Big Kids Toys: Why Aren’t There More Audiophiles? | The Ivory Tower

Dave McNair (far left), Mike Toomey (second from right) and two members of the Big Kids Toys AV staff.
I recently attended an audiophile event at one of my favorite local hi-fi haunts, Big Kids Toys AV, in Greensboro, Noth Ca-Lylna. Owner Mike Toomey was one of the first folks I met when I moved down south. In addition to being friendly, knowledgeable, and an all around great guy, Mike has operated a fine audiophile sales establishment (polite code for audio drug dealer) for over 20 years.

On this occasion, I went to the store to hear Trent Suggs, the new president of Audio Research Corporation, talk about all things ARC including his vision for the future of this Minnesota legend. Big Kids Toys had recently picked up ARC, and it was great to hear Trent’s passion and commitment for continuing and even elevating the Audio Research tradition of designing and building world class vacuum tube gear. As I jealously eyed an Audio Research t-shirt, sported by one of the attendees, I also learned a few things about how they design and build Audio Research components.

Words and Photos by Dave McNair

At some point, well, many points, the assembled group of what seemed to me as seasoned audiophiles (polite code for The Get Off My Lawn Crowd, Audio Edition), veered into the age-old hit parade of audiophile topics including Why aren’t more people audiophiles? Remember when people used to sit around in groups at home and listen to music? Will brick and mortar audio stores survive? And, my favorite catch-all, What happened to our hobby?

“The Hobby”

I have my own ideas about the answer to these unanswerable questions, but the one I thought about the most was why aren’t more folks into what we like to affectionately term “The Hobby.” My own experiences have me doubting the often echoed refrain of “If more people could hear a truly great system they would be converted from the evils of phone listening, cheap earbuds, car audio, Bose speakers, and (fill in the blank).”

As we collectively explored this topic at Trent’s presentation ay Big Kids Toys AV, my own pet theory emerged. Just about everybody in the room, myself included, told stories that seemed to point towards a curious phenomenon.

On a macro level, yes, if more people heard a great-sounding system for the first time it would definitely increase the numbers within our strange but lovable herd. But I think that audiophiles are born not converted, nature versus nurture. Furthermore, I think there is a similarity between audiophiles and the folks whose brains are wired for greater susceptibility towards addictive behavior. Maybe not in exactly the same way, but it seems there may be a latent tendency towards this frequently obsessive behavior that wakes upon sampling what may become their drug of choice.

Mike Toomey of Big Kids Toys AV.

Dave’s First Time

How many times do we hear stories of That First Time? You know, when we first heard music on some kind of system, like the ones featured at Big Kids Toys, that lit up our brain in a certain way? That’s when the craving starts. At least that’s how it happened for me.

I was about 14 and wandered into a local stereo store. The salesman put on “Rocky Mountain Way” by Joe Walsh and cranked it through some big Altecs with 15” woofers and horns powered by a Great American Sound Ampzilla. Probably a Denon turntable. The chest-pounding sound of the deeply tuned snare drum, combined with lots of space in the verses, led to the big, rockin’ choruses that had me instantly hooked. For life. I decided right then and there that one day I would possess a system that could provide me with that experience anytime I wanted.

But what about a story I heard that afternoon at Big Kids Toys AV from a guy with, no doubt, a jaw-dropping system? When his non-audiophile buddies came over to watch the game one day, they collectively took a break to hear his system. Plenty of “Wow, Fred, that sounds awesome!” But interest was short-lived, followed by the rapid call for “Hey let’s get back to the game.” I don’t know, maybe it was a closely fought championship or something, but if I had been in that crowd I would have let everybody get back to the game and then politely ask if I could stay in the system room to get my fix on. Not a thing in the world wrong with the guys more interested in the game–they simply weren’t audiophiles.

My partner Linda, with her PhD and university professor status, is an actual bona fide member of the Ivory Tower (as opposed to my implied status in this column title, which she finds quite annoying).  She also has a background in music, having played and sung in bands. Upon request, Linda will listen to my hi-fi when I have something new to review that I think makes the system shine. She usually says “ Yeah, that sounds great, can you play some Shins or Bowie?” She has good ears and easily hears sonic differences between components but she is most definitely a music lover, not an audiophile.

I love music, of course. Who doesn’t? But it’s much more than that. I think I was drawn to learning how to play instruments by loving the sound, just as much as I wanted to be the next Eric Clapton. Heh. If I had truly been all about the music then why did I lose interest and decide to pursue working with audio as a recording engineer? It wasn’t my love of working with musicians in a studio, although that can be pretty fun. It was because I could help create and mold the sound.

Let’s say I’m listening at home. Unless I am REALLY into the music and the sound is REALLY happening (for me), I’m looking for something else to spin. And my reaction based on sonics alone, to any particular recording, can change for different listening sessions. How many of y’all have picked out something to play because an inner voice said to you “oooh, the ride cymbal on this bop record sounds amazing”?  My inner voice frequently says something like, “We need to feel some 40-50hz tonight, better pull out Brittany Howard to start.”

I’m not ashamed to admit I loves me some Hall and Oates or ABBA, but when I’ve tried to play H&O on a hi-rez system I’m almost incensed by how the sonics created for maximum impact on a car radio ruins my enjoyment of those great, pop confectionery, guilty pleasure, tunes. (Well, at least  E.L.O. usually makes the grade.)

Big Kids Toys and Gear Acquisition Syndrome

I have a hunch my brain has different locations for producing the serotonin drip I get while listening.  One section for audio and a different location for music. In my case, the audio brain cells usually win out. If people’s lives depended on it, the World Health Organization could commission a scientific study of our brains on music. Wouldn’t that be interesting to find out if and what percentage of the population are naturally wired to be an audiophile?

In pro audio there is a universally acknowledged term known as G.A.S., which is short for Gear Acquisition Syndrome. This is the phenomena of engineers endlessly buying more recording and mixing gear in search of the perfect sound that’s in their head. This affliction is not extreme for all engineers–a small percent do great work and make do with just about anything.

G.A.S. is frequently mitigated by various factors, things such as return on investment–some vintage gear appreciates in value. How much more work will come in based on an increase in the quality of the work which will supposedly improve with said gear? How much can practically be spent (or justified)? And in the case of married hobbyists, which these days make up a large percent of recording gear purchasers, how much can I buy before my partner leaves me?

Back to Big Kids Toys

Minus the part about improving the work, does this sound familiar to audiophiles?

It can get really out of control when new gear purchases seem to have a correlation to a client’s approval of the work. Even though I am as guilty as most of my fellow audio engineers in this regard, I know in my bones that the gear I use, past a very basic point, is not what produces the sound quality of my work. It’s what I do with it. Kinda like the fact that even very affordable home playback equipment is shockingly good these days. Way more than good enough to get a big thrill from listening to your favorite tunes. But if you’re an audiophile, that’s no fun, now is it?

Back to that discussion at Big Kids Toys AV, I’d love it as much as the next audiophile for more people to join our little cult. Wouldn’t it be nice for there to be a bigger pie for all the hi-fi companies to eat from? We might even see more choices for very high end level performing gear without the high level price tag. But unless someone figures out how many potential audiophiles are out there lurking in their happy unexposed innocence, and how to reach those folks, we may never know.

Are audiophiles born or made? A bit of both? What say ye? I invite interested readers to comment.