The New Old Way

Music, Audio, and Other Illnesses

We can all remember those moments when everything in our systems comes together — when everything just WORKS.

The last time I recall it happening with real clarity was when some engineer friends were over and I was playing Eno and Byrne’s My Life In the Bush of Ghosts, in particular the track “Moonlight in Glory”; I was living alone in my house at the time, so nobody was around to complain about the speakers being out in the middle of the living room. I had Mark Porzilli’s Memory Player back then and was playing a file from it, and the music really hovered in the air.

Wendell Diller remembers moments like that too. Some of us may know, or know of, Wendell. He’s the head of marketing for Magnepan, one of the truly venerable (and venerated) marques in high-end audio. I noticed him years ago because usually when I read a manufacturer’s comment in TAS that made me laugh, it was from him to HP. So HP put us in touch a few years back.

Anyway, Wendell remembers, too. He recalls Maggies being used by dealers, in particular Lyric’s Mike Kay, to blow the minds of the uninitiated. This is going back almost 40 years. The goal for Mike, as Wendell describes it, was to turn someone into a long-term customer rather than to merely sell Magnepans. He estimated they sold maybe one pair for every hundred potential customers – but they got a reputation for being the go-to speaker when trying “to make a lasting impression”.

That last bit is in quotation marks because it’s Wendell’s idea for bringing people back into stores. There are folks who are glad for the gradual disappearance of a dealer network, but there are many others who lament the loss. Certainly, we can all agree that the proliferation of websites, of headphones, of Best Buy and web dealers has changed the landscape, and often it’s changed for the worse. I miss — and Wendell misses — the communal experience. (It’s really why I became a musician). He wrote to me, “I didn’t realize it at the time. I thought those Good Old Days when Harry and Gordon (Harry Pearson of TAS and J.Gordon Holt of Stereophile, of course. –Ed.) were in their prime, would go on forever. I have been able to change and adapt, but I really miss those days.”

So he’s set out to do something about that. Phase One was an ad taken out in Stereophile and TAS with the banner headline, “Making a lasting impression”. Phase Two was their demo system at THE Show- Newport, where Magnepan showed, in the dark, a very effective 3-channel set-up comprising three .7 speakers, three mono Bryston 7B-ST amps, and the Maggie/Bryston SP processor that derives three channels from the two on a disc. And Phase Three will have wrapped by the time you read this. It consists of a tour to remind dealers of what they’re selling: entertainment.

A good system, we know, is a time-machine, a device for transporting us (with a little imagination) to the recording venue. What Wendell is trying to do is remind dealers and their customers of that; of why we all get into this in the first place. If he sells some speakers in the process, great — but that’s beside the point.

Wendell told me “I’m not quite sure why I decided to do it.” In an email, he said, “When I reflect back on the total expense and combined effort of Part 1-3, I have to ask myself if it will make any difference?… In one sense, the dealers do not need to differentiate themselves. In many markets, there is no other store anything like them. (In too many markets there is only Best Buy / Magnolia). Our ‘preaching’ may not have any effect….”

Nostalgically, part of me wants this to be about vinyl — but it’s not. When it really works, the source doesn’t matter, it’s just music — really, really good music. Wendell is on a mission to remind us of that.

Dan Schwartz is a parent, sort of a husband, and has been a musician of some years, having played on quite a few records – and even a few good ones. He’s recorded or played with Rosanne Cash, Bob Dylan, Jon Hassell, Brian Eno, Bernie Leadon, Dave Navarro, Linda Perry, Sheryl Crow, Stan Ridgeway, and was a member of the Tuesday Night Music Club. In his spare time, he used to write for Harry and Sallie at the absolute sound and the Perfect Vision. Professionally, he keeps trying to leave music, but it keeps coming to get him.