Chicky Breier was there when it all began. This was after World War II, when the concept of “hi-fi” — or “high-fidelity” — was so new that most people didn’t even know what the term meant. Chicky’s husband, Edmund F. Breier, founded the business that would become one of San Diego’s first hi-fi stores, in 1946.
It is the oldest store of its kind in the city today. Ed began by selling intercoms and public-address systems, then expanded into retailing this new kind of “phonograph,” which was introduced to the public at about the same time as the first long-playing records. An electrical engineer by training, the young University of Colorado graduate had quickly decided that a life of drawing transformers was not, as Chicky puts it, his “métier.” He ran the business out of a shed at the end of his and Chicky’s long (200-foot) and narrow backyard in the Golden Hill area. “We were on Commonwealth Avenue when it was almost rural,” says Chicky, which, no, is not a nickname. “It’s my real name,” says the very slender seventysomething woman in slacks, red sweater, and red earrings to match on the day of my visit.
It has taken me a while to find her. A La Jolla friend whose father designed and built his own hi-fi in the early ’50s remembered the name of the store as the Briar Pitch. “The smell of the old hi-fi is pure nostalgia for me,” my friend wrote me in an e-mail. “The vacuum tubes (my dad graduated from college in 1948, the year the transistor was invented) got pretty hot, and there was a very specific, peculiar, and pleasant aroma that this dry heat would drive out of the plywood cabinetry, vinyl coverings, and steel chassis (yes, these monsters had steel chassis to hold the vacuum tubes). There is a dying subculture of guys around 70 who were the first hi-fi buffs and who thrill at the old brand names. The hi-fi buff became a figure of fun, and the old British theatrical team of Flanders and Swann performed a song about them. There’s a line that goes something like, ‘I’ve an opera here you shan’t escape / on miles and miles of recording tape.’ Hi-fi nuts were as serious about pushing the power-and-fidelity envelope as the test pilots at Edwards were about hitting Mach 2 and beyond. I think the wives and girlfriends practically killed some of these guys; you know men and their hobbies.”
Actually, The Breier Pitch was the name of a little magazine they used to publish, said Chicky when I phoned to make arrangements to meet her.
In 1951, when the E.F. Breier Company moved from the shed to what would be the first of its two downtown locations, Chicky sent out invitations to the opening of their “High Fidelity Salon.” “We invited people we thought would be interested in the hi-fi concept. But many of them called and asked us what it was. Someone wondered if it was a new lipstick.” At the time, there were still so few hi-fi dealers — nationwide — that Avery Fisher, Frank McIntosh, Paul Klipsch, and other audio pioneers would periodically make the trip to San Diego to see them.
“That’s our ‘museum,’ ” says Chicky, pointing to old McIntosh components in a glass case along the wall in the store that today is Breier Audio/Video, located in Kearny Mesa, where it has been since 1983. Paul Klipsch came to the 40th anniversary and signed some of his vintage components that are also part of the “museum.”
While their downtown opening was “a disaster,” business eventually improved. The ’50s housing boom helped. Chicky recalls that at least two building contractors, including Morley Golden, bought systems. So did some of the people whose houses they were building. But the Breier Sound Center remained distinctly ma-and-pa. After Ed made a sale wearing his dress clothes, he changed into his work clothes and did the installation. Once, when someone phoned to ask for a diamond needle, Chicky loaded her two small children into the car and delivered it.
She and Ed also sold kits made by Dyna and Heath-Kit to the men and boys, like my La Jolla friend’s father, who made a hobby of building their own hi-fi systems.
In 1959, Ed, still young, died. It was Chicky who ran the business for the next few decades. Now her 53-year-old son, Mark, and his wife, Carol, are the principals, and Chicky, who has outlived a second husband, fills in when they are shorthanded. “It’s difficult to hire knowledgeable people,” says Chicky, who admits that even she has trouble keeping up with all of the new developments.
Chicky and I are speaking in a room that has been designed to simulate a home theater, the new and burgeoning branch of the family business. As we talk, the screen continues to show what was playing when she paused it with the remote control. Behind her but facing me a man and woman are stopped in the middle of their full-mouthed on-screen kiss. “It controls so much, I don’t even want to touch it,” said Chicky of the remote, putting it aside.
If home theater is not her métier, neither is what has become of the hi-fi business today. High-end, not high-fidelity, is the term for what is acknowledged to be the top in audio quality now. It is also usually high-priced — in fact, stratospherically high — although it doesn’t have to be. At the bottom is lo-fi, also called no-fi. These are the rack systems sold by Dow and others to most of us. And what Chicky sells has been redubbed “mid-fi.” So she has been superseded. She isn’t sorry.
When I mention the term “audiophiles” — as high-end audio aficionados are known — Chicky smiles tolerantly and says, “They’re very nice people, but they’re very hard to deal with. They’re looking for perfection, and it doesn’t exist. They’re very interested in the specs. They’ll want to read them,” she laughs lightly. “They’ll buy something, and then they’ll want to bring it back —” She grows serious here, and I catch a glimpse of the resolve of this woman who, as a young widow, mother of two, carried on alone. “It’s better for people who are like them to deal with them,” says Chicky.
Audiophiles are Sound Lovers is a bumper sticker an audiophile once gave to me, saying, “It’s literally true!”
Reproduced sound is their métier, its quality their obsession. An exact replication of an actual live performance by means of technology — a virtual performance — is their goal, an elusive one, probably an impossible one. Still, audiophiles relentlessly pursue it, with a passion that intrigues an observer of human behavior like me.
Audiophiles are sensitive, to the point of being touchy, I learned. It wasn’t easy to find many willing to speak with me. I’m grateful that five San Diegans agreed to invite me into their “listening rooms” and to “demo” their equipment. Even so, three of them requested pseudonyms, citing security reasons. But I also suspect they were a little leery of what I might write about them. Many audiophiles are only too aware of the ease with which some latter-day Flanders or Swann could ridicule them and the lengths to which they go to avoid hum, rumble, hiss, and other destroyers of the audio illusion. An audiophile north of the city — too far north for my readership, I decided — wrote me a testy e-mail in response to my initial inquiry about a possible interview: “Please don’t make us sound like a lunatic fringe. I am an astronomer trained at CalTech working as an Earth remote sensing scientist at a federally funded R&D center in LA. But I am also a serious audiophile.”
The British parodists predate the outlays of serious money — sometimes second-mortgage–sized — for which high-end has become infamous. So their old song doesn’t go into that. But the subject probably hasn’t escaped the notice of many an audiophile’s scornful coworker or neighbor, content with a set of mid-fi speakers from Bose (my own innocent choice). An audiophile in El Cajon — an accountant who wants to be known as John Smythe — wrote me in an e-mail before we met: “[This hobby] is not about money.” Consider these comparisons, he urged. “If someone spends $50,000 for a sports car or $100,000 for a boat, people don’t blink an eye. If someone spends $20,000 for a stereo system, people look at that person as if he were from another planet.”
Granted, “Some people spend incredible sums. Every audiophile knows someone who has dropped megabucks into a system that sounds horrible. These big spenders are pseudo-audiophiles, in it for the status and the prestige.”
The subject line of Smythe’s e-mail said “Audiophilia,” so I, too, began using the word in our correspondence. “Perhaps I should mention that audiophilia is a term that is unofficial,” he wrote me in response, “and is used as a form of dark humor. Audiophilia is a disease. Not only do the sufferers hear differences between speaker cables, but they care about the difference enough to invest time and money in it. Normal people can hear the difference, but it does not affect them and they take no action other than to say, ‘That’s nice.’ ”
“Do normal people sit in the dark and listen to music for hours on end?” he asked. “Most people don’t think so. People believe that wine lovers have an educated palate and can identify obscure vintages by taste. If you tell people that hearing, like taste, is a sense that can be made more acute over time by training, most people will think you are a nut.”
And yet he does see the extremism of it himself at times. When I asked him if he knew a certain San Diego audiophile I was trying to track down, he replied, “The name does not sound familiar. However, there are over 100 people on our audio-society mailing list and I usually know members only by their first names. Also, quite a few audiophiles do not belong to our organization (closet audiophiles — people who are sick like the rest of us, but they won’t admit it).”
The audio society to which he referred is the Music and Audio Guild of San Diego. All of those to whom I would be speaking are members. Less than a decade old, a reincarnation of its defunct predecessor, the San Diego Audio Society, it meets monthly at one of only two high-end audio retail stores in all of San Diego today: Stereo Unlimited, on Sports Arena Boulevard, owned by Bruce Heimberg.
“San Diego is not a sophisticated audio city,” Heimberg told me. “People move here for sun and fun. If they’re serious about audio, they’re serious in another house in another location. Thirty percent of our business is outside the county. We actually travel the country.” Not that there are vast numbers of high-end stores in other cities, except, predictably, New York and L.A. Heimberg gets phone calls from people who live where there isn’t a high-end store for hundreds of miles around. People come to San Diego specifically to see him or his competition, Steve Nielsen’s Stereo Design, on Clairemont Mesa Boulevard, not far from Chicky Breier’s. But “competition” really isn’t the right word, according to Heimberg. “I’m not competing for the one person who goes there instead of here. It’s the ten people who don’t even know that high-end exists and who never got a chance to listen.”
It would be a mistake, however, to see audiophiles as all of a piece. Take a look at audioasylum.com, one of the most influential and highly trafficked high-end audio sites on the web (and it happens to be based here in San Diego). You’ll realize at once that several controversies are raging. The most fundamental is between the objectivists and the subjectivists. The objectivists, known pejoratively as meter readers, go by the numbers, proof for the eye: they measure differences. The subjective people merely listen for them.
No matter what sort you meet, however, he (and it will invariably be a he) will want to tell you of the different types of audiophiles that exist, if not in nature, then at least in theory.
First are the music lovers who just happen to be audiophiles. They have the audio gear because they need it to hear the music they love. You can easily recognize them because their record collections tend to be very large, often numbering in the thousands, sometimes tens of thousands. Rule of thumb: The value of their recordings vastly exceeds the value of their audio equipment.
Second is the group that consists of the pure or classic audiophiles. They alone should be the bearers of the bumper sticker cited above. They love good sound as much as music. Recognize them by their possessions too. They’ll have very large loudspeakers, very likely tubed amplifiers, and an obsession for vinyl. Continuously buying, selling, borrowing, and trading in search of sonic nirvana, these are the folks who wanted to return their newly purchased equipment to Chicky Breier.
Third is a group known as gearheads. Their hobby might as easily have been cars or clocks or computers. Gadgets are their real love, rather than sound or even music. In fact, they are also called gadget guys.
Fourth are the tweakers. A self-described tweaker provided me with this definition: “A tweaker is a person who believes that he himself can have a profound impact on the sound by means of tweaking — or, better, fine-tuning.” In other words, instead of spending money on gear he spends time on adjusting gear.
“Tweaking, or fine-tuning, is something that is accepted in a musical instrument,” said that fellow, who believes that audio systems are musical instruments. (Never mind the old joke, “What do you play?” “I play the stereo.”) “More music is delivered today over the ‘phonograph,’ generically speaking, than by any ‘real’ musical instrument, save, possibly, the human voice.”
Says my informant, tweaking can be both interior and exterior to the gear — “although interior is a little less common, considering the problem of voiding warranties and of removing covers.”
Fifth is a group known as do-it-yourselfers, who still build their own, using published circuit diagrams, or even devising their own circuits. These audio artisans will try dozens of different tubes before landing on the right ones.
Finally, all audiophiles, no matter what kind, are listening-room tuners.
A word here about such rooms. Every fortunate audiophile has one. He needs it because the system needs it. He also needs it because of the Wife Acceptance Factor, a well-known term among the brethren. The Wife Acceptance Factor colors a man’s purchasing of audio gear, because the system goes into the home, and the home is very often the wife’s domain. “Things gotta look good for the wife” is how one audiophile shorthanded it for me. But the system may not look good, and there it is, in the living room, with its cables and huge speakers, which for best results are positioned away from the walls, out toward the room’s center. And there, too, are the room-tweaking devices, on the walls, even on the ceilings. In San Diego, I visited a living room that was the man’s listening room in which the cables were held up off the floor by empty toilet-paper rolls — not my idea of a pleasing aesthetic effect. “Carpeting is a bad dielectric material” is how their presence, and function, was explained to me. Also: “When we bought this house, we agreed that the living room would be mine, for listening, and she could have the whole rest of the house.” Insensitivity to the Wife Acceptance Factor can mean marital strife. When an audiophile has a room to which he and his system have been consigned, it’s better for everyone.
In my visits with audiophiles in San Diego I did not attempt to categorize. What I did, subjectivist that I am, was “merely” listen, to them and to their systems.
“The thing that I think was different about me was that I was always interested in sounds. I was very taken by sounds. A friend had classical records, and he would bring them over and we would listen to them, and what I noticed is that they had more interesting sounds than the popular music of the time that I had been listening to.”
That’s John Thomas, of Normal Heights, explaining how his interest in audio began. We are sitting in the only downstairs room of his modest two-story condo, directly off the foyer. It’s a small room, 12 by 14 feet. (“The worst thing you can do is listen in a cube,” he will tell me later. “Nonparallel walls would be the ideal.”) The ceiling is 8 feet. It is a room without drapes and with neutral wall-to-wall carpeting. Stretched like canvas on frames are a couple of beige-and-white striped rectangles of cloth. Seeing them anywhere else, I might have assumed they were decorative wall hangings. But because this is a listening room I know they are room-tweaking devices, meant to optimize sound in some way. The same goes for the little white triangular pillows affixed to the corners, at the ceiling.
The speakers are the room’s focal point, two monoliths, about four feet tall and one and a half feet wide. Behind them are two subwoofers, square and squat. Between them a pair of amplifiers, with vacuum tubes. A few red buttons are glowing. There is also a turntable — I haven’t seen one of those in a while — and coils of cable, very thick — not your ordinary lamp cord.
A leather chair is the only piece of furniture, with a matching foot stool. John sits on the latter as we speak, having given me “the listening seat,” which is “situated at one point of an equilateral triangle, the speakers being the other two points.” He is wearing slippers and sneaker socks, gray gym shorts, a blue T-shirt — and spectacles behind which his eyes size up me. Despite his decidedly casual attire, he looks professorial. I wonder if he’ll give me a test afterward. Later I will learn that his higher education consisted of two years of technical school and that he has recently retired as an electronics technician from Cohu Electronics. (Incidentally, John Thomas did not feel the need for a pseudonym.)
“I was raised in a house that had music,” he says, outlining the earliest days of his lifelong preoccupation with audio. “This was in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. My parents had an old phonograph, with a crank. We’re talking World War II era. I’m 65. It was from the ’20s. You wound it up.” His father was a research physicist who worked for rca Victor. “A friend and coworker of my father’s convinced me when I was 10 or 11 that I could build what I most desired at that time: an electric phonograph — something I wouldn’t have to wind up.” And he did make one, with the man’s help. Says John, “He took me through the steps in a Heath-Kit–like way.”
As a teenager he built a Williamson amp. And this was another great moment in his life as a young audiophile. “Everybody who fooled around with hi-fi in the ’40s built one. If you wanted one, you had to build one.”
Soon enough, beginning at age 16, he was fixing radios and TVs for a local Lancaster establishment.
The walls of his parents’ house were made of “old-fashioned plaster.” John says that’s ideal for a listening room. Here the walls are made of Sheetrock, which he deems an acceptable material. He also likes the concrete-slab floor. “What you really want is for the room not to speak.” The “wall hangings” — in truth, absorbing panels, two feet by four feet — contribute to its “deadness” by “lessening the first reflection of the speakers.”
In general he has done the best he can with his “condo situation.” California architecture presents its challenges to an audiophile. “The whole problem is that it’s usually all open,” says John, who has been in San Diego for 13 years. “This is a bedroom — the door closes. That’s why it works.”
In picking this space as the listening room, he was keen on one other feature: its isolation from the rest of the house. His mention of this brings up the subject of “Domestic Distortion,” which John tells me is “the ’50s term for the Wife Acceptance Factor.
“What it boils down to is, ‘Can your wife stand your ugly speakers?’ ”
In an earlier life, John was married; he has a grown daughter. Now he lives with another man, Howard Finnecy, who has been retired since 1992 as manager of parking services at ucsd. (“Are you an audiophile too?” I asked Howard by phone a few days later. “No,” he said, “but I am a very educated listener from above,” meaning the second floor. And since John usually gets up earlier than he does, he says it’s very pleasant to come downstairs in the morning to the cadence of some wonderful music.)
John mentions an audiophile friend in Pennsylvania who was having an extramarital affair that nearly caused a divorce. John says he advised him, “ ‘No sex is worth that listening room.’ ”
That was in the early days of hi-fi — the Breier era, so to speak — when, according to John, “a tremendous number of people bought a stereo system because it was the thing to own — they didn’t get into music.” He should know. For a while, he sold audio equipment out of his Pennsylvania basement. He was also in the hi-fi business full-time for a while in the ’50s but disliked the customer-relations aspect of it.
“I have the system to listen to music,” John tells me in no uncertain terms.
He adds, however, that his musical knowledge is not as great as his knowledge of acoustics. “Musical nuances are a little lost on me.” Interestingly, his musician friends, who can hear and appreciate the nuances, are not audiophiles. As John explains it, “Musicians have the ability to fill in the blanks. So they aren’t all that concerned with the sound quality of recordings.” In fact, musicians are famous for having poor audio systems. Still, John marvels at his performer-friends’ acute “near-difference hearing” and what he calls their “audio-photographic memories.” John doesn’t say so, but he possesses these too. I realize this when he tells me offhandedly, “I’ve found that one of the most interesting things to do is to listen to the same piano tuned by three different tuners. The best piano tuner is one who can hear near differences the best.”
“Near-difference hearing” should not be confused with “near-field listening,” for which John says his listening room is best suited — that is, listening done close to the speakers. John prefers it for “analytical listening,” which describes a lot of what he does.
Need I mention he “hates” background music? “I don’t want it while I’m eating.” Nor while driving. Once, he had a “reasonably exotic” car stereo. “But what I found was that when I was paying attention to the music, I wasn’t paying attention to driving.” He drives in silence now. Besides, the inside of a car is “too noisy” for listening to music, and “nothing is really in the right place.” Of course, he does know people “who have musical experiences inside their cars.” He concedes, “There is a whole magic to car stereos that I have stayed away from. I remember the first time I heard an eight-track tape player was in a car. I was traveling on business and was picked up at the airport by a coworker. I stepped into this guy’s car, and it started playing as I was whisked off.” A smile grows on his face as he recalls.
Once, too, he had what he might call “reasonably exotic” cars, I learned when I asked about the photo of the car on his listening-room wall — a 1934 Studebaker racecar built for the Indianapolis 500. Cars used to be a hobby of his, perhaps as serious as audio, and that one he painted a light metallic green for the friend who owned it. In all, he says, he has owned and/or restored 60 or more vintage cars. “But I have sworn off cars…” (Currently, he drives a 1985 bmw 325E.) In fact, the only other hobbies besides audio that he claims are “cooking and eating.”
The doorbell rings: the ups man has packages for John from Handmade Electronics and Antique Electronics. One of them contains vintage tubes. Even after all these years, he still makes his own equipment. Almost everything in his present system was homemade in the two-car garage a few steps from the listening room. He does it because “it’s a lot of fun, plus you can have anything you want,” even if you don’t have a lot of money, since building is much more economical than buying.
What he wants to tout especially is his “seven-watt, single-ended vacuum-tube amp.” As he says, “Music is best sonically when there are the least number of steps between the software [i.e., recordings] and the speakers” — and, therefore, fewer chances for distortion.
But 7-watt? Astonishing. How is it possible? That’s only a few watts more than it takes to power a little nightlight. My hair dryer uses 1200 watts.
His speakers are very efficient, he says simply and with a true artisan’s pride.
His ability — and attitude — put him at the polar opposite of those he dismisses as “the equipment collectors,” who want — and can afford — “the latest and greatest.”
But even if he were rich, he would not spend his loot on expensive audio equipment. Instead, he “would search out a group of pianos, the perfect Steinway and so on. Piano is my passion,” he says.
He not only likes listening to pianos, he enjoys recording them. “You so often hear people say, ‘Pianos are difficult to record.’ Well, that’s not true. Pianos are not difficult to record. What’s difficult is finding a piano worth recording. A piano has to be in the right place, on the right kind of floor, and the place has to be really quiet. A piano is the sum of the pianist and the environment it’s in.”
This aspect of his audio interest — doing his own recording — began in earnest in the 1970s, in State College, Pennsylvania, when on a voluntary basis he recorded concerts for the music department at Pennsylvania State University. “My friends and I used to enjoy going to hear chamber groups at Penn State, recording the concerts, and listening to the playback, and comparing it to what we remembered of the live performance.”
More recently, he has recorded the Spreckels pipe organ at Balboa Park — a genuine feat, considering the wind and the airplanes. (CDs and tape cassettes are available for sale as a fund-raiser.) He has also recorded the Sunday concerts in the park. Additionally, he does archival recordings for the Spreckels Organ Society and for the Westwind Brass.
Most audiophiles argue that CDs are inferior to LPs; John demurs. “When I had a wall of vinyl, there was only about two feet of it that were my favorites. Now I have 600 to 900 CDs, and the rule is the same. Just a handful truly talk to me.” That’s because, in his opinion, recording is an art, and great recordings are as rare as great art.
He regrets that today “all recording in this country is dominated by the pop industry,” greatly diminishing the chances for art to be produced. He blames the poor quality of most contemporary recordings, whether analog or digital, on the practice of “full isolation.” Meaning? “The singer is in an isolation booth wearing headphones. He or she has no idea what the others sound like. What makes one string quartet better than the other? Their ability to hear each other. So they play as one. Did you know that there are guys in L.A. who do nothing but ‘intonation correction’? They correct a singer’s mistakes.” His preference is for European recordings or independent labels. In vinyl’s heyday, he used to have a hero. His name was David Hancock, a recording engineer. One of his current favorites is Judith Sherman. It’s obvious he reads the fine print on CD booklets and record jackets as carefully as some people read food labels. And there is another food analogy to be made. “Processed” is what he calls the sound being produced by his least favorite recording engineers. Ironically, it’s what “everybody’s trying to achieve, because that’s what everybody’s used to. You know the Memorex ad? Well, I want to ask, ‘Is that Barbra or is it a synthesizer?’ ”
But enough talk. Now he wants me to listen. “Singing and playing the piano is all about who’s leading and who’s following,” he says, selecting a CD by Maureen McGovern, accompanied by Michael Renzi. “Here is an example of an incredible musical talent marred by a very artificial recording.”
But it sounds wonderful to me, because I have never heard anything played on such a good system. And yet, when the song is over, I have to agree with John that she clearly dominated, while the piano sounded like a miniature. Worse, it seemed to have been playing in the room next door to where McGovern had been singing.
“One of the big things I’m looking for is the sense of the room in which the music was originally recorded,” says John as he selects two more CDs for me to compare. Both are guitar recordings, the first by Angel Romero, the second by his brother, Pepe. So, John likes to think, the two men might be considered rough equivalents, assuming they have had similar opportunities for musical training, even if they don’t necessarily have similar talents. “These will tell the whole story,” he says. “This is what it’s all about.”
Angel plays. Again, to my impoverished ears, it sounds lovely, and I make this known to John, who says nothing as he prepares to put on Pepe. But I can see he is smiling like someone who is about to reveal a surprise.
As Pepe plays, something curious happens. The little condo room is transformed. The ceiling is lifted, raised feet and feet into the air. The walls, too, are pushed away. What is more, I can picture Pepe. I see the man, the guitar, and I can situate them in a big, slightly echoey, high-ceilinged space. Yes, it’s an illusion, but such a realistic one, it’s uncanny.
Hey, what happened? What made the difference?
Angel was playing in a studio, Pepe in the Mission San Luis Rey in Oceanside. Of Angel’s recording, John says, without intending a pun, “It has no soul.”
Next, he plays a recording of his own. It’s of “a La Jolla lounge singer named Levi.” The performance took place at the Foothills United Methodist Church, in La Mesa. John pronounces it “the sissiest version of ‘Fat Cat Strut’ ” that he says I’ll ever hear.
Levi’s voice does pleasantly slither but in an engaging way, as he accompanies himself on the piano. Against my will I conjure him up, giving him a slick mustache and slippery simper. More important, the large space is easy to imagine. At least, that is the important thing to an audiophile like John. As he says, “I like the concept of having the illusion of being able to reach out and…”
John used only two microphones to create the effect. Later, reading a helpful book about high-end audio, Good Sound by Laura Dearborn, I begin to understand what an accomplishment his “surround sound” effect truly was. “The purpose of stereo is not to give you separate right and left channels,” Dearborn writes, “but to provide the illusion of a holographic, three-dimensional image between the speakers. Akin to the old stereopticon [sic] in which each visual channel gave a slightly different view of the subject, which, when viewed together, presented the illusion of three-dimensionality.”
But the sound in a stereo system should not seem to be coming out of the speakers. “Instead the performance should ‘appear’ quite solidly as if on a stage between the speakers. It should even be possible to point to where each player is standing or sitting in space.”
Our word “stereo” comes from a Greek word meaning “solid,” Dearborn points out.
It’s also true that a good part of the sound that we hear at a concert does not come directly from the performers; it’s reflected off the walls and ceiling. That’s another reason why a believable simulation is so difficult to create.
John is having fun. He wants to show me how the room can grow even larger. He’s the White Rabbit, I’m Alice. “You pick the music for what you want it to do,” he says, preparing his next selection. “This is what you put on after you have come home from a hard day at work.”
It’s Schubert’s Songs for Male Chorus, sung by the Robert Shaw Chamber Singers and recorded at Spivey Hall, Clayton State College, Morrow, Georgia, on October 17 and 18, 1992.
Within seconds, I’m blissful. I see the singing men; I see the whole campus — tree-lined paths, brick dorms, and classrooms — through the open windows of Spivey. Perhaps Clayton State College never looked so good in actuality.
Finally, he plays me another of his own recordings, this time of the band organ of Charlie Porter, a San Diegan, who built the instrument and cut the rolls too. It’s mounted in the back of a three-ton truck. He recorded it in an implement shed in Pauma Valley. Says John, “It’s the ultimate feel-good music. If you can listen to this and not smile, you’re dead.”
When it’s over, he says, “My main message is that you can have a great musical experience with the right software and a modest system.”
Yes, but how modest?
“You want to hear my $500 stereo?” asks the man who says he loves to help people upgrade their stereos “without spending megabucks.”
In a flash he has taken some components from the closet and gone out to the garage for the rest. His “budget system” consists of two Radio Shack speakers, which he sets up on metal pedestals in front of the monoliths — because they should be “ear level” — and an amp by Monarchy Audio. The speakers were new; he bought the amp used. Plus, he did some “doctoring” (which is to say, tweaking).
We listen to a cut from Orchids in the Moonlight, Songs of Vincent Youmans. Again, it certainly sounds better than anything I am used to hearing at home. But better than the other system? I’m too green to judge.
“This doesn’t have deep bass,” John points out, but seems unconcerned about it. “The big question is, ‘Can the sound get out of the box?’ ”
I tell him I’ve been wondering about cables. I hear they can be expensive. Do they really make a difference? He says, “I will admit I can hear the difference between a $3 cable and a…$1200 cable,” emphasizing by the tone of his voice the idea that he can’t believe the extra expense would be worth it.
He says, too, to beware the difference between “a change and a true improvement,” and I’m reminded of Hemingway’s famous advice about mistaking movement for progress.
Before I leave, I ask if he will play a cut from a CD that I have brought along with me. I had been told to bring along some “reference music,” that is, a recording one knows well, with which to compare various systems. I had only played this CD on my computer, with its tiny (coffee-mug size) speakers by Altec Lansing; I was eager to hear it in a good system. It’s The Movies Go to the Opera, featuring operatic excerpts from film soundtracks — Madame Butterfly from Fatal Attraction, for example; La Bohème from Moonstruck; and La Wally from Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Diva.
I suggest La Wally. John puts it on. Immediately he is wincing. He says, “It’s almost painful.” He looks at the booklet. “Oh! No wonder! It’s Callas. It’s an old recording, from the ’50s.” He adds, “She was not most famous for her voice, which tends to be brittle and hard, but for her presence onstage.” He looks at the CD when it’s over. “Also, the CD has been walked on.”
Still, he admits this: “Even though it was a bad recording, it gave me goose bumps, because it brought back the memory of the movie.”
As I drove away that afternoon, I was beginning to understand audiophilia a little. I was also beginning to worry as I fought the urge to throw The Movies Go to the Opera out my car window. A CD that I had previously loved was now ruined for me. Its particular linkage of art and science had not resulted in quality, and now, thanks or no thanks to John Thomas, I had been made aware of it. So I wondered: Where else would my new knowledge lead me? Would it ultimately increase my pleasure in music or decrease it?
Knowing good writing, I can’t abide an airplane novel. Likewise, knowing good food, I have gone hungry rather than eat something that wasn’t up to my exacting standards. I can’t watch bad movies. I can’t watch any TV. Would less-than-remarkable audio experiences be added to the list of what I cannot endure? Did I really want to become dissatisfied with another aspect of life?
Then I remembered that, once, I drove a Ferrari — a Daytona model, Ferrari’s so-called hot rod, a 365 gtb/4. Its door latches opened as easily as a jewelry box’s. It maneuvered as well as my bike, with a top speed said to be 175 miles an hour. I didn’t drive it very fast, but my companion, who owned it, did. I watched the scenery being yanked by like a curtain, a ridiculous smile on my face. I felt my eyes begin to water. It was two o’clock in the afternoon. We weren’t wearing any seat belts. We landed some time later.
But after that experience, I didn’t live my life yearning for a Ferrari of my own. I survived it. I would survive this too.
I am ten minutes early for my next appointment with an audiophile. When I approach the front door of this condo, in Clairemont, I hear opera playing loudly inside. I ring the bell. No response. I wait by the curb for the time to be up, then push the doorbell again, and now the music is off, and the man I’ll call “Craig Norman” answers. Wearing a white sweatshirt and khaki pants, the 65-year-old semiretired Craig could be mistaken for a minister in civvies. He has a big voice and a big, wide-open face that is good at greeting people and making them feel welcome.
Craig is the one who takes the $3 monthly dues at the door when the Music and Audio Guild meets at Bruce Heimberg’s.
“Why aren’t there more women in this hobby?” I ask.
“They think it’s too technical,” says Craig, who claims not even to know why electricity comes out of the wall. “Or they have not been made to feel all that welcome in the stores.” Not that men are always made to feel welcome. “When they see me and the color of my hair, they figure I might have some money.”
“There are a couple of wives who attend the meetings. And they do seem genuinely interested,” he adds. But his tone betrays some doubt. Once, a woman came by herself and Craig went out of his way to make her feel welcome. “She didn’t come back, but it could have been because she didn’t think that the hobby was for her.”
This condo doesn’t have a foyer. Once inside, I am in effect in the listening room. The space is jammed with LPs, in cases on the walls, stacked on the floor, piled up along the sofas. There is a collection of Asian art objects too. A Buddha, about three feet tall, painted gold, stands on a pedestal in the corner. I see painted boxes, a painted jar with a dragon on it, an artificial white orchid in a vase on a coffee table. A wooden settee. A wicker case, filled with more LPs, naturally.
Amid the clutter, the speakers, smallish, are not immediately apparent. They are about the size of large shoeboxes. Like the Buddha, they are raised up off the floor, on stands, their enclosures a rich reddish mahogany.
When we sit down in the listening room, he says, in the manner of someone who has prepared a few opening remarks, “Some swear by LPs and others swear at them. I’ve been collecting for 40 years. I have a machine that washes them.” He regrets the loss of more than 500 early ones, in a 1967 flood in Alaska, where he lived for several years. The collection today numbers 2000. He pronounces the early CDs as “Godawful,” but since they have improved, he has amassed 1000 of them.
He lives here with his wife, who does not attend the club meetings. Their son has just graduated from college and will be leaving soon for Sydney and a job at the Olympics. “My wife,” says Craig, “is a very religious lady.” She devotes herself to her church. “This,” he extends his arms, “is my religion.”
The room has not been treated acoustically with absorbing panels or anything else, although recently, when wooden floors were installed in the rest of the downstairs, Craig told his wife, “Here, the carpet stays.” Of the space, he says it works because nothing is too “prominent.” “Everything is bouncing off everything else.” Of course, it’s not ideal. “The walls are so damn thin. And you have to respect your neighbors.” With that in mind, he doesn’t listen after nine o’clock at night — a self-enforced rule — “as much as I’d like to give everybody an education…”
His own musical education took place in Seattle, where he was born. When he was a kid, he used to tune two radios to the same station, to simulate the stereo effect. At age 11 or 12, he was taken by his parents to see the Broadway show Kiss Me Kate, then later Most Happy Fellow. He was captivated. Both he and his brother took up the study of musical instruments. (His brother became a professional — today he plays French horn for the Seattle Symphony.) Craig played the pipe organ, continuing it while a student at the University of Washington. He also played at churches, directed choirs, and did a lot of accompanying work; he even had a few students. He says his best-paying job was with a big downtown Lutheran church in Seattle. Between that and a Saturday gig at a synagogue, he was making fairly good money. “All modesty aside,” he says, “I was doing very well, but not enough to support myself, and I became disenchanted and hired on with an airline.”
Pan Am was his employer for 21 years. The job took him not only to Alaska, but to Wake Island and Bangkok. He had trouble bringing the record collection into Bangkok: “The airport officials couldn’t believe it was one person’s collection, and I couldn’t convince them that I was not going to sell them.” They were held for a long time; when they were finally released to him, a few were missing.
After Pan Am folded, he was hired by a commuter airline in Carlsbad. When it, too, died, after just a couple of years, he worked for other transportation-related companies. Currently, for the camaraderie, he earns minimum wage, two days a week, at a car-rental agency. For a while he thought he might do the same thing at Tower Records, but he was put off by those from what he calls “the pierced-tongue school” who would be his coworkers.
Of his musical preferences he says, “I have very catholic taste. I like everything except rock, and country and western, although I am intrigued by Willie Nelson’s voice.” His favorite music, however, is classical, “with a heavy dose of opera.” His favorite symphony he volunteers without my asking: Sibelius’s Second.
Does he go to live performances? Every year he goes home to Seattle and attends the symphony. While he’s up there he also goes to the opera. He is looking forward to the inaugural concert of a new pipe organ in Benaroya Hall in Seattle. Mostly, however, he enjoys his music at home. And no, he doesn’t listen to the car stereo in his white 1979 VW convertible Bug. “For serious listening,” he says, “this is the place.”
He has trouble thinking of another hobby of his. He likes to read, he ventures. He also says, “I’m a bit of a collector.” When he was living on Wake Island, there wasn’t much to do. The only females were wives or children. “We used to say that dating the wives would be illegal, and dating the children would be immoral.” With so much free time, he became a beachcomber, out at dawn to look for the collectible glass Japanese fishing buoys that had washed up on the beach during the night. He also collected Asian art, unconcerned if it was antique or authentic. He bought what he liked. But that kind of collecting is finished. It’s more and more music that fills this room now.
Has he recruited anybody into the hobby he calls “all-consuming”? Not really. “It’s like trying to change somebody’s religion.” The guys he knows at the car-rental office follow sports. “When they were all playing baseball as kids, I was playing the piano.”
Recently, Heimberg sold Craig a new system. “And I intend to have it for the rest of my life,” says Craig, who spent a whole Saturday at the store, listening to his reference music — his own CDs. With Heimberg’s help, he picked out components that kept him under his budget of $9000. Then he brought it all home and tried it out. Only after that did he buy it.
“Bruce was very smart,” laughs Craig. “He gave me the subwoofer, just to try out with the rest of the outfit. He knew I would end up buying that too.”
The parts of the system are from three countries, two continents. From California Audio Labs came his new CD player. The speakers are by Totem Acoustics, a Canadian company. His integrated amplifier is another Canadian product, by Classé, about whose solid-state engineering Craig is somewhat defensive. “I am not a fan of tubes,” he says. “I do not care to play with tubes. I just don’t want to go through the hassle. There aren’t tube-testing machines at the drugstore anymore. Replacing tubes? I would rather not.” The subwoofer was made in Wales. “There’s a lot of good stuff from Britain,” says Craig. “The rooms over there are smaller in general than ours are.” And that suits the smallish listening rooms that many audiophiles have here. His 20-year-old Rotel turntable is from England too. “After I bought all the other new gear, the guys at Stereo Unlimited tuned it up for me,” says Craig, who also bought a new cartridge for the tonearm, a Grado Platinum Reference, made in Brooklyn, New York.
What about cables?
Craig’s system uses audiophile cable, but he doesn’t want to discuss it, dismissing the whole subject of cable with an ingeniously mixed metaphor: “It has snake oil written all over it.”
Only too familiar with what he likes to call the “mine-is-bigger-than-yours mentality in the hobby,” he refuses to engage in it. He’ll live quite happily with the limitations of his room and of his system. He has even come to terms with his own physical limitations. The prospect of the gradual hearing loss we will all experience as we age doesn’t bother him. He has his ears checked yearly by an audiologist and just had his ears cleaned. He will say this, however: “Total deafness scares me to death,” adding after a moment’s consideration, but with conviction, “I would rather go blind.”
Now we listen to music. Our first selection is a CD of a British brass band — the Black Dyke Mills Brass Band — chosen because I mentioned my delight in the music from the British film Brassed Off. The cut he selects is two brothers playing euphoniums. They are having a lot of fun “talking” to each other with their tubalike instruments, which are not much seen in this country. “You get the feeling they’re in a big hall,” he adds, and I wait for the explication of the system’s ability to produce three-dimensional aural imaging. But it doesn’t arrive. We listen to another cut. I wait for his further comments. But he doesn’t have any. He’s just listening. And I realize that this session is going to be much different, much less intense, than the one at John Thomas’s. We’re just going to sit here and enjoy the music. I’m not even in the sweet spot. Craig is. It’s probably because that’s where he always sits. Creature of habit, he told me earlier, “On Saturdays I listen to jazz; on Sundays, it’s opera.”
I’m too ashamed to bring out my “walked-on” CD. But he probably wouldn’t have minded. Even so, I ask instead if he has any recordings of La Wally. I think it would be instructive for me to hear another version besides Callas’s. He finds an LP featuring Renata Tebaldi, recorded in Monte Carlo in 1968. By reading the libretto he locates the specific aria that was featured in the film. While he carefully cleans the record and the needle, he tells me, “Toscanini liked this opera so much, he named his daughter Wally.”
“Wally Toscanini? Oh, no!” I say. “Sounds like a prizefighter.”
But I’m no longer joking when Tebaldi begins to sing. I really believe, listening to her, that she is distraught about the marriage her father is trying to arrange for her. (“No andrò lontana, come va l’eco della pia campana…” “I’ll go as far away as the echo of the sacred bell…”) Callas, though, produces a bigger finish.
Then he plays me Alessandra Marc singing the same thing. Marc seems more technically adept than either of the other two, but something in her voice tells me that she knows how good she is, and it’s distracting. I prefer the Tebaldi. An hour ago, I wouldn’t have imagined that I could have told the difference.
“The whole idea of this is reproduction of sound. But will it ever be ‘absolute sound’?” Craig asks, referring to audiophilia’s holy grail — the sound of unamplified acoustic instruments in a real acoustic space. “No. A jazz trio could be re-created in an illusion by the system in this small room,” he says. “But the whole New York Philharmonic? I think not.”
Craig never lost his childhood love of Broadway shows. He feels fortunate to have seen Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady in London. Now he plays me Maureen Forrester, the Canadian contralto, singing Rodgers and Hart’s “Falling in Love with Love.” That’s followed by a cut from No Strings, the musical that caused such a stir in 1962, because it depicted a romance between a white man and black woman. He apologizes for the “Ping-Pong effect.” In the early days of stereo, the recording engineers liked to show off the two channels. The piece he has chosen to play is sung by Diahann Carroll and Richard Kiley together: “The Sweetest Sounds.” It seems an appropriate choice and way to conclude.
The following morning, I drive an hour east, into the Mountain Empire region of the county, where I will meet an audiophile who has chosen “Henry Myran” as his alias. When I reach the town where he comes every day to pick up his mail, I pull into a spot at the edge of the parking lot. Two minutes later, a bronze Toyota sport utility vehicle arrives, and a man in jeans, white turtleneck, and hiking boots gets out and runs — literally runs — into the post office, and then runs out again, kidlike, with a fistful of letters in his hand. He waves to me. It’s Henry Myran. He is 54, with salt-and-pepper hair, a well-groomed gray mustache, narrow waist. I get back in my car and follow him up the mountain another 15 minutes.
In New England, where I live, when you have to travel this far out to somebody’s house, it usually turns out to be either a shack or a mansion. Given the fact that he doesn’t have to be at work on a weekday — and yes, given my topic, despite John Smythe’s caveat about audiophilia not being about money — I fully expect a mansion. At the end of the climb, however, I see an unpretentious ranch-style house, situated on a moderate-sized piece of land (ten acres, Henry will tell me). When we get inside, I am told the reason why he is at home today: it’s school vacation, and he’s an elementary-school teacher and has been one for 30 years. In fact, he’s at the same school in the eastern foothills where he practice-taught — he has been there ever since. His is a fifth-grade class at the moment. The time he spends around ten-year-olds may explain his own boyishness, his unabashed exuberance.
“Music is part of my life at school,” says Henry, who lives here with his wife, daughter, horses, cats, and a Doberman. “My students don’t have a choice as to music. We listen to it every day for 10 or 20 minutes.” One of the pieces he has played for them is Handel’s Water Music, explaining that it was written for royalty to hear as they floated on a barge down the River Thames. Henry says the kids ask to hear it again by saying, “Let’s float down the river. Let’s be kings and queens.” They want to listen to the music while they’re doing their math. Sometimes he lets them, sometimes not. And if the kids ask to bring in music of their own, he doesn’t let them “unless it’s symphonic and orchestral in nature.” He’s the king in his classroom.
Henry says, when he was a boy, “Music was always something we had in the house. My father is 90 years old, an old boy, and he learned to play the piano as a young guy. He can play by ear.” Since the elder Myran’s retirement from “a variety of jobs” for the county, the sheriff’s office, and the power company, he has been restoring pipe organs and helping to maintain them — volunteer work he continues to this day.
It also happened that, between ages 11 and 14, Henry was in something called the Bonham Brothers Band, along with about 100 other boys. He played the baritone horn — “a kind of starter instrument for someone who had never played an instrument before.” The band’s “extraordinary” conductor was Jules Jacques, a protégé of John Philip Sousa, it was said. Henry credits Jacques, as much as his parents, with fostering in him a love of music, as well as a respect for the discipline required to make it. The Bonham Brothers Band practiced in a large basement room that was all wood, and it resonated. “I still think about it regularly. It was a visceral kind of thing,” says Henry.
From those experiences came his interest in recorded music. He bought his first system, used, in eighth grade, with the help of his parents and uncle; and he helped pay for it too. He recalls that it was less than $200 and that the turntable was a Rek-O-Kut, which he got at Chicky Breier’s. “She let me buy it on time, and I was really grateful for that. I’ll never forget it,” says Henry.
The Myrans lived on the edge of a canyon in East San Diego. So there was a basement room where Henry was able to play the system without disturbing the rest of the family. He recalls that when his friends came over to listen, they played about half rock-and-roll, a quarter jazz, and a quarter classical music.
Henry had another talent when he was young: sprinting. He went to Brigham Young University on a track scholarship. But he lost interest in the sport and returned to San Diego, finishing up at San Diego State University. Later he got a teaching degree at California Western University. In 1975, after he and his wife had been married two years, they bought this property, and the self-reliant Henry built the house himself, piecemeal, by reading in books how to build one. (He also had the help of a neighbor.) But the floor plan was too open to accommodate an audiophile’s idea of a good sound system. So, in 1977, he began work on the room that he variously calls the sound room, the music room, the listening room. It took him five years to get it “right” — before it was, as he says, “usable.”
I follow him in. There, of course, are the speakers — two nearly man-tall black rectangular structures, looking like objets d’art. Facing them is an old wicker chair with a seat made of foam-rubber cushions taped together and a coverlet thrown over it; next to it is a wooden rocker. The space is a rectangle (21H by 12H feet), and, like the rest of the house, it’s made of wood, exterior grade, including its spruce floorboards. Initially Henry had carpet on the floor but removed it because he liked seeing the barn board and “hearing a more lovely acoustic.” “Because of the floor, you feel the music all over — in your toes, your spine, in your liver!” he says, and slaps his flat middle.
He has a wooden rolltop desk in one corner, a pair of oars on the wall, some fishing gear propped up near a door that leads outside. I also see a framed poster from the winery Ravenswood and wine bottles lining the ledges of the windows. A wine connoisseur, Henry says he knows more about wine than audio; his sister is a grape grower and wine producer in the Napa Valley.
When he listens alone, Henry prefers to have the room darkened. But he also likes to have people over and put a “good piece of beef” on the Weber, which is right outside the window. He uses smoke chips on the fire. And he has a smoker out there too, I notice. Along with that, he likes to have “some good cheeses and some good wines.”
“The more sensual things you can bring together, the better,” says Henry for whom the music seems to be part of a larger, sensual world he has created for himself up here on the mountain. And it’s not surprising to see that the title of the book he is currently reading is A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman.
Not surprisingly, either, the technicalities are not for him. “ ‘Impedance!’ ” he says, pronouncing the word with disdain. “And ‘ohms.’ I don’t know how many times I have read the definitions of those terms, and I still can’t tell you a damn thing about them. I think that the technical language and concern with the technicalities can be a contaminating influence. It pollutes the experience.” His goal is “to know the music intimately, just like you know your wife or the road you drive every day.” That’s what he wants and why he is an audiophile.
A bit of an aesthete as well as a sensualist, he tells me, “I just love to see a good-looking horse.”
His wife, who raises and shows quarter horses, is not an audiophile. According to Henry, she says: “ ‘I don’t like that dark symphonic music you play.’ ” And: “ ‘You play it just too damn loud.’ ” Her preferences in music, says Henry, are for pop and for country and western. “See this pair of spurs?” He picks them up off the floor by the desk. “They’re lying here to remind me to ask her more about her hobby.” He admits that his hobby is an occasional point of contention between them. They don’t have unlimited funds, and both of their hobbies are expensive. But after all, he thinks, he stays home to do it! “I see guys who are into hot rods, and I say to myself, ‘God, I feel sorry for that wife!’ ”
When he drives to school, 30 minutes away, Henry doesn’t listen to music. “Music in the car is not for me.” He listens to the voices on National Public Radio. Recently, though, he went “four-wheel camping” with another fellow, and they listened to some of that dark symphonic stuff — Shostakovich — as they drove slowly through sandy washes in the desert.
Another time Shostakovich worked well was on the night a friend of his was staying over — wife and daughter were out of town — and the two stayed up late drinking pinot noir. After they had gone to bed, Henry got up to go to the bathroom and saw that his friend was awake; he couldn’t sleep. Henry had an idea. He put on Shostakovich’s Eighth. It was four in the morning. And they listened to the whole thing and were transported.
Henry says he finds that music is best whenever no guilt is associated with the listening and the time he devotes to it. “Music is good when things leading up to it have been good” — for example, after he has a good day at school, having accomplished all he wanted to accomplish.
“I’ve heard little boom boxes that can transport me, and I sometimes say to myself, ‘Why do I have all this?’ ”
“All this” is, in his words, “the best system I have ever had in my adult life.” He once drove it all the way to the Music and Audio Guild and played it for the other club members. It includes components made by Audio Research, a premier high-end company based in Minnesota, and those big black speakers, called Quads, made in England. “It has a lot of grip,” says Henry. “You use that term describing wine too. You just can’t leave it, once you start listening.” It is an expensive system. If bought new, the setup would have cost $20,000, but some of the pieces are used. “A straight line with no gain” is what he says a good system should deliver. “The fewer number of things happening from the time the music goes in to the time it goes out — that’s the ideal.” It’s the end of his technical talk, however. He says he likes it not only because it sounds good but because it looks “bitchin’.”
On top of the structure that holds the Audio Research equipment is a stack of CDs that Henry says he has picked out for listening over the next six weeks. “LPs are better,” he says unequivocally, like a true audiophile; but he plays CDs for convenience. That includes the remote control. He points out that he and his friend couldn’t have enjoyed the whole symphony that night the way they did if Henry had been getting up to change the record.
I notice the Eagles in the pile.
Choices his wife made, says Henry.
I suggest we listen to the Ahmad Jamal, ’50s jazz piano.
Henry instructs me to sit in the sweet spot, the rocker. The chair he usually sits in is the wicker one. But it’s a “dirty” chair, said his wife, and before I arrived, she urged him to give me a better chair to sit in. The trouble is that I am bothered by the rocker’s creaking noises as I listen, even though they can’t be heard and even though I try not to rock. I guess I’m just imagining them. Outside the wind is rattling the windows. It’s windy up on the mountain. That is a distraction too — at least to me. Henry is probably used to it; doesn’t hear it anymore. It snows up here, he has told me, and there has been an earthquake or two. He says he loves to listen when it’s snowing outside. He strikes me as someone who knows a lot about weather, as a matter of necessity. And I find it strange to be inside listening to music in a part of the country that is so genuinely outdoorsy.
What I do like about this listening room is that the wood vibrates under my feet. I feel almost as if I am inside the piano. I also like listening while looking out the picture window that is directly across from the sweet spot. It’s high, the shape of a large aquarium or small movie screen — a pleasant addition to the room. A black cat, one of the Myrans’ 11 barn cats, walks up, up the stone steps to the pool. “We’re here at cloud level,” Henry says, afterward, “and in the evening the clouds roll by the window.” In fact, of all the audiophiles I visit, Henry will be the only one who has music with a view. Admittedly, so much audio stimulation without accompanying visuals seems unnatural. That’s why cheap systems have meters or blinking lights that don’t do anything except appease the consumer. Passive listening in general is a comparatively recent phenomenon in the history of music. Elizabethans were expected to read music and sing. Across the Great Plains, pianos moved West with the pioneers.
Next we listen to a Berlioz overture, conducted by Sir Colin Davis. Henry says, “Berlioz had a tumultuous life. He was a key figure of the romantic period.” I think he wants to tell me more about Berlioz, teacherlike. But I would rather just listen. This, too, is good sound, but musically it’s less effective for me. The room seems too small to accommodate its power.
I ask him if he ever goes to live music performances. With the exception of an annual trip to the symphony, he says he really doesn’t and doesn’t feel he needs to. He’s content to have the “illusion” of the orchestra right here at home. I ask him if he travels. He and his wife have not traveled much as yet, but he feels they could be good travelers. Where would they like to go? “New York City.”
For the music?
No, for the visual art. Museums and galleries.
After good-byes, when I come to the shut gate at the end of the Myran property, I do as I was instructed: close it after I’m out, eyed by the old mare that is being allowed to roam free for a while.
I drive until I come to the post office again, where I get out of the car and listen to the silence; I haven’t been this far from the highway in years. I go into the deli next door to the post office and order a sandwich. The counterman is playing rock on a little boom box. I eat my lunch, listening. Of course it sounds terrible, but when “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones comes on, it’s funny but I find it has grip. I hate to leave, just the way I hated to get out of the car when I was a teenager and a song was playing on the radio. It seemed bad luck to turn off the car before the music stopped.
I remember a recent conversation with my ex-brother-in-law Dan, who was something of an audiophile before he switched to computers. (If anyone is a gadget guy, he is.) People tend to love the popular music of the era in which they were young, he said. Easy to understand why. It’s the soundtrack of the days of their youth.
He described for me being 14 years old in 1960 and living in New York and seeing in the classified ads an old Fisher hi-fi for sale out on Long Island. He told me: “It was a four- or five-year-old thing, and I saved my money — cutting grass, babysitting, shoveling snow — and got someone to drive me out there. I bought it and got it home and my mother was furious. ‘How could anyone sell something like this to a 14-year-old boy? You don’t know what you’re doing.’ But I knew exactly what I was doing. Now I could hear bass. Now I could hear the announcer’s beautiful voice. But you know what else? It was a very pretty woman who sold it to me. When she opened the door, she must have just gotten dressed, and she was buttoning the last button. She was sophisticated. So that image was in my mind too.”
I begin to wonder how anybody can isolate an audio experience from all the other goose-bump-producing stimuli that tend to get associated with it. Henry is probably smart not to try.
With two more audiophiles to see, I must wait, because both are at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. For four days every January, it draws over 125,000 visitors — manufacturers, retailers, “content providers and creators,” installers, engineers, government representatives, financial analysts, and the media from around the world (including the all-important reviewers) — who are attempting to see more than 2000 exhibits — of audio, home theater, custom installation, computer hardware, software, mobile electronics, online services, photography and digital imaging, and much, much more. The exhibits are spread out over four places: the Las Vegas Convention Center (known as “the Zoo”), the Las Vegas Hilton, the Sands Expo and Convention Center, and a little hotel off the strip, Alexis Park, where they have relegated the high-end. As one audiophile, a tweaker, told me, “To the people at the Zoo, everything we do is a tweak.” What are the Zoo people selling? I asked him. “Racks and stacks of knobs and lights.”
All along I have been urged to attend the show myself — “to get a real feel for the hobby,” someone said; “for a real education,” according to someone else. “If you were to attend the high-end audio portion, you would see a lot of things that you’d never know existed if all you visited was Circuit City and the Good Guys,” the CalTech astronomer told me.
And so I find myself driving out there not only because I think attending the show will be a good way to be exposed to a lot of information in a short time, but also because it’s a chance to see all in one place some of the San Diego–based manufacturers of high-end equipment who are exhibitors, some of whom have national, even international, reputations. With only one day to spend, I hope to see those set up at Alexis Park, as well as those at the yearly renegade show at the hotel next door to Alexis Park. Not part of the Consumer Electronics Show, it is called The Home Entertainment Show (or t.h.e. Show) and is held at the St. Tropez, where many small high-end manufacturers piggyback on the mainstream event without breaking the piggybank.
I arrive in Las Vegas at dusk. The Strip is its usual assault on the eye — Times Square tenfold. But this time I am also attuned to the music blaring from places I cannot determine — billboards, perhaps. I drive to the Stardust, at the southern end, where my room is on the 27th floor, far from the craziness below. In one of the restaurants I see diners wearing white lab coats and badges hanging on cords around their necks: show exhibitors. I buy a pair of $9 sunglasses in the lobby and wear them on my return trip through the unavoidable casino to the elevators, the better to prevent a headache from the flashing lights. It’s easy to look foolish in Las Vegas.
Early the next morning, I hike well past the Strip’s mini Venice, ersatz Rome, and manmade Lake Como, on my way to the low-rise Alexis Park. So this is where the show officials have relegated specialty audio.
Many exhibitor suites are still locked at opening time, but not San Diego’s Meadowlark Audio. Standing outside the door is Meadowlark’s well-respected owner Pat McGinty, who has been designing and making a line of nationally marketed high-end loudspeakers since 1995. I recognize him from his photograph on the Meadowlark website, where he is pictured in shorts and a T-shirt, with his hair in a grown-out crew cut. Here, he is dressed in a beige corduroy jacket, green shirt, green tie, with his hair in the same untamed crewcut. He looks sleepy.
He says that he and his wife, Lucinda, have had some late nights, hosting what he calls “after-hours listening.” “It’s hard to get people to leave.”
McGinty says his love of electronics began in kindergarten. After school, he used to fool around with batteries, switches, lamps, buzzers, and potentiometers. On his website, he writes: “My dad was a radar guy in the Navy during its vacuum-tubed infancy in WWII. Following the war, he got into TV — an up-and-coming medium at the time — with RCA and became an instructor at the RCA Institute at about the time he was starting his family. Dad wanted me to learn electronics the way most kids learn language — by constant use and demonstration.… If I’d known then what a nerd I was becoming, I’d have probably gone out and played ball.”
His father was also a skilled woodworker, and “pretty early on,” McGinty learned to handle all of those tools too, even the lathe.
Given his history, and those of so many others involved in high-end, I have a question for manufacturers, I tell him: “It seems to me that you’ve got to start ’em young, almost like the cigarette companies. I haven’t met anybody yet who got interested in audio after adolescence. Do you think you need a Joe Camel?”
He laughs and says, “I’m not sure I like that analogy.”
The suite’s blinds are drawn, the lights are dim, and the beds are gone. There are two rooms here, and in each one is a system using a different model of Meadowlark speakers. In the main room, flanked by potted plants, he has his new ones, called Kites, which retail for $10,000. About three feet tall, they have heavy rectangular bottoms and triangular tops. A jazz piano plays while McGinty talks about them in an unfamiliar language.
“There’s a lot of excursion,” he says. “A full one and a half inches.” When I have no reaction he says, “That’s pretty amazing.”
He talks next about “time coherence.” It seems that if a system doesn’t have it, it’s easy to get fatigued listening as your brain tries to sort things out.
“Are you saying there is something like eye strain for ears? Ear strain?”
“Yes, that’s exactly it,” he says. “It’s a cumulative effect.”
I ask how he chose the name Kites.
“All of our products are named after birds. There was the bird before there was the toy.”
Besides the Kites, there are the Kestrels, Shearwaters, Herons, and the top-of-the-line Nightingales, which sell for $20,000.
And all of them are handmade by McGinty and his staff of four.
I am aware that someone else has entered the room and is waiting for us to finish speaking. I step aside. A man in his early 30s hands McGinty a CD — his reference music — and takes a seat in front of the Kites while McGinty puts the disc into the system. It’s something new and popular, played by amplified musical instruments. I’m reminded of what John Thomas told me: “There’s ‘real’ music — that’s music made by acoustical instruments played in an acoustical environment — and then there is everything else.” Later, he regretted this blanket statement, saying “real” wasn’t quite the word he wanted, but he never could come up with another one.
I ask McGinty if anybody who likes rock is an audiophile. He says, “I grew up in the ’60s, and those were bad recordings made by dopers. The subtleties of the system are brought out only by good music. There’s really no need to hear rock on high-end audio systems.”
McGinty says there are other exhibitors at the show who are using his speakers with their products; he suggests I visit them. There is, for example, Balanced Audio Technology of Wilmington, Delaware, which is using the Nightingales with its amps and preamps. That will be my next stop.
Like McGinty’s, the Balanced Audio Technology suite is reminiscent of a barely furnished bachelor pad with an expensive sound system but not much else. And again, the choice of music this morning is jazz piano. Geoffrey Poor, director of sales, greets me. A rangy guy, with styled, curly gray hair and a neatly trimmed mustache, he knows what to wear at trade shows: a suit…and black running shoes. He will be on his feet through most of it.
When I tell him I have been sent by Meadowlark to hear the Nightingales, because I’m writing an article about the high-end in San Diego, he gives me what he calls “a little tour.”
“What’s appealing about these speakers is that they’re time coherent,” he says, continuing the discussion I had downstairs with McGinty. “It’s a time-aligned system,” he elaborates, and mentions something called “a square wave.” He also uses the word “diffractionalist,” and I dutifully write it down. Then he says something I can understand: “Each speaker weighs 300 pounds. The wooden walls are three inches thick. It’s a linear function of pounds per dollar in this industry.” Soon enough, however, he’s quickly back to something about “100 hertz and up.”
Pointing to a speaker’s midsection, he says, “This is your mid-base driver,” adding, “This is a very expensive driver.” Of the upper module, he says, “This is one of the two or three most expensive tweeters in the world.”
The color of the tweeter domes is gold. “Are they really gold?” I ask.
“Yes,” he says, and we stand solemnly, for a moment, in reverence for that fact, before moving on to the subwoofers. “These are incredibly expensive subwoofers,” he says, rapping them lightly with his knuckles. “How it loads the system — that’s the key,” he says. And: “…pretty much flat down to eight hertz.” He also mentions “single-gain stage” and “corrective feedback.”
I ask him about the dearth of women who are able to make their way in high-end audio.
“I’ve queried a lot of women,” he says, but doesn’t finish the thought. “Women are totally misunderstood,” he starts again, and leaves it at that.
The cables being used with this system are flat, like ribbons. They are made by Nordost, a company from my own Massachusetts. This particular set is lavender. As if cued, a man from Nordost walks in. He has a perfectly groomed head of black hair, with a streak of gray in it. He is wearing an expensive-looking soft leather jacket and perfect slacks. His teeth are as straight and white as can be. Poor introduces me as someone who is writing “a little article.”
Poor talks about the cables, while the man from Nordost listens. “This is form following function,” he says. “This is not bad power as power cables go.” Then he’s off on “low inductance and capacity.”
Perhaps mistaking my confused look for a skeptical one, he says, “It’s not some tweak thing. It’s not flooby dust. Scientists were asked, and they’re believers.”
I wonder aloud if it might be possible to hear different cables with the same system. No, he isn’t prepared to offer me that, but he can give me “a white paper.” He also gives me some advice. “Avoid the digital domain as much as possible.” And: “The first watt is the most important watt.” Then he tells me of a cable test he once witnessed. “They were playing Joe Cocker in the next room, and still I heard the difference. Joe Cocker! From the next room!”
I sense he’s nearing his conclusion. “You want to be able to hear what’s pure,” he says. “What’s important is the result. You want to feel the emotion of the recording, not the electronic artifacts. I feel it not just in my heart but I feel it intellectually.” The end.
He adds as an epilogue, remembering that it was the Meadowlarks I came to hear, “These speakers take 250 to 300 hours of listening to break in; then they start to relax.”
But does that mean that they wear out?
“No. The longer they take to break in, the longer they last. Like a fine automotive engine.”
As I roam the hallways, I see that other suites are open for business by now and starting to attract crowds. Walking by the rows of doors and hearing all the different music coming from inside, I am reminded of a college dorm. All that’s missing is the smell of dope. The company banners hanging over balconies and in the rooms themselves remind me of college days too, except that the banners I remember were inscribed with antiwar slogans.
I pass the Totem Acoustics suite — purveyors of Craig Norman’s speakers. (“Trust your soul; follow your senses,” goes their ad in the show catalog. “The musical truth follows.”) “They’re made for our export market,” I hear someone in the first room say while someone else changes the CD. When the selection turns out to be yet more jazz piano, I decide to walk into the second room, where the system is playing a female torch singer doing “King of the Road.” It’s effective: a virtual performance by an invisible woman. But with the chairs set up in rows the way they are and with all the men in suits occupying them, sitting so still and looking so somber, it’s reminiscent of being at a wake. I don’t stay long.
Nearby is Harmonic Technology, a cable company founded in Poway in late 1998. I find a seat on a leather sofa. I’m not sure which is worse,. the straight-backed wake chairs or this gushy, slippery sofa that even a thin person like me will undoubtedly have trouble struggling out of. The sofa has grip.
We listen to an aged Peggy Lee, accompanied only by a bass. Some man has been bad to her, but she’s about to get even with him. As she sings, she walks down a hallway — we hear her footsteps very clearly, a sonic effect, and then whistling; and then a door slams shut. She has left the bastard.
The bright blue cable is being held up off the carpet by a series of plastic drinking cups. I ask a white-bearded man who seems to be in charge how much the cables cost. He says that because they are prototypes, they aren’t priced yet, but they may retail for about $2500. They are made of silver and gold, he tells me. His name is Greg Weaver. A consultant for Harmonic Technology who has been studying cable since 1977, he doesn’t live in San Diego. He lives in South Bend, Indiana, and works at the University of Notre Dame, part of its Office of Information Technologies technical support staff. And he wants to tell me more about the cable, which is “single-crystal.” But even that is too technical for me. He seems like a patient man, willing to explain, but I’m discouraged. He tells me to call him; he’ll answer any questions I have. Then, as I’m leaving, he says to no one in particular, “Oh, I guess we’re doing the Frank thing,” as Sinatra’s voice fills the room.
I decide to go to a panel discussion whose topic seems ready-made for a moment such as this: “In an Age of Cultural Diversity, How Can the Specialized Audio Industry Market Its Products More Successfully?”
“Tasting, tasting,” a man puns into the microphone while they’re getting ready to start.
To begin, discussion leader Marko Suvajdzic, chief creative and technical director of a new online magazine, audiocafe.com, wants the panel to define the high-end demographic. (Suvajdzic doesn’t yet know it, but audiocafe.com will be short-lived, kaput before summer.)
Mary Ann Giorgio, editor of Audio Video Interiors magazine and the lone female panelist, doesn’t hesitate. She knows the answer from market surveys: “The readership is 75 percent upper-middle-class white guys, gadget lovers, who dream of having a home like [those pictured in her magazine], and most of them achieve it. These are not 18-year-old kids. These are 40-year-old white guys who will buy your $20,000 amp.” And this, she says, she is prepared to tell her advertisers.
Jason Serinus, an audio writer, reviewer, and virtuoso whistler (most famously, the whistling voice of Woodstock in the animated Charlie Brown cartoon), doesn’t disagree with Giorgio. But he would like to make a point or two in favor of his own demographic: gay men. “It’s called the ‘Wife Acceptance Factor,’ ” he says. “But it really should be called the Spousal Acceptance Factor. When I have someone over and he takes a look at my system and says, ‘Yes, it sounds great, but I wouldn’t want to live with it,’ I say to myself, ‘Not husband material!’ ” He would also like to replace the term high-end, “which could have all sorts of connotations in the gay community.” He smiles impishly and suggests “high-quality.”
Suvajdzic asks how the group would propose broadening this market.
Jim Geheran, a consultant based in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and the token white male, says: “High-end began as a love affair between audio and the hobbyist who built his own system, and it still suffers from that heritage.” He can’t quite understand it. “The need and love for music is really a very fundamental human desire. But somehow we have never done the job of making consumers aware that the high-end exists. How do we take it further? How can we demonstrate to people what music can sound like?”
Serinus adds, “There is no vocabulary with which to describe [the high-quality recorded-music experience].” He wonders how to get across the message that “the experience can be yours if you have a good system and you take the time to listen. The kernel of truth can be yours.”
Giorgio both damns and praises Bose as “the woman’s stereo.” She is impressed that the company, unlike the high-end manufacturers, knows how to design its ads to appeal to women. “They could almost be jewelry ads,” she says.
Clement Perry, an African-American and publisher of the online magazine Stereotimes.com, talks about his experience as an adolescent in New York hearing for the first time the sound system of an 88-year-old Jewish audiophile, the man he worked for. He had never experienced anything like it before. But it’s still such a well-kept secret, he refers to it as “a secret society,” adding, “Most of my family consider me a weirdo. It’s an odd sort of occupation and hobby.”
Geheran agrees: “We have to come out of the closet.”
Giorgio blames the high-end retailers. “It’s like walking into a snooty French restaurant. I feel very mistreated and talked down to and ignored.”
And yet, they nod all around, nobody knows the high-end audio brand names like everybody knows, say, Rolex.
Perry says of brand names, “People hear with their eyes. If Michael Jordan shoes cost $15, nobody would want them. Because they are $150, they are considered a necessity.”
Geheran mentions again everybody’s “innate appreciation for quality sound.”
Giorgio says, “Sometimes a $5000 stereo system is exactly what somebody needs.”
In the end, their conclusion is that there are more markets for high-end than the white male one but that nobody is addressing them. These are high-income groups, but they aren’t being reached and encouraged to spend their money on high-end audio.
Eric de Fontenay, president of Tag It, a “new media entertainment firm” and a polyglot with a long, hip ponytail, who has sung the praises of the Internet whenever it has been his turn to speak, asks facetiously, “Blacks and Latinos don’t like music?” He is annoyed that the junior executives get assigned the minority markets. “They don’t have experience, and they may not even know the culture to which they have been assigned.”
So what is the panel’s solution? As De Fontenay has been saying, the market is best expanded through the Internet.
I should mention, perhaps, that the number of people in the audience matched the number of people on the dais. The session is being taped and will be made available to anyone who wants a copy, but as I head next door, to the St. Tropez and t.h.e. Show, I wonder who will listen to it. Even if audiophilia isn’t about money, trade shows are. And money isn’t made at panel discussions.
The St. Tropez, like Alexis Park, is a low-rise, but smaller. There is one central courtyard with a pool, a Jacuzzi, and a group of busy people serving lunch. Grilled sausages, hamburgers, corn on the cob, beans, salads, brownies, sodas and beer — it’s all free to the first 1000 people. My ticket, I see, is number 440. I also see, tied to the fence, a banner that says, Von Schweikert Is Back! Albert Von Schweikert, owner of another San Diego speaker company, has been variously described to me as “debonair and handsome,” “a smooth talker,” and “you’ll see.” In Upstate New York he was in the speaker business but got wiped out in a flood. Then he was marketing manager for Harmonic Technology. Now it’s speakers again, under his own name. And seeing another strategically placed Von Schweikert banner, I say to myself: This guy is an operator.
I sit at a lunch table with a couple of men who are deep into their audio conversation. As they ignore me and I them, I think of how isolating a specialized world can be. Robert M. Pirsig, in his 1974 bestseller Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, called it a problem of the time, noting that most of us were specialists in something and those who attempted to wander freely among specialized groups would inevitably forgo closeness with anyone. It’s another way of saying that generalists are bound to be lonely.
After lunch, I follow the banners to the Von Schweikert suite. It’s bigger than the typical suite at Alexis Park, but it’s just as dark. The system is playing a number by a jazz combo. In addition to piano, there are horns and drums — and the three-dimensional illusion is strong. My brain tries in vain to create the visual that should be there logically but isn’t. It’s exhausting. Perhaps it’s not time coherent…? I leave. Von Schweikert isn’t here, anyway. He’s back, but he’s not here.
I wander down the hallway, and almost against my will, I am drawn into the suite of Thorens of America, based in Kew Gardens, New York (founded in 1883 by Herman Thorens in Switzerland, according to its literature). For a change, it’s brightly lit and the music playing is something very familiar — Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.” It’s coming from an LP, the first LP I’ve heard since I’ve been here. I get up close to the turntable and watch the record go around. It crackles a little and it even skips once, but it’s music, not sonics. I stand listening and watching until it’s over.
A kind-faced, older man with a European accent approaches me, asking where I am from.
“The press,” I say.
“France!” His mishearing makes him happy.
I hate to disabuse him, but when I do, that makes him happy too. He tells me he would be glad to send me any equipment I like.
I wander down some more hallways. Someone standing outside his empty suite says softly as I pass, “Subwoofers?” — like a high-class hawker. Then I see the suite where Avantgarde-USA is exhibiting. It’s a Cumming, Georgia, company — beyond my territory — but its display in the lobby intrigued me. Avantgarde has returned to the horn system of loudspeakers for home-audio systems, and I find them gorgeous. Made of bright blue and red metal, they look like candy-colored tubas. I wonder what Thomas Edison would think of them, he who called his 1877 invention “The Talking Machine,” not “The Music Machine,” imagining it to be a revolutionary device for the office — dictating equipment. He spoke into it, “Mary had a little lamb” — the first reproduced sound; it probably didn’t occur to him to sing. I want to hear the horns, but the man standing outside this door says there’s no room inside. I need to make an appointment. Also, the demo is 20 minutes, and they like for people to stay from beginning to end. I say I can make no promises.
Crossing the courtyard, I hear Bonnie Raitt. Her voice is coming from the hotel’s speakers, near the pool. I walk up to these boxes on poles; they’re the size of birdfeeders. The sound is progressively worse, distorted, the closer I get; she sounded much better when I was across the pool.
I go to see another speaker maker, based outside San Francisco, called vmps. I know the name because John Smythe owns a pair. When I meet him in San Diego in a couple of days, I’ll be glad to tell him that I stopped in here.
There is no place for me on the sofa, so I stand and listen to these massive things — over six feet tall — and experience a flood of unexpected good feeling. The room is enlarged by the sound, the music, which is of a kind that I cannot place. Perhaps it’s Asian…? It doesn’t matter.
Nobody seems to be in charge, no one to answer questions. Again, it doesn’t matter. I’d rather not talk; I only want to listen. And only after I get too tired to stand any longer do I finally leave.
Having been moved by that music, I don’t want to spoil it by going into anybody else’s suite just yet. I decide to take the bus over to the Zoo, for contrast — and to hear what the rest of the world is listening to. I’ll return to Von Schweikert later.
The Las Vegas Convention Center is stadiumlike. Its dimensions dwarf an ordinary human being. In the sloped entryway, a man is giving shoulder rubs to people who are dog-tired after days of slogging around. He is set up just like a shoeshine man of old, doing it for pay. This is a true trade-show feeling, very corporate, where exhibit spaces have been constructed by companies like Sony, Sanyo, and Sharp, Panasonic and Pioneer, and a lot of worried men in their business best are loitering near desks, hoping to write orders in the thousand-unit size. Everywhere are home theaters showing videos and giant TVs showing football games — it’s a Saturday, I suddenly remember. Ordinary salespeople are not entrusted with the presentations here. Actors have been hired to do the job. One guy in dreadlocks is giving a demonstration of interactive TV. Whenever he correctly answers a question on Jeopardy, he leaps like a cheerleader, getting much more excited about it than an ordinary mortal might. Another actor, this one yuppified, is showing a group how he keeps tabs on more than one football game simultaneously, with a TV whose screen shows multiple pictures in variously sized “windows.” It’s all so very sideshow, and too much of it to boot, forcing some of the presenters to give their spiels to audiences of zero. They continue even after everybody walks away.
But what of the sound systems, and their quality — or lack thereof? They’re…they’re… What’s the word? Is this what is meant by “bright”? No, they’re worse than bright; they’re brassy, tinny, one-dimensional. Strident, edgy, bass-shy. They sound like the TV in my father’s Florida apartment. I remember John Thomas’s words — what everybody’s used to. It’s what they prefer, even yearn for, just as they also yearn for things like Big Macs. Right now what I’m yearning for is one honest face, one realistic sound. All around me is the fake exuberance of an industry out of ideas. Fairly soon I get back on the bus that returns me to St. Tropez.
This time Von Schweikert is in his suite. I pick him out immediately even in the dim light and without having been given his description. He looks like an operator, but a suave one: he is tall, thin, straight-backed, animated, distinguished. In his late 50s, I would guess, he is wearing a blue jacket, gray flannels, tassel loafers, and aviator glasses. His jacket is double-breasted. And is that why I suddenly picture him on a yacht? After I introduce myself, we go into the suite’s kitchen, away from the music, so we can talk.
He says yes, there was a flood, but not an ordinary one: the water from a General Electric plant overflowed into his factory. He lost $3 million. And since he personally guaranteed his business loans, he lost his house and other personal assets too. And then he was very ill, and then he recovered. (So, I think to myself, the banners saying Von Schweikert Is Back! have more than one meaning.) And then he came out to San Diego, a place he has lived during other periods in his life. He is happy to say he found San Diego investors willing to invest. He says he had his pick among possible ones and chose a group of doctors. “They keep coming back to the room and saying that my system sounds better than everybody else’s,” he laughs and shrugs aw-shucksedly. And he smiles and smiles, a charming man, selling speakers for $15,000 a pair in standard finish, the same speakers for $17,500 in exotic woods with premium finish. One of the speakers is here in the kitchen, not hooked up. The wood is smooth as blond steel, the joints invisible. The brochure says it’s “Italian-designed cabinetry,” but Von Schweikert confesses that the maker is actually an Italian-American living in San Diego, “who thinks of himself as Italian.”
I ask Von Schweikert to name the “Ferrari” and “Rolex” of high-end — the biggest names, those I should hear before I head home to the Stardust. He sends me over to Wilson Audio Specialties, of Provo, Utah — or, as he calls it, “Dave Wilson’s” — to hear speakers that cost $75,000, sometimes much more.
Wilson is set up in a banquet room in the St. Tropez and in some smaller, adjacent rooms as well, one of which is a mini-museum, showing over 25 years of Wilson products, from the pioneer days to the present. Saving Private Ryan, Titanic, Braveheart, Mission Impossible, Apollo 13, Jurassic Park, Dances with Wolves, and many other films were “mixed, composed or recorded using Wilson Audio Loudspeakers,” the text tells me. “We make the speakers, that make the movies, that you love,” goes the Wilson slogan. But they also make systems for homes, and I am just in time for a demo of one of them, in the banquet room.
The Wilson speakers are huge — stocky metal robots that look as if they would roll forward, eyes blinking, if they had eyes. One of them, standing by itself on the left side of the room, is an infernal green, taller and stouter than a refrigerator. It’s labeled XS. Yes, I think: Excess.
A man with a funeral director’s air announces what we will hear first: a big-band number — “September in the Rain.” He also gives the recording information, seemingly down to the rank and serial number.
It’s lovely, although I’m distracted. I keep conjuring up the kind of people who can afford such a luxury. Surely not real audiophiles…? Instead, I imagine people who have everything, so they may as well have a huge sound system too.
The second selection is by Debussy, violin and piano, played on a Hamburg Steinway. Dave Wilson recorded it, our funereal announcer says.
Again, lovely — in fact, it’s the loveliest I’ve heard all day. No wonder, this time, instead of seeing rich people romping, I imagine the violin over here, the piano over there. Of course, it helps that this is the biggest room I have been in all day. What is more, it’s the only classical music anyone has played. But even more convincing than the music is a certain accompanying sound. It’s being made by the man sitting next to me. Just like at a regular concert, he is softly snoring. Asleep! Ah, yes. For the complete audio illusion, I apparently needed that too, just as I needed the crackle and skip on Brubeck’s “Take Five.”
Back in San Diego, the next day, realizing I have received in Las Vegas the kind of education that teaches one just how little one knows about a vast subject, I am listening to Johnny Cash sing “Delia’s Gone,” which was recorded in Cash’s living room — an intimate setting. And since I’m in a living room/listening room — this time John Smythe’s — the illusion is great; Cash feels near. His voice perfectly fits the space’s modest dimensions.
Next it’s “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” recorded by Jerry Lee Lewis 25 years ago, says my host. And the room itself seems to be shaking, at least in my imagination, the way the room must have been shaking when Lewis recorded it.
Smythe has thought through carefully these and all the other selections he plays for me. They represent not only a whole range of acoustical effects but of musical cultures. Besides Cash and Lewis, I am treated to Dead Can Dance, voices and percussion by an Australian duo; a Bulgarian women’s chorus, recorded by an anthropologist behind the Iron Curtain, when there still was one, in the early ’60s; the Gabby Pahinui Hawaiian Band, featuring many wonderful guitars, including Ry Cooder’s; and a hammered dulcimer recording on the Song of the Wood label, which Smythe says he doesn’t think was ever commercially released. The company sold it through word of mouth. “Audiophiles love it for the sound. Music lovers love it for the music.”
It’s no longer necessary for me to ask the questions I would have asked ten days ago, if this were my first visit to a listening room. I know the purpose of the triangular pillows affixed to the corners of the room. The same goes for the boxes attached to the ceiling. And the empty toilet-paper rolls holding the cable off the carpet. I know, too, that this isn’t the ideal listening room, being open to the rest of the house. (In fact, Smythe will tell me that if he ever got rich the first thing he’d get for himself would be a dedicated listening room. “The room is 50 percent of your sound,” he says.)
Nor am I surprised by the wall of records. Or by the fact that the 51-year-old Smythe, who lives in this house in El Cajon with his wife, Suzanne, has been seriously listening to music since he was 5 or 6 years old and collecting those records that I see since age 9, when his aunt gave him his first two LPs for his birthday. (The current total, accountant Smythe tells me, is 5317. That includes the 146 that he brought back from a recent trip to London with Suzanne, having hunted them down at thrift stores, oblivious to other tourists tramping around Hampton Court and Windsor Castle.) Or that as a schoolboy he played musical instruments — clarinet and tuba.
What does surprise me is that Smythe, who has certainly dressed the part of accountant today — in gray-and-white-striped Oxford cloth shirt, dark gray cuffed flannel trousers, and shiny black tie shoes — nonetheless reminds me of my grammar-school music teacher. He has the same expressive face, animated hands, and gentle manner, especially when the subject is music.
I am also surprised to learn that Smythe came relatively late to audiophilia. It happened about ten years ago, after he picked up an unfamiliar magazine at an airport newsstand. It was The Absolute Sound, the premier high-end audio journal, familiarly known as tas (pronounced tass). Smythe says it was a true turning point in his life when he ordered one of the records that a tas reviewer recommended. “Until then I did not know that different recordings sounded different for a reason,” he says, “although I did know that I enjoyed some records more than others.” After he learned about Shaded Dog rcas, as opposed to rca’s Nipper in his other guises — Plum Dog, Dead Dog, No Dog (“You want a Shaded Dog,” he tells me) — as well as other audiophile labels, including Living Presence Mercurys and Blue-Back Londons, he began to seek them out at garage sales and used-record outlets. And once he understood that good recordings would sound even better if played on a good system, he began to upgrade his stereo equipment. It was, as he says, “a swift descent.”
His turntable and tone arm were first. Then he bought a turntable stand and filled its three tube legs with “the approved mixture” of Kitty Litter and lead shot stuffed inside pantyhose to make removal easier. “People discuss whether sand, clay, or sawdust varieties of Kitty Litter make a difference,” he says with a shrug. The general principle is not debatable, however: “Mass is important. You need a secure anchor.” His choice of speakers was made after a trip to Northern California, where he visited VMPS owner and designer Brian Cheney’s listening room. “I was impressed by the sound and by his record collection. I knew he had a good ear.” However, Smythe, who writes the “Vinyl Cheapskate” column for Positive Feedback, an alternative, all-volunteer, high-end audio quarterly, did not choose VMPS’s Super Tower III. That speaker system, which I heard at the Consumer Electronics Show, retails for $18,900 (delivery, installation, and calibration in your listening room by Cheney come with it at no extra charge). Smythe’s current pair are the $7000 variety, which he bought through a barter deal and a trade-in, for half-price. Like so many others, he believes lack of money doesn’t preclude you from getting a good system.
m getting a good system.
And like others, too, Smythe can talk about technicalities — e.g., “room nodes” and “standing waves.” When I ask him if he has any rituals associated with listening, he says he doesn’t but adds: “There’s better listening at night, say, at two o’clock in the morning, because there is less hash — less contamination — coming out of your AC lines. For that reason [the contamination factor], there has been a push to battery-operated equipment.”
But Smythe clearly is not in love with tweaks and gadgetry. What he loves is music. “I am a classical-music lover,” he avers. “I can be brought to tears by the music. I go to the symphony as much as I can. I close my eyes, and the tears roll down. Yes, I cry, but not buckets, and it happens more often at home than it does in public. Real men don’t cry or eat quiche.” As he sees it, the whole purpose of high-end is to bring him closer to the music — “to act as a lens that allows me to see more deeply into the detail of the music, the performances, the players, even the conductor — because for me in music there is a joy. It reaches me in my deepest core.”
And when he says this I feel as moved by his words as I have by some of the music I have been hearing here and elsewhere.
Since he has made all the choices so far, he asks if there’s anything I would like to hear. I ask for the soundtrack from Lawrence of Arabia. I’ve always loved it, ever since the movie came out, in 1962. It’s part of the soundtrack of my youth.
“Which one?” Smythe asks. “There were three pressings made.”
We decide to listen to the same part of all three. And I do hear distinct differences. I pass the test. The second one is less bass, “less muddy,” than the first. The third has more detail than either the first or the second, but it is brassier. I note all this, even as I swoon to the music, seeing the desert sun, the mountains of sand, the blazing blue eyes of Peter O’Toole, and the onyx orbs of Omar Sharif.
“The question to be answered,” Smythe says, “is this: ‘Is it more natural or less natural [than the actual performance]?’ The standard against which reproduced sound should be judged is natural, acoustic sound played in a natural space, not a recording studio. Of course, unless you were there when the recording was made you don’t know what it should sound like. However, if you know what acoustic instruments sound like, then you can at least say if the instruments on the recording sound like real instruments. Concert halls have distinctive sounds. Some audiophiles can tell by listening to a recording in which hall it was recorded.”
What else would I like to hear? I ask if he has Peter, Paul and Mary’s In Concert, a double album my parents gave me for Christmas when I was in eighth or ninth grade, during the folk-music craze, when even I played a musical instrument, the guitar. I have also seen them twice in concert. Maybe my memory will serve me.
Smythe returns from another part of the house with several of the trio’s albums, but not that particular one. So I choose the last cut on the second side of Album 1700, “The Song Is Love.” Unfortunately, it’s distorted, sounds twangy, metallic. I am sorry for my choice and remember John Thomas saying of my La Wally, “It’s almost painful.” This is painful for me and leaves me yearning to hear a good recording of the trio.
“This isn’t a first pressing,” says Smythe. “The first issue sounds much better. You should be able to find a first pressing at a reasonable price, as many were issued.”
But then what would I do with it? I don’t even have a turntable anymore.
As I’m leaving, I ask Smythe one final question: Any other hobbies?
Is that what I have been hearing bubbling loudly in the next room for the duration of my visit?
Yes, but, curiously, it doesn’t disturb Smythe’s listening.
“Just white noise. I filter it out.”
A couple of hours later, I am in Mission Beach, at the home of my last audiophile-interviewee: Roman Zajcew. (Pronounced zait-sev, it is a Ukrainian name with a Polish spelling, and definitely not a pseudonym.) A writer and reviewer for the magazine that changed John Smythe’s life, The Absolute Sound, he lives in a house that resembles a ship — a whimsical tugboat, perhaps — made of wood, with porthole-like windows. It was designed in the mid-1990s by one of San Diego’s avant-garde architects, Ted Smith, with cooperation from Roman and his late first wife, Ann Turner. Roman says, “It has also been described as a child’s drawing of a boat.”
The house includes a listening room, need I say, but there was no problem here with the Wife Acceptance Factor. Ann, who died two years ago, was that rare thing, a female audiophile. Says Roman, “She was groundbreaking in the industry,” for she, too, was a writer and reviewer for The Absolute Sound. “We wrote together,” he says. Still, she often met up with what Roman calls the “dearie” attitude. “People in this industry do not take women seriously,” he complains. “They think women don’t understand and that they don’t care, but then what are they doing in a high-end shop? Some guys don’t understand either. She had a primo experience in Paris on the Left Bank, when she walked into a shop and bought a $12,000 turntable” — a Goldmund Reference, a French design built in Switzerland. “The clerk was rather shocked.” Of course, she and Roman had discussed the purchase beforehand. “Neither one of us ever made unilateral decisions.” This was merely the consummation. Anyway: “It can be truly nasty out there,” says Roman, whose second wife, Karen Anderson, he would not characterize as an audiophile. But she is a serious amateur singer with a trained voice. (Her profession is podiatry.) “She sang a song to me directly at our wedding — ‘Summer Sent You,’ by Mary Black, which was quite an experience.”
We are speaking in his second-floor living room. It is a large open space, with a sound system set up for only semi-serious listening, with speakers by Gradiant, a Finnish company. It is also graced by an instrument designed to deliver live music: a shiny black grand piano, with its lid raised. “I grew up on rock,” says the 46-year-old Roman, who, with hair down to his shoulders and a broad, clean-shaven face, looks a bit like a rock star of my generation, a sane one, or perhaps a sane rock star’s brainy manager. But during those growing-up years, in Winnipeg, he studied classical piano and became accomplished. Roman says he has recently reconnected with piano, although he is rusty.
In 1975, after he moved to San Diego, he was still attending lots of rock concerts. As a listener, he says, “I didn’t come into classical until I was in my 30s.” Nor was he yet an audiophile. Then one day he came across the now-defunct High Fidelity magazine and, through it, an ad for The Absolute Sound. “And I said, ‘Aha! There is a completely different world!’ I started with issue number 4, I think.” (The December 1999/January 2000 issue is number 121.) He says, “I bought Audio Research gear, to begin with.”
Since then, he has bought, and reviewed, all manner of equipment. So here is my chance to ask about how the review process works. In magazines like Stereo Review’s Sound & Vision and UltimateAudio, I so often read hyperbolic gaga phrases like “truly world-class” and “have outdone themselves” and “finest to grace my system yet.” And I have heard that the publishers are too dependent upon industry ad dollars to allow those reviewers to be completely honest about the new products they critique. I wonder what Roman has to say about this. “There are writers in this industry who are not to be trusted,” he tells me, dismissing all the mainstream publications and naming The Absolute Sound and Stereophile as the only ones worthy of being read. “Even among them, though, there are only 70 percent of writers that I trust,” he says. What troubles him about their particular brand of untrustworthiness is this: “There is not enough science in it. Anyone who isn’t combining science and listening isn’t doing it [reviewing] right. There are some reviewers who only listen. There are others who never listen and just measure.”
It’s the old subjectivist versus objectivist dichotomy?
“Yes,” he says, “but the truth is, if it doesn’t measure right, it’s not going to sound right either.” So, in his opinion, it’s not a question of one approach or the other. He believes in both — in a combination.
As a reviewer, he also believes in owning his own equipment. “A lot of other reviewers have equipment more or less on permanent loan.”
To be frank, Roman seems able to afford his own. Not only the youngest of my “case studies,” this chief technical architect with Computer Associates is also apparently the best-heeled.
More to the point, he impresses me as someone concerned with aesthetics of all kinds, as evidenced not only by the house but by its stylish furnishings.
And at least by his accounting, he hears the most live music, attending a dozen operas a year, a dozen classical concerts, almost exclusively in L.A., as well as another dozen chamber music concerts in La Jolla. Oh, and he still can be found at an occasional rock concert.
We talk about the Consumer Electronics Show. Roman wants to know what suites I visited. What impressed me most? I mention the Wilson demo. He gives me a long stare. My interpretation (revealed to him, and he did not deny it): How crass! She’s impressed by the cost of them. I can’t deny that maybe I was. Quality and cost: the two often do get confused. In the antique business — I know from dabbling in it — the rule is, if it doesn’t sell, raise the price.
But the Wilson imaging, I tell him. It was so real, and isn’t that the whole point?
“Imaging is not the whole point,” he says. “Natural sound is the whole point. There is sound that comes closer to natural sound than other sound does. A piano sounds like a piano, and your system is going to come close to that sound or it’s not. There is such a thing as more accurate sound.”
Beyond that, he says, “Certain colorations matter more to some people than they matter to others.” And certain things bother some people more than they bother others. For example, there is “veiled sound” — the illusion that there is a curtain between you and the performer; this bothers some. There is also “boxiness.” This bothers him. But what bothers him most is any skimping on “the bottom end.” Says he, “I am not willing to sacrifice the bottom octave.” But, he repeats his earlier statement in a different way, what is always paramount is “tonal neutrality, meaning that the actual sound be a semblance of the original. That a violin be reproduced with the tones of a violin. That Karen’s voice reproduced on a CD sound like Karen. At least as much as possible.”
It’s time to go downstairs to the listening room. On the way, past the two pairs of in-line skates, his and Karen’s, he says, “In our house it’s set up for two people. The one chair? I hate that.” He also tells me that another great interest of his and Karen’s is video. Describing it as “a major obsession,” he adds, “Video is taken as seriously in this house as audio.”
To that end, he has recently added a Runco overhead projector and a motorized retractable screen. He also has removable blackout material on his windows. This is evening, but even in the middle of the afternoon, he can get the room to be completely dark. It’s illegal not to have windows in a room, he learned when helping to design the house with Ted Smith.
I see that the walls are made of cement. “Cement is not ideal,” Roman says, “but unlike drywall, cement walls have a set of problems I could cure.” The cure is 17 Tube Traps, made by the Acoustic Sciences Corporation of Eugene, Oregon. They are set like sentries all around the room, in precise places.
The Dutch-made Audiostatic speakers he uses with British-made electronics by Meridian. The turntable was designed by a Dutch woman, Judy Spotheim. It’s called La Luce and made of Lucite. It looks like a disk of very thick and perfect ice.
I ask about cables.
“Cables,” he cringes. “That’s the tweakish part of audio, which I really detest. People shouldn’t buy expensive cables. They should just plain upgrade their speakers. There is a point to spending hundreds of dollars on cables if you have a very good system but not thousands of dollars. Cables can matter, but they’re not going to matter as much as speakers. The cables shouldn’t cost an overwhelming fraction of the price of the system. For example, speaker cables that cost as much as speakers really are a no-no. But if you have $80,000 speakers, then buying some expensive cables is okay.” Upstairs, he brags, he has copper cable that can be had for $3 a foot.
Since I have already heard so much “pure music,” as it’s called, I am happy that he wants to give me a demonstration of the home theater. The screen comes down, the lights are doused, and he shows me the opening of Golden Eye.
As it begins, the bass rumbles and cracks. “I’m still working on that,” he says.
It’s certainly good on the footsteps and other sound effects. And the picture? Crisp as crisp can be. But I’m wishing I could see, say, Lawrence of Arabia. It seems a colossal waste to be watching this mind-numbing fare on such a stellar system.
For my last question, I ask him my standard one about listening in the car and receive an unexpected answer. “I took up car stereo seriously about a year ago,” he says. “What’s required is a combination of very good speakers and digital signal processing. I have a very big subwoofer in the trunk.” He smiles. “Oh, and you have to have a very quiet car.” His is a Mercedes S series. While driving, he listens to pop/rock and orchestral music. As anyone who has tried it knows, if you listen to anything else, with dynamic ranges that are much larger, you’ll end up fiddling a lot with the volume control. “Mahler is a lot of fun,” says Roman. And it certainly makes his and Karen’s drive to the concerts in L.A. go faster. “It’s a form of surround sound. It’s very much like you’re in a hall of some sort.” Of course, the speakers have to be placed at ear level. “They don’t obstruct the view too much,” he says smiling again.
To conclude my research I make the rounds of the retailers — brief visits to Stereo Unlimited and Stereo Design — since it seems appropriate to end where I began.
Eleven o’clock, opening time, on a weekday morning, a few days after the Consumer Electronics Show, I have an appointment with Bruce Heimberg. But when I appear at the locked glass front door of Stereo Unlimited, he and another man look up from the legal pad they are studying and do not seem happy to see me. He lets me in, and as I step around the large cartons in the entryway, he finishes up with the day’s hectic scheduling. He tells me later that his business tripled a year and a half ago, although its high-end has experienced a spike. The boom is the result of his belated, and somewhat reluctant, entry into the lucrative home-theater business. Fifty-one years old, but looking older, with sandy hair and beard, Heimberg is a man under stress. He sighs a lot. But he is also a patient man, soft-spoken, with the air of someone used to counseling people and to dealing with difficult or demanding ones.
As we sit down together, on leather easy chairs in a listening room whose walls and ceiling are painted a tranquil, dark forest green, he tells me he has been in the audio business for 25 years. Building on his boyhood love of audio, as well as his undergraduate business degree, he began by selling used equipment while he was in law school. He finished the degree but decided that practicing law wasn’t for him. Eventually, he was selling new gear, of higher and higher quality. He was also doing custom installations, most of it outside the city, in places like Beverly Hills and Bel Air, and for people like Mel Brooks and Henry Mancini. In those years, he had as many as five partners, one of whom was Steve Nielsen, now of Stereo Design; two stores; and a financial arrangement that involved other people’s brothers-in-law. “It’s a convoluted story,” he admits, and it seems even more so because he tells it in pieces, in between taking phone calls. The man with whom he was going over the schedule also interrupts with the news that a service appointment has been canceled because the customer’s 12-year-old son figured out what was wrong.
Although buried by work, Heimberg found it necessary, and instructive, to attend the Consumer Electronics Show. “Tubes are alive — I saw tubes in well more than half the rooms [in the specialty audio section],” he says with obvious satisfaction. “But I also saw fewer high-end exhibitors this year than last, and there are fewer every year. t.h.e. Show represents a lot of what I used to see at the show: smaller companies. Maybe they’re working a day job but this is their love. You call up the ‘factory’ and the guy’s mother answers, because he’s still living at home. Now it’s pretty clear that home theater is the dominant player.”
For himself, Heimberg says that audio is his “main love.” He does business in turntables and as a sideline sends vintage vinyl records all over the world. But he intimates that audio is also, increasingly, a labor of love. “I’m going to stay alive as long as I can in the audio business, but if I have to do it with home theater, I’m not going to be an ostrich and bury my head in the sand.” In his own house, at least, he tries to keep pure music, well, pure. “I have home theater in one room and audio in a completely different room.” And he’ll continue to cultivate the high-end customers he has by hosting the Music and Audio Guild, for instance, and by giving 100 percent of a customer’s money back if he trades up within a year.
What about finding new customers through advertising?
He shakes his head. He doesn’t advertise because it’s too hard to pinpoint the clientele. Even saying what an audiophile is can be difficult at times. “Somebody has a pair of $300 speakers and a $1000 system to control it. What do you call that? I don’t consider that an audiophile.”
So how do new customers find him, then?
“You’ll find out who sells Ferraris if you are looking for a Ferrari.”
We talk some more, about a book he used to love, whose author and title he remembers as Harvey Rosenberg’s Tubes, Transistors, and Pickles. “Rosenberg said he didn’t care if people liked him or not. He just wanted to make them think.” That’s what Heimberg says he wants to do. He’s happiest when someone “listens, perceives, and makes a decision.” And even though he shows no sign of trying to rush me, I feel guilty for taking up such a busy man’s time. On my way out, leaving him to his ringing phone, I note the mini-auditorium where the society meets. There are burgundy walls, green marble columns, 60 red-and-gold seats, and attached to the ceiling, with its eye on the future, a Runco overhead projector.
At Stereo Design I drop in unannounced, and Steve Nielsen, as busy as Heimberg, is unavailable. But I meet his associates, Kent Fuqua and Jeffrey Smith. In addition to their work for Nielsen, each has a home business. They are, as Smith says, “little garage guys,” like those Heimberg says he used to see in such numbers at t.h.e. Show. As kmp Audio, Fuqua makes crossovers; Smith, whose company name is Silversmith, makes cables, and he actually was at t.h.e., demoing his cables in the suite of the speaker company NearField Acoustics, of Brentwood, Tennessee.
An ex-naval officer, graduate of Annapolis (class of 1990), who worked part-time at Stereo Design “just for fun,” even before he left the Navy, Smith shows me his hand, saying, “I still have my ring on.” He does not regret his training. “But one problem I have with Annapolis is that they stress making naval officers, when what they’re really doing is creating leaders.” Not everyone can be an admiral, I venture. “Not everyone wants to be an admiral,” says Smith. “They can be leaders in business or whatever they want, after they get their card punched.”
Nordost “has the best reputation on the block” for cables right now, says Smith. But who knows that Silversmith won’t edge out Nordost someday? For what it’s worth, Smith has already been favorably reviewed in one of the mainstream magazines, UltimateAudio; and as his good luck would have it, that issue got handed out free at the Consumer Electronics Show.
Just as I did in the Balanced Audio Technology suite at the Consumer Electronics Show, I wonder aloud if I would hear a difference between his cables and any others, and this time I get the response that a demonstration is quite possible. In fact, Smith would be happy to give me one.
While he goes out to his car to get a pair of his Silversmith cables (which are actually made of silver — a conductor superior to, say, copper, he says), I chat with Fuqua about crossovers.
Crossovers “drive up the frequencies,” he tells me. There are low, medium, and high frequencies, and they need to be sent to the right places. Crossovers aren’t all he makes (but they are all he sells). For his own personal audio system, he has made “almost everything from the ground up.”
The 43-year-old Fuqua, who resembles a kind of grown-up boy genius, in glasses, T-shirt, and jeans, started early in audio, even earlier than Pat McGinty. “When I was three years old, I knew,” he says. “That’s when I got my first crystal set, and I knew then that this was it. I was fascinated by tubes and electricity. I had an uncle who helped me conduct experiments and build things. When I was four and five years old, I had an electric lightbulb collection, and I didn’t break one.”
But Fuqua wants me to know that he is not a gearhead; he has a great interest in music too. “My whole family is musical,” he says. Furthermore, he is annoyed by people who say a system doesn’t sound good when they rarely attend live concerts. “You ask them when their last one was and they can’t name a date.” Sometimes he discovers that they have never been to an unamplified concert. “They have no reference.”
He is equally annoyed by those who say there are no female audiophiles. “I have five good women customers, and their husbands could care less.”
Smith is back now, and the demonstration begins. First, cable that costs $10,000; then, his. Both times he plays a female vocalist accompanying herself on a guitar. The second time through it, I’m more aware of the guitar. I tell Smith what I heard.
“It should have sounded more delicate, more detailed, more realistic — hopefully,” says Smith. “The string plucking is better defined. There is a quickness to the cable, and for a fifth of the price.”
As I leave, I tell him I’ll let him know when my article comes out.
But he somehow missed the information, during our introduction, that I was a writer, not a customer.
Yes, I tell him, it’s about audiophiles.
To which he replies playfully, “What a weird bunch we are!”
I feel that my research won’t be complete if I don’t at least peek into a Dow, so here I am. Having been greeted profusely by several salesmen, I am being taken around by one of them, an affable guy named Jose (I know by his name tag). This time, however, I don’t reveal that I am a writer, because I want to experience what any old customer does; what I do tell him is that I have been listening to a lot of high-end systems lately, including Wilson speakers, and that I have also seen part of a film on a Runco overhead projector.
I don’t take notes on what he tells me, but when I get back out to my car, this is what I write down from memory:
Runco products start at $30,000. “That’s entry level.” They can go up to $250,000.
He would like a $5000 Audio Research preamp. He’s saving up.
Dow doesn’t have the esoteric stuff, but if I don’t find it anywhere else in San Diego, he could probably get it for me.
Wilson speakers are not for people who want to use them at home. They’re reference speakers for CD reviewers. They’ll make all my CDs sound lousy. I’ll be able to hear all the flaws.
Some people have air-bearing turntables. You install an air compressor outside your house. It’s noisy and may bother the neighbors, but you can buy a muffling cover for it too.
The humidity in Pacific Beach is so bad that a friend’s high-end speakers were ruined in two years. The friend was told to get a dehumidifier.
As for cables, you can see it on the meter that they’re making a difference, but you can’t hear it.
And of the high-end in general: “This is reality here.”
When I get home to New England, I do not start hunting for high-end equipment that even I might be able to afford. Instead, I find I have a sudden desire to hear live music. I arrange for tickets to a concert featuring the songs of Kurt Weill, sung by a woman portraying Lotte Lenya. I also put my Bose speakers up on chairs, at ear level — a simple act that makes a hundredfold improvement.
Then I get from the library a copy of the Flanders and Swann spoof on the hi-fi buffs of old. Called “Song of Reproduction,” it was recorded at London’s Fortune Theatre in 1959. “People make an awful lot of fuss nowadays, don’t they, about the quality of the sound they listen to,” Michael Flanders says by way of introducing it. “They spend all that time trying to get the exact effect of an orchestra actually playing in their sitting room. Personally, I can’t think of anything I should hate more than an orchestra actually playing in my sitting room.”
- He and Swann, the pianist, sing:
- High-frequency range, complete with auto change.
- All the highest notes, neither sharp nor flat.
- The ear can’t hear as high as that.
- Still I ought to please any passing bat
- With my high fidelity!
Following that, one of them comes on in the voice of the working-class man sent over to install a new system in some gent’s home. “Surprised they let you have it in this room, anyway,” says he. “The acoustics [pronounced acowstics] are all wrong. You raise the ceiling four feet, put the fireplace on that wall to that wall, you’ll still only get the stereo effect if you sit in the bottom of that cupboard.”
Still, I must respect the audiophile and his quest. He reminds me more than anything of a creative artist, preoccupied with a problem whose significance eludes most of the rest of us. And yet what he is after is a kind of truth, a kind of beauty, and who could fault anyone for pursuing that?