Confessions of a Part-Time Audiophile
My parents were musical-ish. My Mom said she liked classical music, but strangely for a mother of three, she never actually chose to put music on and instead seemed to vastly prefer long stretches of something she referred to as “blessed quiet”. The importance — and rarity — of this phenomenon is something I simply didn’t grasp until I had small children of my own. Sorry, Mom.
My Dad was a “folk” guy, really into Joan Baez and the Kingston Trio. I think the closest he got to “mainstream” was Simon and Garfunkel. That was okay — I knew (most of) the lyrics to “The Boxer” and “The Sound of Silence” before I went into kindergarten, though the meanings happily sailed past. I remember singing “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme” to myself, walking home from Middle School. Apparently, “good friends” are supposed to stop that sort of thing, but I escaped miraculously un-helped.
My older and much cooler brother was a big 60’s & 70’s rock fan, so I grew up with Zeppelin, the brothers Allman and Doobie, and the angst of various other long-haired hippie-rock bands, all leaking out of his perennially closed-up room in the basement. Now, this was music!
The first album I ever bought was Boston’s Don’t Look Back on vinyl. I still remember the way the vinyl smelled when I first cut the plastic wrap off the LP — tangy! — but try as I might, I can’t remember the turntable I played it on. This may or may not have something to do with my brother’s campaign to keep all my LPs with his — in his room. Where they’d be safe. You know. Hmmm. Just for the record, the first album I ever bought on cassette tape was Thriller by Michael Jackson. Now you know.
High school was a blur, which is probably a good thing. Musically, I was pretty much under the influences of friends, but I fondly remember quietly singing duets from various tracks (okay, all of the tracks) from Pink Floyd’s The Wall during Chemistry, Physics and Calculus. Beat the snot out of paying attention, but I came to know that album backwards and forwards, and happily added in DSOTM to the rotation. I don’t think I’ve listened to either of them, willingly, since.
I think my musical “awakening” (in the sense that I really started paying attention) happened with Nirvana. I remember quite clearly the first time I heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” — I was at a Hallowe’en party at GWU. I remember that someone popped a mix tape (remember mix tapes?) into the stereo and Nirvana queued up. I was, at that point, nonplussed. I mean, it sounded like, well, noise — so raw and so antithetical to the “hair bands” I was into at the time … but I couldn’t get the sound out of my head and I bought the album the following day (after a really long nap, and a shower). The “hair band” stage was over and I promptly grew my hair out and started wearing a lot of flannel.
I blame my friends for infecting me with the audiophile bug. My first trip to the local audio dealer was a bit like being kidnapped, but everyone involved very thoughtfully helped me spend my money on a NAD rig, featuring the BEE lineup of CD players and integrated amps. For speakers, I was allowed to purchase some cast-off Totem Forest loudspeakers from one of my friends since he was upgrading. Together, the sound was unlike anything I’d ever had before. My home theater system, the pinnacle of my audio-thinking at the time, was completely outclassed. I like to think of this as the beginning of the end.
A couple of years, and a house purchase later, I’d sold all the NAD gear and the Totems. In their place came my first tube system — an Ars Sonum Filarmonia EL34 amplifier driving a pair of Merlin VSM-MMe speakers. And with it, I reached an all-new level, one that far surpassed the merely mortal rigs my friends enjoyed. As luck would have it, I was able to borrow an unused older Accuphase DP-85 for spinning CDs and SACDs — and I was off.
My first big addition that wasn’t a hand-me-down was digital audio. Being a “computer guy”, I invested (wasted?) countless hours researching the state of the art. It was a review on 6moons by Paul Candy that convinced me to get a Cullen-Circuits modified PS Audio DLIII DAC. I ran that via Toslink out of my aging Apple Power Mac G5 tower — it sounded fantastic. Better than fantastic, really, and I was thrilled with the flexibility. Any track, whenever I wanted? Oh, yeah, baby, bring it on! I like to think of this as “The Acceleration”. As in, downhill, no breaks, hey — is that a wall?
I’ve since sold the Merlins, PS Audio DAC and Ars Sonum integrated. My current system is found on the “References” page.
If you’ve read this far, you’re probably a masochist and/or have some kind of roadside-tragedy fetish, so in the purely puerile interest of feeding your weaknesses, let me pull the curtain aside a bit and tell you about my biases, interests and where those might have come from.
I’m now past 50. Which means my hearing is mostly, but not entirely, intact. I should note that I am not a professional in any industry that relates to audio whatsoever. In my other life, I suppose I am between careers now, having wandered into IT by mistake something north of 20 years ago, and am now exploring something rather different. But writing … well … everyone needs a hobby, no? Anything that keeps Jack from being a dull boy. I do hope to retire someday, but audiophilia (the illness, as opposed to “being an audiophile”, which is supposedly a hobby) does make an early retirement both attractive and rather unlikely without the intervention of the Lotto Fairy.
There’s this thing called the “absolute sound”. It derives from the hobby we used to call “high fidelity”, but the idea is fairly simple: the goal of an audio system is to, as faithfully as possible, recreate the live musical event. The success of any “reproduced experience” (and the system that created it) is therefore measured against the thing being reproduced as it happened.
I’m on record as thinking this is utter nonsense. I’m sticking to that.
Pardon me while I sit here, in my philosophical smoking jacket, and say with no little level of pompous obtuseness: there’s really no such thing as a “live event”. I mean, of course, one that is objective. By “objective”, I mean only that is provably true or false. Yes, there is something we can refer to as “the event”, but what any individual actually hears, much less remembers, finds important, convincing, compelling … well, precious little of that is objective. That’s a matter of preference, taste, experience, discernment/skill and above all, memory. Philosophically complicating the issue, it doesn’t seem that qualia are meaningfully universal — much less, universally compelling. What’s convincing to me may not be to you. What’s compelling to me may not be to you. What I actually notice may escape you utterly. For no other reason other than the simple fact that you are not me.
Then there’s the issue of what makes a live event “live”. Is it the sound of an unamplified instrument in a real venue? Okay — in what venue? Is that venue full or empty of people or objects? And which seat is “correct”? And what do we do about those instruments that cannot be (or should not be) played unamplified? What about the impact or relevance of all the microphones, preamps, wires, and recording gear … what, exactly, is “absolute” about all that? And reproducing music generally means that there’s some kind of “process”, one that involves a mixer or compressor … and effects, like delay …. With all that said, what part of what I’m hearing — and not just in reproduction, but when I’m actually, physically present at the “live event” — what part of that is the “real instrument”?
Said another way, where is the “absolute sound” in the vast majority of the music we listen to? That it “sounds more or less like” what you heard when you heard it yourself? This presupposes you were able to hear it prior to recording, and that the performance being recorded is the same as what you heard and uses the same gear… Of course, you may have prior experience. You might even be an expert. Hell, you might be a wizard. But experts, those we truly expect to be able to make (and be in a position to make) such discriminations, simply cannot do so reliably. So much for experience.
Ready for the rabbit hole? Here we go: the fact that you can understand these words is, in large part, a complete mystery. But even if their meaning appears clear to you, do you know my intent? Can you? Can you ever really know what I implied when I chose one word over another? What linkages I routinely make — and expect you to make — when I leap from one semantic island to another? Where does my phrasing comes from, where do my metaphors spring from and why … if you do not know these things, how can you say you truly understand me?
Solipsism. It’s what’s for dinner.
This, of course, doesn’t really leave us in a particularly warm and fuzzy place. Even if there is an absolute referent, it’s not entirely clear if any one particular person would ever know it — much less be able to share it with anyone else.
Are we having fun yet?
Were you feeling peculiarly philosophical, I suppose you could say that there is only illusion. All art — all of everything — could be merely shadowy flickers on the cave walls of our own minds. Weird? Maybe, but Plato seemed to think so. I think it’s a bit of an understatement to say that this is not entirely helpful, but if this bit of sophistry sits well enough, well, we can have some fun. Buy me a beer sometime — I’ll bring my baggie of red and blue pills and we can see how deep the rabbit hole goes.
I suppose I could add that if I’m forced to choose between illusions, the best illusion is one that’s convincing to me. In the case of audio references, I guess you could call this the pursuit of an ever-more convincing illusion, but I think it’s most helpful to avoid this sort of philosophical conundrum entirely and simply dispense with the term “absolute”. I leave my home to hear a performance. I come home and listen to my system. The closest that my system gets me to that other sound is good enough for a target.
Wave aside the details, for now. We’re pointing at something, like a mountain summit that lies shrouded in clouds, and every so often we can peer across the gulf, through the curtain of shadow and uncertainty and doubt, and glimpse the next highest peak. Is there an absolute? Perhaps. Will we ever know it? Perhaps not. But here’s today’s lesson: the target isn’t the point; the climb is. And for now, I’ll leave the rest as moot.
Yes, the site-title was intended as something of a joke. That is, it was at least intended to be part-time. The logo is a stylized clock with the hands pointing to the “witching hour” (8PM), that time when the kids went to bed and I was able to claim an hour — just one — in front of the keyboard, before joining my equally-exhausted wife for our shared-hour of decompression before bed.
But the name is also kinda serious. We’ve come a long way from what Philip O’Hanlon of On A Higher Note, the US distributor for Luxman, Vivid and other fine brands of audio candy once told me, “your efforts [here on this site] are hardly on the same playing field with that of a real reviewer, now are they” to which he quickly followed with “you’re no Steven Stone”. I’m paraphrasing, of course, but the point was well taken — and leads me to have to declaim: it’s true, I am not Steven Stone. But I think a couple hundred thousand readers per year ain’t so bad, either [2019 update: we’re now well past 2M readers/year].
So, now that I’ve been put in my rightful place, and my aspirations have been properly throttled, I think the biggest “goal” would be for me to keep having fun, which is convenient because it turns out that writing about art and the artists that make that art is more fun than I thought it would be.
I’ve been blessed to find sympatico spirits in Panagiotis, Brian, Rafe, Marc, Eric, Lee, and a host of others, and being able to help provide a platform for them (and so many others!) has become as much of a goal as my “writing project” ever was.
Over time, there are plans to expand the site, add more voices, and “alternate modalities” in order to celebrate the industry’s joys, with our signature aplomb, humor, and wit.
We hope you enjoy the ride.
— Scot Hull
There’s more “about me” (What, more, you say? — but yes, it’s true) over at High Fidelity.
There’s even more “about me” over at my “other career” page, The Holy Question Mark.