It rarely occurs to me to defend my interest in recreating the sound of live music. I do it because I love to listen to beautiful sound. Is wanting great audio crazy?
A series of events—and evangelists—led me from a casual like of the pop songs I heard on my tiny transistor radio to an obsessive immersion in music.
Growing up in the early '60's, I heard the Hi-Fis of my parents and many of their friends. The turning point for me was an uncle's set-up with huge Altec Laguna corner-horns and an Ampex reel-to-reel tape deck; I can still remember my astonishment at the lifelike presentation of Harry Belafonte at Carnegie Hall seemingly right there in front of me. I quickly learned that music I didn't like could be captivating when played back on a "big Hi-Fi". Since that time I've worked in all areas of the audio industry and I still look for that same overwhelming sense of involvement with whatever music or sound-system I encounter. Many of the recordings I hear today are flat, compressed and uninvolving, but wonders still await in those old recordings made in the single-mic/vacuum tube era. Even such often-heard chestnuts as the Flamingos' "I Only Have Eyes for You" provide moments of joy and discovery when heard over a high-resolution sound system. The music is not just a song but an event, a recreation of a particular time and place, with a sense of both the performers and the original recording venue. The effects can be addictive.
How is it that Hi-Fi—or High End Audio—once the domain of doctors and attorneys, celebrated in magazines like Playboy and Esquire, essential element of bachelor-pads and dorm rooms alike, has come to be viewed as the realm of obsessives, a perverse diversion that requires defensiveness on the part of the "victim" of this illness? When was the last time you heard someone defend the purchase of a large flat-screen television, or a home theater system?
Everyone understands the desire to create a greater sense of immersion in films and sports-events; why is it hard to understand the desire for the same sensation with music alone? For over 20 years I've attended the mammoth, trade-only Consumer Electronics Show. During that time, I've seen dozens of demonstrations of the current state of the art in video technology; first with standard CRT monitors, then projection, HDTV, plasma, LED, LCD, and most recently, 3-D technologies. Not once have I heard a fellow show-attendee say, "I'm not sure I'll be able to see the difference. I think my old Zenith is good enough." Those demos have been effective in conveying the improvements made in picture detail, depth and color rendition; each year's progress has been immediately obvious to all those present. Once you're acclimated to the increased level of involvement brought about by improvements in video technology, going back to a 19" black and white portable becomes unthinkable.
Conversely, a refrain I've heard repeatedly during my 40-year involvement in audio has been, "I don't think I could hear the difference with that really expensive stuff. I think my console/ jambox/iPod is good enough." For some reason, serious music-lovers and casual listeners alike are often convinced that whatever sound systems they've heard, well, that's as good as it gets. Not only are they unaware that higher-quality sound systems are available and could greatly enhance their listening experience, it seems they are unable to even conceive of better sound-quality.
It's as though having driven a creaking Volkswagen Beetle, they're unable to even process the concept of a VW Golf, much less a Bugatti Veyron. For those few who are aware of the world of High End Audio, expense in audio equipment is equated with loudness and Shaquille O'Neal-sized speakers, not with improvements in intelligibility, detail, frequency range or the listener's emotional connection to the music. And let's not even consider such abstruse ideas as "soundstaging", "depth of image" or the like.
It is a problem the audio industry has brought upon itself. Rather than emphasizing how High End Audio can bring more enjoyment and involvement into the lives of music lovers, we have demonstrated systems with spectacular boom-and-blast film soundtracks at sound pressure levels close to those of a 747 in final approach. In my mind such bruising demos date back to the arrival of "Sensurround" systems in theaters in the '70's (think THX with plaster-cracking bass), and certainly the arrival of sub-woofers in home theater systems made for a more sound-effects-oriented sales pitch. Today, we live in a world in which we are constantly bombarded by music, and thanks to the iPod, we can provide a soundtrack to our own lives. We are perhaps more aware of and attuned to music than at any time in history. But that does not mean we sit and actually listen to music, following a vocal part throughout a choral piece, or picking out Paul McCartney's jazzy bass-lines in an old Beatles track. Music is just there, as background noise.
Actual listening is an oddly Zen activity, a combination of awareness and anticipation. It is anything but passive; immersive listening is active and involving. It can be as overwhelming and emotional an experience as a great novel or movie. Does audiophilia require a defense? Perhaps; there are any number of anti-social dweebs obsessed with the size of their speakers, just as there are any number of middle-aged-crazies seeking validation with that new red Porsche.
The act of listening, becoming involved with music, requires no defense! It doesn't require megabucks or Stonehenge in the living room to become more aware of and involved in music; good quality sound systems start around a grand, and vintage used gear can often be had for almost nothing.
The best place to see what's available in both new and vintage audio gear is Audiogon. Founded in 1998, the 'gon, as it's known to its ardent users, is the world's most heavily trafficked audio website, and a place where you might see everything from iPod docks to plasma loudspeakers (no, not plasma TVs). As Director of Marketing for the site I'm clearly biased, but more than 250,000 registered members visit the site regularly; many would say "obsessively".
A number of new products offer incredible bang for the buck. Seth Krinsky's Virtue Audio offers the tiny ONE.2 amplifier for $349; while small enough to fit under a computer monitor, the ONE.2 has 30 watts per channel of superb quality sound, and is routinely demonstrated at shows powering those huge megabuck speakers we all make fun of. Next to the speakers, the ONE.2 looks like a Chihuahua hangin' with a Great Dane.
Peachtree Audio offers two game-changing products in the Nova and the iDecco. The $1199 Nova is an 80 watts/channel integrated amp with a cool vacuum tune preamp, and includes an excellent DAC (digital to analog converter) so that computer and iPod sources can be used with the big boy system. The $999 iDecco offers fewer inputs, 40 watts/channel, but has a built-in iPod dock. Both have headphone amps, and are beautiful and beautifully made.
Distributor Roy Hall is a grumpy Scotsman with a talent for finding great-sounding bargains. His Music Hall Audio offers the Australian-made AktiMate speakers with built-in amplifiers and iPod docks. The work of legendary audio designer Mike Creek, the AktiMate Mini is $699/pair, with 40-watt amps; the $1099 Maxis have bigger cabinets for more bass, and also include a Reciva internet radio. Music Hall also offers a line of quality turntables at reasonable prices.
In the audio world, former eastern bloc nations are the new China; dozens of great-sounding, well-made audio products from eastern Europe are appearing on the market. Dayens, from Serbia, offers the $500 Ampino integrated amp and $400 Tizo speakers, both of which sound as good as many products four times their price. Distributor Arte Forma Audio seems to have no working website; call them at (404) 840-6052.
Perhaps the biggest change the iPod has made in the audio world is that it's made people used to wearing headphones (or at least earbuds). If you want to bypass speakers altogether, there are dozens of choices in good headphone amps and headphones. A newcomer to the headphone amp world is Schiit (!); industry veterans Mike Moffat and Jason Stoddard offer killer American-made amps for $249-$349. Couple them with phones from Grado, Sennheiser, Beyer, Audio-Technica or Denon, and you might never leave home again!
The world may be getting more expensive every day, but the audio world has never offered as many bargains as it does right now. Try them!
Bill Leebens is an audiophile who works at audiogon.com
Illustration: Nikki Cook