Confessions of a Part-Time Audiophile
[Note: A version of this page was originally posted in 2009. Updated periodically since. Last major edit was 2014.]
I have to confess. Ok, I don’t have to, but I will anyway.
This is my site, so if you see a review and wonder who wrote it — that’d be me. Well. Unless there’s a byline that said someone else wrote it. I mean, it could happen. But it’s usually me.
So, who am I?
My name is Scot and I’m an audiophile.
It’s a problem, I know. Believe me — it’s something I’ve been working on. Anybody got a good therapist they can recommend?
Har har har.
Okay, well, maybe that’s only a little bit funny. Calling myself an “audiophile” is something many of you out there in the Interwebbynets will readily equate to self-identifying as some kind of fetishist, perhaps somewhere on par with a Hummel figurine collector — and that’s only if you’re being charitable. To be honest, that suspicion is probably fair. Audiophiles are a weird bunch. There’s this OCD-level obsession with gear and with sound quality, and quite frankly, some of the beliefs and practices that go into all of it are … well, let’s just say “bizarre” and move on.
As for my own fetishistic expression, I suppose that I should say that I’m more properly a stereophile. I’m in it for the gear — I’ve got a thing for the pretty boxes! Yes, I love music too, and yes, I am totally enthralled by really awesome sound — but that’s not all of it. I mean, if it was, I’d have been “done” at Beats and an iPod. Ahem. Anyway, there’s just something, something strange and maybe even awesome about products in this segment that just lights me up. To me, it’s every bit of “art” — and in the exact same way that the fine arts are “art”. The only difference, at least as I see it, is the medium — circuits and wire and vacuum tubes, instead of charcoal, stone or paint. I find it fascinating — and the fact that you can use (instead of just stare at) these things, these amazing, hand-made objets, to make music … well, that’s almost inexpressibly awesome.
Yes, okay, fine. I have a problem. I said that already, didn’t I?
Who am I?
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 unscathed.
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 was thoroughly smashed and I remember sitting around feeling generally happy with my state of affairs when 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 getting me started on the track of becoming an audiophile. My first trip to the local audio dealer was a bit like being shanghaied, 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 just past 40. Which means my hearing is (largely, 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 mid-career now, having wandered into IT by mistake something north of 15 years ago. 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. [Ironically, retirement is exactly what happened. Well, that, and then a second career — more on that later.]
There’s this thing called the “absolute sound”. It derives from 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 it’s proveably 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/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 hear — or pay attention to — 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 freakin’ mystery. But even if their meaning appears clear to you, do you know my intent? 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 particularly Cartesian, I suppose you could say that there is only illusion. All art could be merely shadowy flickers on the cave walls of our own minds. I think it’s a bit of an understatement to say that this is not entirely helpful, but if your panties don’t get into a twist about over this bit of sophistry, 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. The target isn’t the point. The climb is. And for now, I’ll leave the rest as moot.
Yes, the site-title is something of a joke. If being an audiophile is like having some kind of disease or mental deficiency, then being a “part-time audiophile” is like being a round square, a little bit pregnant, or [cough] a young Republican. Like I said, it’s a joke. Lighten up.
But it’s 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 past 2.5M/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. I’m meeting some really interesting exemplars of the species, which is entertaining, and writing about art turns out to be more fun than it should be. Over time, I’m planning to expand the site, add some alternative, competing, and (if I’m lucky) contrarian voices, creating a panel of obnoxious audio others that can come at the industry we love and celebrate it’s joys, horrors, successes and catastrophic failures with aplomb, humor, and wit.
In the meantime, I’ll do my best to follow my interests. Gear, more gear, and plenty of photos to wash it all down. When it fits into my real-life calendar, I’ll head to an audio show, and maybe shoot a couple zillion photos there, too. I’ll post that, and hopefully, it’ll be fun to read and flip through. I’m not here to churn through product lines like some kind of evil meat-grinder in search of a killer one-liner — all in order to set myself up as a Paragon of Truth and Virtue and the Last Word In Audio — I’ll be presenting my actual experiences here.
But I’ll also be doing more than that. I’ll be wrestling with choices. Building systems. Visiting local (and not-so-local) dealers and manufacturers and venues. All of that will show up here, in some form or another. I like to think of all this as “charting a course between ADD and OCD in audio’s high-end”. Hey, we’ve all got our problems, am I right?
[insert crickets here]
[tap, tap] Is this thing on?
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.