Top Dog

[There is no sexism intended by use of “man” in this piece. Luckily for the survival of humanity, insanely destructive competitive behavior is primarily, if not uniquely, a male trait. End of disclaimer—which may have done more harm than good—Ed.]

Man has always competed to be Top Dog. In the days when caves were homes, the guy with the biggest club was Top Dog. As we became more civilized, the fastest horse became the standard of manhood. When I was in High School, the Top Dog was the kid with the fastest car.

It was important to be Top Dog, so most of the guys worked after school and during summers to finance their ‘rides’— inspired by tunes from the Beach Boys and movies like Bullitt.

Stuart was raised in Britain where it’s tacky to be Top Dog, so he was indifferent to all of this. He spent his time reading books and playing with his slide rule—which he carried like a pistol in a leather holster on his belt. Then he inherited his aunt’s rusty, 1961 Ford Falcon 2 door sedan, a car which had all the sex appeal of Tiny Tim.

When he learned it was the lightest car in domestic production, he took a sudden interest in the car culture. He understood the physics of acceleration and the importance of mass. He made the car even lighter by eliminating such frivolities as the back seat, radio, bumpers, hubcaps, spare tire, and the even the chrome trim. Then he painted it black to hide the rust. It looked like a sewer rat.

With help from a friend of his fathers, he replaced the 6 cylinder engine with a salvaged 289 V-8, upgraded with a 4 barrel carburetor, aftermarket pipes, and carefully selected gearing. He debuted it on Labor Day at the hang-out for the local car culture, a deserted WW2 air strip nearby.

Everyone was there including all the jocks in their resplendent rides complete with accessory cheerleaders. Every muscle car of the era was represented, Mustangs, Camaros, Firebirds, Challengers, even an AMX. They chuckled when Stuart pulled up in his flat-black commuter special.

Before long, it was time to separate the men from the boys. The airstrip had only enough intact pavement to mark off an 1/8th mile drag strip. The jocks ripped through it with sound and fury adding another layer of black rubber to the tarmac. Stuart was allowed to compete only for comic relief. He was to be the closing joke of the show. His Falcon was paired with the biggest dog, a glistening, ’66 Caprice convertible with a supercharged 427 engine. It had a custom, candy apple red paint job with silver flake. Everyone laughed at the contrast.

The flag dropped, and the two were off. The Falcon came out of the chute like sling shot and immediately took a sizable lead. The 427 roared like a movie dinosaur, lighting up the tires which squealed and smoked and delighted the crowd. It built up speed like a 727, but not quick enough to overtake the Falcon before the finish line. Everyone was shocked, and agreed the outcome would have been different, had the course been longer.

But that was irrelevant: Stuart was the new Top Dog. Slide rule engineering had won the day. The guy in the 427 left the scene directly after the race with his tail between his legs. It was the most memorable event that strip had ever seen.

I was reminded of this story decades later at the home of a fellow audiophile. Like Stuart, Brad did his homework and created a purpose-built system. He researched audio engineering and built his own speakers. They had 15″ woofers, 10″ midbass drivers, large horns, and bullet-tweeters, all contained in large, home-made cabinets painted flat black. They were as tacky as Stuart’s car.

He bought well-used, professional amplifiers with tons of reserve power, an electronic crossover, and a turntable that was top of the line—a decade ago. Home-made acoustic panels were judiciously placed along the walls and ceiling.

Members of our audio club often visit one another’s homes to socialize and listen to music. One day a lawyer from North County named Hermann joined us. We’d been to his home several times. He was like the guy with the 427 Caprice. He had a large home with the latest, most fashionable, audio hardware — including enormous speakers painted automotive, candy apple red.

Brad started off by playing a cut from one of Hermann’s albums, Take 5, by Dave Brubeck. When the stylus dropped, so did Hermann’s jaw. I knew he was hearing more detail, dynamics, bandwidth, and sound-staging on this system than he’d ever heard at home. All his equipment had been selected from the Class A Recommended Components list at great expense — yet he was getting smoked by a guy in a flat black, ’61 Falcon. Then he did something I’ve never seen a lawyer do — he went silent. Shortly afterwards, Hermann took his records and went home.

Atypically, I didn’t hear from Hermann for several weeks. When we finally got together for lunch, he did what I expected and dreaded: he asked if I thought Brad’s system sounded better than his.

This was a no win situation for me. If I affirmed that it did, Hermann’s audio (and fiscal) acumen would come into question. If I didn’t, I’d be lying. So I copped out like a politician and responded to his question with more questions.

“Let’s talk about what we agree upon, Hermann. We both agree that better recordings result in superior sound, right?” He agreed.

“And we also agree that a better system results in superior sound, right?”

“Right.”

Now came a touchier question. “Do you remember that the speakers we liked most at the last CES weren’t the most expensive?”

“Correct!” Now we were getting somewhere.

“You’ve spent a lot of money on equipment, but you didn’t spend any time on research like Brad did.”

“I relied on the reviewers and sales personnel to tell me what’s best,” he responded.

“And maybe it is, as far as they are concerned. But their preferences, priorities, and acoustic spaces may be totally different from yours.”

“Right!” Hermann mused, “I noticed that Brad has a lot of sound panels on the walls.”

“You have a great house, with a lovely view, but the front wall of your living room is all glass, the back one is a marble fireplace, and the floors are tile. Acoustically, it’s a giant bathroom, Hermann.”

“I know, I know, I’ve thought about room treatment,” he said, “but I’m not prepared to compromise the view or the aesthetics of my living room. My wife would never allow it.”

“Right, but now that your son’s in college, you have a pretty large bedroom available that can be converted to a dedicated sound room.”

“But my wife has moved her sewing stuff in there.”

“So make her a deal: in return for removing all your audio clutter from the living room, you get the bedroom.”

Hermann’s face lit up. “That might be an easy deal to negotiate!” he responded.

We spent hours drawing plans on a napkin to convert his son’s bedroom to a sound room. Hermann was excited.

A couple of weeks later, Hermann called to advise that he’d just taken delivery of 8 diffusive and 8 diffractive acoustic panels. We moved his speakers and the panels around the room measuring the results with my frequency spectrum analyzer. To eliminate a 12 db. room mode at 60 Hertz, it was necessary to add an equalizer— which I’d brought with me in anticipation of such a problem.

The difference was startling. The smaller room dramatically improved the bass and dynamics, and the wall treatments notably enhanced the midrange and highs. Hermann excitedly said that for less than what he’d recently spent on cable upgrades, he was getting an entire system upgrade.

But his system still doesn’t sound as much like live music as Brads. For that, he needs different speakers.

It takes more than candy apple paint to be Top Dog.