By Modest I. Predlozheniye
Ah, dear readers! How have you been? Old Modest has spent the last few months traveling extensively through North America and has been collecting wonderful stories from the high-end audio frontier. 2017 was a very active year in terms of high-end audio shows in the United States and Canada and I tried to hit every show from Las Vegas to Montreal to Chicago to Los Angeles to Washington DC. I sat and I drank and I listened to all types of esoteric audio systems. I spoke to many audiophiles about these wonderful new products, and I spent quality time with many of my closest friends in the industry. It is entirely possible that you met me at one of these shows and you didn’t even know it was me!
I had such a wonderful time with music and fine Japanese whiskey that I forgot to take notes, much to the disappointment of Mr. Scot Hull of Part-Time Audiophile. But I can provide a very accurate summary for those of you who still need to know what I heard and what I enjoyed:
- Technics has a new turntable. It looks a lot like the old one but it is better.
- The Wilson room had an unbelievable sense of scale and authority. The Magico room had an unbelievable sense of unlimited dynamics and clarity. The YG Acoustics room had an unbelievable sense of realism and musicality.
- Wow, look at all the reel-to-reel machines! Do they still make those?
- Technics has another new turntable. It looks a lot like the last one, but far more expensive.
- Attendance was solid but perhaps a little down from last year. There are too many audio shows right now in the US!
- Headphones are in.
- CD players are out. Maybe.
- Those speakers cost more than my house which is okay because they are too big to fit in my house anyway.
- With a Raspberry Pi, duct tape and a soldering iron you can make anything.
- Nakamichi cassette decks are in but No. 2 pencils are not.
- Either you love MQA or you do not love MQA. Or most likely you have no idea what MQA is.
Now that we have gotten the last few months of my life out of the way, what have you been doing? Have you been listening to plenty of music for pleasure? Is your audio system where you want it to be in terms of fidelity and musicality? It isn’t? Do you still want to upgrade your DAC so that it will handle DSD256 or even DSD512? Do you still want to trade in your Koetsu Coralstone cartridge for a Koetsu Blue lace cartridge because you feel like you are losing just a tiny loss of detail in the 2100-2200 Hz region? Have you taken a couple of vacation days in order to hire a crew from the local Home Depot to help you move your Wilson WAMM Master Chronosonic loudspeakers an inch closer to the back wall so that the deep bass response is a little more impressive to you and your audiophile friends?
What if I were to let you in on a little secret? What if your audio system was already perfect and it was your brain that needed an upgrade? You might say “Interesting point, Modest, but that is why we have Putinka!” (That reminds me, dear reader, of a joke that is making the rounds back home. Did you know that if you drink an entire bottle of Putinka in one swig, you can hear the sounds of armored tanks entering the Crimea? Veselaya!)
No, I am not talking about heading to the local zabegalovka so that the treble in your audio system will sound more “fluid.” I am talking about a very minor modification that impacts the way your brain processes auditory stimuli. I’m talking about improving the quality of every sound that you hear. I’m talking, dear reader, about the modern miracle of awake brain surgery.
“Intraoperative brain mapping is the term that we neurologists use for this exciting new field of study, although the actual procedure is known as an awake craniotomy. We try not to use the term ‘awake brain surgery’ because it makes this very delicate procedure sound like something out of a horror film. ‘Oh yes, we are going to change your thoughts as you are thinking them, and there is nothing you can do!’”
That comment is from my dear friend Dr. Thor L. Sofflas. He belongs to one of the primary research teams that originally refined intraoperative brain mapping so that it could be practically and safely applied during mainstream surgery procedures. I decided to call him at his neurology clinic located on the Central Coast in California after I had read two recent newspaper stories about musicians who were asked to play their instruments during awake brain surgery. The first musician, a guitarist in India, was being treated for cramped fingers that were the result of misfiring synapses in his brain due to a degenerative disorder. The second musician, an American, was asked to play his sax while a brain tumor was being removed. Since the physical borders and edges of tumors can be hard to distinguish from adjacent healthy brain tissue, having the patient’s conscious feedback during the procedure is incredibly valuable.
“Yeah, we know those dudes at the University of Rochester,” Dr. Thor said. “They really laid the groundwork for the work that we’re doing with the adaptation of auditory stimuli.”
As an audiophile, I was clearly intrigued with this admission. “So you’ve been working closely with the team at UR?”
“Not exactly,” he replied. “A lot of it has to with funding. Tell people you’re using intraoperative brain mapping to restore someone’s sight or to repair a brain injury, and everyone lines up to hand you a blank check. Tell people that you’re using it to enhance the imaging of your two-channel audio system and they start scrunching up their faces at you as if you just peed in their swimming pool.”
Ah-ha, I thought. Dr. Thor has finally revealed his true intentions in the world of intraoperative brain mapping. I always knew he was a music lover, dedicated to the Grateful Dead and Phish if I remember correctly. But his system always consisted of mass-market black boxes and a huge pair of JBLs. He was never an audiophile’s audiophile but music is a very important part of his life.
“Thor, you are telling me that intraoperative brain mapping can help audiophiles enjoy their audio systems even more?”
“Well,” he replied, “we don’t like to come right out and say it. But yes, absolutely. Musicians see and hear music differently than most people—they see the logic and the mathematics in not only music theory but in sound itself. Once we took that into consideration, we realized that those seemingly abstract abilities and talents could be explained and plotted using neuroscience. From there, we realized that we could do the same thing for the average audiophile.”
Dr. Thor went on to explain how his research team in Cayucos approached the idea of elective ICM, and how it was poorly received at first. “As long as we were talking about stimulating the primary auditory cortex with the goal of helping those with hearing disabilities, we enjoyed a lot of support from the medical community. But once we went off on the elective tangent, we were accused of being opportunistic and of wanting to play God. One of our most vocal critics accused us of wanting to create a race of superheroes with exceptional hearing. I told that dude to lay off those Avenger movies for a while.”
It makes perfect sense to me, dear readers, and I imagine that you are more than a little intrigued at this point. Just imagine that you are an audiophile who is now in his sixties or seventies. You have been pursuing this hobby for most of your life, ever since you built your first crystal radio in the basement of the house where you were raised. Now that you are rich enough to buy almost any hi-fi equipment you desire, you are suddenly informed by your doctor that you can no longer hear any frequencies above 12,000 Hz and this is okay because everyone loses some hearing as they get older. But then you tell your doctor that you are an audiophile and this is not okay with you because you finally saved up enough money to purchase the hi-fi system of your dreams and now he is saying you are too old to enjoy it. (This reminds me of a friend of mine in Latvia who always wanted to buy a Lotus Elise sports car. When he could finally afford one, he was too old to get in and out of it!)
The first human subject at Thor’s facility in Cayucos fit this description, an elderly audiophile from Phoenix who had steadily lost the ability to hear high frequencies in his favorite recordings. While his family practitioner was reluctant to diagnose this hearing loss as anything unusual for a man this age, there was a growing concern about the patient’s mental well-being. It seemed that the loss of “shimmer” in Shelley Manne’s ride cymbal resulted in series of major depressive episodes and the man’s family grew very concerned. Dr. Thor and his team were immediately contacted.
“On our very first attempt, we were able to stimulate the right sections of the auditory cortex and our patient was able to hear up to about 16,500 Hz within one week after his surgery,” Dr. Thor said. “Of course he told his audiophile buddies that he could hear up to 22 kHz, but that’s to be expected.”
As more and more audiophiles approached the Cayucos facilities with their checkbooks in their hands, Dr. Thor and his team discovered that other types of hearing improvements could be made. Once they were able to map high frequency hearing skills, it was just a hop, skip and a jump to improve low-frequency response. “Yes, we found a way to emphasize low-frequencies so that an audiophile living in a small and crowded apartment building can feel substantive bass with even the smallest mini-monitors. And it all happens in the brain, so that poor dude doesn’t have to worry about getting evicted when he wants to rock out to ‘Enter Sandman’ or ‘Stinkfist.’ We have the technology that can turn any pair of LS3/5as into my JBL 4430s, but only in your head.”
Those types of advances led to longer lines at the Cayucos clinic. Thanks to the steady influx of audiophile cash, Dr. Thor and his team were able to conduct more research and find new ways to improve listening skills. When you first visit the Cayucos Clinic, you can even leaf through an “a la carte” menu of adjustments that include the following:
- More analog warmth to digital sound
- More tube-like warmth in solid state amplification
- More soundstage depth
- More soundstage width
- More precise imaging
- More midrange realism
- More neutral sound
- More euphonic sound
If you can afford the lofty price tag, you can also undergo what Dr. Thor calls “the deluxe pizza with everything on it” procedure. This is an across-the-board adjustment that improves auditory performance in a balanced and comprehensive way. “We still have some fine tuning to do on that procedure,” he explained. “The results can be a little overwhelming at first.”
“Overwhelming, Dr. Thor?”
“Well, we had one man undergo the procedure because he wanted his Bose Wave radio sound more like a Naim Mu-so. At first we were reluctant to perform the procedure for this reason since the surgery costs about fifty to seventy times the cost of the Mu-so, even with a lifetime Tidal and Spotify subscription thrown in. But the patient was unusually insistent.”
“After the procedure, our patient went out into the world and found it full of auditory wonder. Tiny transistor radios suddenly sounded full and balanced. He told me of the day when he walked into a supermarket and could hear convincing imaging even from the tiny round speakers mounted on the suspended ceiling tiles. He said he had never heard ‘I Kissed a Girl’ sound so believable.”
Intraoperative brain mapping has unlimited potential as you can obviously see. Dr. Thor believes that the procedure will continue to be refined and perfected and eventually used in conjunction with a personalized and programmable implant that will create perfect sound inside your head with any mobile device. He has already started work on the implant device, which he calls the Earworm. He believes it will be ready in 2020.
Until then you can visit the Cayucos clinic. For the price of a pair of Swiss monoblock amplifiers you can own the best-sounding system in the world no matter what it is!