A recent article by PMA Magazine editor Robert Schryer got me wondering about when I began to think of music and audio — and, specifically, of myself as an audio hobbyist.
The answer to “when” can’t be clearly defined by a single moment; it’s scattered across a handful of events that took place over a number of years. Early on, I was definitely a music lover and a hardware geek, but I wasn’t yet at the stage of listening to sound critically or with an informed ear. I mentioned in a previous article that my first pair of loudspeakers — Sansuis — were impressive to look at, with their half-dozen drivers and beautifully sculpted walnut grilles. Visually, they seemed to have everything — impressive technology and incredible good looks. But the truth is that they sounded like absolute crap. That epiphany, at age 18, was my first true audio-awakening moment — when I realized that having impressive-sounding loudspeakers was a lot more gratifying than having loudspeakers that only looked impressive.
The search for a new pair of loudspeakers lasted several years, and something else happened along the way; I got the opportunity to hear live acoustic music for the first time. The small town I grew up in had just built a government-funded convention center, and a free concert featuring the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra was part of the grand opening ceremonies. Having grown up in a home with zero exposure to classical music, I had little interest in the genre, but everyone at my workplace talked about attending the concert, so, for posterity, I tagged along. Conductor Robert Shaw spoke briefly to the audience before announcing that the concert would start with a performance of “The Star Spangled Banner.” Great — I thought, I might as well be at a baseball game. But when the orchestra began to play, I found myself captivated by a stirring and viscerally emotional performance of the old warhorse unlike ever before. The program then moved into an all-Bartók affair, with his Concerto For Orchestra followed by Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celeste. To say it was an eye (and ear) opener is a gross understatement, and this was my second audio-awakening moment: experiencing the dynamics of music in a real performance space and realizing what music is supposed to sound like.
Soon I dragged my then-girlfriend (future-wife) Beth along to hear a loudspeaker brand that was making its rounds in the audio mags called Magneplanar. We arrived midday on a Saturday at a store called Fat Julian’s Audio. Julian (who was indeed quite rotund) was busy with other customers, but he managed to get the can’t-be-bothered long haired dude behind the counter to attend to us in one of the darkened listening rooms. “Whaddaya wanna hear?” he asked. I told him to play anything, and when Steve Stevens’s opening guitar riff from Billy Idol’s “White Wedding” came slashing across the Magneplanar MG-I’s, it took my breath away! I’d seen the video of this song countless times on MTV, but I was hearing the music now on a pair of flat-panel loudspeakers that had physically disappeared from the room. In their place was just the music — powerful and dynamic — and the band; the guitarist, vocalist, bassist, and drummer all occupied distinct spaces in a realistic soundfield. I was completely hooked, and mightily impressed that the rock music I so loved could sound so much more realistic over a well-designed speaker system. The price for the Maggies, as the Magneplanars were affectionately nicknamed, was high ($USD750 in 1982 dollars), and when I took on a second job to raise the cash to buy them, Beth didn’t believe I’d go through with it. She was sure it was all just a ruse, and that I’d end up spending the money on a diamond engagement ring for her. Getting the Magneplanars was my third audio-awakening moment, and in some ways it was Beth’s first; it’s when she realized the true extent of my audio mania.
In total, I’ve owned six pairs of Maggies over a thirty-five-plus year period. During that time, I was unable to escape my mid-fi amplification fixation until about halfway in, when I discovered that the reason my Maggies never quite sounded as impressive at home as they did in the showroom was a result of being fed mediocre and insufficient watts. That changed when I bought my first high-end amp, a Classé, which provided the necessary power to make the Maggies sing. I’d been blowing tweeter fuses for years; I literally bought them by the case, and now the need for them ended — immediately. Virtually overnight, the quality of my listening experiences had been raised exponentially.
Also, the addition of AudioQuest’s Niagara power conditioning equipment and cabling has made a profound improvement to my system’s ability to resolve demanding musical passages. They contributed in creating a pitch-black background that allowed me to hear new levels of detail and nuance in recordings I thought I knew well. It’s impossible for me now to overstate how important it is to feed any serious audio system and component, at any price point, with good, clean power. Your system simply cannot perform to its potential without it.
Life is a journey, and we’re all supposed to enjoy the ride and not focus on the destination, but sometimes — as with the audio obsession — getting there can be a much more convoluted voyage. I’ll talk about the next big step in my ongoing audio adventure next time.