“Just to let you know, we have a high-fidelity stereo system in the store today. I invite you to select any record from the shelf, take the center yellow chair, sit back for a listen… and did I mention we have free bourbon?”
Taking Hi-Fi into the real world, because mentoring should be part of the hobby.
As someone who identifies as an audiophile part-time, I spend the other half of my double life as a regular person. I live in the real world both economically and mentally. I have responsibilities and avocations that I take rather seriously. For example my hobby of audiophilia is one that I nourish equally by recording artists as I do by the acquisition of state-of-the-art hi-fi gear. So when I see a yawning chasm between our newest vinyl hungry converts, and the access to proper vinyl playback, I feel called into action.
Words and Photos by Eric Franklin Shook
Those of us born in the modern age who have made the leap away from convenient low-rate digital, and who are now reaching for a romantic, sexy, and sometimes trying physical medium such as vinyl, have duly earned my respect. Even though some may have made the switch for societal cool points, or a personal pre-9/11 nostalgia, I undoubtedly strive to accept them all.
As someone who also proudly advocates for the existence of the hi-fi industry, I am always in search of new ways to create a convergence between my audiophile brethren and the everyday music-loving public. So when Matt Keen of Gravity Records in Wilmington, North Carolina recently posted to Facebook about his upcoming Record Store Day events, I saw an opportunity to wax poetic, and tie up some loose social ends.
Record Store Day has always been something I’ve been a proud of from a cultural and economic standpoint. RSD organizers had a goal from the outset to support local independent record stores with exclusive must-have releases. In doing so, RSD was taking power away from big-box retailers who used their market share to further destroy local economies. RSD for me was also recognizing something in our society that needed preserving – the record store. Today some of that early RSD activism may have shifted away from its original scope, but I still believe in what the original mission set out to accomplish.
Being a journalist of sorts, I am gifted with the opportunity to review some of the greatest turntables, electronics, and speakers that planet Earth has to offer. Currently in my possession for review: Peachtree Audio’s Nova300 integrated amplifier, Studio Electric’s M4 Monitor loudspeakers, VPI Industries’ Player turntable, Emotiva’s TA-100 integrated / headphone amplifier, and Acoustic Research’s AR-H1 headphones. To the initiated it would be plain to see that this simple grouping of components, if assembled, would comprise a more than ample audiophile system. So why not take these components on the road, and deliver a true audiophile experience to the public first hand?
I’ve done public demonstrations for years in other industries. I was a road warrior back when that type of sales career was more vital to corporate success. Record Store Day would prove to be a return to old tricks. Setting up the system in Gravity Records the night before was easy and fun for it amassed a crowd of eager and curious onlookers. “Be here early tomorrow.” I said, “We’ll be playing your records all day long.”
On the big day I promised to keep my words simple. Speaking less of technical jargon, and more of letting the system’s sound do most of the talking. If anything my tone in the listening area was mostly philosophical. On the sales-floor I would approach customers, “Just to let you know, we have a high-fidelity stereo system in the store today, and I invite you to select any record from the shelf, take the center yellow chair, and sit back for a listen… and did I mention we have free bourbon?”
Like the experienced cattle hustler that I am, I went to work keeping the center seat filled. Surprising to everyone was how good our hi-fi installation sounded. A few seasoned audiophiles who had heard about our “Roadshow” through other media channels made the pilgrimage to Gravity Records. Some traveling more than two hours just to bare witness.
Paul Powell of long-time Brain Damage (the #1 Pink Floyd news resource) fame in particular was in welcome attendance. He traveled forty-five miles just to hear the Studio Electric M4’s he had read about in our Capital Audiofest show coverage. Paul who wrote for Brain Damage for over thirty-years before retiring to coastal North Carolina, is also a long time audiophile and proud owner of PS Audio electronics and PSB loudspeakers. Mr. Powell could not believe the scale of dynamics we were getting from the small Studio M4 speakers.
In Paul’s own words: “Wow! Seriously dynamic room-filling sound from a gallon sized speaker. Amazingly Musical. Solid stands gonna be necessary. Unassuming looks but very pro and solid construction. Great speaker posts, no bass port – what? Slamming bass, warm mids, smooth clear highs. These speakers made every song I heard compelling and exciting to listen to. Significant attribute! Wanted terribly to listen to them more, it is uncharted territory for me to get excited about a new speaker like this. Wanted to take them home. Top-of-list contender.”
A young woman of just sixteen years of age took the reins of the stereo and couldn’t believe the scale of sound she was hearing. Asking further about her listening habits I deduced that headphones could be ideal for her current living situation and income. Powering up the Emotiva TA-100 integrated, I proceeded to place the Acoustic Research AR-H1 headphones upon her head. Her eyes widened as I played Patrick Watson’s “Adventures In Your Own Backyard,” she exclaimed to me that it was the greatest thing she had ever heard. Excited, she ran back into the store to discuss with her mother the economics of good headphones.
The word was spread on social media of what was happening down at Gravity Records on this beautiful spring afternoon, and the flood gates did open. We had seasoned audiophiles traveling all the way from Columbia, South Carolina, to first-time visitors who, after experiencing our system, had come to realize that there was more to vinyl than what a Crosley suitcase turntable could provide.
Many a listener that day described listening to their records on the VPI Player turntable (via the AR headphones or Studio Electric speakers) as the most exhilarating experience they’ve had with vinyl. While playing the opening track “Good As Gold” from Sarah Shook & The Disarmers‘ newest album YEARS it didn’t take long for phrases like, “I can hear the room the singer is in” and “the instruments sound live and in person” to start rolling off of the tongues of people who likely never have said such things in reference to the detail of music.
From there I was quick to remind each listener that what they are hearing today is something they already own, and for the first time it’s being played on a stereo system that will expose it for the truth it holds.
Many comfortable discussions were further had about hi-fi dealers, brands, and reliable online sources for information on buying and listening. If I could repeat this day, every day, for a modest living, I would.
Roller Coaster Shots
Scenes from the various listeners who took our hi-fi demonstration for a spin.