I have to confess. Ok, I don’t have to, but I will anyway.
This is my site, so if you see a review and wonder who wrote it — that’d be me. Well. Unless there’s a byline that said someone else wrote it. I mean, it could happen. But it’s usually me.
So, who am I?
My name is Scot and I’m an audiophile.
It’s a problem, I know. Believe me — it’s something I’ve been working on. Anybody got a good therapist they can recommend?
Har har har.
Okay, well, maybe that’s only a little bit funny. Calling myself an “audiophile” is something many of you out there in the Interwebbynets will readily equate to self-identifying as some kind of fetishist, perhaps somewhere on par with a Hummel figurine collector — and that’s only if you’re being charitable. To be honest, that suspicion is probably fair. Audiophiles are a weird bunch. There’s this OCD-level obsession with gear and with sound quality, and quite frankly, some of the beliefs and practices that go into all of it are … well, let’s just say “bizarre” and move on.
As for my own fetishistic expression, I suppose that I should say that I’m more properly a stereophile. I’m in it for the gear — I’ve got a thing for the pretty boxes! Yes, I love music too, and yes, I am totally enthralled by really awesome sound — but that’s not all of it. I mean, if it was, I’d have been “done” at Beats and an iPod. Ahem. Anyway, there’s just something, something strange and maybe even awesome about products in this segment that just lights me up. To me, it’s every bit of “art” — and in the exact same way that the fine arts are “art”. The only difference, at least as I see it, is the medium — circuits and wire and vacuum tubes, instead of charcoal, stone or paint. I find it fascinating — and the fact that you can use (instead of just stare at) these things, these amazing, hand-made objets, to make music … well, that’s almost inexpressibly awesome.
Yes, okay, fine. I have a problem. I said that already, didn’t I?
Who am I?
My parents were musical-ish. My Mom said she liked classical music, but strangely for a mother of three, she never actually chose to put music on and instead seemed to vastly prefer long stretches of something she referred to as “blessed quiet”. The importance — and rarity — of this phenomenon is something I simply didn’t grasp until I had small children of my own. Sorry, Mom.
My Dad was a folk guy, really into Joan Baez and the Kingston Trio. I think the closest he got to mainstream was Simon and Garfunkel. That was okay — I knew (most of) the lyrics to “The Boxer” and “The Sound of Silence” before I went into kindergarten, though the meanings happily sailed past. I remember singing “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme” to myself, walking home from Middle School. Apparently, “good friends” are supposed to stop that sort of thing, but I escaped miraculously unscathed.
My older and much cooler brother was a big 60′s & 70′s rock fan, so I grew up with Zeppelin, the brothers Allman and Doobie, and the angst of various other long-haired hippie-rock bands, all leaking out of his perennially closed-up room in the basement. Now, this was music!
The first album I ever bought was Boston’s Don’t Look Back on vinyl. I still remember the way the vinyl smelled when I first cut the plastic wrap off the LP — tangy! — but try as I might, I can’t remember the turntable I played it on. This may or may not have something to do with my brother’s campaign to keep all my LPs with his — in his room. Where they’d be safe. You know. Hmmm.
High school was a blur, which is probably a good thing. Musically, I was pretty much under the influences of friends, but I fondly remember quietly singing duets from various tracks (okay, all of the tracks) from Pink Floyd’s The Wall during Chemistry, Physics and Calculus. Beat the snot out of paying attention, but I came to know that album backwards and forwards, and happily added in DSOTM to the rotation. I don’t think I’ve listened to either of them, willingly, since.
I think my musical “awakening” (in the sense that I really started paying attention) happened with Nirvana. I remember quite clearly the first time I heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” — I was at a Hallowe’en party at GWU. I was thoroughly smashed and I remember sitting around feeling generally happy with my state of affairs when someone popped a mix tape (remember mix tapes?) into the stereo and Nirvana queued up. I was, at that point, nonplussed. I mean, it sounded like, well, noise – so raw and so antithetical to the hair bands I was into at the time … but I couldn’t get the sound out of my head and I bought the album the following day (after a really long nap and a shower). The hair band stage was over and I promptly grew my hair out and started wearing a lot of flannel.
I blame my friends for getting me started on the track of becoming a stereophile. My first trip to the local audio dealer was a bit like being shanghaied, but they very thoughtfully helped me spend my money on a NAD rig, feautring their BEE lineup of CD players and integrated amps. For speakers, I was allowed to purchase some cast-off Totem Forest loudspeakers from one of my friends since he was upgrading. Together, the sound was unlike anything I’d ever had before. My home theater system, the pinnacle of my audio-thinking at the time, was completely outclassed. I like to think of this as the beginning of the end.
A couple of years, and a house purchase later, I’d sold all the NAD gear and the Totems. In their place came my first tube system — an Ars Sonum Filarmonia EL34 amplifier driving a pair of Merlin VSM-MMe speakers. And with it, I reached an all-new level, one that far surpassed the merely mortal rigs my friends enjoyed. As luck would have it, I was able to borrow an unused older Accuphase DP-85 for spinning CDs and SACDs — and I was off.
My first big addition that wasn’t a hand-me-down was digital audio. Being a “computer guy”, I invested (wasted?) countless hours researching the state of the art. It was a review on 6moons by Paul Candy that convinced me to get a Cullen-Circuits modified PS Audio DLIII DAC. I ran that via toslink out of my aging Apple Power Mac G5 tower — it sounded fantastic. Better than fantastic, really, and I was thrilled with the flexibility. Any track, whenever I wanted? Oh, yeah, baby, bring it on! I like to think of this as “The Acceleration”. As in, downhill, no breaks, hey — is that a wall?
I’ve since sold the Merlins, PS Audio DAC and Ars Sonum integrated. My current system is found on the “References” page.
If you’ve read this far, you’re probably a masochist and/or have some kind of roadside-tragedy fetish, so in the purely puerile interest of feeding your weaknesses, let me pull the curtain aside a bit and tell you about my biases, interests and where those might have come from.
I’m just past 40. Which means my hearing is (largely, but not entirely) intact. I should note that I am not a professional in any industry that relates to audio whatsoever. In my other life, I suppose I am mid-career now, having wandered into IT by mistake something north of 15 years ago. But writing … well … everyone needs a hobby, no? Anything that keeps Jack from being a dull boy. I do hope to retire some day, but audiophilia (the illness, as opposed to being a stereophile, which is a philosophical leaning) does make an early retirement both attractive and rather unlikely without the intervention of the Lotto Fairy. C’est la vie, n’est pas?
There’s this thing called the “absolute sound”. It derives from from the hobby we used to call “high fidelity”, but the idea is fairly simple: the goal of an audio system is to, as faithfully as possible, recreate the live musical event. The success of any “reproduced experience” (and the system that created it) is therefore measured against the thing being reproduced as it happened.
I’m on record as thinking this is utter nonsense. I’m sticking to that.
Pardon me while I sit here, in my philosophical smoking jacket, and say with no little level of pompous obtuseness: there’s really no such thing as a “live event”. I mean, of course, one that is objective. By “objective”, I mean only that it’s provably true or false. Yes, there something we can refer to as “the event”, but what any individual actually hears, much less remembers, finds important, convincing, compelling … well, precious little of that is objective. That’s a matter of preference, taste, experience/skill and above all, memory. Philosophically complicating the issue, it doesn’t seem that qualia are meaningfully universal — much less, universally compelling. What’s convincing to me may not be to you. What’s compelling to me may not be to you. What I actually hear — or pay attention to — may escape you utterly. For no other reason other than the simple fact that you are not me.
Then there’s the issue of what a makes a live event “live”. Is it the sound of an unamplified instrument in a real venue? Okay — in what venue? Is that venue full or empty of people or objects? And which seat is “correct”? And what do we do about those instruments that cannot be (or should not be) played unamplified? What about the impact or relevance of all the microphones, preamps, wires, and recording gear … what, exactly, is “absolute” about all that? And reproducing music generally means that there’s some kind of “process”, one that involves a mixer or compressor … and effects, like delay …. With all that said, what part of what I’m hearing — and not just in a reproduction, but when I’m actually, physically present at the “live event” — what part of that is the “real instrument”?
Said another way, where is the “absolute sound” in the vast majority of the music we listen to? That it “sounds more or less like” what you heard when you heard it yourself? This presupposes you were able to hear it prior to recording, and that the performance being recorded is the same as what you heard and uses the same gear…. Of course, you may have prior experience. You might even be an expert. Hell, you might be a wizard. But experts, those we truly expect to be able to make (and be in a position to make) such discriminations, simply cannot do so reliably. So much for experience.
Ready for the rabbit hole? Here we go: the fact that you can understand these words is, in large part, a complete freakin’ mystery. But even if their meaning appears clear to you, do you know my intent? What I implied when I chose one word over another? What linkages I routinely make — and expect you to make — when I leap from one semantic island to another? Where does my phrasing comes from, where do my metaphors spring from and why … if you do not know these things, how can you say you truly understand me?
Solipsism. It’s what’s for dinner.
This, of course, doesn’t really leave us in a particularly warm and fuzzy place. Even if there is an absolute referent, it’s not entirely clear if any one particular person would ever know it — much less be able to share it with anyone else. Are we having fun yet?
Were you feeling particularly Cartesian, I suppose you could say that there is only illusion. All art could be merely shadowy flickers on the cave walls of our own minds. I think it’s a bit of an understatement to say that this is not entirely helpful, but if your panties don’t get into a twist about over this bit of sophistry, well, we can have some fun. Buy me a beer sometime — I’ll bring my baggie of red and blue pills and we can see how deep the rabbit hole goes.
I suppose I could add that if I’m forced to choose between illusions, the best illusion is one that’s convincing to me. In the case of audio references, I guess you could call this the pursuit of an ever-more convincing illusion, but I think it’s most helpful to avoid this sort of philosophical conundrum entirely and simply dispense with the term “absolute”. I leave my home to hear a performance. I come home and listen to my system. The closest that my system gets me to that other sound is good enough for a target.
Wave aside the details, for now. We’re pointing at something, like a mountain summit that lies shrouded in clouds, and every so often we can peer across the gulf, through the curtain of shadow and uncertainty and doubt, and glimpse the next highest peak. Is there an absolute? Perhaps. Will we ever know it? Perhaps not. The target isn’t the point. The climb is. And for now, I’ll leave the rest as moot.
While I’m at it, let me confess something else: I’m not a big fan of concerts! Is that heretical? Probably. In my defense, I am old. Shows are almost always too loud, getting there and back again is a tremendous hassle, going means not only paying to get in and paying to park, but will usually involve babysitting … and, anyway, I tend to get bored and distracted quickly. When it’s simple, and easy — like a stroll down to the Amphitheater during a week’s stay in Chautauqua, well, that’s different. I’m fussy, I guess. Oh well! But … I really love to put a record on and chill out. Or dance wildly. You know — it depends on the music.
You do it your way, I’ll do it mine.
Yes, the site-title is something of a joke. If being an audiophile is like having some kind of disease or mental deficiency, then being a “part-time audiophile” is like being a round square, a little bit pregnant, or [cough] a young Republican. Like I said, it’s a joke. Lighten up.
But it’s also kinda serious. I do love what I’m doing here, but this is a part-time gig. Most of the work I do here is done late at night, after the kids are in bed, or on the weekends when they’re out causing mayhem at the neighbor’s house. I’ll write, save, and schedule publication for sometime later that week so I’ll have time to go back and edit. Of course, I also get to edit post publication, because, well, it’s my site and I can do whatever I damn well please. Ahem.
As for going “full time” — ha! – well, read on.
My goals with this site are pretty minimal. I have no real expectations of international fame nor of industry notoriety, though that’d be cool. But, as Philip O’Hanlon of On A Higher Note, the US distributor for Luxman, Vivid and other fine brands of audio candy once told me, “your efforts [here on this site] are hardly on the same playing field with that of a real reviewer, now are they” to which he quickly followed with “you’re no Steven Stone”. I’m paraphrasing, of course, but the point is well taken — and leads me to have to declaim: it’s true, I am not Steven Stone. I’m just a dude with a website. And a camera, or two.
So, now that I’ve been put in my rightful place, and my aspirations have been properly throttled, I think the biggest “goal” would be for me to keep having fun. I’m meeting some really interesting exemplars of the species, which is entertaining, and writing about art turns out to be more fun than I had anticipated. Over time, I’m planning to expand the site, add some alternative, competing, and (if I’m lucky) contradictory voices, creating a panel of obnoxious audio others that can come at the industry we love and celebrate it’s joys, horrors, successes and catastrophic failures with aplomb, humor and wit.
In the meantime, I’ll do my best to follow my interests. Gear, more gear, and plenty of photos to wash it all down. When it fits into my real-life calendar, I’ll head to an audio show, and maybe shoot a couple zillion photos there, too. I’ll post that and hopefully it’ll be fun to read and flip through.
What else will be up here? Reviews! Well, at least some. As I’m able to convince manufacturers and distributors that I’m not here to churn through their product lines like some kind of evil meat-grinder in search of a killer one-liner — all in order to set myself up as a Paragon of Truth and Virtue and the Last Word In Audio — I’ll be presenting my experiences here.
But I’ll also be doing more than that. I’ll be wrestling with choices. Building systems. Visiting local (and not-so-local) dealers and manufacturers. Talking with personalities, which will be great, because having a personality to talk to would be a nice change from my day job. Ahem. All of that will show up here, in some form or another. I like to think of all this as “charting a course between ADD and OCD in audio’s high-end”. Hey, we’ve all got our problems, am I right?
[insert crickets here]
[tap, tap] Is this thing on?
I’ll do my best to use common audiophile terms as correctly as I can (or understand them), and I should note that I really prefer a compare/contrast approach to reviewing as opposed to some unidentified “ideal” metrics (i.e., “a live performance”), which, as I alluded to above, I feel is not only absurd, but wildly subjective and generally meaningless. When I can get them, multiple opinions may well find their way into a review as I find that bubble-think is way too easy to lapse into. As for measurements, or even a carefully considered comparison between equivalent products, well, tough luck; I sort of wish I could provide them, but I’m really not sure it’d help anyone make an informed decision, much less actually help you understand what a thing sounds like.
I’d like to keep the focus of this site on audio’s high-end, by which I mean “gear used to recreate music”. Usually, this means expensive gear. Sometimes, ludicrously expensive gear. I don’t have much control over pricing (okay, absolutely none at all), but trust me when I say that I get that this shit ain’t cheap. I’ll do my best to expunge loose references to terms like ‘affordable’ or ‘budget’ when I don’t think they’re defensible, but let me apologize now for the fact that the gear I focus on tends to have price points with several zeros after that leading number. There are folks that focus exclusively on DIY or gear they consider “affordable“, and while I may dabble there, I’m not setting an arbitrary boundary.
Well, not exactly. I do have a BS meter, and yes, it does go off pretty regularly. $10,000 for a speaker cable? $100,000 for speakers? Yeah, that sort of thing is a problem for me. It’s not that such prices aren’t justifiable, which they may or may not be, it’s just that such pricing tends to wildly outstrip category references with radically lower price points. When that happens, I tend to question the value, and my artistic appreciation for the efforts of the designer may well get subverted by incredulity. And my eyebrows lift right off my face, which is unpleasant. Anyway, I talk about this more in a post called The Julia Rule.
I have a Friday night ritual I try to keep to: movie night. My kids are little, so this usually means G- or PG-Rated material, but luckily, there’s a lot of that out there. One of my favorites of that bunch is Ratatouie. In that movie, the main character, a rat named Remy, dreams of being a world-class chef. Of course, he’s a rat, which makes this something of a problem. When he finally get’s his shot to impress the world’s greatest critic, a man named Anton Ego who’s renowned for his cutting wit and scathing commentary, the experience provokes something unexpected out of Ego:
In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations, and the new needs friends.
That’s what I want to do here. I’m not interested in condemning anything or anyone. Sure, not everything works perfectly, much less establishes new references for performance. When problems arise, I’ll do what I can to note them. But if a product doesn’t work, performs well below a reference — or even simple expectation — I’ll just send it back.
Said another way: no hatchet-jobs allowed.
Why? It’s simple. The audio high-end is littered with the carcasses and debris left behind by small start up companies. Each of these corpses represents the cast-off hopes and dreams of some family. Adding to that pile is a shitty way to go through life. Let me expound ….
Maybe I’m romantic, but when I think of the work that little start-ups put into their products, I’m moved. Sure, everyone dreams of making it big, getting discovered, and retiring fat and happy to some island. But that dream alone is not enough to get you through the grind of daily life and work — much less, enough to get you off your ass and throw all your daily comfort out the window. I’m sure I said somewhere that this shit is expensive, didn’t I? Well, it’s not just expensive to buy, it’s even more expensive to do. Parts have costs. So does labor. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I mean the opportunity costs – being a small-shop manufacturer generally doesn’t pay anywhere near as well as pursuing a legal career, managing a medical practice, designing computer networks, or even working on European cars. It’s hard to spend 50+ hours a week doing your day job and then coming home to crank out amps that take another 20 hours each to make. Time with your kids? Family vacations? Yeah. Not so much. So why do “they” do it? And what makes them special, different from you or me? Easy. They do it because they want to. Really, really want to. Or in some cases, need to. There’s a passion there — and I think that’s worthy of recognition. When that passion meets talent and is then honed by skill, well, that’s where art happens. Finding folks like this and celebrating their achievements is at the heart of why I love being a stereophile. And being a critic, even a half-assed one like me, really should mean taking special care to seek these folks out, befriend them, and treat them with the respect and care that they deserve.
The corollary of this approach is that I tend to neglect the establishment. Nothing wrong with them and their work, but by and large, they’ve jumped Moore’s chasm already. Personally, I think it’s more interesting to find those that are gearing up for that jump … but maybe that’s just me. There’s a ton of audio magazines out there that focus on the mainstream and dip but lightly into the dark waters of imagination and discovery — and there are plenty of forums out there that fuck this up in reverse. I think both approaches are obtuse, so I’ll be pursuing the high-end accordingly. That’s me, listening for the art in audio’s high-end.
Disclaimer and a Comment on Editorial Integrity
To those of you “concerned about my integrity” now that this site is signing sponsors, well, I understand your concern. Like you, I wish I was rich, too. Filthy, stinking, roll around in it — and if not Scrooge McDuck, then “at least” Mitt Romney rich. That would be spectacular. I’m glad you agree, and thanks for your prayers. Please continue to send me your lottery tickets and adding me to your list of inheritors. Much obliged.
So, while we’re waiting for Godot, I want you to know that taking sponsors wasn’t my first choice. My first choice was the Lottery. Sponsorship wasn’t my second choice, either, if you must know. That was pulling a Michael Fremer and getting bought out by someone like, say, Source Interlink Media, but sadly, the bat phone has yet to ring. Oh, wait! Nope. Sorry. Apparently, Fremer is keeping them busy.
So, there I was, hemorrhaging cash ….
I thought about becoming a paid reviewer. You know, one of those myriad of writers on a big ol’ masthead for one of those other websites/webzines that you read compulsively. Which brings me to a rant — reviewers cannot be doing this for the money. Holy shit and fuck a duck, there’s just no way someone can make a real living as an audio writer. There’s a reason, folks, why reviewers are retired and/or old — they must do this for fun. Or for their ego. But money? OMFG, no, no way, no how. It’s criminal!
Anyway, yes, it’s true that this going-it-alone thing is a far longer road and a much harder climb and all that, but I had the feeling that this may well be the more fiscally responsible thing to do. So, away I toiled — and sponsors helped (and continue to help) me spool things out. Until the Lotto Fairy visits. Could be any day now.
And then The Abso!ute Sound called.
So, why sign on as a contributor? It’s hard to say. I still don’t have any illusions about making money. But TAS has a very large readership and instant credibility. In the end, I didn’t even have to think about it. The opportunity was just too perfect to pass up.
I’ve been asked quite a few times, since, why Part-Time Audiophile is “still here”. I mean, now that I’m writing for TAS, why bother? The short answer is that “I’m just a contributor” at TAS. Don’t get too exercised about that — there’s a lot of us on the masthead. But, yes, it’s true, I’ll be doing some work for them, while getting exposure, better access, and all that stuff. It helps. That said, it’s way too soon to tell where that’s going to go. Part-Time Audiophile is a different thing, and I am committed to seeing it grow, expand, and be something different and interesting. For the foreseeable future, I can’t imagine that there’ll be a conflict (that can’t be resolved), so, while that’s true, there’s really no decision to make. Part-Time Audiophile stays — and now I have another part-time gig.
So, a word about what the condition and color of my soul.
When I sign a sponsor here at Part-Time Audiophile, I make it pretty clear that this isn’t advertising they’re signing up for. I’m not looking to drive my visitors to them and I don’t really care about selling their brand for them. This isn’t what sponsorship is for — that’s advertising, and I don’t accept advertising. I’m actively looking for and recruiting sponsors, folks that like what I do and the way I do it enough to want to help me keepin’ on. I reward sponsors with public acknowledgements of their poor taste and questionable judgment. That’s all there is to it.
Pretty thin distinction, though, and I’ll admit that. But it means something to me, and yes, I’m serious about it.
What I will take from sponsors — and anybody else — is product for review. It’s content, folks, and I’ll happily take what I can get and then write about it. There are two caveats. One, I’ll get to it when I can get to it. Despite appearances to the contrary, this is a part-time gig. Two, if I think a product is trash, shit, crap, or utter bullshit, I send it back without a word being printed. For those of you confused or put off by this, let me refer you back to the Philosophy bit, above. Look, I just don’t like flinging shit around or much care for those who do so. More properly, I think it’s terrifically easy to write negative copy. It’s also lazy, and generally speaking, shit writing. So, given my general anti-shit approach, I choose to abstain. Don’t like the policy? Go bang an orangutan. Better still — go start your own site.
So, with all that said, sponsorship doesn’t change any of that. Since I’m not likely to go negative in the first place, sponsorship isn’t going to mean me putting lipstick on pigs just because that pig happens to have a banner on my site. I’ll be putting lipstick on a pig only if bacon looks better that way.
You don’t have to believe me, and I’m quite sure that no matter what I say, there will be a great many of you that will remain forever unconvinced and will loudly and randomly, like some audio Tourette’s patient, claim that I have gone to the Dark Side, suborned by the promise of that wall of Mitt Romney money that will any day now roll through my listening room like a black tide, washing away the tattered remains of my morals, my integrity, and my astonishingly good taste. My, that was a big sentence.
Anyway, I’m sorry you feel that way. But I’m still funny. And I’m still going to write.
By the way, next time you see the Lotto Fairy, tell her I said: “Any time now would be just great.” Yeah. Thanks.
For you more formal types, yes, this site is devoted to the industry in and around audio’s high-end. All I talk about here is high-end audio. I’ll be writing about industry news & developments sure, but more importantly, this site is that part of it that I see, hear, touch and talk to.
CES, I hope this is good enough for you.
If you need to email me directly for some reason, try this:
Cheers, and see you around!