2006 Year End Thoughts
A Year in the Life of an Audiophile (Not Guilty)
t started, sort of, when I bought a new amplifier back in February. For those of you who care about this sort of thing, it’s a Cambridge Audio Azur 640A V2, and pumps 75 watts per channel through a brushed metal fascia into 8ohms. It has a pretty good reputation, and I spent, literally, weeks researching and asking advice before I decided to buy it. I’d been thinking about new speakers, but it was suggested that my old Tannoy R1s were perfectly good—and probably not being used to their fullest by the Denon amp that had been hooked up to them since I was 20, and so instead of veneered cabinets I decided on a silver crate pricked with blue LEDs. To use a technical term, it kicked ass—everything I stuck on it seemed deeper, wider, more precise. If you’ve ever spent any time talking with serious audio geeks (and I’ve spent far less than you’d imagine) you sometimes end up wondering whether your own ears are just not as good as theirs, or, perhaps, whether they’re bullshitting hard. I didn’t really know how much difference a new, “better” amplifier would make. It made a lot. It made me trust my own ears much more, too.
My first “stereo” was a silver cassette deck / ghettoblaster type thing, inherited and stolen from my older brother to listen to tapes of Guns n’ Roses, Cult, and Marillion when I was nine. Taller than it was deep, it threatened to topple over every time I pressed eject. I have no idea what happened to it. When I was ten I won a walkman on a TV quiz show for kids. It stayed with me until I was 19.
On my 14th birthday my dad bought me a CD/radio/cassette unit, cheap and rounded, but with a CD PLAYER. I stole Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour from his collection, and started scrimping on school dinners and saving up lunch money so that I could spend it on CDs. When I was 18 I worked full-time for a year in order to save for university, and just before I left home I bought a Technics minisystem in a gaggle of stylish silver boxes to take with me. When I got to university the guy across the hall had big black boxes, Denon stuff, and I seethed with jealousy at the sound they produced. The Technics was sold as the academic year drew to a close, and a chunk of my leftover student loan found its way into the till at a hi-fi store in town after a protracted series of discussions and visits with an armful of favorite CDs and my best friend in tow. The Tannoys, Denon, and a Marantz CD player came home with me. I loved them. The Marantz developed a fault late last year and was quickly replaced with a NAD and consigned to the back of a cupboard in case I ever decided to fix it.
Alongside the amplifier the start of the year also saw me start questing for better headphones after a pair of PX100s I’d had for two and a half years finally died at the cable. I tried some PX200s but they barely lasted a month before the claustrophobic sound and lack of bass propelled them away. Koss Portapros, Shure E2Cs… Headphones became something for listening to at home as well as on the move when I invested in some Grado SR60s, but the brightness of their attack soon saw them sold and some Sennheiser HD595s and Alessandro MS-1s came to take their place. I even bought a dedicated headphone amplifier and a DAC so I could use the old Marantz again in a different room, just with headphones. It sounds amazing, in case you wondered.
I’m aware that this seems crazy to some people, who think that music is music and it sounds the same whatever you play it on; who think that you lose the “magic” if you get too caught up in the nuts and bolts of… well, anything. Probably the same people who believe songs just appear from thin air, that great art is the result of the vagaries of genius, fate, and talent rather than hard work, intelligence, and passion, and who don’t quite trust their opinions and senses enough to traipse across the precipice.
There’s a fantastic short film about Greek audiophiles that someone sent me a link to, a twenty-minute testament to fanaticism and extravagantly expensive turntables and monoblocks, that reveals a kernel of truth about the humanity of the top-end music geek. These guys aren’t grey-skinned bachelors—they have wives and children and (presumably well-paid) jobs as well as $400,000 hi-fi rigs with dedicated generators. And, if you can get past their occasionally awful taste in music, what they’re after with these enormous audio systems is the same as what anyone who ever climbed a mountain or gave a sermon was also after; some kind of bliss, transcendence. Sometimes you can get it in a moshpit or on the floor at a disco. Sometimes you can get it playing football or walking on the moors. Sometimes you can get it in a comfortable chair with a stereo and a copy of your favorite record.
I'm not one for talking about frequency responses or “rolled-off highs”; I wouldn’t identify myself as an audiophile. I'm a music fan and writer. I don't play a note and I'm not interested in recreating sound for the sake of it—I love music, and I love it to be as clean, clear, exciting, involving, and vibrant as possible, so that it slams when it should slam and chimes when it should chime and doesn't alienate or tire me. I want to be overwhelmed by music, to wring every last drop of emotion and enchantment out of it, and that’s all my strange crusade has ever been about. Getting the most out of music.
Before I go, I always feel guilty in December when it comes time to cast end-of-year ballots, because of all the great records that I must necessarily neglect. As some kind of vague and completely ineffectual recompense, I’m going to mention some people who just missed out on my list of twenty albums that, had I listened to earlier, more, or just better, I’d have probably fallen for harder and selected;
Bat for Lashes, Loose Fur, Ghostface, Joan as Policewoman, The Rapture, Isobel Campbell, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Jenny Lewis, Lali Puna, The Open, My Latest Novel, Toumani Diabate, Wilderness Survival, Tomasz Stanko, Joanna Newsom, Delays, Neko Case, Vetiver, Junior Boys, M Ward.
I just had a letter from work confirming a bonus in my next paycheck. Maybe I’ll get some new speakers after all…