“I Hear an Epiphany”, said the Millennial Audiophile


A tale of record collecting and awakening — along the way we visit a hi-fi shop

One afternoon while collecting Krispy Kreme donuts with my friend Vivian, she began a discussion concerning her vinyl collection. Vivian wanted me to photograph her record wall. One half of Vivian’s apartment living room is decorated with album sleeves from her record collection. Vivian is an enthusiastic vinyl collector. Her launching point was an inherited record collection, one that belonged to her father. As her father had moved away from vinyl records back in the early “convenience era” of cassette tape and CDs, the family’s record collection found itself relegated to the metaphoric attic.

Words and Photos by Eric Franklin Shook

The vinyl collection Vivian has inherited is firstly a sentimental family heirloom, and secondly a deeply nourishing source of something she loves — music. Unlike the audiophiles of present day, Vivian’s lust for records is not a nostalgic response of aging where youthful longing decides to rear its head during the autumn years. Vivian’s vinyl addiction lies in that fact that she’s a serious music lover and concert goer. Her passion pushes her towards musical experience and reliving those moments in any way possible. Tangible mementos of her favorite artists abound in her home; ticket stubs, autographed record sleeves, festival bracelets, you name it. She attends EDM concerts and out-of-state music festivals regularly, never passing up the merch tables to take home a new vinyl release.

Upon arriving at Vivian’s apartment to see and photograph her with the record wall, I shifted the conversation to playback methods. She showed me her turntable, a vintage find, a Kenwood model. Next to it, a small pair of computer speakers huddled up next to each other like newborn kittens meowing in mono. Stereophony was not a part of her listening ritual. She did inform me that she had purchased a phono-preamp online for the turntable to work with the computer speakers. I took it as a good sign, as her system, though small it may be, was clealy assembled through research and some fiscal trial. 

Vivian is wild about music. Her social calendar is full of concert dates and festival weekends. She gushes with pride in showing me records she has collected from family or purchased at vintage shops and record stores. I ask Vivian if she has been to The Record Krate here in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina. She hasn’t. Lucky for us it’s just a few blocks distance, tucked down an alleyway, I suggest that we go record shopping immediately. Since Vivian had just consumed a couple of sugary donuts, and a brilliantly made cup of homemade coffee, she was game.

On the way to The Record Krate, I suggest that we also drop into a local hi-fi store, to round out the record shopping experience. I ask if she had been to the hi-fi shop in downtown. Vivian had seen the sign of the shop I described, but herself had never been inside. This is another good sign of where Vivian’s audiophile potential is at.

We make our way over to the hi-fi shop. Vivian has brought along one of her two favorite records, a 2014 release by EDM artist Odesza titled In Return… Let’s pause for a moment because here are where some things go wrong and the story could take a drastic turn for the worst, but they don’t. Ultimately we get most of what we came for — an experience in hi-fi. 

Once inside the hi-fi shop we are greeted promptly and Vivian takes to perusing the stereo systems on display, looking for a turntable. Together, we look and do not find a turntable. I inquire with the shopkeeper about it, he looks to the side, takes a deep breath and tells me he doesn’t have one on display. I accept the situation for what it is, and petition him to fire up something from his digital collection so as to acquaint my friend with the sound of a hi-fi system. Vivian offers up a few song requests to no avail; as the store’s digital access is limited to a hard-drive based player. No streaming or downloading available, or at least willing.

We narrow down from what is available to a classic rock genre and decide to open with a Led Zeppelin track. Vivian places herself on a couch, center seat, opposing a stout pair of towers speakers. The song begins and her eyes light up. She’s still seated but with her eyes trying to collect as much visual data as possible as to where all of this sound is coming from. It’s powerful, dynamic, and big. The music is clearer than she’s ever heard. Vivian mentions the treble extension and how tight the bass is.

Our shop-keep then begins a long-winded and arm waving rant about digital bit depth and sampling rates with all of the best intentions. All the while ignoring the first rule of communication — #1 Know your audience. Vivian is patiently following along as he’s going full-bore at a pace even seasoned audiophiles would struggle to keep up with. I try to interject with a few simple reductions of what he is trying to convey, but he is on a roll and there is no stopping him.

I suggest we listen to a pair of panel speakers, as a way to change the subject. We line up the same as before, but this time listening to an unremarkable “audiophile approved” vocal track that sounds like it was about 90% recording quality and 10% art. I’m being generous in my previous description as I believe that the 10% of this album that is art was limited to the CD cover. Again, know your audience.

We head back to Vivian’s and while there I demand that she let me return another day to bring and set up a system for her space. She accepts.

As promised, I return on a Saturday morning with some components that I had in for review; Peachtree Audio’s Nova 300 integrated amplifier, Studio Electric’s M4 monitors, VPI Industries Player turntable, and Acoustic Research’s AR-H1 headphones. If this list sounds familiar, it means that you’ve read my recent article The Hi-Fi Roadshow, where I demoed these exact components (along with a Emotiva TA-100 also in for review) at Gravity Records for their Record Store Day festivities. One box at a time, grippy gloves in place, Vivian’s apartment is a 5th floor walk-up.    

Once I caught my breath and returned to a nearly dry state, the audio system was set up. I implore Vivian to dive right in, and start with her favorites. Odesza’s In Return, the once spurned record from her first ever hi-fi store experience was already in hand. She places the record and positions the needle to hover over the track she likes best. Vivian comments on the sturdy feeling of the VPI Player’s aluminum tonearm. As she takes a seat, I drop the needle and step out of the way.

Vivian is transported to the concerts of memory, and her face tells all. I don’t interrupt her. She is expectedly enjoying of the power and dynamics that come from the Peachtree Audio Nova 300 Integrated / Studio Electric M4 monitors, but from her reactions I think she was a little surprised with the scale and width of the musical presentation. She further mentions the imaging, layering, and textures of instruments.

We move on to the next record, also an EDM genre favourite, Flume’s 2016 vinyl release titled Skin. Vivian’s reactions when listening aren’t immediately as positive — she’s puzzled. Sounds and textures are not projecting themselves from the soundstage like they were on the Odesza album. Details are veiled, scale is diminished and overall everything sounds less alive. It sounds like a MP3 was put to vinyl. What was once a record of great endearment to Vivian has just found itself demoted in some minor way. Don’t get us wrong, it was still an impressive listen on the review system, it’s just not all that we hoped for.

I am trying to be as passive a guide as possible, doing my best to stay out of Vivian’s way. This is Vivian’s space and her listening ritual at play here. During this listening process, she has taken a metaphorical fall and experienced an awakening from the event. Vivian breaks the verbal silence, and she surprises me. She now speaks without provocation or coaching as a hi-fi enthusiast. Vivian is now somehow imbued with a vocabulary that echoes everything I’ve ever heard or read amidst the pages of the online audiophile lexicon. Vivian begins to explain the differences in what she’s hearing between two records and in that moment epiphany takes up residence. She has proven that the audiophile gene lives within us all. It just has to be brought out with a real hi-fi listening experience.

Everyone who is passionate about music is an audiophile waiting to happen. They just don’t know it yet. People who subscribe to the codes and tenants of the audiophile philosophy are not special. We don’t have super human hearing, we just have access. Access to what is undeniably good. All you have to do is hear it once and you are a member of our non-exclusive club.

Throughout the rest of the afternoon we scrounge our way through records, no longer an initiation process, but a listening party between two audiophiles. Since our Saturday listening party, Vivian has agreed to become co-founder of a local record collector group in the Raleigh area — the Oak City Vinyl Club.

From Vivian:

“I really enjoyed experiencing the review sound system in my apartment. It was like hearing my Odesza record for the first time. Listening to vinyl records is more fun than just downloading a song to my phone, and the sound quality of the review system is incomparable to anything that I’ve ever listened to. My record collection started with my father, and now has a new life as I have built upon it with my own record collecting.”

The Hi-Fi System

Nova 300 Integrated Amplifier w/Phono and DAC ~ $2,199 (USD)

M4 Monitor Speakers ~ $2,400 – $2,750 (USD)

Player Turntable ~ $1,499 (USD)

AR-H1 Hi-Res Planar Driver Headphones ~ $599.99 (USD)

TA-100 Integrated Amplifier w/Phono, DAC, and Tuner ~ $399 (USD)
(used as headphone amplifier)