Too Much Tchaikovsky

How I Became an Audiophile

My earliest memories of listening to recorded music go back to when I was a child living in what seemed like an enormous house on an even more enormous farm in Western Nebraska. It would be fun to talk about all the adventures I had on that farm. But the truth is that, like most small children on most working farms, I was simply underfoot much of the time, reminded firmly to stay out of harm’s way, far from tractors, irrigation canals, varmints, and various dusty roads. There were butterflies, which I liked. And snakes, which I didn’t.

So I spent time indoors, listening to the radio and exploring the small number of old 78 rpm discs my parents owned. (This was the early 1950s.) I loved one or two of them madly: Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra, playing “Song of India.” The Roger Wagner Chorale singing “Coventry Carol.” Ah, the wonders of that Dorsey side—they started with Dave Tough’s opening drum vamp and went right on from there, alternating swing with suavity in a way that I still find irresistible. What I liked about the Wagner Chorale record was the mysterious harmony. How could something sound sad and joyful at the same time?

 

 

I heard those old discs on an ancient but “deluxe” radio that filled half of one wall in our living room. When we moved to town, it didn’t come with us. My parents had lost interest in listening to records, or collecting them. They had other concerns, not to mention sixteen-hour work days. Meanwhile I gradually became interested in all sorts of music: rock ‘n’ roll, of course, and classical music, ragtime, Broadway shows. Ragtime because I started piano lessons in third grade, Broadway because in fifth grade we were all taken to a dress rehearsal of South Pacific, put on by our high school. It’s still one of my favorites.

The trouble was I didn’t have a record player. So I pestered my folks until they allowed me to mow enough lawns to pay the $27.95 required for a little outfit I’d seen in the Woolworths window in Scottsbluff. Man, that made me a happy camper. The turntable was hard gray plastic, and it wobbled as it rotated, but I now had a way to play my 45s and the three or four LPs I had somehow acquired. One of those LPs was a Columbia Masterworks disc of various Gershwin works my Aunt Frances had sent me years earlier. (She lived in California and was a Rosicrucian, so that explained her interest in helping an eight-year-old develop actual taste.) One was a Mercury Living Presence recording (yes!) in glorious mono of Paul Paray conducting the Detroit Symphony in Beethoven’s Sixth. I’d picked that one up at the local Gambles Hardware store. Couldn’t get over the vivid sound those string players made. I realize now it wasn’t the most subtle or technically refined performance ever, but golly! Even on my record player, it sounded pretty good.

A year or so later, I became dissatisfied with that little record player. So: I found a big (i.e., six-inch) speaker somewhere, and I built a little makeshift cabinet for it, with room on top to drop in the turntable and amp assembly from my little record player, and I hooked up that “big” speaker to the amp. And just like that, I had a slightly better-sounding player. Wow. And hmm.

By the time I entered high school, I had made some money painting a barn. So I pestered my dad to let me blow the proceeds on stuff I’d found in the Allied Radio catalog. (Remember, this was years before every kid in America worked twenty hours a week at McDonald’s.) But how had I discovered the Allied Radio catalog?

Reader, I got myself into a lot of music and audio endeavors during middle school and later. I joined the school band (years before that made you a geek, at least in Nebraska). I formed a Dixieland jazz group. I subscribed to HiFi/Stereo Review. I joined the Columbia Record Club. I kept playing the piano. After I got a driver’s license, I would ramble down to the bus-station newsstand every couple of weeks to see if a new Downbeat had come in. I discovered great music writing by Nat Hentoff, Martin Bookspan, and others. And great music from Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk. I was the first kid in town to own a Bob Dylan record (Freewheelin’, 1963).

By the time I got that Dylan record, I had long since talked my dad into my first real setup. It was an AR turntable “with viscous damping,” an Eico ST40 stereo amp, and a pair of ridiculous triaxial speakers from Allied. We built speaker cabinets from plans published in HiFi/Stereo Review. Veneered ‘em with walnut. Made a matching rack for the amp and turntable. I loved it, even though I had continual problems with the turntable. I don’t think the “viscous damping” ever worked right. The inner-groove distortion could also be distressing. I guess this was a sign that my life as an audiophile had begun.

Here we fast-forward nearly thirty years, because for me nothing much happened in there, audio-wise. I went to college. I went to grad school. I got various jobs. Parts of my high-school audio rig stayed with me throughout those years (although I did get a nice pair of a/d/s L520’s somewhere in the 1980s, and a stereo receiver to replace my increasingly crotchety Eico amp). Meanwhile I discovered that college professors don’t make much money, especially in the arts and humanities. For a while I looked longingly at discussions of new equipment in what was now Stereo Review. Then I just lost interest. I was living in genteel poverty as a grad student in L.A. during the first flowerings of Stereophile and TAS.

Sometime in the 1990s that slumbering beast within, audiophilus obsessivus, awakened, probably when my son bestowed a few hand-me-downs on his old man. First he brought me some pint-sized Polks. Then he got me a modest new receiver with a nice little analog preamp section. I started listening to music again, and I was shocked, shocked to discover what had happened to speaker design over the years.

I started combing the internet looking for local audio dealers, people like the nice fellow in Columbia, Missouri, who had sold me those a/d/s L520s. I found some good people, along with a handful of folks who couldn’t set up a system any better than my Aunt Frances. A few proprietors seemed to be interviewing me to see if I was worthy of their merchandise. I purchased some psb towers from one of the nice dealers. Such incredible sound for so little money! (By this time I was reading the big mags and getting some sense of the expense involved in putting together a first-rate system.)

I discovered a nephew who was an acoustic engineer, employed by a venerable high-end speaker manufacturer in Massachusetts. I also discovered that even my closest friends believe Bose makes a darn good speaker. I discovered something called service. I discovered Audiogon and wasn’t quite sure what to make of it at first. I discovered paranoia and hostility in certain internet discussion spaces. I discovered critics and enthusiasts who went out of their way to sound like colorful characters, and others who hid any and all traces of individual personality. I learned that reviews can help, but listening to equipment and talking things over with a good dealer helps more.

Eventually I put together a system I enjoyed very much. It took a while, and I’m not done yet. I had neither time nor money to spare for years; now I have a little more of each. (You don’t need as much as some people think.) My love of music never went away. How could it? I taught Josquin and Stravinsky and Music of the BaAka People to undergraduates for forty years. If my high-school friends could hear my rig now!

(This piece was originally written in 2011. I’m happy to report that since then, at least two of my high-school classmates (band geeks like me) have heard my rig, and I couldn’t tear them away. We listened to Gabrieli—via Sonoma SAC001, Music for Organ, Brass and Timpani, of course—and The Carpenters Singles—which prompted them to get up and dance, right there!—and lots of other tasty music. Literally for hours. It’s nice to have good equipment, but even nicer to have friends with whom I can share it.)