By Jack Sharkey, May 2, 2017

 

This is part one of an occasional series we’ll be running over the next view months examining the journey into the world of hi-fi. We’ll have two points-of-view, one from a veteran hi-fi traveler and the other from a music lover who is just embarking on a voyage into the world of critical listening.

 

 

I cut my hair the week The Clash released Sandanista! (for those of you who are counting, that’s back when Jimmy Carter was still president). This was the start of my journey of exploring the cutting edge of cultural evolution. In the short years that followed there were Capezios, skinny ties, Miami Vice jackets (with the obligatory ¾ sleeve roll), and the unfortunate mullet. Martha Quinn was (and still is) my vee-jee of choice. Mind you, being an eminent hipster and abandoning each new trend before it became popular was exhausting (and expensive). But regardless of what I was listening to in my current state of hip, the music was what mattered.

The Clash Sandinista!

 

I was a committed social contrarian – once something got cool I was already looking down my nose at it. At the dawn of the 90s flannel came back in style and since I was already terminally morose I was right in stride with all of that trendy Pacific Northwest societal detachment. By the mid-90s I’d hit my middle-management golf attire and wing-tips on Friday night phase. I even wore a tie and Cardigan sweater to family holiday gatherings. My middle-management take home pay also helped me acquire a top-notch stereo, further enhancing my enjoyment of my music.

 

By the time I reached my forties all of this hipsterism had worn me out so I fell into a comfortable groove of not caring anymore. Except for the music – I still cared about the music and how it sounded.

 

Then last year at a dinner party, my most pretentious and insufferable friend cornered me into a conversation about audio. It was then that he hit me with the greatest insult since this girl Annette stood up and flipped me the bird in a seventh grade assembly when word got back to her that I had a crush on her.

 

He called me a dinosaur.

 

D.I.N.O.S.A.U.R.

 

He implied I was extinct. He asserted my way of life was now passe de mode. He hit me right in the only thing that ever really mattered to me (are you listening Annette?) – music.  

 

Godzilla Vs. Mothra

I’ve literally spent my life chasing three-dimensional bass that was light and airy yet still hit me square in the chest. I’ve been on a Quixotic quest for the percussive sound a stick makes when it hits a cymbal – not just the ring of the cymbal. Like Ponce de Leon, I searched every bit of swamp music I could find for the delightful fullness of a hollow-body electric guitar. I was an ephemeral Indiana Jones in search of a three-dimensional Holy Grail where I could hear every subtle breath of light and shade in every song I listened to. I thought I was on a noble quest.   

 

But according to my most pretentious and insufferable friend I had wasted my time. This from an oenophile-gourmand-art cognoscente-fashionista who drives a fancy European car and drops names like Alex Turner drops mics. He was telling me I was an ostentatious dinosaur because I spent my money on audio components.

 

I drove home that night pondering my place in the cosmos. Could it be true? Had my life been lived in vain? Was I a dinosaur? Or was my most pretentious and insufferable friend wrong?

 

When we got home, I bid my wife buona sera, poured a glass of my favorite Tennessee whiskey and locked myself in my dedicated two-channel listening room. I switched on my pre-amps and mono-blocks before grabbing my Mobile Fidelity 180gm vinyl copy of Dark Side of the Moon. I took stock of my life and came up with a list of things that might possibly qualify me as a dinosaur.

 

  • • Gray hair – check
  • • I saw the original line-up of Lynyrd Skynyrd in concert (by original I mean the line-up featuring Ed King) – check
  • • I know the definitions of wow and flutter, THD, tracking force, and what a first reflection is – check
  • • I never let the few girlfriends I had back in high school touch my vinyl – check
  • • I go to audio shows and only go into rooms playing music by female jazz singers – check
  • • I read audio magazines even when I’m not getting paid to do so – check
  • • I wore my wife down until she agreed to decorate our living room around my surround system – check
  • • I know the difference between an mp3 and an ALAC file and I understand bitrate – check
  • • I’d rather wait and watch a movie at home because my system sounds better – check
  • • I absolutely agree that digital is better than vinyl but I enjoy vinyl more – check
  • • I can explain slew rate to someone who doesn’t care – check

 

Then it dawned on me – I may be a bit of an audio-snob, and I may be a bit out of step with how people listen to music nowadays, and I probably won’t like the way your off-the-shelf music system sounds but I am not an audiophile and I’m not a dinosaur, dammit. By the way, please still invite me over to your house for music and cocktails because I’m a very nice person who would never overtly make fun or your audio system.

 

I don’t consider myself an audiophile because I’m more concerned with the music and how it sounds rather than the equipment and how it sounds – there is a subtle difference. I know a lot of true audiophiles and I love them because they drive the technology that makes my music listening experience worthwhile, plus they let me bring my records to their house when they get new gear. I view my own gear as a means to an end rather than an end in and of itself. Music is more important to me than any of the other luxuries in life, actually to the point where I consider it a basic necessity, I’m just not a full-on gearhead. I just want my music to sound as great as it can, whether I’m listening to some old UFO record or Lang Lang and Herbie Hancock performing Rhapsody In Blue.

 

As Dark Side faded into oblivion I wondered if maybe, per chance, the only people who cared about hi-fi and great sounding music were at that very moment scanning the AARP website for deals on foot massagers. After all, music is just a commodity now, a pervasive reminder we are all on one endless elevator ride of bad sounding commercialism.

 

Or is it?    

 

Maybe, just maybe, you don’t have to be an official audiophile to enjoy today what would have been an audiophile’s dream just twenty-five years ago. You may not realize it but we are entering a new Golden Age of Hi-Fi. The difference is that technology – like it does with every other human endeavor – has made really incredible sounding music attainable for pretty much anyone at a tiny fraction of the cost us dinosaurs back in the day had to fork over. It’s all there for even the most casual technologist or music fan, you just have to know where to look.

 

My friends, the news for music lovers is good, very good indeed, we just have to redefine the terms a little.

 

Tomorrow we’ll take a look at the new Golden Age of Hi-Fi.