I have a friend, a guy I worked with for a long time, who drove a modest little Geo sedan for his long commute. Ugly car, really. And small. He looked after it, though; it ran well and was dependable. Every workday, he drove 90 minutes or more each way, and I don’t think he ever missed a day of work because of car trouble. When my friend retired, he stopped driving that car and got a new Camaro. He deserved that reward. I have no idea how many miles he had racked up on that Geo, but I’m willing to bet it was over 300,000.
Ten years or so before he retired, my friend decided to have a decent stereo installed in the Geo. I don’t know how much he spent, but I think it was an Alpine car stereo. He bought some nice speakers and the stereo had some power behind it. This would have been around 2005, so he was listening to CDs on that long drive to work and back. My friend had played trumpet in high school and college, and he liked all kinds of music—especially jazz and rock.
Most audiophiles would probably scoff at that Alpine, but it sounded pretty good. Most importantly, it gave my friend some enjoyment during what would have been a boring drive, and probably some relief after a bad day at work.
A few months ago, my wife and I were out of town. One of our kids was in the hospital and we wanted to be close by. It was, as you might imagine, a difficult time. I decided one morning that a trip to the gym would help relieve some tension, or at least distract me for a while. I got into our Honda CR-V and turned on the radio. I wanted to hear some classical music, so I went to the low numbers on what we used to call the dial and pressed Search.
The radio landed on a station that was playing something by Debussy. The composition had been arranged for harp, and the result was delicately beautiful and calming. I immediately felt more at ease. I was reminded, as I have been many times in my life, that music can transport us, give us hope, and remind us of life’s joys.
Audiophiles sometimes lose sight of those important aspects of music. They often adopt an air of superiority, as if only they can grasp the real mysteries of music: mysteries that can only be revealed on esoteric and very expensive gear.
More than 20 years ago, I wrote about music for a now-defunct hi-fi website. After a while, the publishers asked me to do some equipment reviews. My first review was for a Music Hall turntable, and I listed my system setup at the end of the piece—a standard practice for audio publications.
My setup at the time was modest. I had a Yamaha integrated amp, which I bought to replace a Rotel that my repair guy said couldn’t be fixed. (I should have asked Rotel to recommend someone.) At any rate, the Yamaha had plenty of power, but I now realize it had a bland preamplifier section. The amp fed a pair of Ohm Acoustics Model E speakers that I still miss, although the Paradigm and KEF speakers I now use are better overall.
When the review was published, a reader emailed to ask how I could evaluate a turntable with such mediocre gear. Fair enough—most of the site’s readers probably had much better stereo systems than I had then, and I’m sure plenty of SoundStage! readers have more sophisticated audio setups than I do now. What struck me about the email was that the writer noted he had a Krell Industries amp and preamp setup in his workout room.
In his workout room. Now, maybe that was where he did his serious listening, in addition to his strenuous exercise. That’s not the impression I got. I’ve talked to and read forum comments from audiophiles who think it’s important to have the high-end experience every time they listen to music. Audio journalists, too. One reviewer noted that he carried a very expensive pair of earbuds with him to listen to music through his phone as he waited for a flight.
Listening to music on high-quality playback equipment allows you to hear things you might have missed on previous plays. But it requires—and rewards—attention and concentration. I remember listening to the Stones’ Sticky Fingers for the first time through a receiver and speakers that fit the description “affordable hi-fi.” I had never heard the acoustic guitars on “Brown Sugar” so clearly before. I was paying attention because everything I was hearing was more realistic and lifelike than what I had heard when the LP was played on a mediocre system. Experiencing music through equipment that’s designed to reproduce it accurately repays close listening.
In fact, it demands it. If you’re playing music during a workout, it’s in the background. If you’re listening to music at the airport while you’re waiting for a flight, your attention is divided. If you’re driving, you may be listening to a McIntosh or Mark Levinson system that was standard equipment with your very expensive vehicle. But if you’re concentrating on music in the way that careful listening requires, I don’t want you on the road.
That doesn’t mean we can’t have the epiphanies that music can stir if we’re listening in less-than-ideal conditions. Music can sometimes reach out to us, even then. I remember a long drive home through northern Pennsylvania in 1984 when I heard the Style Council’s “My Ever Changing Moods” for the first time on the radio. The signal was somewhat distorted and kept switching between mono and stereo. But I knew straightaway I would have to track down the LP that included the song. It grabbed my attention, even through the static.
I like to think that most audiophiles can fully enjoy the unique insights and deep emotional connections their systems can provide while also connecting with music in more modest circumstances. I’ve talked to a number of audiophiles over the years, and most were quite reasonable. Some have told me that as much as they love their audio gear, often their most vivid memories of a piece of music came from the first time they heard it in their cars or on their kitchen radios.
If you can afford expensive audio in every room of your house, or you want high-end audio in your car, knock yourself out. Your guests or passengers can enjoy the music while you cook or drive. I have an Echo Dot in the kitchen. My dining area is in the same space as one of my audio setups, and when I play music during dinner, it’s at a low volume so we can talk. In both cases, the music is there to enjoy, but while we’re socializing at the dining table we’re not getting the full effect my system can provide.
I’ve loved music for as long as I can remember. The first time I heard a record playing on a first-rate turntable through a clean, good-quality power source and high-quality speakers, I knew my parents’ console wasn’t going to do it for me. At its best, superior audio equipment gives us a deeper understanding of music and reveals more of what really went into its creation. But the essence of the music was already there.
From 1977 until 1994, Hans Fantel penned a consumer electronics column in the New York Times. Fantel lived a long and interesting life and wrote about people as diverse as William Penn and Johann Strauss. He was a founding editor of Stereo Review magazine and was keen to introduce people to the glories of high-fidelity music. Fantel was the soul of common sense. He reasoned that if he introduced people who liked music to decent audio equipment, they’d move on in time to even better gear.
In his 1981 book Better Listening: A Practical Guide to Stereo Equipment for the Home, Fantel describes the virtues of a $400 component system (all prices in USD). That’s roughly $1300 in today’s dollars. He acknowledges the limitations of that system—it couldn’t reproduce the dynamic range of a symphonic work, for example. He goes on to talk about the next tier of components:
There’s nothing middling about components in the “middle class.” A system with a price tag from about $600 to $900 [$2000 to $3000 now] will do full justice to any kind of music. It will satisfy the demands of even the most richly orchestrated score and the most discriminating ear. You get full frequency response, extremely low distortion, virtually silent background.
Beyond this level of performance, possible improvement is slight and very expensive. But if you can unflinchingly look at a price tag in four figures you qualify for entry into the deluxe category, where nothing matters but the dedicated pursuit of perfection.
Three grand will probably get you a perfectly listenable system today, but it won’t include a turntable, and it’s more likely that something approaching entry-level audiophile sound will move you within hailing distance of $10,000. You can spend more, and by all means do so if you can and it brings you joy. Just don’t let the price point determine your level of joy. As Brent Butterworth and Dennis Burger noted in a recent edition of their Audio Unleashed podcast, the differences between a modestly priced NAD amp and a far more expensive Dan D’Agostino unit have mainly to do with design, the materials used in the chassis, and so on than with sonic performance. Your music will sound good on both.
If you can afford a D’Agostino amplifier, or a McIntosh, or a pair of Wilson speakers, and you like them, buy them. Just don’t congratulate yourself on being so much more discerning a listener than the rest of us. And if you’re an audio reviewer, don’t get seduced into thinking audio nirvana can only be achieved through gear most of us can’t afford. When a reviewer calls a $10,000 amplifier a “budget” component, I think we’ve seen a prime example of Western decadence.
In other words, don’t be a jerk. Remember something Fantel wrote in a review for a CD reissue of a performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony: “In the perennial rebirth of music through recordings, something of life itself steps over the normal limits of time.” There’s so much more in that essay, which I encourage you to read in its entirety, but that statement alone is a reminder that even when music is heard through modest gear—a middling car stereo in a Honda CR-V, perhaps—it can breathe life and hope into us.
. . . Joseph Taylor