By Gautam Raja
For a while, I was one of those (arguably) necessary but infuriating elements of high-end audio: the “informed” consumer. You know, the guys who read forum posts and therefore know more than dealers do. Then when I found I lived near a large high-end audio dealership I pitched myself as an interested and available dogsbody and writer, and suddenly found myself highly uninformed on the other side of the fence. I had to learn a lot, and quickly. The biggest lesson of all, was–in retrospect–the most obvious. High-end audio is heavy lifting.
It was my second day of work, and we had an installation at customer’s home out in a palm-studded desert town east of Los Angeles, helpfully called Palm Desert. The customer had bought The Speakers From Utah—the ones like attack robots made from Star Wars-ian bomb-shelter material. They had already been loaded onto the truck, and so while I didn’t yet know what I was in for, I was suitably impressed by the wooden sarcophagi they were ensconced in. I was even more impressed when I was shown the dedicated speaker jack—and I don’t mean ‘jack’ as in RCA or XLR, I mean ‘jack’ as in car and flat tire.
When we got to Palm Desert, I started unloading the tools while boss-man hefted a cardboard box, and went into the house to inspect the audio room. As he chatted with the customer, I learned that the box contained a power conditioner, and naively offered to unpack it and place it on the bottom shelf of the customer’s audio rack.
And that’s when it shook me to my core muscles… that this job needs good shoulders, a good back, and a number of other quality body parts. I was dripping sweat onto the customer’s white carpet and we had barely even begun.
As we drove home after it was all done, I knew I was due a visit by my Uncle DOMS, and realized with some bemusement that being in high-end audio was going to train my arms, shoulders, and core just as much as my ears. Whatever level you’re at–whether you’re the eager newcomer or the wizened legend whose name is etched onto product badges, this industry demands hard physical labor.
One of my favorite images illustrating this weighty democracy was on this very website. It showed the perennially dapper Peter McGrath of Wilson Audio, sitting on the floor of a hotel room, suit jacket in a heap next to him, tie missing, and shirt unbuttoned at the top, as he fiddled with a speaker spike during the installation of a pair of the Wilson Audio Alexx for the LA Audio Show.
(An aside: before installing large Wilsons, newcomers are told the cautionary tale of the person who received unholy stigmata when one of the giant loudspeakers was lowered abruptly during setup, driving the spike neatly through the center of his palm.)
And of course there are the quotidian injuries: splinters from packing crates, pinched fingers from power amp corners, slashes from heatsink edges, and stretched shoulders from the contortions required because every time you’re plugging in cables while hanging head-first over the top shelf of an audio rack, some dark magic turns every connection into square peg and round hole.
All of this is made more stressful because of how expensive a mistake can be. I have almost died of horror during the utterly ordinary act of dusting, after realizing I was this close to catching the stylus of an $8,000 handmade phono cartridge on my sleeve, potentially ripping out hours of work by an aged Japanese craftsman whose brand will die with him.
In one corner of a showroom I once worked in, as awful as it was to look at the ding on the side of a high-end loudspeaker, there was also the satisfaction of gazing at the wound and thinking, “That could have been me, but wasn’t. I got through nearly a year without gouging a $30,000 loudspeaker with the corner of a $60,000 power amp, and the new guy did it in his first month. Maybe I should ask for a raise.”
Have you heard, or heard of, Author & Punisher? I first encountered this “one-man industrial doom metal band” when someone at a listening evening likened a Kuzma Stabi XL turntable to Author & Punisher’s concert desk. Tristan Shone, the man behind the “band”, makes his own incredibly over-engineered controllers that he uses to trigger the digital sounds that make his music. In a video interview, Tristan says that it’s not just that he enjoys designing and overbuilding these devices, but that you can “hear” their weight on his tracks.
Tidal up ‘Terrorbird’ or ‘Callous and Hoof’, or any of his tracks really–Author & Punisher doesn’t exactly flit across genres–and listen. It must be Sunday, for you can hear mass. And mass, when you think about it, is a huge part of what we’re we’re chasing. Mass is what started me on this crazy journey, the evening I heard what happened to the sound of a cheap Sony CD-player and Indian-made Cox integrated amplifier when I plonked volumes one and two, respectively, of the Shorter Oxford Dictionary on each of their cases. Mass is what I went hunting down as a young tweaker when I located a company to sell me a sack of swimming-pool-filter sand to pour into my loudspeaker stands. And when I Blu-Tacked my bookshelf speakers onto that stand, it was mass that I was listening for, and the effects of it began sensitizing me to the magic of true high-fidelity.
Since then I’ve heard mass in many forms—from transformer tonnage to subwoofer ballast to audio rack foundation, and it’s amazing how density and weight in (non-moving) audio parts translate not just to authority and solidity, but lightness, swiftness, openness, and air.
That my abiding first impression of the audio industry, as an insider, happens to be about weight is a clue that relatively little time is spent doing what outsiders imagine: sitting around and listening to exotic gear and great music all day. The day-to-day is much more about paperwork, endless customer phone calls, Sisyphean website updates, and yes, the lifting and moving of heavy items, than it is about listening to audio systems. In fact, one of the great ironies is that you’re surrounded by all this gear, but sitting down and listening to it is a luxury that is rarely afforded. Perhaps that’s how it should be?
“This industry,” said another distinguished, ever-dapper audio rep to me recently, “is about always having a T-shirt in the back of your car because you never know when you’re going to sweat.”
About the Author
When people struggle with his name, Gautam tells them to think of Batman and call him “Gotham”, which is close enough. Gautam isn’t from Gotham though—he grew up in the once-tranquil city of Bangalore in South India and has lived in the US since 2006.
He grew up listening to the music of his parents—The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Neil Diamond—and the first album of his own was ‘Actually’ by Pet Shop Boys. (A music-loving friend once told him he shouldn’t talk about that—but to hell with him, it’s a great album!) His most-listened-to genre is prog rock, least listened to is classical, and genre that he really wished he understood better is Carnatic.
Gautam loves food and cooking and likes to try new dishes and cuisines almost as much as he despises the word “foodie”. He is a keen bicyclist and pretends to need all five of the bicycles he owns, each running on wheels he has built himself.
Gautam lives in Azusa, California, with his wife and their two beloved dogs Gunther and Diego. He works in sales and marketing at a high-end audio store and is drawn to audio systems that are dry, detailed, and dynamic, with deep, but extremely fast bass.
yen guru, yen samachara?
Good story Gautam.
I too have come to realise that musical weight, or mass seems to somehow unlock the higher registers. Weird.
Also, as the owner of Klipschorns and old valve amps with huge transformers, I can relate to the effort required to get equipment to where I need it to be. Even if it is only an inch or two from where it might be at the time. Always worth the struggle though.