Confessions of a Beleaguered Music Fan

Written by John Seetoo

While most Copper readers are fans of different types of audiophile gear, the one love that I would lay odds that is universal for all of us is the love of music. While we all have spent embarrassing sums at times on amplifiers, speakers, turntables, CD players, tuners, preamps, et al and regretted them afterwards, purchase of music is probably the single largest expense we all share.  I would venture to guess that readers’ collections that exceed 500 titles are probably ubiquitous and collections of thousands of titles would be more common than one might suspect.  I think some of my personal experiences might seem familiar to a lot of Copper followers:

I must confess that I have been a music-buying addict from age 10.  Growing up in NYC Chinatown, I would spent hours every week after school or work at J&R Music to browse cutout vinyl bins for records by artists whom I might have read about but never heard, and couldn’t afford to pay full price for a record that I might not like. My album collection soon took up an unfair amount of space in the bedroom I shared with my brother. I unashamedly admit that I  listened on a monophonic portable record player with a tiny 3” speaker during that time.

When we became musicians in our teens, guitars, basses and amplifiers took up what precious space was left. When I was 14, we received a hand me down Zenith hi-fi set up that was essentially a piece of furniture: two sliding panels on top revealed a record changer on the left and a tuner/amp on the right, built into a 4-legged dresser sized unit with a pair of speakers mounted roughly 30” apart – something that could have come from an episode of “Mad Men.”  While it was hardly high fidelity, it was true stereo, so I was able to hear discrete left and right channels for the first time.  A whole world of music listening opened up for me as I could finally hear Neil Young and Stephen Stills trading guitar solos from the left and right on 4 Way Street, the layers of Jimmy Page’s “guitar army” on Physical Graffiti, or the dense orchestration of Renaissance’s Novella and Annie Haslam’s five octave soprano soaring above the strings.

While I couldn’t afford the kind of hi-fi system that I read about in magazines or auditioned in stereo listening rooms, I was lucky to get a connection from a cousin’s boyfriend who worked in the stereo equipment business.  I knew enough to get a Grado cartridge, a belt drive turntable, a receiver with <1.0 THD, a cassette deck (for all of the other records I couldn’t afford), and speakers.  After hours of making myself a nuisance in many stereo listening rooms, I decided upon what is still my best stereo purchase to date, almost 4 decades later – a pair of Ohm C2 speakers.

Over the next few decades, my collection of titles would grow exponentially as my vinyl purchases continued unabated and was augmented with my cassette collection, which comprised live recordings of my band, out of print or import records owned by friends or borrowed from the library, and mix tapes.  When I finally moved to my first apartment, the entire collection and stereo followed.  I had to build a shelf unit to hold the stereo and my now burgeoning VHS tape collection, along with a small 19” color TV and VCR that I rigged to feed into my stereo system’s auxiliary channel to get stereo sound for the movies.

The Compact Disc became the latest thing.  I resisted for a few years, then succumbed on a post-divorce depression day and bought a CD player and a few discs.  A new addiction was born.  I tried my best to resist buying titles on CD that I already owned on vinyl, but the inclusion of bonus tracks self deluded me into justifying paying double the price for the same record (that often didn’t sound as good as the vinyl, since the analog to digital converters were still in their infancy) for an extra two songs that were left off the original record – usually for good reason.

As I got older, I continued to buy records, but CDs became my choice format as the A to D mastering improved.  Some of the stereo gear was replaced over time, but the Ohm C2’s remained.  My music engineering mentor, the late Dennis Ferrante, told me that JBL 4311 speakers were standard for Record Plant East mixing when not using the larger Altec or Urei systems.  To my delighted surprise, one store had the JBLs next to the Ohms in their listening room, and they sounded very, very similar.  Koss AAA headphones exhibited a similar response as well, so these became my main reference tools for mixing when I built my private recording studio.  I even started a job on Wall Street to pay for these expensive hobbies, as I soon realized that film and music work would never afford me the income to raise a family.

Flash forward to 2017:

Several recording projects and releases and a thousand or so more additional titles later, the whole paradigm has changed. My daughter has now graduated college and has her own place. As empty-nesters, my wife and I scaled down from a 3 bedroom in Manhattan to a 1 bedroom modern high rise in Brooklyn. The walls reflect contemporary construction and respectful volume levels are observed throughout the building.  She prefers the Marie Kondo aesthetic – anything non-essential is deemed to be clutter!  Her opinion is that with Netflix and Spotify, there is little need to have shelves of DVDs, CDs, Tapes, Vinyl, etc. and that speakers can be portable and Bluetooth connected, so there’s no need to mount them or put them on bookcase shelves.  My recording studio has been reduced to a Lexicon USB interface and my laptop running a DAW. I have snuck a few guitars into our home – the rest are in storage, along with the amps.  The rack mounted recording gear and all of the other analog equipment, now worth untold more money, has gone – some via eBay, some via donation.  My stereo is also in storage – although it will probably be considered antique when we finally relocate and I have a separate room where I will be able to set it up.  I still have the Ohms and the Koss AAA headphones.  They still sound great, last time I checked.

While I have been forced for space reasons to sell or discard a few hundred titles on cassette, vinyl and CD (that I have dutifully backed up on digital files), I still easily have at least 1500 titles in those formats – all in storage.  A small box contains my current rotating CD rotation, my wife’s concession to the otherwise strict Kondo aesthetic. Spotify certainly helps me to keep abreast of new releases, but the sound quality still leaves much to be desired, even on headphones. Bluetooth speakers are a least common denominator – everything sounds the same – better bass response and clarity than my humble Zenith hi fi of yesteryear, but a far cry from the luscious musical adventures delivered by my Ohms.

I think it is ironic that vinyl that I couldn’t give away when CDs were popular are now selling as collector’s records for $30 and up.  There are many titles that I still have, like Japanese only releases by Ryuichi Sakamoto or overlooked artists who never became popular on their own, like the hard to find live LP, Night After Night by Nils Lofgren. As convenient as streaming may be, there is still so much music from the analog realm that has yet to be digitized.

The pressures of living space aesthetics, economics, spousal imperatives, and growing older are some inevitable challenges for a great many of us music lovers.  For those of you who share my travails – hang in there.  Maybe you can’t hear the music you loved in its preferred format, but at least it is preserved in its original state, unlike lost performances of the moment during the centuries before recording technology.  For those who have been able to keep a foothold and maintain your preferred listening setups – I salute you and envy you at the same time.  The pleasure of listening to great music with an optimum sound system where one can just get lost  in the experience is one that should be cherished in this modern age. David Chesky mentioned in our interview that listening to music in a room and not on headphones is something that the current generation misses out on; I hope we are not the last generation that will be able to appreciate that kind of magic.

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