Frankly Speaking

    Haunted: Confessions of a Setup Man, Part Three

    Issue 106

    When I was Harry Pearson’s setup man at The Absolute Sound, equipment would break down all the time. I’m not talking about a tube going bad every once in a while, or things caused by accident, like when Harry dropped a remote control into a glass of wine and demanded I fix it. (I actually tried. Fuhgeddaboudit.) I’m talking about equipment breaking down and misbehaving constantly, maddeningly, all the freakin’ time.

    The equipment failures were too frequent to be the result of chance, and they often happened without discernible reason. I got to the point where I could come up with only one explanation: Harry’s house was haunted.

    The house where Harry Pearson lived. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Antony-22.

    Let me give you a few examples.

    Mike Wesley (sadly, now deceased) of Madrigal Audio Laboratories told me he was sending down a pair of Jadis JA 200 monoblock amplifiers for review. Harry and I couldn’t wait. We’d heard and loved previous Jadis gear and the JA 200 was a 160 watt-per-channel statement piece, with four chassis, 10 power tubes per side and metalwork of gleaming chrome and gold.

    They arrived, all 275-plus pounds of them. I unpacked and assembled them, taking care not to smudge the finish, making sure the tubes were in the proper sockets and finally turning the amps on. The tubes lit up.

    Nothing. No sound. Dead.

    I checked all the connections. It couldn’t be the amps, I thought, and re-checked everything. Finally, I swapped the JA 200s out of the system. The previous amps worked fine. I then schlepped the JA 200s and connected them to the second system. No sound.

    I called Mike Wesley and explained the situation. “That’s impossible,” he said. “We tested the amps before we shipped them.” He then suggested all the usual diagnostics, all of which I did. I turned the amps on again. Nothing. Silence.

    We figured something must have happened in shipping. I sent the amps back to Madrigal and got a call a few days later. “The amps are fine,” Wesley said. “Are you sure you had them hooked up right?” “Yes.” Got the amps back about a week later and plugged them in with great anticipation.

    No sound. Called Wesley again. “This can’t be! They were working perfectly! Send the amps back again and this time I’ll check them and drive them back myself.” About two weeks later Wesley showed up, amps in tow.

    This time he set them up. He turned them on. They worked.

    “So, they were broken when you got them back,” I said. “No, they were fine.” “Then why weren’t they working before?” “I don’t know.” I’m sure he thought the reason was that I was the world’s most inept setup man.

    (I should mention that Harry’s house had been re-wired with a top-of-the-line electrical system with dedicated lines, hospital-grade outlets, robust grounding and yadda yadda. AC power was never an issue.)

    Another time I went to get the system ready for action. I grabbed the AudioQuest electronic stylus cleaner and went to clean the stylus on the Spectral cartridge. (Spectral – how appropriate.) Except the cantilever wasn’t there.

    What the...I figured Harry must have been playing the records the night before and snapped it off. It couldn’t have fallen far, right? I looked and looked and looked for it and the cantilever was nowhere to be found.

    I confronted Harry. “You broke the cantilever off the Spectral, didn’t you?” He looked at me like I had three heads. “What are you talking about? I didn’t play the system last night.” “So, what, did it just disappear?” Harry asked. Well, apparently.

    I used to have to replace the EMIM and EMIT midrange drivers in the Infinity IRS V speaker system all the time. I know what you’re thinking and to be fair, there were nights when we played the IRS Vs really loud. But most of the time we didn’t listen all that loudly, and honestly, there was absolutely no rhyme or reason as to when the drivers would crap out. It got to the point where I’d check each driver before every listening session.

    I’d call Kathy at Infinity to get replacement EMIMs and EMITs. One day she told me, “What are you guys doing over there?” When I’d tell her we hadn’t been playing the system that loud I could feel the disbelief 2,800 miles away. But, better that than blaming it on ghosts, I figured. “Arnie (Nudell, then-Infinity president) says he’s not going to give you any more drivers,” Kathy said. I relayed that to Harry, who roared, “Well you can tell Arnie to go f**k himself!” Yeah, right. Luckily I’d built up a stash and I was able to weasel a few more from Infinity over time.

    We received a Vibraplane turntable base. You inflated it with air, by means of a valve, and the air provided isolation. Steve Klein, the guy behind manufacturer Sounds of Silence, initially visited to set it up. I asked, “How often do you have to level it? Does it lose air over time?” He said, no, it should be very stable. Naturally it worked perfectly when he was there. (And had an extremely beneficial effect on the sound.}

    You know where this is going. Soon after Steve left, I started having to add air infrequently, then regularly, then every day. Steve was adamant that I didn’t know how to use the unit properly (I did, but hey, water under the bridge) and that it worked fine everywhere else. In fact, I’ve spoken to other Vibraplane users who have confirmed this. More ghosts in the Sea Cliff machine.

    The spirits didn’t just hover over the audio gear. I got to be very good friends with Harry’s alarm system repair guy – because he was at the house all the time. The alarm was constantly malfunctioning and going off at random times. At one point the technician even replaced the entire system – and it would still go off unpredictably. The tech said the house must be haunted and I was beginning to believe him.

    I’m not even mentioning things like interconnects shorting out, bad tubes, CD player transports getting stuck or other malfunctions. Another strange happenstance: one time I was playing a set of large speakers (the Duntech Sovereigns or something of that magnitude; where’s Prevagen when you need it?). A pair of Thiel 3.6 speakers were about 20 feet across the room, and they were playing. I mean, actual music was playing out of them – but they weren’t hooked up to anything. Probably the result of sympathetic vibration, but having had previous strange encounters, it surprised the wits out of me. And I’ve heard nothing like it since.

    One more example. We requested a Conrad-Johnson amplifier for review; pretty sure it was a Premier Twelve XS (or the Premier Eight XS; this was in the early 1990s). It had manual power tube bias adjustment pots, adjusted by turning them with a plastic screwdriver until an LED indicator turned off. Then wait and do it again 30 minutes later after the amp had settled in. When the late, great Carnell “Gatt” Gatling had delivered the amp, he and I adjusted the bias in about two minutes.

    After he left, I could never get the bias lights to stay stable. They would constantly be lighting up even when the amp was idling. I made the inevitable phone call to Gatt, who sent me a bunch of replacement tubes to swap – and gave me the “there’s nothing wrong with the unit!” speech.

    This speech, along with the emphatically stated, “it can’t possibly be broken. We’ve never had one break at a customer or dealer!” talk was one I heard over and over again while at The Absolute Sound.

    Gatt came by to visit a few more times as he and Harry had developed a strong friendship. Each time he was there the amp behaved perfectly. But not for me. One morning I went to get the system ready and no matter what I did, I couldn’t get the bias lights to go off. I tried and tried. Finally, something snapped inside me. I locked myself in the downstairs bathroom and was close to tears in frustration. I felt like things had completely slipped out of control. I left TAS shortly after.

    Harry’s belief was that the occurrences were the result of ley lines. These lines supposedly indicate the location of “earth energies” and, the idea goes, carry magnetic fields or even psychic powers. Harry told me the house was right on top of a ley line, and that was why strange stuff happened there. Let's just say this is not commonly-accepted science.

    I like to think of myself as grounded in reality, but also think there’s more to reality than humans will ever know. Was Harry’s house really haunted? Well, unless I was the victim of monumental bad luck or a serious statistical anomaly, I sure felt that way a lot of the time.

    This case of The X-Files remains open.

    Header image courtesy of from Pixabay.

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