Twisted Systems

Chasing the Dragon

How owning an audio system is like “Chasing the Dragon”

A old friend of mine became a gambling addict. His thing was Off Track Betting. He is extremely intelligent and while we were growing up never showed any signs of a personality disorder, let alone a gambling addiction.

One day i asked him how it started. He said “Well, I was hanging out with A friend of mine one beautiful spring day as he went to the local OTB and, as he was placing a bet, suggested that I put down 10 dollars on a horse. I had never bet a day in my life. I didn’t know how to fill out the slip and, more importantly (or so I thought) knew nothing about the horses running. He just told me to bet on the horse that he was betting on”’

He did.

The horse won.

And my old friend, on that beautiful spring day, won a couple of hundred dollars. Adrenaline pumped through veins. He thought that, somehow, his instincts were incredible and that it would lead to bigger and bigger wins.

The next day he went back to OTB.

He lost $300.00.

He then spent the next 30 years and $50,000 trying to get that $300 back…

My friend was Chasing the Dragon.

That is how I sometimes feel about my obsession with my audio system.

I think it is safe to say that to most readers of this magazine the love of music preceded any knowledge of “audio”.

I was 11 when my mother gave me a table top radio to listen to when I was home from school for three weeks in February 1963. I turned the dial until I came upon the number one radio station in America at that time: 77 WABC.

The number one song in the country that week was “Hey Paula”. The top twenty (actually, the top 10) was played over and over and that is when my addiction to pop music happened. I spent the following summer of 1963 listening to all the hits over a transistor radio that my dad gave me.

A transistor radio with a 1’ speaker.

A tinny, crappy, battery powered transistor radio.

But the songs…ah..the songs like “One Fine Day” by the Chiffons, “So Much In Love” by the Tymes, songs by The Beach Boys, The Surfaris, Jan & Dean and Little Stevie Wonder’s “Finger Tips part 2”.

All that and more, streaming out of a piece of crap transistor radio, and y’know what?  It was fantastic. I fell in love with all of it.

Then, 9 months later, The Beatles hit the US with the force of a category 5 hurricane.

My parents bought me my first album Meet The Beatles and with it, a Westinghouse stereo record player with built in speakers.

Wow…

What a difference that made. I never heard music like that.

Ever.

And so it began.

Next came a Zenith record player with removable stereo speakers so you could spread out the sound.

But that wasn’t enough. I wanted more. I wanted bigger. I wanted better.

And the music….well, there was great music still to come but I could no longer listen to it from a transistor radio.

I was hooked on better audio. Listening would or could ever be the same again.

The way high end audio is marketed, it appeals to all of us who want to get closer to the music. To be fair, the best products do just that.

I can’t say that we get to the Absolute Sound as defined in that magazine as the “sound of an acoustic instrument in real space” that almost all audiophiles can reference because that is a myth. It is impossible simply because a performance is recorded.

What we strive for is to get closer to how the music sounds when it is played back in the studio where it was recorded or mixed. That’s as close as anyone can get. If it ain’t on the tape, no amount of money will get you closer.  But, along the way, some of us just get lost in the hype and technology.

Would money actually allow me to buy audio gear that would give me the thrill and magic of hearing what I heard when I was 11, through that radio, come back? For years, I thought it could.

The more I spent, the closer I got (for short bursts) until I realized that I was no longer listening to the music. I was listening to my audio equipment.

I really thought that my audio (now High end audio) addiction was somehow justified by that journey.

One day I realized that all I was doing was an audio version of chasing the dragon.

As time went on, however, and without intervention or therapy, I reached bottom.

I had to remind myself that If a song was great, it was great because the song was great, not the audio system. If a band sent a demo to me, and I fell in love with it it was because it was always the music.

I began to learn to listen in a new way:  I started to trust my emotions again. I started to put technology in perspective. That a reference system is a great luxury but not a necessity.

I can truly marvel at the ability for my reference system to create an immersive and emotional connection to the music I love and, if one can afford it, the toys to get you there are plentiful and amazing but I also have learned over the years that convenience trumps quality a lot of the time and that the music remains enjoyable regardless of how you play it back.

Okay…The audio Genie out of the bottle and I am not listening to music on a transistor radio but one can buy very inexpensive gear and still enjoy the music.

That is a testament to the quality of audio products available today (after adjusting for inflation) that sound amazing.

Now, 50 years later, I have also finally gotten to the point (it took long enough) where I actually listen to the music and not my system (s).

I live in Manhattan where, instead of owning multiple cars, I own multiple audio systems that serve different purposes:

—A Sonos system when friends are over that costs about $1,500.00 which Is on 75% of the time;

—A system hooked up to my computer so when I’m writing I have stereo music on my desktop. It costs about $1,000.00, and I listen to about 15% of the time.

—A vinyl based reference system that runs about 100K that we listen to on Sunday evenings with a glass of wine.

It’s like owning two Camry’s and a Mercedes: Camry’s are always dependable and easy.  A  Mercedes (like a high end audio system) is a very different animal….Like I said, We listen to my vinyl reference system on Sundays while having a nice bottle of wine.

It really does sound incredible, and It stands as a symbol.

It always reminds me of the time when I started Chasing the Dragon….