the artists whose music I liked always made me want to hear more, and learn more about what moved them. Since then, in addition to grateful first listens to Ms. Lieberman's new recordings, I have had the pleasure of bathing in music, concerts and private events of two other brilliant female songwriter / singer / musician friends whose hi-res recordings accompany me in my solitude.

But Philip ignited that flame for the love of music, putting music in the forefront

If there is a WAF to conquer, a love of music flame to ignite, Philip started with music.

Music is the beginning and the end for him. The gear is the middle.

His anecdotes gave a piece meaning, and framed the musician's identity for his audience. A/B tests extend the emotional connection we seek, turning music that used to be a means for me personally to an end in itself.

Back then, we had to spend time apart (him in Ireland and me in L.A.) for three months shortly after we started dating. He left his music collection in my condo, a far more modest collection compared to today's, nonetheless, kept in some kind of mental order for him. One day, he faxed me a love note to my private fax number in my office (yeah, the thermal paper days, when international calls cost $1/minute with no texting capability), telling me to listen to a specific CD and a specific song when I got home to get in sync with his feelings at the time.

What impressed me was that he knew the exact location of the CD and the exact track number.

My treasure hunt led me to "You Do Something To Me" by Bryan Ferry.

Years went on, and he did not say, "Honey, here's a Tiffany and here's my Class A amplifier." He did not say, "This is my man cave and let me do what I want." He certainly did not say, "Sweetheart, just appreciate the form factor and don't worry about the specs." Don't take me wrong. I love a beautiful presentation, but pure beauty is skin-deep. I needed more under that hood and he knew it.

He included, invited, he collaborated.

He shared music with me, paid attention to what music I liked, and purchased far too many different versions of the same thing to see which version I preferred (I have this problem of liking what I like, and other versions really never did anything for me). Case in point was my beloved Mozart Horn Concerto (Peter Damm and Sir Neville Marriner)—still stuck with it.

He shared his new finds and explained the background and any anecdotes behind it, engulfing me in a piece of someone else's history. He listened to an old song, and told me how he discovered the album, where he was at the time, how many miles he walked to get that (as he forsake the budget of maintaining a car to put the money into his music and gear), sharing a chapter of his life history with me.

He made me compilations, and themed them to my mood, sent me test copies to make sure I liked every song in there and meticulously took out what I objected to before the final version got burnt.

Very early on in our relationship, he began dragging me into A/B tests, making me as much of a part of the component purchase decisions as possible. I remembered being dragged into a Santa Monica store to listen to the Thiels, fell in love with the sound, but objected to the brown box, and loving the looks of the Magnepans, but objected to the sharper sound they gave.

Even though my vocabulary was (still is) more of a layman's vocabulary in describing what I hear, he listened to my input carefully, and understood that when I said, "it felt like the musicians were lined up in a line, but were mushed together" that it meant there was "no soundstage." Or, when I said "it felt like I am leaning to the left to listen to the music" that "the balance was off." Or, when I told him "someone put a film over my ear" that it meant "it was not transparent" enough for me.

One thing never failed—I always pick out the most expensive item in any blind-tests or any A/B/C/D tests. My husband would lament about how I was "killing him" as each time he would have to stretch his budget. Having said that, once I was told the price of each item, using the never-failing concept of marginal utility, we have always been able to agree on the exact components to purchase.

Honey the kids are in the music room!

It gave me so much joy when our kids were younger to see them spontaneously dance between the speakers with the Beatles playing, or watch them fade to slumber on Schubert in the listening chair.

When the kids were teenagers, one of their favorite pastimes was to hang with their friends in our house, some brought their choice LPs for music sessions, and others brought their keyboards to make new music, blasting away in our living room. Our son's favorite music to showcase the system remained Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. In this day and age, there are so many other things teenagers could be doing that are not so healthy, to say the least…

Our son's curated music turned wall decor—missing one LP (guess where it is—yes, spinning on our turntable)

Having a great sounding system in the house means there is always music in the house. The kids get to listen to what we listen to. These days, they monopolize the car stereo controls with their iPhone plug to show us samples of music they love. Their ulterior motive is to lure my husband to purchase the LP rather than them having to spend the money for download. Car rides become prequels to high resolution sharing in the living room of our favorite music. Everyone is involved.

The beginning of On A Higher Note

I remembered one day Philip and a proprietor (Halcro's David Pope) dragged this large, weird, floor-standing silver box with wooden feet into our living room and told me it was an amplifier. That was at a time when amplifiers sat in the component rack and were highly indistinguishable from another box of the same or different make.

So that Halcro amplifier stayed thus our On A Higher Note journey began.

I absolutely loved the transparent sound, but found myself not able to listen to it for long. We compensated that by having a separate smaller listening room with very warm sound. Later in life, we switched entirely to the warmer and non-fatiguing sounding systems, and never looked back, as being able to keep me in the room for as long as possible was one of my audiophile husband's objectives.

Joining the audiophile clan - My first personal purchase

Over a decade ago, another proprietor showed up at our doorstep. He brought in a pair of shapely loudspeakers (Vivid Audio's Philip Guttentag with a pair of Vivid G1), quite unconventional looking, and had the temerity to install them right in front of our beloved custom QUAD ESL 57 loudspeakers in the smaller listening room. Philip and I were looking at each other in absolute dismay, thinking that no way will they unseat our QUAD ESL 57.

Many music demonstrations later, I was hooked by the music coming out of those drivers.

Then came their new flagship GIYA. I loved the shape. However, it wasn't until I slowly understood the "why's" behind the "what's" and the "how's" of the features that I became a solid fan for that speaker line. Such understanding allowed me to see through the lens, or hear through the ear drums of the inventors and audio designers who built the equipment.

This pair of loudspeakers became the ice-breaker for anyone that enters the house. My girlfriends all love them, and their husbands all want their private music sessions to hear the A/B's. In more kids parties than I can remember, I would inevitably find the husbands congregated in our living room, steeped in music listening and discussions all around these speakers.

I felt proud that I could talk about the what's and the why's of the catenary domes, the tapered tube, the reaction-cancelling woofers, the light but stiff cabinets etc, and how all the technologies added together to make such overwhelmingly present loudspeakers "disappear" when the music is playing.

I never knew that cabinet finish is my thing (come to think about it, it kind of is as we spent a solid six months deciding on the finish of our C.A.R. (now known as C.A.L.) loudspeakers, and took such pains to finally decide on the Burl finish).

Well, Philip kept his QUADs and I purchased a pair of Vivid Audio V1.5 in custom color (Rijksmuseum Blue matte finish) for my office.

This form follows function and highly engineered innovative loudspeaker line not only got my left brain to buy in, but also completely captured my heart. It is no longer "wife acceptance," but they gave me joy to look at and hear my music through. That's the day I joined the audiophile consumers.


Philip's decision to involve his wife, the children, and everyone that comes through the door has certainly created many sweet memories. He ignited my love of music, fueled our children's interests, and hopefully enhanced music enjoyment of many music lovers.

Whether audio is the beginning, the middle or the end, love of music is in the mix. The trick is to invite, include and embrace on our terms. Maybe a good start is to change your solitude listening chair to a love seat or a 3-seater sofa.

Quoting Jeff Dorgay at Tone Audio, "While we are bombarded with more data streams than ever before, perhaps it's a better reason than ever before to sit back, relax, and listen to some of your favorite music without distraction—something that both sexes enjoy."

The growth of the headphone market has been good for business, but I desperately hope that this generation of new audiophiles (young or old, male or female) develops this hobby to a wider soundstage than what's constrained between their ears. I am all for getting anyone infected by this hobby, whichever way you can, and if it involves initially just the real estate between the ears, so be it. I urge the new and old generations of audiophiles that as you continue in the battlefield to weigh between the best sound, convenience, and good looking gear while balancing the budget, please involve both the left and right brain of your family so they can grow with you.

USA woman's team won the World Cup for the 4th time! There is hope for female in audio.

Postnotes: updates of worthwhile reads and my one sentence summary of the articles

Don't categorize us as you are being categorized also – view from a millennial woman – https://www.stereophile.com/content/lady-audiophile-walks-bar

Men focuses on sonics and women on meaning – https://parttimeaudiophile.com/2014/12/05/how-not-to-get-women-interested-in-audio/

It's about participation – http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue60/pink.htm

Start changing your vocabulary – https://parttimeaudiophile.com/2014/12/06/no-girls-allowed-why-i-hate-wife-acceptance-factor/

"If I need a $50k system to get the job done, show me why and if it makes sense I'll write the check. Don't sell me a $10k system and then try and get me to keep upgrading it, I'm not interested." – http://www.tonepublications.com/blog/more-thoughts-on-the-wife-acceptance-factor/

This is not meant to be comprehensive. Welcome comments (not debates), education (not lectures), and certainly if there are links I should have included in here I would love to collect them.

If there are others out there who would like to share their journey into audio, especially women, feel free to send them to us here at Positive Feedback ([email protected]) and we will do our best to publish them.